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Ending the Cycle of Violence. An Interview with Marc H. Ellis
von Andrea Bistrich1 (November 2004)
Andrea Bistrich: What do you mean when you speak of Jews of conscience?
Marc H. Ellis: I mean Jews who refuse to justify the dispossession of another people - at this moment the Palestinians - of their land and political rights. I use it to ask the question whether Jews who allow this to happen, or even justify it, are using their conscience to fight for justice. As a Jew of conscience I am trying to understand and act against the injustice that is being committed in the name of Jews and Jewish history. I am fighting, as are other Jews of conscience, against a 'Constantinian Judaism' that has overtaken our leaders in America and Israel. Constantinian Judaism is a form of Judaism that, like Constantinian Christianity, attaches itself to the state and power. With the creation of the state of Israel and the need to defend its innocence and territory, Jewish leadership has aligned itself with the power of Israel and the United States.
AB: What are the underlying causes for the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general? Is it a religious problem?
MHE: It is not a religious problem. It is a struggle over land and political rights. Israel is established. Palestine should be established in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Though problems will remain in the Middle East, this is the first thing one must do to begin to solve other problems.
AB: Having suffered so appallingly in the Holocaust, how can Jewish people today be the oppressors of another people?
MHE: A very good question that seems to have no answer. I approach the question with a fact: we as Jews are oppressing another people and through that oppression are also deepening our own wounds. We, as Jews, cannot be healed of our trauma by causing another people to suffer trauma. Instead of answering the question, I want to end the cycle of violence so we can begin to ask a different question in a new, peaceful context. The cycle of violence can only be ended when a Palestinian state is created and empowered. At that point it can begin a programme of economic and political uplift that will set its own people in a democratic state in peace and fellowship with its neighbours, including Israel.
AB: Is there a lesson for Israel to learn from the ending of apartheid in South Africa?
MHE: I am not sure that there is a lesson. I am sure that we are creating an apartheid situation. Apartheid in South Africa has ended. Apartheid in Israel will have a very long life. When and how it will end is beyond my years. But in my time it has brought to an end the very possibility of maintaining and claiming Jewish ethics. By Jewish ethics I mean the practice of justice grounded in a particular history and struggle. The particularity of Jewish history is the foundation of Jewish ethics, and allows Jews, with other communities, to contribute to a broader front of activism for the sake of justice.
AB: We all agree, of course, that the Holocaust should be condemned, but if Jewish people keep clinging to the memory of the Holocaust, they are surely blind to the possibilities of the future? Does there not come a point when the 'price' has been paid?
MHE: The question is how the memory of suffering is used. Are we using the memory of the Holocaust as a blunt instrument against others? Or will we see the Holocaust as a bridge of solidarity to others who are suffering, especially those who are suffering at our hands? Every community has ways of remembering and expressing itself. For Jews, the memory of Jewish experience, including our suffering, is important. Of course, we need to remember that when we have power we tend to use it like any other people. So both kinds of memory are essential to continue our particular journey; the memory of how we have suffered and now the memory of how we are causing another people to suffer.
AB: What is actually happening in Israel - are people demonstrating about the mistreatment of the Palestinians?
MHE: There are Jews of conscience in Israel and, yes, there have been demonstrations against some of Sharon's policies. Still we need to distinguish between those Jewish Israelis who are serious and those who simply want the oppression to lessen a bit. This is why I make a distinction between progressive Jews and Jews of conscience. An example: for the most part, Rabbis for Human Rights, especially its director Rabbi David Forman, are progressive Jews who argue for human rights for Palestinians rather than full political rights. Though they see themselves as opposed to Israeli policies, they actually function as an arm of the state. Jeff Halper, on the other hand, is struggling to be a Jew of conscience. He is demanding equal political rights for Palestinians. The distinction between progressive Jews and Jews of conscience is essential, because the former are not really serious about justice for Palestinians. Jews of conscience are not interested in maintaining or proclaiming Jewish innocence, and they are serious about Jews and others recognizing Palestinians as equal.
