The Holocaust Historiography Project


Jewish writer grapples with ethical dilemma of the Holocaust and Zionism

  • BEYOND INNOCENCE AND REDEMPTION: Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power, by Marc H. Ellis. New York: Harper & Row (Harper Collins), 1990. Softcover. 205 pages. Bibliography. Endnotes. Index. $13.00. ISBN: 0 06 062215 6.

Reviewed by Robert Countess

Many years before the recent, dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist ideology on which it was based had already proven itself to be an obvious failure. Even after the Marxist-Leninist ideology had clearly shown itself unable to live up to its lofty promises, the Soviet regime was still able to hobble along for several decades.

Something very similar appears to be happening in the case of Israel and its operating ideology, Zionism.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and other prominent Zionist thinkers believed that Jewish nationalism (Zionism) would transform the Jews into a “normal” people. For centuries, Herzl argued, Jews had lived as a minority people among non-Jewish host populations. This situation inevitably gave rise to and encouraged anti-Jewish sentiment ("anti-Semitism"). Zionism would change all that, Herzl insisted. When Jews live as “normal” people in a country of their own, the basis for anti-Semitism would finally disappear.

It hasn’t worked out that way. The great majority of Jews around the world continue to live outside Israel as a highly self-conscious minority among non-Jews. Even in Israel itself, many Jews — perhaps a majority — would prefer to live elsewhere.

Far from being the “normal” country envisioned by Zionist visionaries like Herzl, Israel depends for its very existence on massive transfusions of hard cash from American taxpayers. To insure that the generous flow of money never stops, Jews outside of Israel are obliged to lobby and agitate tirelessly on behalf of “their” country. Not surprisingly, this process provides a basis (or pretext) for the ancient charge of “dual loyalty.”

For many centuries, the “glue” that has held together the widely dispersed Jewish people has been traditional religious Judaism. During this past century, though — and especially in the wake of the traumatic Holocaust cataclysm of the Second World War and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 — all that has changed.

As Marc Ellis, a bright young Jewish scholar, persuasively argues in this insightful and provocative book, a pseudo-religious mythos centered upon the Holocaust and an increasingly brutal and suppressive Israel state have now firmly replaced the Jewish religion as the binding force that unites Jews everywhere.

This new situation, Ellis goes on to emphasize, has had the most profound consequences for the Jewish people, and for the perpetually difficult relationship between Jews and non-Jews.

Ellis, who is Director of the Justice and Peace Program at the Catholic Maryknoll College in New York, unflinchingly tries to come to terms with the implications of the grim reality of Israel, and with the Holocaust religion that is used to justify the Zionist state and excuse its increasingly inhumane policies.

In this revisionist, and even iconoclastic, work, Ellis also criticizes some of the most important religious presuppositions that “Holocaust theologians” bring with then when they weave historical events into their religious dogmas.

While readers not well-grounded in religion and philosophy may find this book somewhat difficult, thoughtful readers will appreciate its incisive critique and irenic spirit.

Not long ago, British historian David Irving boldly predicted that Israel would not survive another ten years, and that the world would witness a mass emigration of Jews back to Europe. To the casual observer, such a prediction may seem fantastic, if not absurd. After all, Israel is one of the most important military powers in the world today, armed even with devastating nuclear weapons. Support from diaspora Jews (that is, outside of Israel), particularly in the United States, remains powerful. Prodded by the mighty Israel-first lobby, the American government continues to give billions of taxpayer dollars annually to the Jewish state. These are hardly the traits of a country with less than ten years to live.

And yet, major cracks in the Israeli edifice can no longer be covered up. In spite of the loud and ceaseless expressions of verbal support for Zionism and Israel, few Jews around the world are willing to actually move to Israel and live there. Instead, they prefer to encourage others to do so. Even many Israeli Jews — perhaps even a majority — would, if given the opportunity, promptly leave the country and move to United States or Europe. Envisioned as a bastion of security, Jews in Israel are actually less secure than Jews living almost anywhere else.

