Jewish Particularity and the Future of Israel and Palestine

By Marc Ellis | 2010-04-01 01:00:00

For years the question of a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been discussed. In the past years, the one state solution was in eclipse; now it has returned. This return is of great interest, yet fraught with problems. A main problem with the one-state solution is that no political expert in the world believes it possible. If it is impossible, at least in its democratic formulation where Jews and Palestinians form a secular democratic state of equal citizenship and joint sovereignty, then why the discussion?

But a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine as two separate and adjoining states, most agree now will also not be realized. Israel has gone too far in settlements, in expelling Palestinians, and appropriating Palestinian land for a two-state solution to become a reality.

Though the future is obscure, by analyzing the discourse that surrounds Israel-Palestine, we may gain a deeper sense of limitations and possibilities.

The Assault on Jewish Particularity — In the Name of “Universality”

There is no way beyond the one-state / two-state debate; that discussion will not be left behind, but neither solution will be realized. In fact, there is one state already in existence, as Israel stretches from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River. By default, Israel is the one state, with millions of Palestinians within it.

So it is curious that the democratic one-state solution discourse has gained adherents in recent years. Why is the inverse of reality seen as inevitable, at a time when even a compromise two-state solution has disappeared, perhaps forever?

There is no question that the two-state solution is unjust to Palestinians. On the other hand, the democratic one-state option hasn’t existed as a real possibility since the creation of Israel in 1948. If there was any doubt in Israel’s early years, it was certainly settled with its victory in the 1967 War. If there was any doubt after the war about the survival of Israel as a Jewish state, the vast settlements created in Jerusalem and the West Bank over the past forty plus years should have put this discussion to rest. Yet there is still a discourse about Israel’s demise.

To write about this curious transposition is to invite misunderstanding. The minefield we enter when speaking about Jews, especially Jews who use power to oppress another people, is fraught. Much of the discussion about Jewish power isn’t about politics at all, but about aspects of Jewish identity: Jewishness, Judaism, and Zionism. The Holocaust features in all three.

Jews often frame the discussion in terms of Jewish identity, which often causes offence, as if the interlocutor were free of identity issues himself. In this discussion Jews can come off as peculiarly self-involved and aggressive. When accused of this, they reply that there is also a Palestinian particularity, a strong one that is growing stronger, for Palestinians have their own distinctive sensibilities. Identity formations, they say, can be found everywhere — in Judaism, Christianity and Islam — but also in secular “universal” understandings that oppose certain kinds of particularities while being naïve about their own particularity. Some secular democratic societies blame other “retrogressive” identities for a barbarism that is far exceeded by people with modern means to unleash destruction on the world.

Some Jews attempt to separate Jewish power from true Judaism, thus allowing Jews to hold certain religious beliefs in private — such as their chosenness or their God-inspired connections to the Land. They acknowledge that when these religious beliefs are mobilized in the political realm, they become suspect. Can Jews hold these beliefs at all without being seen as archaic carriers of a harmful particularity? There are genuine disagreements on this point.

Those who believe the answer is yes usually argue that these archaic sensibilities gave birth to the prophetic, and may do so again. Embodying the prophetic some leftist Jews whom I shall call “Jews of Conscience” nowadays argue for Palestinians and against the Jewish establishment.1 I count myself among them. We are Jews who seek justice for Palestinians and who distinguish Judaism and Zionism and the need for Jewish empowerment from abuses of that power. We see the use of the Holocaust as a blunt instrument against others as distorting Judaism, the Jewish God, and Jewish political sensibilities. We see both Holocaust preoccupation and the expanded state of Israel as constructs that when imposed on Judaism and Jewish history have often hijacked religion and critical thought alike.

Judaism does not equal Israel and Zionism is not Judaism. Both Israel and Zionism can be, have been, and too often are agents of injustice. But Jews of Conscience remind us that they are not only and always that. They agree that the Holocaust has been used against Palestinians and against dissident Jews. But, they say, the Holocaust is not only and always special pleading for Jews. It is also a reality that Jews have and fear.

