This is part four of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Polonium – lethal stuff – and the New York Times reports that it was found on Yasser Arafat’s clothing. “Death by poison” rumors have been around since his Arafat’s death in 2004. I assumed them to be true. Now, Palestinian leadership wants a full investigation. The conjecture is that Israel is the culprit. No doubt, Israel played its hand, as it often does, but there exists a history of collusion between the contesting parties. When I think through Arafat’s death using a cost benefit analysis, I arrive in some (un)expected places. How about you?
Arafat didn’t know when to let go. Or he knew that letting go would mean his death. Either way it seems at some point there was no way out. Holding on to power is a full-time job. As we have seen recently, it doesn’t always end well.
The blogosphere is filled with post-mortems on the Presbyterian divestment vote. It’s humorous to read the anti-divestment pleas provided by Progressive Jews as – get this – providing fodder for anti-Semitism. I suppose we are to take from that Jews who support divestment are pandering to the anti-Semites, an old canard that Empire Jews trot out to delegitimize Progressive Jews. Which, in turn, Progressive Jews then trot out to delegitimize those to the left of them. Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in a never-ending Jewish Wheel of Fortune; the wheel spins, the letters are turned, then if I win – or lose – I return the next day for another round.
Shortly after Arafat’s death the issue of his burial site was bantered about. Jerusalem was his preference, an obvious symbolic claim on Palestine, which Israel, of course, rejected as an obvious claim on Israel. The entire back and forth struck me in turn as demeaning and absurd. Then one night an idea struck me with particular force. It came to me in a dream which I awakened from with a jolt. A phrase ran through my mind: “Bury Arafat and Sharon together.”
I wondered what this could possibly mean. Then it came to me. Why not bury Arafat in Jerusalem with his arch enemy, then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon? Since they were so co-dependent that it was impossible for either to be understood without the other, they should be buried as they had lived – side by side. But then I thought – why stop there. Why not bury all of Israel’s and Palestine’s leaders together? They lived through each other, needed one another in war and peace, were visionary and corrupt together, sometimes opposed and collaborated with one another, let them rest in peace – together.
Now I wonder if the various sides of the divestment debate should be buried together too. Our final resting place is the end of our commitments and our stupidities. Knowing that we will spend eternity in adjoining plots perhaps our attitudes would be adjusted. With this knowledge about our final resting place, would we be more just and conciliatory during our lives?
I return to yesterday’s concluding image of South Africa in the mirror. A haunting image of what Jews have become. And what Jews could be again. Though often invoked in simplistic terms, South Africa is a complex image when viewed through the lens of Jewish history.
Last year I traveled to South Africa with my son, Aaron, to attend a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kairos Document. Written during the struggle against apartheid, the document signified an important break in South African Christianity. You see many white South African Christians saw apartheid as a Christian system. Yes it was understood that way, more or less like the slave system in the United States was or the hunger for the return of a White Christian America today. This understanding was rejected by the authors of the Kairos Document. They saw apartheid as a system of deprivation, violence and systemic injustice. The Christians of the Kairos Document named apartheid as a Christian heresy. The only way forward for Christians was to dismantle apartheid. It became part of their Christian mission.
That was then. Pervading the celebratory conference was a sense of sadness, of promises unfulfilled. The new South Africa had its own problems, mostly class and power issues rather than racial ones. Many at the conference had struggled against apartheid. Now they asked whether the new South Africa had become an oppressor state. The poor remained poor. Those in power fed themselves at the expense of others.
The complexities of revolutionary change are obvious to those who read history. Revolutionary change usually isn’t revolutionary, a lesson we are learning once again with the Arab Spring. But the South African image Jews of Conscience see in the mirror has less to do with the new South Africa then with Israel as an apartheid state and the challenge to any apartheid state, one person, one vote. One person, one vote would mean the inclusion of Palestinians as equal citizens in one state. It would mean the end of the Jewish state and the birth of Israel/Palestine as a democratic secular state.
For years Palestinians called for such a state, then seeing that path blocked, reverted to two states for two peoples. Now, without almost no land or control in Jerusalem and the West Bank left to speak of, many Palestinians demand an undivided Palestine. This was Shamir’s nightmare. This is Netanyahu’s nightmare. It is also the nightmare of Progressive Jews.
The Israel/Palestine discourse scene today features conferences on the One State option, the latest being at Harvard some months ago. Incidentally, though surrounded by Alan Dershowitz’s bellicose hullabaloo and even a videoed meltdown by his arch enemy, Norman Finkelstein, the conference was rather staid. No protests outside. No yelling inside.
I attended the conference and thought it interesting primarily for its political ramifications. To be honest, there wasn’t much analysis to be found there. The Harvard conference mostly featured rhetorical posturings. Political talking points were the order of the day. Mostly the speakers countered political talking points they didn’t agree with, even those close to them which they judged as not quite passing muster. Though important, political talking points limit the discussion of real issues.