Like Irving, the author of this book is pessimistic about Israel’s future. Its days are numbered, Ellis believes, unless Israelis and Jews make radical changes very soon (something that he does not regard as likely).

Ellis focuses here on what he regards as the fatal moral bankruptcy of present-day Israel and Zionism. Committed to the heritage of humanistic Judaism, Professor Ellis feels obliged to condemn Israeli violations of universal principles of justice, particularly in its often brutal treatment of the native Palestinian people. In his view, the massive injustice of Israel’s seemingly endless maltreatment of Palestinians is squandering the moral authority that is essential for the long-term survival of the Jewish state.

Last February 29th, this reviewer participated with Ellis at a discussion in Birmingham, Alabama, that included Jews, Muslims and Christians (among them Palestinians). I was impressed, even spellbound, as Ellis thoughtfully and persuasively presented his views. Authoritatively citing Jewish religious and historical sources, he argued that Israel’s very existence is inextricably bound up with its treatment of the Palestinians.

As he puts it in Beyond Innocence and Redemption (p. 157):

The Palestinians have been done a great historical wrong by the Jewish people. The only way forward, it seems, is a solidarity with the Palestinian people that is at the same time confessional and political. Could we say that the task of Jewish theology is to lay the groundwork for solidarity with the Palestinian people and that any theology that does not pose that as the central question is a theology that legitimates torture and murder? To carry out this task means first of all that Jewish self-perception needs to be radically altered and the framework of discussion drastically reoriented … A new Jewish self-understanding needs to be created.

This is not likely to take place, Ellis argues, because [Jewish] “mainstream theologians” and “Holocaust theologians … pretend the Palestinians do not exist.” He is therefore pessimistic about the future of the Zionist state. “Israel is a dream that cannot last,” he concludes, a verdict that could almost serve as a subtitle for this book. (pp. 158, 162)

Defining the Problem

As Ellis explains in the introduction, this book is above all “a call to Jewish moral and religious thinkers” to “speak before it is too late.” As he points out, not a single major Jewish theologian has come to grips with the foreboding realities of Israel and Zionism that are now obvious to most of the rest of the world. And unless Jews quickly come to grips with these realities, which have the most profound moral implications, Ellis believes that the Zionist state is doomed. These realities are (p. xv):

What Jews have done to the Palestinians since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 is wrong.

In the process of conquering and displacing the Palestinian people, Jews have done what has been done to us over two millennia.

In this process Jews have become almost everything we loathe about our oppressors.

It is only in the confrontation with state power in Israel that Jews can move beyond being victim or oppressor.

The movement beyond victimization and oppression can only come through a solidarity with those whom we as Jews have displaced — the Palestinian people.

Implicit in this call, Ellis goes on, is a deeper metaphysical-religious question: “What is the essential mission of the Jewish people?” Is it simply to “build Israel as an exclusive Jewish state"?

Because of the well-documented record of mistreatment — including torture and murder — of the Palestinian people, Ellis argues, Jews can no longer “pretend to an innocence,” and warns that “the day of reckoning will come.” The only way to minimize, delay, “or better” avoid that day, he argues, is through a soul-searching, confessional act of Israeli redemption.

In the introduction to Beyond Innocence and Redemption, Ellis expresses the fear that, because of this book, he will be accused of “betraying one’s own people.” He understands the danger of being denounced as a “self-hating Jew,” in the same way that other prominent Jewish critics of Israel and Zionism — such as Noam Chomsky, Israel Shahak, and Alfred Lilienthal — have been. (By the same token, any non-Jew who expresses views similar to those presented here by Ellis runs the very real danger of being castigated as anti-Semitic — or worse.)