Would the democratic one-state option that some Jews and non-Jews favor require an assault on every form of Jewish particularity? If so, it is understandable for ordinary Jews to feel threatened by the debate. Can the world turn against Israel as a Jewish state, boycotting its policies, economy, academy and culture, without also turning against Jews as individuals? Those who support the democratic one-state ideal frame the discussion in terms of values, not individuals, but it seems impossible today to separate the fixation on Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust from living, breathing Jews. This fact imposes a special burden on everyone who seeks a just peace for Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine.

It may be that Jewish particularity stands in the way of Palestinian freedom. Palestinians should not have to cater to Jewish sensibilities, hopes and fears. But Jews see the question of Israel/Palestine through a Jewish lens. Perhaps both the Palestinian and the Jewish lenses are crucial to sorting out the intertwined question. I believe that both Jewish and Palestinian particularities must be taken into account, asserted and disciplined, with an equalizing of power and the refusal of either to demand the disempowerment of the other.

Should Jews of Conscience Defend Jewish Particularity?

The Obama administration’s position vis-à-vis expanding Israeli settlements is really about perceptions. If a democratic one-state solution is a pipe dream, so, too, is the two-state solution. The argument about the future of the Palestinians has become a question of how much international aid will be needed and for how long. Because of Israeli restrictions, it is also about how the aid will be delivered. We are witnessing the UNRA-ization of Palestine.

The Jewish establishment in Israel and the United States has created this situation. Israel’s continuing expansion has furthered the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The erosion of Palestinian land and life has to be reversed; accountability must be demanded. An empowered, post-Holocaust Jewish particularity has been mobilized against the Palestinians. Should Jews who are concerned about the freedom of Palestinians therefore abandon the Jewish narrative? Have Jewishness, Judaism, and Zionism become so tainted that there can be no return?

Jewish life is divided into three parts. The most dominant group is the Jewish establishment, whom I call “Constantinian Jews.” For them, links with power of the American and Israeli empires are foremost and every aspect of Jewish life must be aimed in that direction. This means that Jewish history, including the Holocaust, must be connected to empowerment—hence the neo-conservative drift of Jewish thought. What has to be preserved at all costs is the notion that Jews are innocent in our suffering and in our power. For Constantinian Jews, the state of Israel is part of a Jewish destiny that was foretold and forced upon Jews. The Palestinians and Arabs take their place in the long history of those who demonize good Jewish particularity. For all practical purposes, Arabs and Palestinians are the new Nazis—if not all Palestinians and Arabs, then surely their leaders.2

The second group is Progressive Jews. This group is in a civil war with Constantinian Jews over the use of the Holocaust as an excuse for unaccountability and over their refusal to see that the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza violates the Jewish ethical tradition. Progressive Jews argue that the birth of Israel was innocent and that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was regrettable but resulted from the quest for a needed Jewish empowerment. Progressive Jews argue for a two-state solution, the reversal of the post-1967 occupation and the renewal of the Jewish ethical tradition. If the occupation ends, then Israel — and Jews — can return to our innocence. Safely on the other side of Israel’s borders, Palestinians, the accusing Other, will disappear from Jewish life. Only then can Jews once again assert Jewish particularity.

According to this view, Constantinian Jews have placed Jewish particularity in danger, whereas Progressive Jews are the rescue party. As the Jewish establishment and its positions embody Constantinian Judaism, Tikkun, the Jewish journal, embodies the Progressive Jewish movement. Yet in their desire to restore Jewish innocence, Progressive Jews reject Jewish dissidents to the left of them, “Jews of Conscience,” thus mirroring what Constantinian Jews have done to them.

Tikkun demands that Palestinians understand Jewish security concerns as paramount, limit the Palestinian state’s involvement with other Arab countries, and be demilitarized to boot. Once the two-state solution is in place, the security of Palestine will be assured by Israel. When Israel ends its occupation, it will return to its innocence, so why should Palestinians object to depending on Israel for protection?

Both Constantinian and Progressive Jews have a deep investment in Jewish innocence over against a menacing world filled with less advanced peoples than Jews. This convergence comes from sharing certain objectives of Jewish ascendancy. Both Constantinian and Progressive Jews seek to expand that space opened to Jews after the Holocaust. By claiming the moral high ground vis-à-vis Constantinian Jews, Progressive Jews argue that the aggression of Israel, and its enablers in America, threaten Jewish continuity and empowerment over the long run. The real debate is about Jewish leadership.

