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July/August 2003 • Vol 3, No. 7 •

Walling Off the Covenant:
Jewish Identity In the 21st Century

By Marc Ellis

Several months ago my new book arrived in the bookstore, and I am wondering whether its arrival was already too late. The subject matter is Israel and Palestine and the work carries two subtitles. The first, Out of the Ashes, is easily understood with the situation on the ground in the Middle East as it is today.

During the last year Israel has re-occupied the West Bank and Gaza has been cut off from the world. Earlier statements by President George W. Bush that demanded Israel’s withdrawal to previously held positions have been ignored. All the while, and again recently, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck deep within Israel, a place once felt invulnerable despite the turmoil outside.

The “road map” to peace is exploding. Death is now the daily fare.

For some time, and I am not alone here among my fellow Jews, I have been feeling an array of emotions: anger at the violence that seems to have no end and a feeling of betrayal by my own community’s participation in policies which were, in another age and in different circumstances, carried out against us. Ghettoization of an entire people, collective punishment for the resistance of the few, a pretense to innocence when the actions involved are against international law and a moral tradition embraced for centuries by the Jewish people are difficult to accept as a person of conscience and as a Jew.

The “security” wall being built around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank continues unabated, unmentioned by the diplomats. This concrete wall stands over seven meters high. It features sniper towers and barbed wire. This wall should remind Jews of other times and places in Jewish history.

I, again with other Jews, have been disappointed by the reaction of those who would call themselves Jewish leaders. Their voices have only called for unity against an “uncivilized” foe and for loving rather than criticizing the state of Israel. Unfortunately, there is more. Especially in America, Jewish leaders have begun a campaign against Jews of conscience who dare to say that they oppose Israeli policies, that the occupation, instead of being expanded, must end, and that the actions of Israeli armed forces are not done in our name.

In fact, dissent among Jews is flourishing, providing some of the most gripping dissent against injustice found anywhere in the world. I take solace in this amazing resilience and other dissenters against injustice should take heart. But self-congratulation, even when pursued by those who seek to impose a wall of silence, is shortsighted. The horrible truth is that our dissent is only a token and one decidedly without political or military power. Palestinians and Israelis are dying in a cycle of violence, occupation and atrocity and Jews of conscience are left only with the pen, the computer and essay. And the recently arrived book.

Thus the second subtitle: The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century. Jews of conscience ask what will be left of Jewish life and ethics if the occupation continues and somehow becomes permanent. Or perhaps Israel has already conquered Palestine and only the disposition of millions of Palestinians awaits a final agreement.

What kind of Jewish identity will flourish now? Does the wall imprisoning Palestinians mirror the wall of injustice that lies only inches below our own history of struggle and suffering? Can we embrace and argue our Jewishness absent justice and ethics at the center of our identity?

I know that discussion of Jewish identity will not lift us out of the ashes. What will? We all have our presumed solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do we need more conferences, more national foreign policy initiatives, more international resolutions? Is there anything more to say, write or resolve about the issue that has eluded Jews and Palestinians, indeed the entire world, for more than half a century?

We know that Jewish identity has become more and more militarized. Does discussing this militarization, as Jews of conscience often do, help us as a people face our history and this change? Or does it simply widen a gulf between Jewish leadership and Jews of conscience until the gulf is too wide and a division within Judaism becomes the norm?

The recently concluded Iraq war is very much on our minds and again Jews, as many in America, are divided on the issue. The cycle of violence and atrocity continues.

I cannot help but wonder what will happen to Palestinians now, after the Iraq war and the failure of the latest peace process. Will they be forgotten by Jews and the world? Will their fate concern us less? Will their struggle for freedom be seen as a form of terrorism and therefore share the same fate as Afghanistan and Iraq? Will Jews of conscience be seen as aiding and abetting terrorism if they stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people?

Will Jews allow the wall of separation to be completed? That wall now is at the center of Jewish life, defining us as a people who have chosen violence, complicity and silence. What will happen to those Jews who say no to the wall—the wall of denial—and who speak up even as they are exiled from Jewish life?

Some time ago I suggested that we replace the Torah in the Ark of the Covenant with helicopter gun ships. Since military power defines Jewish life, we should be honest about what we worship. If we worship power and might and remain silent about injustice then we should be acknowledge that choice. At the most meaningful moment of worship we should bow before that which secures us. Does the covenant secure us or do the helicopter gun ships that hover over Palestinian cities and refugee camps? Torah or helicopter gun ships?

Now we should add to the Ark a wall. Or perhaps the Ark should be a wall within which the helicopter gunship is placed. Like the wall of separation, a sniper tower must also be visible. What is a wall without the means to protect those on the other side of the wall from those who attempt to enter beyond its boundary? Do the soldiers in the sniper tower protect the Jewish people like the Torah was supposed to protect us? Do they guard the covenant? Do they guard the Jewish people? Do they guard God?

The covenant is no longer with us. It has fled the injustice and violence of our community. I wonder if the covenant is to be found within the wall of separation and exploitation, among the Palestinian people who suffer daily.

I cannot help but think that my book has arrived too late. Yet the message remains. As does the calling of the covenant, a covenant without walls and sniper towers.

Marc H. Ellis is a professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His book Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes, the Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century, is published by Pluto Press.

—Daily Star, June 21, 2003





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