'The Birth of Holocaust Theology'

Probably the most provocative portion of Ellis' book is its audacious analysis of what the author calls “Holocaust theology.” While accepting the orthodox Six Million extermination story — apparently without reservation — Ellis writes (p. 30):

Holocaust theology, like almost any community theology, revolves around the community to which it is addressed. But recognizing self-interest and self-expression as given, Holocaust theology seems to encourage self-absorption, almost to the exclusion of others. For example, Christians are present in Holocaust theology in reference to the events of Holocaust and Israel. Judgment on Christian faith and activity involves their resistance to, passivity in, or active complicity with the Holocaust and their support or nonsupport of Israel. Palestinians hardly exist at all; if they do exist, it is as a mass of people threatening the survival of the Jewish people.

This new “Holocaust theology” is, interestingly, a “theology” without a “theos” (Greek word for God). (This reviewer recalls that the rabbi of a local synagogue once asserted that whereas an atheist Jew would be acceptable as synagogue president, a “messianic Jew” of the “Jews-for Jesus” type would never be.)

A recurring theme in the message of the most prominent Holocaust theologians — whom Ellis identifies as Elie Wiesel, Emil Fackenheim, and Rabbi Irving Greenberg — is “the total innocence of the Jewish people” in the Holocaust. Moreover, they regard the Israel-Arab ("Six Day") war of 1967 as “a miracle,” and the Palestinians as symbolic successors of the Nazis who work to fulfill Hitler’s satanic dream of wiping out the Jews. (p. 3)

As Ellis sees it, the great question that has arisen since Israel’s stunning and empowering victory in the 1967 war is this: Should the Zionist state be judged by the same standards we routinely apply to other states? Ellis argues that the only honest and ethical answer must obviously be an affirmative one. Unfortunately, he points out, Holocaust theologians take a very different view. They make no effort critically to examine the history of Zionism or of Israeli state policy (p. 5).

“Memory as Burden and Possibility: Alternative Views of Holocaust and Israel”

In somewhat the same way that Hitler and other German leaders spoke of the Germans as a Volk (nation or people), so also do Zionist leaders and Holocaust theologians ceaselessly speak of “the Jewish people,” with a strong inference of chosenness and even superiority.

Calling this entire outlook into question, in the second chapter Ellis quotes approvingly from an audacious essay by Jewish social critic and novelist Phillip Lopate. (Ellis, pp. 33, 196. From: P. Lopate, “Resistance to the Holocaust,” Tikkun, May/June 1989.)

While growing up, Lopate recalls, he heard a lot about concentration camps, gas chambers and the Six Million. The term Holocaust — which did not come into common use until the mid-1960s — has a self-important and almost vulgar tone. He provocatively comments:

… One instantly saw that the term was part of a polemic and that it sounded more comfortable in certain speakers' mouths than in others; the Holocaustians used it like a club to smash back their opponents … In my own mind I continue to distinguish, ever so slightly, between the disaster visited on the Jews and “the Holocaust.” Sometimes it almost seems that “the Holocaust” is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the Arts and leisure section of the Sunday [New York] Times.

The Hitler/Holocaust analogy deadends all intelligent discourse by intruding a stridently shrill note that forces the mind to withdraw. To challenge the demagogic minefield of pure self-righteousness from an ironic distance almost ensures being misunderstood. The image of the Holocaust is too overbearing, too hot to tolerate distinctions. In its life as a rhetorical figure, the Holocaust is a bully.

A good deal of suspicion and touchiness resides around the issue of maintaining the Holocaust’s privileged status in the pantheon of genocides. It is not enough that the Holocaust was dreadful; it must be seen as uniquely dreadful.

Ellis praises Lopate for his rejection of idolatry insofar as the Holocaust, or the use of it, becomes crystallized, untouchable, almost a God. What suffers, of course, when everything is reduced to the Holocaust or analogous to the Holocaust, is the ability to think through the issues that confront the Jewish people.

The Holocaust (or, better, the Holocaust campaign) is becoming a kind of politicized Jewish kitsch, Ellis goes on to suggest. In the view of Avishai Margalit, a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University whom Ellis quotes approvingly, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial has become an element of state kitsch, and Elie Wiesel is “a kitschman of genius.”

