On Jewish Particularity and Anti-Semitism: Notes from a Jewish Theology of Liberation

By Ellis, Marc H. | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

On Jewish Particularity and Anti-Semitism: Notes from a Jewish Theology of Liberation


Ellis, Marc H., Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


I begin with two travel stories and related commentary which represent for me a completed circle. That still leaves questions unanswered and a darkly lit path forward on the questions of Jewish identity, the Holocaust and the increasingly perilous situation in the Middle East. Running through these reflections are the questions of Jewish power and anti-Semitism--that is, Jewish particularity in a complex world.

My first travel story begins in 1973, just six years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when I first traveled to Israel. I traveled on a dare, or rather an admonition from my Hebrew School teacher; when I mentioned Palestinians to him after his return from travel there in 1968, he spoke harshly to me. How could I know the situation there since I had never traveled to the Middle East?

Traveling in Israel during that time was an eye-opener. Like most Jews of my age, I had been taught little about the reality of Israel, and even less about the "Arabs." Historical information was scarce, and what was given to us at all--in Hebrew School, in the public schools, in the broader spectrum of American discourse--was now wrapped within the celebration of Israel's victory in the 1967 war. That celebration also contained a minimum of history and analysis. Instead, we were moved toward a deeper affirmation of Israel as central to our identity, Jewish and American. It was at this time that the Holocaust also became central to our Jewish and American identity. History was moving quickly and our identity was absorbing two new formative events, the Holocaust and Israel. Our identity was also changing, and unbeknownst to us, that change would be a work of progress over the next decades. It continues today, albeit in a thoroughly contested form.

What did I see in Israel in 1973? I saw the beauty of the land and the ever changing landscape within a small geographic area. I also saw the disparities of those with European Jewish backgrounds and those of the Arab Palestinians--within the borders of Israel and in the newly conquered territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Though I traveled throughout the land, Jerusalem itself contained this beauty and these disparities. In this, little has changed since that time, all was already in place, for what was to become. The last decades have seen a deepening and an expansion of what is contested in the land. When I visit today, it is like I experience a time warp running forward, as if what was there has simply unfolded and expanded. In short, I saw it all in 1973 and I also understood it all in a nutshell, a historical sensibility. What I needed to do was fill in the blanks.

Perhaps it was fortuitous that while I was traveling in Israel, the October War began. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when I heard what I thought were fire drill sirens. Walking through a newly constructed apartment complex for newly arrived Jewish immigrants in the Galilee I saw people hurrying down the stairs and entering what I thought was the basement. When I was called to join the apartment dwellers I quickly realized that the war had begun and that basement was a giant bomb shelter. It was not a practice fire drill like we had periodically at our public school, and when the people left the shelter they quickly checked in with their military contacts to see where they were assigned for battle. Israel was at war.

What I understood at this moment was that whatever I thought about Israel--these thoughts were evolving as I traveled the length of the country--much more was at stake than my identity as a Jew. Lives were being formed, developed and destroyed on all sides. The military was in full force, and much of what had happened in the formation of the state, much that would happen, would be decided by the barrel of the gun. At some level, it was all or nothing. Any discourse about Israel and the Palestinians would have to combine thought and real politik. …

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