This article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Todd Copeland.
From teaching students about “Hitler and the Holocaust” to leading the Center for Jewish Studies, Dr. Marc Ellis plays a unique role in Baylor’s life.
DR. MARC ELLIS, DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR Jewish Studies at Baylor University, scans his students’ faces for a few seconds before making what he knows will be a puzzling statement. It’s a Thursday morning in early February, just after eleven o’clock, and the view through the window shows gray skies and rain. It’s time to get serious.
The young men and women decked out in sweatshirts and galoshes number a little more than forty. Some occupy the chairs around a long dark-wood table in the center’s conference room, located in Marrs McLean Science Building. Most have found places in chairs that line the walls and fill up the space at the back of the room. It’s a tight fit because it’s a popular class.
Finally, Ellis puts his hands together in front of his chest and says, “There is a Jew inside every one of you.”
The students look at him, mulling over this declaration and quickly sizing up their reactions. “What do you think that means?” Ellis asks. There’s a silence as he waits for a response, and then a few students venture answers. One young woman comments that we all share common traits and experiences. Another says the statement suggests the idea of God being omnipresent, in all places and all people. Ellis nods and asks for more responses.
To be sure, Ellis’s statement is an unusual one for Baylor students to hear. But the class they have signed up to take—HIS/REL 3348, “Hitler and the Holocaust”—is certainly not your standard undergraduate fare, so perhaps such a provocative statement should be expected.
In fact, the class is a series of challenging, unexpected conversations. The required reading includes such books as A History of the Holocaust: From Ideology to Annihilation and Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings, a collection of letters and diaries by a Dutch Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz. Class sessions cover everything from Hitler’s skills as a politician, genocide, and definitions of Jewishness to the ideology that empowered the Third Reich.
“What we are going through in this class should disturb you to your very bones,” Ellis tells the students. “I believe that’s the rea-son you’re at this university. You want to be challenged. You are here to find your own way. So what does it mean when I say there’s a Jew in every one of you?”
After a pause, Ellis explains that it can mean several things. He says that it suggests the sense of otherness that, at times, we pro-ject onto others and which is placed on us. He points out that Jesus and the Apostle Paul were Jews. He tells the students that we are all oppressed in one way or another—that we internalize stereo-types of others and ourselves, and some of these are similar to the stereotypes that the Nazis used.
“Saying that everyone has a Jew inside him is no different than saying that I have an African American inside me,” Ellis says. “I have a gay person inside me. I have a Christian inside me.”
And so concludes the first fifteen minutes of class, with another hour to go. Before the class is dismissed, the students and Ellis will have spent time dealing with some of the most sobering and difficult issues in modern history and religion. Perhaps the classroom should be equipped with overhead warnings that light up at appropriate moments: “Fasten Your Seatbelt. Turbulent Topics Ahead.”
Making an impact
After the class is over and the students have dispersed, Ellis explains that, aside from teaching the content of the course, his goal is to have students understand the importance of diversity.
“Everyone has his or her own beliefs,” Ellis says. “I’m just asking the students to be Jews for an hour and a half in here, to occupy a perspective that’s completely different from their normal lives.”
Many Baylor alumni may be surprised to learn that there is a Jew on the faculty of Baylor University, the largest Baptist university in the world, much less that he is asking Baylor undergrads to adopt a Jewish perspective every Tuesday and Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. And how many alumni know there is a Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor?
Ellis has been a part of the Baylor family since 1998, and the Center for Jewish Studies was founded the following year, initially as part of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies. The administration’s interest in bringing him to Baylor, Ellis says, seemed to come from a desire to demonstrate Baylor’s acknowledgment of and place within the Judeo-Christian tradition. He admits that he was never given a complete explanation for Baylor’s interest in bringing him to Waco as a professor, but he says that what some may see as a strange marriage makes perfect sense.
“People don’t expect Baylor to have a Jew on its faculty, but the fact that I am here and that the Center for Jewish Studies is here is a testament to Baylor’s spiritual and academic open-ness,” he notes. Ellis actually holds three titles at Baylor—University Professor of Jewish Studies, professor of history, and director of the Center for Jewish Studies—and the Center resides under the senior vice provost on Baylor’s organizational chart. There isn’t a major in Jewish Studies, but undergraduates and graduate students can take the center’s classes as electives within their degrees plans. The under-grads taking “Hitler and the Holocaust” come from a wide variety of majors, but international studies and history majors form a large segment of the class’s population.