The Yad Vashem memorial, writes Margalit (p. 34), is

meant to deliver a message to the visiting foreign statesman, who is rushed to Yad Vashem even before he has had time to leave off his luggage at his hotel … Talking of the PLO in the same tone as one talks of Auschwitz is an important element in turning the Holocaust into kitsch … Against the weapon of the Holocaust, the Palestinians are amateurs.

Ellis concurs: “Increasingly in Israel, the Holocaust is seen … as an event that is consciously manipulated by the state and its leadership.” (p. 34 )

In the view of Boas Evron, another Israeli writer and commentator cited by Ellis, there is a great danger for Jews and Israel in the way that a factual, historical presentation of the fate of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War has been “rejected for an ahistorical view summarized in the word Holocaust.

As Ellis puts it: “The term Holocaust is rhetorical and ambiguous; it exists without historical reference and thus has become indefinite and movable, almost exempting one from understanding it.” (p. 35)

Jews around the world welcomed the “Jewish monopolization” of the Holocaust, Evron writes, because it strengthened German consciousness of guilt, thus increasing German financial compensation to survivors, and because it permitted the mobilization of public opinion around the world for moral, political, military and financial support for Israel. This policy of Holocaust mobilization “became a blueprint for relations with most Western Christian states, especially the United States; they were to support Israel on the basis of guilt rather than self-interest.” (p. 36)

Thus, Israel survives by means of the “six million credit” and, likewise, the American Jewish community is powerfully organized and policed by it. (p. 36)

As Evron points out, this policy has had profound ramifications. It has contravened the Zionist goal of normalizing relations between Jew and non-Jew. It has turned Israel into a permanent beggar country, reduced to surviving on the “six million credit,” instead of, like any other country, on developing its own energy and skills.

Paraphrasing Evron, Ellis writes:

The Holocaust can also be used as a powerful tool by Israeli and Jewish leadership in the United States to organize and police the Jewish community. Diaspora Jews, for example, are made to feel guilty for not having done enough to prevent the Holocaust.

Evron does not believe that this policy can succeed in the long run. Again paraphrasing Evron, Ellis writes that Israeli and Jewish leaders

threaten to become victims of their own propaganda. They draw on a bank account continuously reduced by withdrawals. As the world moves on there are fewer who remember the Holocaust, and those who do, including the Jews, become tired of it as a nuisance and a reflection of a reality that does not exist.

Ellis cites the provocative work of Jewish author Richard Rubenstein, who “relativizes” the Holocaust by insistently looking at it in the larger context of twentieth century history. For Rubenstein, the Jewish Holocaust is not an exceptional or unique event, but rather a paradigm, “an expression of some of the most significant moral, religious and demographic tendencies of Western civilization in the twentieth century.” (p. 41)

Ellis takes his iconoclastic examination even further by forthrightly questioning “still another almost sacred assumption, that of the relationship of the Holocaust to the state of Israel.” Since Zionism predated the Nazi era by some four decades, the grand assumption on the part of many historical persons that Israel’s existence was conditional on the catastrophe of the Holocaust must be called into question. (p. 42)

Ellis cites several thoughtful Jews who clearly foresaw the very serious problems inherent in narrow Zionist nationalism and a Zionist-Jewish takeover of Palestine.

Hannah Arendt, for one, opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine (although she supported a “Jewish homeland” there, in the spirit of the Balfour Declaration). A Jewish state, she believed, would be a degeneration into a warlike state led by political terrorists. For Arendt, the building of a Jewish homeland “must never be sacrificed to the pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state.” (pp. 52 f.)

Jewish writers like Arendt, Ellis maintains, were “committed and generous” in their analysis. Their fear that an Israeli state would become another Jewish ghetto — rather than a final renunciation of the ghetto — has been borne out by events. Jewish spokesmen like Fackenheim, Wiesel, and Greenberg have lost, at least publicly, the ability to enunciate dissenting ideas about the State of Israel.

