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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Judaism Does Not Equal Israel, by Mark H. Ellis. New York: The New Press, 2010.  232 pp.  $24.95.


I must say that I was disheartened when I finished reading Judaism Does Not Equal Israel. How else should I feel, as an Israeli descendent of survivors whose whole family was destroyed in Europe, when an American Jewish intellectual in a book whose primary motif is the Holocaust ends by predicting “a new era of Jewish life after the Holocaust and after Israel” (p. 204). Professor Ellis is clear in his desire to relegate the Jews to exile (not Diaspora) where, in his view, they properly belong. “That the best view is from exile is lamentable but again so Jewish. Next to the prophetic, exile is the most practice of the primal Jewish identities” (p. 224). These are the words of a theologian and director of Jewish Studies at Baylor University who joins a world- wide assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Even more disturbing is the attack on one of the greatest accomplishments of world Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the emergence of an influential compound structure of institutions that are struggling for Jewish survival alongside the state of Israel.  

              But then, I glanced through the book again and noticed all the places where I dotted lines indicating factual errors and was relieved. Professor Ellis’ book is so one sided and full of inaccuracies that I recalled the line from our national anthem “Od lo Avda Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope is not yet lost”). Even a prophetic Jew must first present accurate facts and than argue with them. I will only point to the most troubling ones. The harm of the book goes beyond these mistakes. I will refer to this at the end.

              Let me start by addressing the main conjecture of the book. The State of Israel did not arise, as Ellis contends, only because of the Holocaust but despite it. The Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations’ Mandate, the Yishuv (the organized Jewish polity in Mandate Palestine), all preceded the Second World War. The Holocaust demonstrated, as some Zionist leaders had foreseen, what could happen to a people without a state in a world of nation-states. The addition of six million Jews and their descendents to the Jewish state, or even a portion of them, would have multiplied Jewish power and constructed such a potent Jewish presence in Palestine and in the Diaspora that the Palestine Arabs would have had to accept it. It was no accident that the founding father of the Palestinians, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, went to Berlin to share his sympathies with Hitler. The Mufti sensed the potential power of the Jewish awakening, which Professor Ellis so detests, and which crystallized prior to the Holocaust. Professor Ellis makes no mention of the Mufti’s Nazi sympathies when he talks about the “pitiable” Palestinians.

              Zionism rose at least around a hundred years prior to the Shoah. While the forerunners of Zionism, like Rabbis Kalisher and Alkalai, were inspired by national aspirations, the leaders of political Zionism Herzl and Pinsker were motivated by a desire for survival. The latter foresaw the physical threats to the Jews in the exile that Professor Ellis aspires to return to. Ahad Haam foresaw the spiritual threat. Professor Ellis disregards the fact that in his romantic “exile” six million Jews were murdered and millions of Jews disappeared via assimilation.

              In contrast to the Zionists, and the current American Jewish Community or “Constantinian Judaism” as he dubs them, the Palestinians are clear of any wrong-doing. Terrorist actions (p. 22) during the two intifadas are overlooked. No mention is made of Arafat, as a Temple denier. According to Professor Ellis, the Palestine Arabs’ attacks on the Jewish Yishuv during the Mandate were either non-existent or uprisings.

              Professor Ellis condemns the “1948–49 Arab Exodus” as an ethnic cleansing. To prove his point he turns to three “New Historians,” Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappe. By doing so Professor Ellis implies that the well respected departments of Jewish history in Israeli universities do not tell the truth, but that the new historians do (p. 94). He admits, in a footnote, that one of the “new historians,” Professor Benny Morris, has largely renounced the views that Professor Ellis now propounds.

              The book also produces several statements that can only make one grin. I will cite just two: In 1967 “Israel was holding the fort for the retreating European Empires and an America under siege in Vietnam” (p. 6). Similarly, Israel’s goal in the 2006 Lebanon War was “to reverse Lebanon’s development for another decade or two,” as it wants a Middle East that is de-developed (p. 25).

              But there is one area where I agree with the author of this book. When looking for a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, Professor Ellis goes as far as to say that even a solution based on the Jewish narratives of Buber, Arendt, and Levinas, three philosophers that he admires because of their ambivalence on the necessity or desirability of a Jewish state, as well as the New Jewish Agenda and Tikkun (p. 66) would not be sufficient for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation. “Their Judeocentric and prejudiced sensibilities limited movement toward a just resolution of the decades-old conflict” (p. 193). The Palestinian narrative is in collision even with an arrangement based on a Buber-Magnes bi-national state as in fact they proposed during the pre-state era. One reason for this ongoing refusal to face the fact that the Palestinian narrative has led repeatedly from disaster to disaster is Jewish voices like that of Ellis, Christian voices like that of President Jimmy Carter, and third-world theologians like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Books like this one or that of Carter do harm not only to the Jewish people but to the Palestinians as well. 

              While writing this review I was asking myself why we should pay attention to this book. My answer is that just as we cannot ignore Holocaust deniers, we also must exclude books like this one. In the midst of this book, Professor Ellis suddenly reminds himself that the President of Iran Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier. I am sure that the Iranian President would enjoy reading this book and might have even turned it into obligatory book in his country’s educational system. According to Professor Ellis, Ahmadinejad is dangerous only because Jews now possess ideological and political power (pp. 100–101). Jewish liberation theology, as he defines his persuasion, must still face the reality that the lack of Jewish power in the 1930s and 40s did nothing to prevent the Shoah. It should not come as a surprise that the Foreword to this book is written by Archbishop Tutu, who is quoted by Professor Ellis as saying that people are afraid  to come out against Israel because of the power of the Jewish lobby which Tutu promises will pass like the Apartheid government, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, etc. (p.138). I think that this sentence says it all.

Shmuel Sandler

Bar Ilan University