The Center isn’t literally a one-man operation, but it’s close. Ellis teaches all of its courses, which range from such undergraduate offerings as the Holocaust class and “History of Modern Judaism” to graduate-level courses in Jewish philosophy and liberation the-ology. Marlene Frazier, administrative associate, keeps the Center’s office—and, Ellis confesses, sometimes his life—running smoothly. And then there are Kasia Plazinska, a student assistant from Poland, and Carol Schuetz, a reference librarian who oversees the Center’s three thousand-item library that was created in 2000.
The whole operation is tucked into a set of first-floor offices at the end of one wing of the U-shaped Marrs McLean Science Building. But even though the Center’s staff and square footage may be modest in size, colleagues say that Ellis’s and the Center’s impact on campus have been significant.
“Marc’s presence adds to the rich diversity that should be a part of the life of a great university” says Dr. Hulitt Gloer, the David E. Garland Professor of Preaching and Christian Scriptures and director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. As Christians, we must be aware of and sensitive to Jewish perspectives on the issues that both faith communities must confront, and Marc makes an invaluable contribution to such discussions.”
For his part, Ellis says the Center’s mission is to be fully integrated into the tapestry of Baylor as a place that embodies and fosters diversity. Since its inaugural conference in November 2000, the Center for Jewish Studies has hosted a number of conferences and other events on campus that emphasize diversity in world religions and ethnic communities. For ten years, the Center has sponsored an annual Holocaust Memorial Luncheon at Truett Seminary, most recently in conjunction with the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching. Its conferences have attracted a wide range of panelists and participants to Baylor on such topics as “Abraham Joshua Heschel at 100” and “Hannah Arendt in the Twenty-first Century: A Global Discourse.”
This spring the Center is organizing a major conference on the Apostle Paul, called “Reimagining Paul,” with an emphasis on exploring Paul as an apostle to the nations conquered by and ruled over by the Roman Empire. Ellis says there are plans to publish the proceedings of the conference. And next year, the Center will host a conference on Paul’s perspective on Jews and Judaism.
The impact of hosting such conferences on campus is twofold, Ellis explains. First, those on campus are exposed to prominent intellectuals who often belong to faiths other than Christianity, such as Judaism or Islam, thereby enriching the Baylor environment. Second, those visitors to campus, who discover what Baylor has to offer as an academic institution and a caring community, leave with a positive experience and go on to spread the good word about Baylor in their circles.
“The Center for Jewish Studies adds a further distinctive to a Baylor education through its rich and diverse programming,” Gloer said. “It offers the kind of programs that should be available to students in a university that seeks to be both a great teaching and a great research university. It provides opportunities for discussion of some of the most pressing issues of our time with people who are directly involved in and affected by these issues, and Marc’s contacts around the world enable him to bring scholars of international repute to Baylor. Such opportunities are an irreplaceable part of a rich and deep educational experience.”
Diversity in action
Baylor isn’t alone in having a center dedicated to Jewish Studies. Such prominent universities as Harvard, UCLA, Duke, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina have programs. What makes Baylor’s program distinctive is Ellis’s prominent involvement in issues of justice and advocacy. “For Baylor, it’s important that Jewish Studies is part of the university tapestry,” he says. But for Jewish intellectuals in America and beyond, Ellis adds, it’s important that he is at a place like Baylor that has shown a willingness to protect his voice of dissent. “A Christian university can protect dissenters in a way that secular or public universities often do not.”
Ellis has spent a career teaching classes, delivering speeches, and writing articles and books that explore and candidly answer a central question: “How can we, as Jews, contribute significantly to justice and peace in the world?” That may not sound like a particularly provocative question, but when it’s applied to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, it can become a point of major disagreement.
Though harshly characterized by some critics, Ellis’s overall perspective is considered by many to be a moderate one. He believes Israel and Palestine should live in peace and harmony, side by side, with a state for each people. But he wonders whether there’s still room for such a future since Israel has taken possession of so much of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Because of Israel’s expansion, Ellis says he worries about the ethical future of the Jewish people.