'A Tradition of Dissent'

Ellis echoes the concerns voiced over the years by other perceptive Jewish thinkers who have warned — so far with very little success — about the portent of disaster inherent in Zionist-Israeli policies. Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, for example, warned in 1961 that Israel’s racist policies were suicidal: “Only an internal revolution can have the power to heal our people of their murderous sickness of causeless hatred.”

Jewish author Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht wrote that “Judaism survived centuries of persecution without a state; it must now learn to survive despite a state.” (p. 56.) Howard Greenstein praised liberal Reform Judaism for its ecumenical stance wherein Jews could be at home anywhere in the world. He viewed Zionism as the antithesis of this movement. Rabbi Elmer Berger and a handful of others diligently carried on in this same spirit. By the 1950s, though, this current of anti-Zionist dissent in Reform Judaism had been all but drowned out in the almost universal Jewish enthusiasm for Zionism.

Ellis devotes considerable attention to the shameful record of Zionist treatment of the Palestinians, who were dispossessed to make way for Israel. This grim record must be acknowledged and confronted, Ellis warns. If it is ignored, Jews stand to lose their moral bearings.

Ellis cites the words of the courageous William Zuckerman, who condemned the Israeli transfer of Palestinians after 1948. He wrote: “In what way does an 'Arab-rein' [Zionist] state differ from a 'Juden-rein' [German] state?” In April 1948, when Zionist terrorists massacred more than 200 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin, the Jewish government-to-be condemned the slaughter. Five years later, when the Israeli army committed a similar atrocity, the government muted the crime. (p. 63)

After the 1967 war, Noam Chomsky became a much vilified critic of Israeli aggression and atrocities. He argued that a plausible case could be made by both Jews and Palestinians for a valid claim to the disputed land. Chomsky envisioned a democratic socialist Palestine, in which both Jews and Palestinians would each benefit from a “law of return.” (pp. 65 f.)

In Ellis' view, the zenith of Israeli power and the impact of Holocaust theology was the 1967-1982 period. The situation has changed quite a lot since then. Particularly in the aftermath of Israel’s aggressive invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Jewish state has lost its “innocence.”

“Holocaust theology carries within itself the seeds of its own demise,” Ellis argues, because it is unable to come to grips with an powerful Israel that is judged by the same moral standards we apply to every other state. (p. 73).

Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote (p. 74):

Beyond any issue in recent years, American Jews are traumatized by events in Israel. This is the downside of the euphoric mood after the Six-Day War, when we felt ten feet tall. Now, suffering under the shame and stress of pictures of Israeli brutality televised nightly, we want to crawl into a hole. This is the price we pay for having made of Israel an icon — a surrogate faith, surrogate synagogue, surrogate God.

Ellis castigates Elie Wiesel for his silence about Israeli atrocities during the 1982 Lebanon war. When he did finally speak out, months later, he saw fit to condemn only those “vicious minds who dare to compare the state of Israel to Nazi Germany.” When Wiesel later met with some Palestinians, he seemed to be only slightly moved with compassion for their persecution. “A realistic solution — Israeli security and Palestinian self-determination — escapes him,” writes Ellis.

Ellis cites the extraordinary work of Israel Shahak, a courageous and outspoken critic of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. After surviving internment during the war in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Shahak made his way to Israel, where he worked for many years as a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University, and served as chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights.

