This is part twenty of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Palestinians of a certain generation knew the Jewish score. Edward Said was one. For sure, Said was the last cosmopolitan Jew to draw near to the prophetic. If ever there was a modern who deserved Elijah’s chariot and horses take-away it was Said. He was alone in his eloquence.
With regard to the prophetic, I also remember his friend and teacher, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a Palestinian exile whom I knew for years in America.
I visited Ibrahim after he returned to Palestine in the 1990s. It was he who told me once: “Marc, the Jewish prophetic voice will never die.” I didn’t understand Ibrahim’s statement until my son, Aaron, wrote a letter to the Israeli Consul who had come from Houston to lecture at my university. It was during the height of the second Palestinian uprising when Star of David helicopter gunships controlled the sky.
Aaron was then 14 years old and when I read his letter he reminded me of Ibrahim. In no uncertain terms and in a beautiful poetic language, Aaron took Israel’s sophisticated power to task. The Consul was drawn and quartered. My analysis: Because I taught Aaron rather than send him to Hebrew School, Aaron never had the prophetic beaten out of him by Jewish authorities. Instead, he witnessed his father surviving their beatings and made a decision. He opted for the Jewish indigenous.
Part of the prophetic is existential – full steam ahead. The prophet is mournful about the squandering and hopeful about a future where the squandering will come to an end. After all, if the prophet doesn’t believe in a just future, he’s dead in the water. Yet if the prophet speaks about a bright and cheery future, she becomes a cheerleader.
For the prophet there is a future because none is on the horizon. Everything has gone too far. We are surrounded by darkness. If only others finally understand that darkness that the prophet sees ahead is already here. Then a glimmer of light appears.
Light through mourning. New beginnings when the end surrounds us. Seems paradoxical or ironic. Seems impossible. It certainly skirts logic. It isn’t a prefabricated answer. Not a slogan mobilizer either. All of the above when multiple choice won’t do.
This light seems self-generated because there isn’t any outside energy to be corralled. Yet self-generated light is impossible. There has to be a source outside ourselves. In nature? The light the prophet speaks about isn’t found in nature. Could it come from God?
We’ve already disciplined the God as rescuer motif. Besides, Jews of Conscience aren’t going to entertain the movie version. Exile is too hands dirty.
How to account for light in darkness? How to account for the persistence of the prophetic?
Perhaps they are one and the same. Light/Prophetic. That still doesn’t account for either or both together.
Try this: The prophet embodies light. The prophetic as a movement is light. Being light, the prophet and the prophetic gather light. Amid the darkness.
Light gatherers, it’s hard to see this. Or feel this. When history keeps spiraling downward. But then we don’t really know when the downward trend is about to turn upward. Or when what seems upward is about to take a turn for the worse.
Since we don’t know what’s around history’s corner. And since we don’t know where the corner, going either way, is, we are more or less rooting around in the dark – at least as far as what the future might become. For the prophet, then, the task is at hand, keeping at it, paying attention, focus, conscious purpose, intentionality. The prophetic sense is that the future is right here, in the now, even as we let go of where it’s going.
The logic of injustice, atrocity, ecological crisis is that all will continue. It will. The logic is downward. That is correct. Downward interrupted, a victory indeed, is followed by other downward movements somewhere else. Injustice is like rain. Somewhere in the world it is raining all the time. Somewhere in the world there will always be injustice. There will never be an end to injustice, even when it stops, for a moment, where we are.
If the picture we have is always injustice, somewhere, and that the future will feature injustice, somewhere, that there isn’t an end, anywhere, then the question – Where is justice? – is too heavy. It makes us want to set our sails in a different direction, toward conformity and empire. Why not enjoy without a second thought riding the crest of the wave? At least for as long as we can. Let others find their own rescue boats, make their own plans. Since injustice is now and the future.
The logic of Israel/Palestine – downward spiral. Conquered space. Atrocity around every corner. War and more war. Disappeared Palestine.
The logic of Israel/Palestine – one state. A civil rights movement made up of Jews and Palestinians takes hold. After much dislocation and death, the population decides to take another tact. Reappeared Palestine. Perhaps.
Downward spiral. One state. Or two real states working toward a negotiated unity.Empire(s) rear-guard actions within both populations, the surrounding countries, outside factions, countries, religions. Those Jews and Palestinians who survive all of this, wanting another way.
Time table – unknown. Unknowable.
Gathering light without knowing what will become of the light. We don’t know if the light will survive the darkness or be extinguished even as it is gathered. Or, if becomes a flame, how long it will burn or how it will burn. Like a forest fire, terrain, heat and winds make the fire’s path unpredictable.
So deliberation is important and overrated. Guiding the light -doubtful. The light we gather will go where it goes. There will be other light gatherers there. Who will face the same (im)possibilities.
History is (un)certain.
History is (un)knowable.
The prophet is operating in the dark. Except for the light she gathers.