AB: How can conditions change for the better between Israelis and Palestinians?
MHE: Jews and Palestinians of conscience should band together within and outside the state. It will be a long haul, well beyond the next decades. But the long haul is worth it. In the diaspora especially, Jews and Palestinians can demonstrate to themselves and others that racial and cultural bigotry are contextual and, when the offending context is removed, people of different backgrounds can live peacefully together. There is no other way to demonstrate this than by modelling it - in dialogue, study-centers and joint communal action. Jews and Palestinians must begin to live and work together wherever they are and speak with one voice on justice until offence against one becomes an offence against the other.
AB: You have said that the injustice done to the Palestinians not only affects the Palestinians, but also changes Jewish identity. Could you explain this?
MHE: We are witnessing the end of the Jewish tradition of ethics and justice. And in this way we are changing Jewish identity fundamentally. In the long run there is no reason to be Jewish unless it embodies something - especially an ethical system - that is different in the world. The Palestinians challenge our identity at its core. That is why the way to be faithful as a Jew today is to embrace solidarity with the Palestinian people.
AB: Can you see a change occurring in the way Jews perceive the Palestinians?
MHE: Collectively there will be no change in how Jews perceive Palestinians. As a community, Jews are a lost cause on this issue. Jews of conscience, however, are another case altogether. Among them, there is hope for a future. Though the group is not large, there are Jews of conscience everywhere. They are a witness to the future. Whether they will be a political force is another question. Of course, if the power equation between Israel and the Palestinians or the Arab world were to change, or if the United States felt that its own interests were threatened by the continuing expansion of Israel, then Israel might be forced to change. I don't see this happening, at least in the near future.
AB: What do you see as the solution to create conditions of peaceful co-existence for Israelis and Palestinians?
MHE: Simple. Two real states for two peoples. But it is not going to happen. My own sense is that the struggle has shifted into the realm of civil rights within the expanded state of Israel and a continuing diminishment of Palestinian cultural, geographical and political space. Unless Israel is willing and able to expel hundreds of thousands - perhaps even millions - of Palestinians, then Jews and Palestinians are fated to live together. The political challenge is to show both communities that their fate must become a possibility of a joint and productive life together. Again this is a long term-project and not for the faint of heart.
AB: Recently, the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that Israel's West Bank barrier is illegal, that it impedes the Palestinian right to self-determination, and that it should be stopped immediately. Will Israel ever accept that decision?
MHE: Israel will not accept that judgement. But to be honest, Israel does not need the Wall. They have already conquered the land. With or without the Wall, the facts remain the same.
AB: Can you envision a process of integration for the Jewish and Palestinian people?
MHE: Integration and disintegration are always occurring. All things change, especially when they appear to be static. There will not be two real states and there already is one state, if by one state we mean control of an entire area. Israel controls the territory from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River. That will continue for a long time. Some would say this understanding lacks optimism. I would answer that the reality is important to understand and that hope, real hope, arises from the recognition of reality and the struggle to create a future that moves beyond the present. Slogans that have no contact with reality are detrimental to the future.
AB: Is there any sign of hope to end this cycle of violence and lead both the Jews and Palestinians into a better future?
MHE: The hope is our joint witness - the witness of Jews and Palestinians together - that the cycle of violence and atrocity can be broken in our lives. That means saying "no" to any racist and colonial discourse. Jews and Palestinians must say "no" to any part of their own community that labels difference as 'other'. Jews of conscience and Palestinians of conscience must continue on, within and beyond the present political situation, and risk physical and cultural exile for it. This means parting ways with the progressive discourse which simply attempts to cover over oppression. It also means confronting the conservative 'hunker-down' option that says civilizational clash is inevitable and defining. Many young Jews and Palestinians have already gone beyond the categories of the past. They must be encouraged and supported.
1 This Interview was also printed in the November issue of the international NGO magazine Share International.