Referring to his published collection of eyewitness testimony and articles in Israel’s Hebrew-language press on the brutality of the Zionist occupation (p. 85), Shahak comments:

It should be clear to everybody who reads this collection of testimonies, that the systematic use of the atrocities, which in their intensity and the special intention to humiliate are Nazi-like and should be compared to the analogous German Nazi methods, is intentional and in fact constitutes the Israeli method for ruling the Palestinians. There cannot be any doubt in my opinion that those Nazi-like methods, in whose effectiveness the stupid Israeli Army top command reposes a blind faith, have been devised by “experts,” in this case by the Israeli “Arabists” … together with the military psychologists. There should be also no doubt that those Nazi-like horrors can and probably will become worse, if not stopped from outside, and their use can lead to actual genocide, whether by a “transfer” [forcible mass expulsion] or by an extermination. Indeed, this is one of my reasons for assembling this collection: to show that the actual genocide of the Palestinians in the territories is now possible …

As Ellis notes, Israeli treatment of Palestinians includes bringing naked prisoners to open fields for “death parades,” tying suspects to electricity poles for hours and harassing them with guard dogs, and the “almost standard” practice of beating fathers in the presence of their children. (p. 85)

'Toward an Inclusive Liturgy of Destruction'

Over the centuries, a divine Jewish liturgy has developed, one that governs the mindset of the Jewish cults. It is comprised of: 1) the sacred center (the burned Temple in 70 A.D.), 2) the sacred person (the death of martyrs), and, 3) the destruction of the holy community (the pogrom). To this has more recently been added: 4) Yom Hashoah (the Day of Holocaust). (pp. 94 f.)

Palestinians are now calling “the Jewish community to account,” Ellis reports. A “Palestinian theology of Liberation” has developed among some Palestinian Christian theologians. It challenges Christians in the USA and Europe — who always seem to have bottomless compassion for Jewish persecution — to show a consistent comparable compassion for their fellow Christian Palestinians (as well as with a critical reflection of their enormous power and its consequences).

For their part, Ellis goes on, Jews must admit that they have wronged the Palestinians and that this mistreatment stems from Jewish arrogance and moral superiority. “Jews are becoming everything they protested against.” (pp. 125, 129, 131, 132)

'Holocaust, Israel, and Christian Renewal'

In recent decades, Christians have joined Jews in an ecumenical partnership. At the same time, Ellis warns, Christians have thereby become “silent partners to Israeli policy and formed a barrier to an honest critique of the Middle East situation.” (p. 134)

Robert McAfee Brown, a prominent American Christian theologian well-known for his marked sensitivity to Jewish concerns, focuses on the problem of Israel as seeming to be special but also to be criticized when its behavior is like that of other nations. Noting that the Torah requires hospitality to the stranger “within the gates,” Brown rhetorically asks why Jews cannot show such concern for the Palestinians. (p. 145)

In their book Wrath of Jonah (1989), Christian writers Rosemary and Herman Ruether take on the difficult task of commenting forthrightly about Jewish power while simultaneously trying to avoid being labeled anti-Jewish.

Ellis praises the Ruethers for their “honesty shorn of religious and political mystification.” They call “us” [Jews] to an intriguing and dangerous path, writes Ellis, because Jews and Israel need to move “beyond innocence and redemption.” He asks: “Can there be mutual conversions of Jew, Christian, and Palestinian toward one another?” (p. 155)

'Beyond Innocence and Redemption'

In the view of Jewish writer Roberta Feuerlicht, “Zionists executed the psychological coup of the century by taking Palestine from the Arabs and then pretending [that] Jews were Arab victims.” (p. 158)

Not long after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Dan Shomron reportedly declared that the only ways to successfully bring an end to the uprising were “transfer, starvation or physical extermination.” (p. 156)

Ellis asks if there is a path for Jewish people that is not so self-involved as to become idolatrous: “One of the major problems that both Holocaust and neo-orthodox theology share in different ways is a self-defeating self-involvement — a preoccupation, as it were — with being authentically Jewish.” (p. 163).

Elie Wiesel may very well hold the title as the most fanatically obsessed Jewish writer. In his essay, “To Be a Jew,” Wiesel declares that “Whatever he chooses to do, the Jew becomes a spokesman for all Jews, dead and yet to be born, for all beings who live through him and inside him.” (p. 163).