If they are being pushed out of the Jewish community by Constantinian Jews, Progressive Jews push back as well. The two groups set limits on dissent, though the range of acceptable topics keeps expanding. For example, Progressive Jews initially prohibited discussion of Palestinians, Palestine, American aid to Israel, and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Then Progressive Jews accepted and even trumpeted these topics in their civil war with the Constantinian Jewish establishment. What once was radical ceases to be so. However, as the radical discourse becomes acceptable, the plight of the Palestinians worsens.

Perhaps Constantinian and Progressive Jews oppose each other while burying their own differences to maintain Jewish ascendancy in empowerment and ethics. Could it be that Progressive Jews are the Left-wing of Constantinian Judaism?

Jews of Conscience have emerged primarily in these last years with the realization that the Jewish ethical tradition cannot be rescued. Jewish innocence was lost in the creation of the state of Israel — rather than in the occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war. During the second Palestinian uprising the Jewish Left was exposed and had to admit that the occupation of Palestine started much earlier and was/is permanent. Nothing in the Jewish tradition could stop this assault on the Palestinians. Jewish history was now permanently stained with ethnic cleansing, occupation, and violence. For Jews of Conscience the question is not whether and how Jewish ascendancy can survive and flourish but whether there is anything left of Jewishness worth holding onto. Jews of Conscience are in exile from the civil war being conducted by Constantinian and Progressive Jews. Is there any way back?3

Unraveling Jewish Particularity

In June 2009, Michael Lerner, the founder and head of Tikkun, appeared on CNN to debate Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz in a “confrontation” between the quintessential Constantinian and Progressive Jew. Here is a pre-publicity email sent out by Lerner’s Network of Spiritual Progressives.

CNN’s Campbell Brown’s primetime broadcast—LIVE at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific— has just started a section it is calling “The Great Debate,” and tonight they’ve asked Rabbi Lerner to debate Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz on whether the U.S. has been too one-sidedly supportive of Israel.

Rabbi Lerner told the show that the US was not really supportive of Israel, because to be supportive of Israel today is to push Israel to get out of the West Bank and Gaza, help in the creation of a politically and economically viable Palestinian state, atone for its treatment of Palestinians, and take the leadership in an international campaign to provide adequate reparations to the Palestinian people (even though we should also be insisting that the Palestinian people atone for its support of acts of terror against Israeli civilians and its teaching of hatred against Israel and against Jews in its media, schools, and mosques).

The tendency of the media is to trivialize and to create division, so the show is likely to not highlight Rabbi Lerner’s passionate caring for Israel but instead only the part that focuses on his passionate critique of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Nor, given the time limits, will Lerner focus on his criticisms of the narrow focus to Obama’s challenge to Israel to stop expanding existing settlements (whereas what he needs to do is to provide a vision of what a genuine peace agreement would look like and why it is urgently needed for the sake of US security). Still, with all the likely vulgarization that will be part of this discussion, and the difficulty that Rabbi Lerner will have with very short 20 second sound bytes conveying a position that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, we nevertheless invite you to watch it this evening as it unfolds live on CNN.4

Lerner’s representation of the Jewish drama, like that of Dershowitz, is fatally flawed. They both see Israel as a nation-state, different not only in its composition, with most citizens being Jewish, but in the international standards that can be applied to it. In Lerner’s lexicon and among Progressive Jews in general, only Jews are able to judge Israel’s behavior. Outside assistance is only welcome if it also comes from a passionate caring for Israel. In this sense, only those who love Israel can comment and act upon Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

Thus the self-interest of the Palestinians can be listened to only within the context of the self-interest of Israel — what Jews want and why. In the “debate” between Lerner and Dershowitz, the assumed criterion for authentic Jewishness is the embrace of Israel and the Holocaust as the pillars of Jewish identity. In Constantinian and Progressive Jewish discourse, they are religious icons. This religiosity is also to be embraced by non-Jews as well as part of their religious geography. This includes Christians in Europe and America, as well as all others around the world. The rejection of Israel as a Jewish state and the Holocaust as the central event of world history places one outside civilized discourse. This “civilizational” formula includes Palestinians.

