Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Marc Ellis

About 20 years ago, while teaching a Bible class, I backed into an interest in justice for the Palestinians. We had been studying the book of Exodus. When we finished, someone asked, “Why don’t we continue this study to bring us up to date as to what is happening in Israel now?” I answered, “Because I don’t know that history.” But, I was challenged and started to confront my ignorance. I read a book by Naim Ateek, called Justice and Only Justice and I was shocked. I had never heard this side of the story and here was a Christian pastor writing things that angered and confused me. I was angry because I claimed to be somewhat of an educated person and here was a narrative which I should have known, yet, it was totally new to me. I was confused, wondering if I could trust what I was reading. In his book, Ateek referenced a Jewish writer named Marc Ellis. I ordered his book thinking that now I will hear the “other side,” the only story with which I was familiar, the story with which I was comfortable. I could not have been more wrong.

I am not by nature a hero worshipper. I never stand in line to get an author to autograph the book I just purchased. But having said that, I have to admit, Marc Ellis is a hero to me. Marc, (I can call him by his first name because he has been a friend for twenty years.) is a devoted Jew who is critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Judaism, to Marc, stands for the triumph of good over evil, freedom over injustice, and peace over violence. He declares that “God is notoriously biased, forever taking the side of the weak, the oppressed, and the down-trodden against the kings and powerful elite.”[1] There are others, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Lerner and dozens of others, but Marc Ellis was, for me, the first to criticize Israel. Many America Jews, maybe most, seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.

Ellis began his adult life living and working among the poor of New York, Atlanta and New Orleans. In houses of hospitality he looked into the faces of those who lined up each morning for soup and bread and saw fellow human beings. He said, “I was living within a system that created tremendous wealth for the few among whom were many Jews.”[2]

Marc Ellis, who now teaches at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is a man who seeks to take seriously the ethics and morality of his Jewish faith, taught by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. He once said to me, “As I grew up and encountered the State of Israel, I wondered what had happened to my Jewish faith?” He continued on a quest for justice… and at a great personal price. He risked rupturing his relationship with fellow Jews, his synagogue and endured rejection by the very people with whom he identified the most. He exposed himself to all manner of criticism, being called a ‘self hating Jew,” and worse. He engaged himself in dialogue both here in the US and in Israel/Palestine when his personal safety was at risk. Few people appreciated his honesty and passion for justice. He still operates under a very Godly principle: If you are doing something and you know it is wrong, then stop it!

The first time I met Marc Ellis, I asked about his book Beyond Occupation. “You open your book with a story of soldiers breaking the legs of teenage boys. It’s barbaric. Is it really true?”

“I didn’t write a novel.” he replied. “That account is a matter of record, the testimony of the soldier involved.” In 1988, an Israeli captain entered the village of Hawara and ordered the local mukhtar to round up twelve Arab boys, all teenagers. Yossi Sarid describes what happened:

The soldiers shackled the villagers, and with their hands bound behind their backs, they were led to the bus. The bus started to move and after 200-300 meters, it stopped beside an orchard. The “locals” were taken off the bus and led into the orchard in groups of three, one after another. Every group was accompanied by an officer. In the darkness of the orchard, the soldiers shackled the Hawara residents’ legs and laid them on the ground. The officers urged the soldiers to “get it over with quickly, so that we can leave and forget about it.” Then flannel was stuffed into the Arabs mouths to prevent them from screaming and the bus driver revved up the motor so that the noise would drown out their cries. Then the soldiers obediently carried out the orders they had been given: To break their arms and legs by clubbing the Arabs, to avoid clubbing them on their heads, to remove their bonds after breaking their arms and legs, and to leave them at the site.” The mission was carried out.[3]

I met Marc Ellis at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference center in New Mexico. After giving a lecture on the Israeli/Palestinian situation, he walked out on the porch and shed tears. I felt a little insensitive invading his thoughts but I ask him what in particular had brought the tears. He responded, “Judaism, my faith, the faith that I love, is now at the same point you Christians were in the fourth century. You had to choose between the integrity of your faith and the power of Constantine. Jews today are being forced to choose between the integrity of our faith or the power of the State of Israel. You made the wrong choice and you have never recovered. It looks like we are going to make the same mistake.”

In 1990, Ellis wrote about the testimony of Ari Shavit, a young Israeli soldiers ordered to serve in Ansar II, one of Israel’s prisons for Palestinians, reported in Ha’aretz -

Perhaps the fault lies with the screams: At the end of your watch, on the way from the showers, you hear horrible screams...from over the galvanized tin fence of the interrogation section come hair-raising human screams. I mean that literally. Hair-raising. And you of course have read the B’Tselem report...And you ask yourself, what is going on here five meters away? Is it someone being tied in the “banana” position? Or is it a simple beating? You don’t know. But you do know that from this moment forth you will have no rest. Because 50 meters from the bed where you try to sleep, 80 meters from the dining hall where you try to eat, human beings are screaming. And they are screaming because other people wearing the uniform as you are doing things to them to make them scream. They are screaming because your state, your democratic state in an institutional systematic manner — and definitely legal — your state is making them scream.” [4]

Because Israel so consistently identifies itself as a Jewish nation and insists on keeping that distinction, last year, Ellis published a book with the title, Judaism does Not Equal Israel. He bemoans the fact that, “For more Jews, self-identification with Israel is more important than religious observance.” He goes on to say, “What has been done to us, we have done to others.”[5]

From Ellis I learned about what he calls Holocaust theology and the Ecumenical Deal. If I understand him, Holocaust theology means: "We have suffered, therefore, we are innocent. We are empowered, therefore, we are entitled.” The ecumenical deal is an unspoken agreement that when Christians and Jews get together for community service and dialogue, Israel is not to be mentioned. Period. “The Israeli government is placed on a pedestal and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic.”[6]

The question is, “Can Jews justify gaining security at the expense of another people?”[7] Ellis answers: “God is present in the struggle of the poor… God is against injustice and against those who structure society in an unjust way for their own benefit…. This biblical God still stands with the world’s poor and marginalized.”[8]

If a hero is “a man who shows courage and has noble qualities,” how could Marc Ellis not be called a hero? He does both.

Thomas Are
February 4, 2011
[1] Marc Ellis, Judaism Does not Equal Israel, (The New Press, New York. 2009) p.vii.
[2] Ibid., p.37
[3] Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marc H. Ellis, Beyond Occupation, (Boston: Beacon Press. 1990), p.1.
[4].Marc Ellis, Beyond Innocence and Redemption, (Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1990,) p.73.
[5] Marc Ellis, Judaism Does not Equal Israel, (The New Press, New York. 2009) p.xi, xiv.
[6] Ibid., p.138
[7] Ibid. p.20.
[8] Ibid., p.43

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tom,

    It's funny, I was just talking with Marc Ellis a few days ago. I had a similar experience as you did, and have read many of Ellis' books.

    I am leading a peacemaking trip to Israel/Palestine this spring. Anyone you know who might be interested in coming? I can email you more about it, but an email I sent to you didn't go through.

    Craig Hunter