Post-Holocaust Jewish Theology and Israel

Professor Marc Ellis spoke about post-Holocaust Jewish Theology, Jewish identity and Israel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Ellis is the Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University. The subject of his presentation, “Post-Holocaust Jewish Theology and Israel: Affirming the Enduring Jewish Prophetic Tradition,” gave an overview of writers who explored Jewish identity, history, religion, and politics over the past, fifty years.

“There’s a sense we have particular identity maps within us,” Ellis said. “The maps we repress are equally important.”

At the Chicago Sabeel Conference, speakers discussed various topics and participants asked questions around the theme: “Jerusalem: Will Justice and Peace Embrace?”

Ellis is the author of fifteen books regarding Jewish Theology, Jewish identity and religion including “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.” He studied under Holocaust theologian Richard Rubenstein and American historian William Miller.

“What does it mean to be Jewish after the Holocaust and the expanding State of Israel?” Ellis asked the audience. “What happens to the prophetic after the formative events of the Holocaust and Israel and the continuing displacement and degradation of the Palestinian people supported by the mainstream Jewish, religious, political, and academic community?”

Ellis divides his mapping of Jewish identity into four phases. The first phase involves Jewish theologians, writers and Holocaust survivors from 1966-1974.

Ellis included these prominent religious and academic scholars: Holocaust theologian Richard Rubenstein; Nobel Peace Prize winner, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; German political theorist Hannah Arendt; Jewish philosopher and Rabbi Emil Fackenheim; and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg. It was Rubenstein’s “The Cunning of History” that described the necessity of Jewish power and Israel as the concrete embodiment of this power.

In 1967 the Six-Day War instilled within the Jewish people that there was a threat of another Holocaust, according to Ellis. In response, Israel would demonstrate its power to the Arab World and the international community. The Israeli soldiers are perceived as innocent.

During the second phase, 1974-1988, the Jewish community emphasized the importance of not only retaining but exercising their power through the continued occupation of the Palestinians, the 1982 Lebanon War and the 1987 intifada, also known as the first Palestinian uprising.

“In their mind it’s another Holocaust,” he said. As a result, Jewish identity moves toward a neoconservative sensibility. During this time period, some Jews thought the UN was a hotbed for anti-Semitism. From this perspective when people criticize Israeli policy they are driving us to another Holocaust, Ellis explained.

Scholars such as Irving Greenberg explored Jewish power and Paul M. Van Buren wrote about Christian Holocaust Theology in “A Theology of Jewish-Christian Reality.” Throughout this time period one of Christian Zionism’s focuses is Jews. From this springboard ecumenical dialogue assimilates into the political arena. It creates the dichotomy of “Israel is different” and “Palestinians are absent/threat.”

Throughout this Jewish exploration, Palestinians are on the reciprocating end of the Jewish mapping of identity. The formation of a Jewish state brought the Palestinians Al-Nakba, the catastrophe. Jewish expectations and immigration brought devastation and exile for the Palestinians. Although Palestinians are the indigenous people of Palestine they exist within the Jewish framework. Through no power or action on their own part, the Palestinians became the Jewish peoples’ other.

In 1987, Ellis confessed to a Jerusalem audience: “What we as Jews have done to the Palestinian people is wrong. What we as Jews are doing to the Palestinians today is wrong.”

From 1988-2000, Ellis said a new phase of progressive dialogue from people such as rabbi and writer Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, and writer, Yechezkel Landau. According to Ellis, they allowed for some criticism of the Jews as neoconservative, but they maintained the State of Israel’s innocence. Writers in this time period talk about Jewish renewal, Jewish and Israeli peace camps and that the Israeli occupation is an aberration.

From 2000 –” present, Ellis describes the Jews of conscience as the rebirth of the prophetic. Scholars and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Hedy Epstein, Jeff Halper, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappe, and Sara Roy demonstrate their solidarity with the Palestinian people and Jewish history. Moreover, they recognize the implications of Israeli power.

These people are the minority. Ellis pointed out: “Most Jews see the numbers as the only map.”

Toward the end of his presentation Ellis showed a picture of an Israeli gunship, and a photo of Israel’s wall underneath it. Above these pictures he wrote in quotation marks: “Filling our home with Torah.”

Ellis questions that a final phase could be settler Judaism. He sees one possible future that has Jerusalem as the “broken middle” of Israel/Palestine and there is revolutionary forgiveness. The current reality on the ground shows Israel’s continued construction of a wall.

Now, the wall is a part of Israeli identity.