But to Jews of Conscience, “Love Israel” as a criterion of the civilized is a form of idolatry. To rail against idolatry is an ancient Jewish concept that is coupled with the prophetic. Even in Biblical times, the refusal of idolatry and the prophetic are one and the same. The prophetic is the positive response to the negation that is the refusal of idols. The prophetic announces the end of the old ways and sees an alternative way of life.

Twinning the refusal of idolatry and the prophetic ensures that Jewish particularity is constantly pruned. Sometimes the prophetic and the refusal of idolatry are used as an axe against Jews themselves. The threat held over the people Israel is expulsion from God’s care. If the warnings against idolatry are not heeded, the prophets announce the end. Soon the people Israel are thrown into exile, where a renewed sense of Jewish identity is formed.

Loving Israel as Idolatry

In our time the need to demonstrate one’s love for Israel blunts the refusal of idolatry and the arrival of the prophetic. Loving Israel as a State is a litmus test for being authentically Jewish, but that makes it impossible to cut through what has grown around the reality of what it means to be Jewish. Is it then incumbent upon Jews to become (un)Jewish?

The assault against Jewish particularity can generate another definition of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust, and what it means to be Jewish after Israel. The Holocaust still exists, indeed grows more intense, in contemporary discourse about Jews and in the Jewish civil war. Israel, the State, is also stronger than ever. Coming after Israel is simply the understanding that Jews are no longer innocent. In their oppression of the Palestinian people, an oppression that now seems permanent, Jews have reached another place in their long journey. The covenantal aspect of Jewishness is now shot through with violence; atrocity is now at the heart of the covenant. Embracing the Jewish covenant means admitting and struggling against that violence.

Coming after the Holocaust and after Israel means that the Jewish ethical tradition has become unraveled. This cannot be forestalled. As outward Jewishness unravels, so too must the religious and internal aspects of Jewish identity. How can Jews sort out the mythic and the real, while also deconstructing their own Jewishness? How can Jews of Conscience recognize their challenge: to purge the colonial and imperial aspects of their own Jewishness and embrace the unraveled Jewishness that remains?

This unraveled Jewishness extends beyond the back and forth of Constantinian and Progressive Jews. It is also outside the discourse that attributes a narrow and tribal particularity to Jews. A bridge forward could be the demilitarization of religions regarding Jerusalem, rather than seeing Jerusalem as a crown jewel of an expanding Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The city may instead be experienced as a place where two broken peoples meet, one now with power and the other without. In short, Jerusalem is less than holy. It is the broken middle of Israel/Palestine.

Of course, the unraveling of Jewishness cannot proceed alone; other unraveling identities must come into view. Here Jews of Conscience meet with others of conscience — Muslims of Conscience, Christians of Conscience, and Secularists of Conscience. A coalition of unraveling particularities might bring some sanity to a variety of debates.

A coalition of unraveled particularities? It is surely more honest than singling out Jewish particularity and opposing it with a “universality” that is a disguised particularity. Can Jews, the aggressors against Palestinians and often the deniers of Palestinian particularity, ask this solidarity of Palestinians? As the assaulted party, Palestinians have the right to refuse that gesture. Yet in small ways, this is happening right now, in Israel/Palestine but also in the Diaspora where Jews of Conscience and Palestinians of Conscience reconsider the history between the two peoples. Ultimately, the Jewish and Palestinian Diaspora may be the place from which a revisioning of Israel/Palestine occurs.

Marc Ellis is a professor of Jewish studies at Baylor University.


1 This is my argument in my book, Judaism Does Not Equal Israel (New York: The New Press, 2009).

2 For an earlier discussion of Constantinian Judaism see the chapter “A Time To Mourn: The Golden Age of Constantinian Judaism” in my Reading the Torah Out Loud: A Journey of Lament and Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 1-18.

3 The question here is how Jews will “practice” their exile. For an extended discussion of this subject see my Practicing Exile: A Journey of an American Jew (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

4 An email sent from The Network of Spiritual Progressives with the subject heading “Lerner Debates Dershowitz on CNN Tonight (Tuesday June 2). The website of this group is

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010, page 12. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Marc Ellis here

Peace Magazine homepage