Such sentiments don’t go over well in certain circles, and indeed there are loud voices that have denounced Ellis as being anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. Ellis, in turns, says that by being pro-peace and pro-justice he is being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. “Is it right for us as Jews to be attentive to the injustice done to us but not to the injustice done to others?” he asks.
As a person writing about Jewish history and the circumstances of the Palestinians, Ellis has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to take a bold stand based on his beliefs, and he has spoken around the nation and the globe—including at the United Nations in New York and in Vienna, Austria; at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; and, most recently, in Oslo, Norway, at a conference on the fifteenth anniversary of the Oslo Accords.
He also serves on the National Advisory Board of the Middle East Council, the Editorial Board of Tikkun magazine, and the Board of the Society of Jewish Ethics.
His most recent book, Judaism Does Not Equal Israel, features a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who writes, “Marc Ellis shows that the voice of prophecy has not been silenced in the Jewish community. We will all be the poorer if Ellis’ voice is not heeded but how wonderfully enriched if it is.” In the book—the latest of more than twenty books he has written or edited—Ellis argues that the Israeli state’s policies toward the Palestinians are antithetical to achieving a lasting peace in the region and do not reflect traditional Jewish values.
Several prominent Jews have lauded Ellis’s contributions to Jewish thought and ethics, including Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. “Challenging our conventional ideas,” she has written in reviewing one of Ellis’s books, “he forces us to reconsider our assumptions regarding Jewish identity and politics. What emerges is a fascinating and original reconfiguration of some of the most body debated political and religious topics today.”
And Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and the Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy at American Jewish University, has noted of Ellis in another review, “He argues against current political policies based on Jewish vulnerability, with the Holocaust as the chief lens, and issues a prophetic call for contemporary Jews to return to the liberation theology embedded in the Exodus, seeking justice for all. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, that requires both sides to ’embrace revolutionary forgiveness’ as they find ways to come to less-than-ideal but tolerable resolutions of their conflicts, and it requires Americans living in a post-9/11 world to reevaluate their understanding of Muslims and Islam.”
Ellis’s bona fides as a prominent figure also include some colorful moments—such as his inclusion in conservative writer David Horowitz’s provocative 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Horowitz accused Ellis of supporting Marxism, Arab terrorism, and Israel’s annihilation as well as of claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax.
Ellis says he considered his inclusion on Horowitz’s “hit list” as a badge of honor—considering off-base criticism by such an ideologue to constitute a kind of praise—but he admits he was initially worried what the reaction around Baylor would be to Horowitz’s attempt to discredit him. However, he says, when he crossed paths with a few professors who were aware of the situation, they congratulated him. “I wanted to be on the list;’ one colleague said. And Ellis says his students also treated the “honor” with humor, with one asking him, “So, what number on the list were you?”
The path Ellis has traveled to end up in Waco and in the middle of the debate over the legacy of the Holocaust and the Palestinian-Israeli situation began in North Miami Beach, Florida, where he was born in 1952. His grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Europe in the early 1900s, and he remembers them speaking Yiddish to each other.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Ellis says that John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were heroes in his home and in his life.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in religion and a master’s degree in American Studies from Florida State University, where he studied under the Holocaust theologian Richard Rubenstein, Ellis traveled to Marquette University to pursue doctoral studies. He received his PhD in history in 1980 and immediately accepted a position on the faculty of the Maryknoll School of Theology in Maryknoll, New York, where he founded the Maryknoll Institute for Justice and Peace.
In 1995, Ellis moved to Harvard University, where he was a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of World Religions and then a visiting scholar in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. After a visiting professorship at Florida State, he came to Baylor in 1998, and twelve years later he remains committed to making a difference in the life of Baylor and the lives of his students.
Back in the main conference room of the Center for Jewish Stud-ies, it’s a Tuesday morning and time for class once again. The weather is still cold, at least by Texas standards, but the sky is sunny and the students seem eager to laugh at the jokes Ellis makes during the first few minutes of class.
While Ellis may be notorious in some circles, in the classroom he has a warm relationship with his students. And it’s not just because they want good grades. Ellis treats them in a way that invites mutual understanding and positive regard, students say.
“Dr. Ellis’s teaching is unlike any I have ever had in my life,” Ayla Francis, a sophomore from Humble majoring in international studies, says after class. “He allows us to know his very personal opinions and ‘confessions; as he calls them, and lets us take them as we wish.”