I’ve also noticed that there is a One State elite group that travels from conference to conference. The One State group features its own “universal” signage. No particularities are allowed. The Palestinian discourse features Palestinians as global citizens – only – and the Jewish discourse is likewise void of any priority of Jewishness. I agree with many viewpoints presented by this group but really who’s kidding who. There aren’t two more self-involved peoples on the planet that Palestinians and Jews. Shouldn’t we celebrate – and critique – where we come from, if only to understand more fully the ramifications of where we want to end up?
My sense is that the main thrust of the One State option from the Palestinian side is to limit what Palestinian leaders can do with their birthright. That is, Palestinian intellectuals fear that Palestinian leadership – mostly self-appointed and to their mind corrupt and collaborationist – will sell Palestine out for some spare land and a little spare change. They might be right.
The Jewish participants are mostly Israeli Jews who have left Israel or will do so soon. Jewish Israelis are increasingly of interest. They are the Jewish boots on the ground. They have seen and participated in what most American Jews cannot believe to be true – that Israel is thoroughly imbued with an empire mentality that sees its destiny as the Lord of the Middle East forever and ever. Amen.
Yet another Empire Doxology! But increasingly Jewish Israelis refuse to parrot a rote belief in their (fragile) empire structure. In leaving Israel, they become the vanguard of the Jewish people. When they leave Israel they deflect their identification of being Israeli or even being Jewish. Yet they are so Israeli and so Jewish!
More about these Israelis in the future. The point about South Africa is that it provides a mirror image of Jews outside Jewishness. South Africa points to what Jews have become without referencing Jews, Jewish history or Jewish destiny. Of course, Jews in apartheid South Africa were players on both sides of the Empire Divide, as Jews often are in history. On the one hand, South African Jews milked the apartheid system for everything they could find. On the other, Jews fought against apartheid, giving their treasure and blood for the cause. The mirror image that comes to Jews today has little to do with South African Jews – and everything to do with American and Israeli Jews. The haunting aspect of the image for Jews is that is Jewless. Herein lay its liberating potential as well.
With a caveat. There is no evidence in Jewish history that Jews have ever thought of themselves as simply another people or with a destiny like others. Though difficult to absorb in our deceptively secular “universal” age, Jews have never thought of themselves as a randomly organized community with no destiny at all, perhaps as others might think of themselves, or at least as Jews consciously or not think that others think of themselves. Bear with me.
Whether justified or not, throughout history Jews have had a particular sense of themselves, first as God’s chosen people, then morphing into different strands of chosenness. This tradition continues with the Holocaust as a peculiar but, in light of Jewish history, quite understandable, sense of being singled out. The Holocaust narrative embraced by a majority of Jews is chock full of chosenness and, tied to the Holocaust, the state of Israel too has acquired this designation.
Jewish chosenness can be explained in a variety of ways. Being singled out among the nations – the same theme as chosenness – with and without God-language is an intrinsic way of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Israel are modern stand-ins for the Biblical sense of a special destiny for Jews. In all, Jews are chosen/singled out. That is why strictly political language on any of these issues is by and large deflected by Jews as being beside the point. Obviously, this can be used to assume an aura of unaccountability. Nonetheless, chosenness is a deep well from which Jewish argumentation, and dissent, draws.
Whether anti-Semitism, the Holocaust or the state of Israel is unique is secondary to the embraced perception. So whether or not Jews are chosen/special/singled out is less important that the centrality of each to Jewish identity. In my view, Jews of Conscience illustrate this as much as Empire and Progressive Jews. What’s different is how this perception works its way in the world. In what direction being chosen/special/singled out takes us makes all the difference.
Difference makes the world go round. The direction we take our Jewish identity means everything. It is our stake in Jewish history. It is our stake in the world.
We can argue the point of chosenness vigorously, as often happens. Yet the argument itself is the point. The challenge of chosenness is a perennial in Jewish history. The struggle over Israel and the debates about the lessons of the Holocaust confirm this understanding. So, in my view, the One State option is way more complicated than the rhetoric allows.
This isn’t to imply that the Two State option is simple. After all, Shamir and his ilk made such a solution academic and regressive. It serves now as a fig leaf for Israel expansion. For decades, perhaps since 1967, there has been only one state. That state runs from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River. It is controlled by Israel. The expanded state of Israel has millions of Jews within its borders. And millions of Palestinians, too.
Which brings me back to South Africa and the image Jews see in the mirror. South Africa is us. South Africa isn’t us. In the end the South Africa image cannot save us from ourselves. No one can save Jews except Jews. If it isn’t too late.
Kairos is Greek, meaning a highly charged moment that must be seized. It is a point of conversion. The road ahead is blocked and there is, as well, no return to the past. We have to choose.
Though it is always risky to compare, in some ways Jews are in a more difficult place that the South Africans were decades ago. Jewish history rolled the Jewish state dice and then expanded the state until there is no way to retreat. Today Israel is like a modern Sparta. The bridges toward a just inclusion in the Middle East as a nation among nations, recognizing a real Palestinian state, are burned.
What power Jews of Conscience have is mostly rhetorical. Does Israeli state power render a Jewish kairos moment moot?