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Comment II
Last Updated: 02/09/2011
The Jewish Crisis: Notes from a Jewish Theology of Liberation During the Uprising in Egypt
Marc H. Ellis

Professor Marc Ellis discusses the recent unrest in Egypt (and across the Arab world) in light of Jewish history, the creation of Israel, and the Jewish Theology of Liberation.


As I write, we in are the midst of another Middle East crisis – this time Egypt, following upon Tunisia. Where the crisis will end and what it means for the future is unknown. The unfolding events may be significant. They may be filed away as a footnote. The powers of the world are so invested in the region that any change will have to go through them or at least it will be managed and modified by them. Them being the United States, Europe, Russia, perhaps China, with India in the background. Not to leave out Israel which, while comparatively diminutive, nonetheless is a mini-empire in the region. Part of Israel’s outsized influence is found in its connection to the American empire. Israel is also of concern to Europe, whose historic killing fields are extensive, including the still recent memory of the Jewish killing fields – the Holocaust.

Thinking about liberation theologies in the 21st century, is there any way to avoid this history and the assumption of Jewish power after? The many millions of Egypt who hunger for freedom and democracy are being held hostage to oil, sea lanes and trade, the living vestiges of Orientalism and racism coming from the West, the internal colonial/imperial forces within the Arab world and a myriad of other factors – including a certain reading of Jewish history.

What does a Jewish theology of liberation say about the part that Jews, the Holocaust and the state of Israel have to play in this unfolding drama and the Middle East crisis, of which Egypt is only the latest example?

At first glance, the relationship of a Jewish theology of liberation and the question of the Middle East seem unrelated, too tenuous to make a real connection. But if you look at the development of a Jewish theology of liberation in the 1980s, the connection is easier to imagine. In the civil wars in Central America in 1980s, America was involved, as was the Soviet Union - and Israel too. In Central America, Israel was a surrogate for the United States, arming right-wing governments and training their forces. This was true in South Africa as well. In the 1980s, Israel emerged on the world scene as a major arms supplier and trainer of dictatorships and their armed forces, just as it was invading Lebanon and crushing the first Palestinian uprising.

During this time, Israel found protection from its largest and most sophisticated foe, Egypt. In 1978, the Camp David Accords were negotiated and there started the cold peace between Israel and Egypt that Hosni Mubarak has kept so fastidiously and which, curiously, is so much part of the debate about his and Egypt’s future. Surely, foreign relations is important for any country but to think of Egypt’s fate as a dictatorship or democracy primarily in foreign rather than domestic terms is unusual to say the least.

That is where we are. Of course, this also means that Palestinians are held hostage to the dictatorship in Egypt and to its relations to Israel. Despite its anxiety, Israel seems to be riding high here. Yet another hostage taking is in view – that of the Jewish people and indeed Jewish history. Have we Jews, after our long, complex, beautiful and harrowing journey come to the point where dictatorship in one country – or indeed throughout the Arab world - is preferred to movements for democracy? Many Jews have concluded that what is good for us as Jews, at least in the United States, is wrong for others in the Middle East or, if we’re honest, just about everywhere. Many Jews have concluded that our safety is better served by tyrants.

Real politik, for sure, if our security through tyranny is so served, but then most everything else in the Jewish tradition – including the Jewish intellectual and ethical tradition - is sacrificed on tyranny’s altar. So while Israel is busy offering every kind of help to the Mubarak regime and to anyone else who will continue his rule, the dark night of Jewish life continues. This time the dark night comes from our own hands rather than the hands of others. Which makes it worse, I would think, but you wouldn’t know that from the Jewish establishment voices in Israel and America. The possibility of a democracy in Egypt has them trembling with fear.

Obviously racism plays its role here. From the established Jewish viewpoint, Arabs – whether in Egypt or Palestine – are unworthy of democracy. The reason is that Arabs are – uneducated, unable to think ethically, have a backward religion. There is more to add for sure. Endless additions.

Yes, there are Jews speaking up and out, Jews of Conscience, who have been battling the Constantinian Judaism that has overtaken Jewish history. This is just the latest skirmish in the “Jewish Crisis” – what amounts to a civil war between Jews of Conscience and Constantinian Jews about the future of the Jewish people.

Every once in a while this civil war crystallizes as to what is at stake in the Jewish Crisis. As in any civil war, a particular event, in this case Egypt, symbolizes something more significant. Perhaps coincidentally but, on the other hand, hardly so, Egypt as the crisis point today raises the question of Egypt as the liberation point in the history of ancient Israel. Because, then, the land was just a far way promise, for many Israelites a pie in the sky narration of hope deferred. Now, Jews have returned to the place where once the promise was fulfilled. The state of Israel rules as it did before. Shall its fate be the same?

In the time of ancient Israel’s power, where the heated discussion of the day was whether the people Israel should have an earthly king, the ramifications of which God warned would be ruinous, there rose the prophets, the Jews of Conscience of the time. Translated into the vernacular of the modern world, the prophet’s message was more or less this: create a situation of injustice and the God of Israel, the God of your liberation, will flee the scene and leave you to make it in the world on your own; or, stated differently, create a situation of injustice and everything that I, God, have promised and that you have accepted as our destiny in the world will be forfeited. To avoid this fate, repent, turn and start again. The Hebrew Bible speaks this message, then shouts it, in verse, stanza, chapter and book. Most often Israel didn’t turn. Read what happened. Warning: The content is not for children.

Such a turning won’t happen today, either.

We live in the Golden Age of Constantinian Judaism. Make way for our Jewish royalty! Indeed, royalty is powerful when everything is going its way. When things get rough it is a very lonely place to be. Royalty hobnobs with other royalty, the only game in town. It is no mistake that Israel’s royalty, including the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, is trying to save Egyptian royalty. How else can Israel and Egypt dance together? It takes two to tango.

Like other emperors, we now know that Hosni Mubarak has no clothes. How long will it be before Constantinian Judaism is found wandering outside the palace, naked, calling other royalty to bail themselves out, as they have bailed out others. One emperor’s hand washes the hand of other emperors. Israel’s emperors need Hosni Mubarak. Or whomever will fill the palace next.

Those childhood memories I have of Bible stories with prominent illustrations, outsized books – pre-internet! – with drawings of Moses and Aaron addressing Pharaoh, then leaving the palace, emboldened and yet uncertain. Yes, Moses and Aaron, anxious about whether God’s power would do the job and how, if it would, anxious about how the Israelite slaves might actually fare on their own without the oppression and inverted security of empire.

Passover isn’t far away, either. April this year. Showdown days. Where will the Israeli and Egyptian royalty be then? Only time will tell.

Strange days. Mixture of the ancient and the present. Crisis in the Middle East. The Jewish Crisis. Then and now.

Marc H. Ellis is University Professor and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation and Judaism Does Not Equal Israel. His latest book, Encountering the Jewish Future, will be published in the coming months.

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