“Some Jews intent on enabling empire, collude with other powers to keep everything as it is, how they want it, and therefore every voice that counters that view has to be brought low.”
--Dr. Marc Ellis, Professor of Jewish Studies, Baylor University
Last week, Dr. Marc Ellis gave a fascinating talk at the Palestine Center here in Washington DC. According to Ellis world Jewry is engaged in a sort of Civil War between empire-enabling Jews and Jews who continue the prophetic tradition of challenging authority and undermining empires.
Think Noam Chomsky, deemed a “security threat” and detained by the IDF because he planned to deliver a lecture critical of the Occupation.
Ellis is a provocative thinker. He labels Jewish organizations like Peace Now and Rabbis for Human Rights as “progressive Jews,” who criticize Israel but ultimately apologize for Israeli wrongs and only serve to guard the “left flank” of the Jewish establishment. These organizations, so says Ellis, are part of the problem. Apathetic Jews too are at fault: their silence enables right wing Jews to hijack the Jewish tradition in support of empire.
There is a lot of truth in what Ellis says. From 1st century Rome to 20th century Germany, we have spent most of our history boxed in, limited, and oppressed by empires. There is nothing more Jewish than speaking truth to power, undermining the ruling order, never apologizing for injustice. Historically, this critical tendency has also been directed inwards; Jews have often reserve their harshest words for each other.
Today the mainstream Jewish establishment spends most of its time on its heels, enabling and apologizing. Ellis thinks these organizations have abandoned the thousand-year critical prophetic tradition in favor of more contemporary reference points: The Jewish State and the Holocaust. Today there is no respect for prophetic dissent.
If we are truly engaged in Civil War, then, it is important for us all to take sides. Yet, we should also be critical of thinkers like Ellis, men from out parent’s generation, who claim to know and define the contours of this conflict. Labeling organizations like Peace Now and Rabbis for Human Rights as “enablers” is counterproductive and hysterically ideological. As an aging luminary, Ellis may have the luxury of denouncing all who disagree with his vision as “enablers.” We do not have this luxury.
If we are serious about breathing new life into the Jewish movement, we should embrace an inclusive framework. Those willing to engage the prophetic tradition are our allies. Together we should wrestle with the morality of the occupation, engage issues of assimilation and intermarriage, question the orthodox stranglehold on legitimate spirituality, welcome the LGBTQ community, and denounce racism and Islamophobia. As Jews, we will not always agree, yet, the inspiration of our movement should be the prophetic tradition. We should always be critical of traditional sources of authority and legitimacy. The rusted Jewish establishment does not and should not speak for all Jews. It is time for our generation to assert a new era of prophecy.