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Caught in a Moral Dilemma

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is a Professor of American and Jewish Studies, and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University.  This essay appeared in The Jordan Times/Haaretz on June 26, 2001.

With Israeli helicopter gunships firing into cities and towns in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli cabinet minister in Ariel Sharon's new government, speculating about another war in the Middle East, American Jews are caught in a dilemma.

Most American Jews know little about the realities of the Middle East except as communicated by Jewish leadership and media stereotypes.  For American Jews, the map of Israel as it is drawn today, with its expanding borders and sophisticated military control of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, is plastered with pious slogans of unity and defense.  Israel is experienced by Palestinians as an unjust power bent on continuing, even escalating, aggression.  For American Jews, Israel is under siege by a relentless terrorism that threatens to bring a second Holocaust to Jews in Israel.  If war comes, it will be one of defense.

The dilemma faced by Jews is found here.  For over a century in Europe and America, Jews have taken pride in our ethical tradition.  We have been leaders in social justice movements, from the struggle for civil rights to feminism, and in the broader international arena of human rights.

For most American Jews, Jewish identity is defined around the themes of human progress and justice.  If there is such a thing as Jewish messianism in the contemporary world, it is found here, in the realm of human affairs, in broadening inclusion and struggling for the good.  Even after the Holocaust, and perhaps because of it, this impulse has remained strong.  If the ultimate questions about God are unanswerable after Auschwitz, and the Jewish covenantal framework in doubt, then recommitting to the human project is even more central.  What is fascinating about the Jewish community after the Holocaust is the refusal to despair about the human condition when despair would be perfectly reasonable.

And more.  The refusal to despair has been taken up by Jewish thinkers around the world in a tradition of critical thought that rivals and perhaps surpasses any other community.  American Jews have participated in this tradition as evidenced by our numbers in universities, think- tanks and advisory posts in government and industry.  If anything, and perhaps paradoxically, the Holocaust has energized Jewish life and thought, bringing Jewish contributions in the broader society to a new level.

This is why helicopter gunships firing into Palestinian population centers is so disconcerting and so difficult to come to grips with.  What kind of search for justice or critical thinking would allow this reign of terror?  How can such an articulate community shout pious slogans and turn a blind eye to the reality of a power that may, especially with Israel's nuclear arsenal, have no limits?

The situation is complicated, to be sure.  But wasn't the 1960s struggle for civil rights complicated?  Apartheid in South Africa was complex and its dismantling far from perfect.  Is the feminist movement without complication?  International human rights standards are hotly contested in the political and cultural arenas.  Did American Jews turn a blind eye to these struggles because of these complexities?

Do American Jews refuse to pursue a social justice agenda today because of conflicting interpretations of rights and responsibilities?  As unwanted sojourners in Europe who, in the 1930s and '40s, were segregated, despised and murdered in the millions, what option did Jews have but to form a state in the Middle East?

Palestinians were the victims of this European syllogism, a defenseless people who became refugees in the formation of Israel.  A triumph for Jews.  A disaster for Palestinians.

But the emergency of the Holocaust years has long since disappeared.  Israel has expanded its borders and its appetite for power, like any nation-state, has long since replaced its ethical claim for a place in the sun.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian catastrophe has deepened with the loss of land and swelling refugee populations.  Offers of peace from Israel are trumpeted as a basis for security and justice, but the details are less sanguine.  Ariel Sharon's map of a final settlement with the Palestinians resembles too closely the segregated European ghettos that Jews lived in during much of European history, and whose renewal in the 20th century forecast doom.

There are Jews who, remembering our own suffering, speak boldly against the use of Israeli power to surround, enclose and humiliate the Palestinian people.  These Jews of conscience reside in Israel and America, and though small in number, they remain committed to the Jewish tradition in its ethical dimension.  Jews of conscience recognize historic Jewish suffering and contemporary Palestinian suffering as a call to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the cycle of violence that once again envelops the region.  American Jewish leadership calls for unity.  It is really a call for silence.  Jews of conscience here and in Israel call for critical thought and compassion.

Who will win this other war, the civil war over the definition of what it means to be Jewish?  Will expansion and militarism win the day?  Will the ethical be reasserted, calling Israeli power to account before it is too late?  Much depends on mainstream Jewish leadership found in Jewish organizations, synagogues, and among Jewish academics and intellectuals.  Unfortunately,where much is expected and needed, little is forthcoming.  In the main, Jewish leaders have been silent and even aggressively attempt to silence and discipline Jews who speak out on this issue.  Jewish leadership has ignored the map of Israel as it has come to be, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps fearful for their own position.

The time is now to overcome this ignorance and fear.  We ask where others were when we were suffering.  Today an accusing finger is pointed at us as Jews.  How will we respond?  Helicopter gunships are now part of the landscape of Jewish life.  What we do with them is defining us as a people.

As sure as the rockets fired from the air destroy, maim and murder property and life, they do likewise to the ethical tradition Jews have cultivated and suffered for.  Jews of conscience hold open the possibility of averting the final catastrophe that threatens both peoples with an end unworthy of either.

[June 26, 2020]