John Cook, a junior international studies major from Arkansas City, Kansas, says he appreciates the classroom environment Ellis creates. “The class is often an open discussion, and Dr. Ellis treats questions and even direct criticism with respect and thoughtful consideration,” he says.
If you spend just a few minutes in Ellis’s classroom, you’ll find that he has an easy rapport with the students. During his lectures, he comes across as part stand-up comic and part provocateur, making students laugh with well-delivered one-liners and then a minute later causing the classroom to become silent after posing a pointed question.
The conference room is lined with framed posters of events that the Center has sponsored and photographs of a wide range of religious figures, predominantly Jewish, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi to Martin Buber and Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. Ellis sometimes refers to them as he lectures, pointing to one and saying, “As our good friend Albert Ein-stein once said . . .”
Ellis also wins over students by being an excellent story-teller, leavening the serious and somber parts of his lectures with a variety of personal and philosophical digressions. At times, his delivery quickly shifts from a quietly posed question to a loud statement. Repeatedly, in every class session, he makes statements and asks questions designed to challenge students’ assumptions and to elicit their responses.
But beyond his personality and pedagogical style, there is the subject matter of the course itself that—like it or not—is gripping and personally challenging.
“This class has power because Dr. Ellis is Jewish and the subject of the Holocaust is unfortunately a large part of his history. But what he challenges us all with is the fact that the Holocaust and the actions leading up to and following it are, tragically, a deep part of our history as well,” Francis says.
During today’s class, Ellis uses a multimedia presentation—drawing on images in a PowerPoint slide show and going online to news websites and YouTube—as a lead-in to his lecture. For ten minutes, he walks students through a tour of photographs and videos connected by the themes of power and oppression. There’s Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—an event captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandistic movie Olympia, which drew connections between the Nazis and the Greeks—and then there’s Jessie Owens on the podium receiving his gold medal despite the Third Reich’s claims of Aryan ascendancy.
Ellis observes that despite this apparent victory over Nazis, Owens returned home to a nation that was still segregated by race. Next up is a video clip from a congressional hearing over the possible repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. Ellis notes that homosexuals were also among the groups persecuted by the Nazis. The Jews were not alone.
And this is just the warm-up, the equivalent of a set of stretches and calisthenic exercises to get ready for the real work of the class.
What follows is a discussion—following an outline on the video screen—of how Christianity grew out of the debate within Judaism of the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings and how the relationship between Judaism and Christianity evolved over the centuries before and after Christianity became the Roman Empire’s religion in the fourth century AD.
“This class can be spiritually challenging because you’re forced to confront the history of Christianity as an institution that no one wants to talk about;’ Jacque Martin, a junior history and anthropology major from Fayetteville, Georgia, says after class lets out. “Dr. Ellis doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and his open honesty provides his students with the opportunity to learn more than just the course’s material and to apply it to their lives.”
Ellis notes that many students’ parents take his class by proxy, discussing the lectures and reading the books with their children. It’s a difficult class to process, he says, and parents are often concerned about how their sons and daughters will handle the material. Ellis welcomes their participation. In fact, he usually has a “Parents Day,” with class time devoted to answering questions posed by the students’ mothers and fathers.
“I routinely invite interested parents to visit with their Baylor students;’ Ellis says. “It’s a learning experience for all of us.”
Ellis believes the challenging aspects of the “Hitler and the Holocaust” class are central to the enterprise of the Center for Jewish Studies—fostering empathy and championing diversity. His students seem to be getting the message loud and clear.
“The Center gives voice to alternative perspectives on faith and religious studies on Baylor’s campus and even actively promotes diversity of opinion within its own ranks,” Cook, the junior inter-national studies major, says.
Ellis tells the students that he is comfortable at Baylor—that he feels he belongs. “A Christian university is one that should welcome all people, Christians and non-Christians alike;’ he says. At 12:15 p.m., class is dismissed with a reminder that essays are due the following Thursday. The students leave the room, taking turns passing through the doorway and checking their phones for text messages. They have, at least for an hour, seen the world through other eyes. And they walk away carrying new perspectives within themselves.
Todd Copeland is editor of the Baylor Line.