Ellis writes of “the strained arguments, the twisted logic, the shrill voices” of Jews struggling with the fact that “the Holocaust is of course finished and waiting to be interpreted.”


Ellis concludes his book with some challenging remarks. Jews today, he writes, are “confused” about the essential issues, most of all because they accept “the myth of Israel’s weakness.” Jews must now “choose a new direction” — one that leads away from Jewish pride and power, and which leads to confession and humility. A new “solidarity with the Palestinian people,” declares Ellis, must be at the starting point of a redemptive Jewish transformation. (p. 190)

Israel’s empowerment threatens the very foundations of Judaism, argues Ellis. (This recalls the immortal words of Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.")

Ellis calls for open debate, strong dissent, and the relativizing of dogmatics. He anticipates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Israel in 1998 as “a forbidding challenge.” Will it see a furthering of expansion of Jewish settlements at the expense of the basic humanity of the Palestinians? Will it see further military adventurism? He insists upon confrontation with Zionism and Holocaust theology as the only way to faithfulness in the Jewish tradition.

In the final pages of his book, Ellis writes:

The task before us to confront that which threatens the foundations of Jewishness, drawing strength from the tradition of dissent and raising up the liturgy of destruction to include both those who persecuted us and those whom Jews persecute today. This is the avenue to critical thought and activity that moves beyond innocence and redemption to recover the ethical tradition at the heart of Judaism.

“What is at stake,” he concludes, “is everything Jews have stood for, struggled for, and suffered for.”

Well and good. But in spite of pretensions to moral consistency, Ellis' analysis is far from perfect.

While he concludes his book with a forthright and admirable call for “a confrontation with state power and the legitimizing force of that power — Zionism and Holocaust theology,” Ellis stops short of fully confronting the ideology of Zionism itself, or of asking skeptical questions about the reality of “the Holocaust.”

Ellis seems to suggest that Jews were first faced with an acute moral dilemma about Israel and Zionism in the aftermath of the 1967 war — in which Israel’s military forces quickly vanquished larger Arab armies and seized large tracts of Arab land — or perhaps in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

But as Jewish historian Alfred Lilienthal has convincingly established (particularly in The Zionist Connection), the Zionist “original sin” predates these pivotal events by many years. Long before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, Zionist leaders were insisting that the supranational “Jewish people” had a special destiny and mission. This dubious notion has always been fraught with great peril because it implies that Jews will not and must not be accepted as equal citizens anywhere except in a Zionist state of their own.

Moreover, Zionist contempt for the legitimate rights and concerns of native Palestinians predated the 1967 war, and even the founding of the Israeli state.

Zionism is based on the arrogant notion that people whose ancestors had not lived in the Middle East for centuries (if ever) somehow have a greater right to Palestine than the native people whose forefathers had been living there without interruption for centuries. On the face of it, this view is morally bankrupt.

By what right do Jews have to live in the Middle East at all? Does Ellis accept the notion that the Bible gives Jews the right to disposes the native Palestinians? If not, is he willing to accept that Zionist immigration to Palestine in the years between the two world wars (which the British rulers encouraged, or at least tolerated) was wrong? And just how realistic is Ellis' proposed “democratic” Palestinian state, in which Jews and Arabs would live together as equals? In light of the failure of arguably more promising multi-ethnic experiments — such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union — Ellis' vision seems far-fetched and even naive.

And just how real and significant is the Jewish “ethical tradition” that Ellis and other dissident Jewish writers like to cite? Clearly it has not been important enough to stop or even measurably slow down the full-throttle effort of world Jewry on behalf of Israel, or the campaign that Jewish historian Alfred Lilienthal has rightly called “Holocaustomania.”

All in all, though, this is a important and valuable work. Marc Ellis deserves praise for courageously raising highly important questions, for challenging sacred taboos, and for offering some very helpful — if perhaps unrealistic — solutions.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 215-229.