Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power

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Beyond Innocence and Redemption: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power

A daring Israeli commentator once suggested that the Jewish people have suffered two great tragedies in the last halfcentury: the Holocaust, and the lesson they learned from it. Although American Jewish scholar Marc Ellis is not as cynical, his analysis of the impact that the Nazi catastrophe had on the collective psyche of his people is just as provocative.

Ellis provides an illuminating overview of what has been described as "Holocaust theology," that worldview which places Jewish destiny within the parameters of the Holocaust and the state of Israel. He argues that in their attempt to understand how a God of history could have permitted the murder of 6 million Jews, Holocaust theologians have essentially concluded there are no satisfactory answers. Thus, the rabbinic world of synagogue and prayer is no longer sufficient for them, and the religious duty of the community of faith must now include ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Since only sovereign and powerful states can guarantee such survival, "achieving power in Israel reaches the level of sacred principle." Hence the centrality of Israel not only as the spiritual engine of Jewish life but also as the only reliable vehicle for self-preservation.

The conviction that empowerment as embodied in the state of Israel is necessary to prevent a second Holocaust helps explain the near-hysterical reaction of many in the Jewish community to criticism of Israel. If the state is regarded as indispensable to Jewish survival, then it is hardly surprising that any challenge to its legitimacy takes on the menacing proportion of an existential threat.

This also helps explain how anti-Zionism can be viewed as anti-Semitism dressed in different clothes, and how brilliant moral philosophers like Elie Wiesel can refuse to condemn oppressive acts when committed by Israel that they would never hesitate to denounce in other nations. The dilemma for these Jews, according to Ellis, is that they are "torn between the remembrance of their suffering, and the reality of an independent and powerful state that they do not control but must always legitimate -- thus the strained arguments, the twisted logic, the shrill voices."

To explain is not to justify. Ellis scrutinizes the premises of Holocaust theology -- the innocence of the Jewish people and the redemptive quality of Israel -- and suggests that neither is Israel in itself redemptive nor are the Jews any longer innocent. In what can only cause shudders among conservative Holocaust theologians and their supporters, Ellis calls for "deabsolutizing" both the state of Israel and the Holocaust. State-worship, he argues, is no less idolatrous than worshipping a Golden Calf. Israel should be seen as a country "like any other, capable of good and bad but unworthy of ultimate loyalty." The lesson of the Holocaust should be "to end the suffering of the Jewish people and all peoples, including and especially the Palestinian people."

Ellis is obviously aware that shaking the foundations of Holocaust theology will not win him accolades from the Jewish establishment. But he draws encouragement from the noble tradition of dissent that existed in the early days of political Zionism, personified by the likes of Reform Rabbi Judah Magnes and the philosopher Hannah Arendt. …