The End Of Jewish Ethical History (Marc Ellis & Amira Haas)


I almost always find myself disagreeing with Marc Ellis about Israel and Palestine, but when I do find myself in agreement with him it seems to happen in a deep way. Here’s a piece he wrote here for Mondoweiss. For those who don’t know Amira Hass is a veteran correspondent for Haaretz. She has worked and lived in Gaza and Ramallah. Unique to Israeli political analysis, her reporting is as close to the ground in Palestine as a non-Palestinian can get, critical of the 1967 occupation and sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian freedom. While I would therefore object strongly to the claim that Amira Hass has become “increasingly disconnected,” the more powerful point made by Ellis, and the one upon which I would focus my attention, is about states, the limits of conscience, and “the end of Jewish ethics.” I’m re-posting the piece in its entirety with the author’s permission, without further comment of my own in order to leave his as the last word.

Amira Hass and The End of Jewish Ethical History by Marc Ellis

I like and admire Amira Hass. Her reporting is admirable and more. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, she has lived through and commented on the contemporary arc of Jewish history. From the Holocaust to the devastating violence of Israel’s occupation mark her reporting, along with Gideon Levy and others, as the epitome of Jewish conscience. Hass is giving her all at the end of Jewish ethical history.

In her recent writing on Gaza, Hass’s words are strong and moving. They are also increasingly disconnected. As I once did and perhaps still do, Hass lives in a Jewish ethical history that no longer exists. Rather than addressing current events, her words represent mourning for a world that will not be resurrected.

Hass’s particular mistake is clear. Contra her analysis, Israel’s invasion of Gaza isn’t hurting Israel. Rather, it’s paving the way for the future that most Israelis – and Jews – actually want and embrace. That future is low on ethics and high on power. As everywhere in the world.

Here are some of Hass’s moving words:

“If victory is measured by the success at causing lifelong trauma to 1.8 million people (and not for the first time) waiting to be executed any moment – then the victory is yours.

“These victories add up to our moral implosion, the ethical defeat of a society that now engages in no self-inspection, that wallows in self-pity over postponed airline flights and burnishes itself with the pride of the enlightened. This is a society that mourns, naturally, its more than 40 soldiers who were killed, but at the same time hardens its heart and mind in the face of all the suffering and moral courage and heroism of the people we are attacking. A society that does not understand the extent to which the balance of forces is against it.

“In all the suffering and death,” wrote a friend from Gaza, “there are so many expressions of tenderness and kindness. People are taking care of one another, comforting one another. Especially children who are searching for the best way to support their parents. I saw many children no older than 10 years old who are hugging, comforting their younger siblings, trying to distract them from the horror. So young and already the caretakers of someone else. I did not meet a single child who did not lose someone – a parent, grandmother, friend, aunt or neighbor. And I thought: If Hamas grew out of the generation of the first intifada, when the young people who threw stones were met with bullets, who will grow out of the generation that experienced the repeated massacres of the last seven years?”

Our moral defeat will haunt us for many years to come.”

States don’t live on morality – even a Jewish state. If the state has enough power, a moral haunting may be experienced by a minority. Jews of Conscience in Israel and beyond are examples of this. But the majority of any state’s citizens want to get on with their lives and enjoy the benefits accrued through military victory and economic imperialism.

The very powers so concerned with Gaza attest to this lack of moral haunting. Whatever moral clauses invoked against Israeli power and on behalf of suffering Palestinians, where would Europe and America be without historical and contemporary empire?

What Hass wants is a return to a Jewish world and history that formed her. Though she knows this world was tainted, she still hopes that somehow the overall thrust of Jewish ethical history can pull us through. Hass is wrong. However one defines the Jewish condition, Jews like Hass continue to argue for a Jewish morality in the state of Israel that no longer exists.

Hass isn’t a religious Jews, even a closeted one as far as I know. But her sense of the Jewish ethical and the punishment for Jewish wrongdoing, even in an imagined Palestinian resistance that knows no bounds, is a kind of faith. As a Jew, Hass can’t give up on it. What Jewish and Israeli legs would she have to stand on if she threw in the ethical towel and admitted to her readers – and most of all to herself – that Jews and Jewish life have reached its end point?

Israel won’t be haunted by its transgressions. When the end of the Israeli-Palestinians disputations finally arrives all will be forgiven on the international front.

Moral outrage by the powers of the world is limited by their own moral transgressions. They, too, have been forgiven rather than haunted by their power.

Should Israel be any different in reality than in the Jewish imagination?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to The End Of Jewish Ethical History (Marc Ellis & Amira Haas)

  1. ej says:

    I never thought Judaism is defined by its high morality, Torah and mitzvot, tradition, history and theosophy have always seemed to me more central to traditional Jewish concerns. Nevertheless morality must play a role even if only as a limiting side constrainst. When secular and religious Zionism become an exercise in power and imperialism, those who accept the tradition of rabbinic Judaism, the religion of the charedim and the Jews whose values are rooted in the traditional Judaism of the Diaspora, must resist this temptation. We should continue to believe that even in Israel we are in galus, our power is limited and we ought not to fight with the nations of the world. How smart Jews can be so dumb when it comes to negotiating peace and quiet with the Palestinians can only be explained by a certain blindness brought about by religious Zionist messianic aspirations and the tribal narcissism that comes when one is totally surrounded by Jews.

  2. Michael says:

    The future Israel is heading to, and one most Israeli’s want, is one where Israel is a normal state. One that does not have to defend itself against hearless, merciless murderers. A state that when it does defend itself is not measured up to an unreachable moral ideal, by the Jews or by anyone else.

    Of all the conflicts in the world, the massacres and wars, past, future and present, Israel recieves the lion’s share of the coverage and almost all of the criticism. Those who advocate morality and compassion must ask themselves why is it that all the other victims of conflict and abuse are not worthy of their attention? What gives them the right and why is it such a pleasure to single out the Jewish state as a target of criticism and accusations?

    One who is merciful to those who are heartless will end up being heartless to those who are merciful. I think that is an essential lesson from Jewish morality that the State of Israel can and should implement.

    • DMS says:

      If Israel were a Moslem nation the Palestinians would be out of luck and no one would pay any attention to them…uh…which is exactly, for the most part, as Palis treated by every other Arab nation.

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