Exile and the Prophetic: South Africa in the mirror

ActivismFeaturesIsrael/Palestine
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This is part three of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Walking the beach at dawn, I marvel at the morning sky, the sun rising over the water. At that moment I feel distant from industry, all of them, including the education industry, or should I say, extending President Eisenhower’s farewell address, the military/industrial/agricultural/educational/propaganda complex. I could add Christian to the “complex” mix since I’ve been there and done that. Add Jewish as well. Since we’ve signed up and flourish within its ever-expanding fields of plunder and greed, it’s hard to point our finger outward toward others without seeing it pointed back at us. The empire is them. The empire is us.

Unfortunately, the debris on the beach reminds me that the material world is not far from the oceanic realm. Just the opposite, it is deeply embedded there. Just a few days ago, NPR – with its annoying predictable sound effects – reported on vast plastic plumes floating in the ocean ecosystem. Depressing.

Things change. Sometimes for the worse, other times for the better. Most often change is mixed. We say this on the Israel/Palestine front where over the last months the Presbyterian divestment campaign ramped up. That’s good. Quite belatedly, Christians are waking up to the violence of their tradition. At least some are. The committee handling the issue voted yes to divestment but the General Assembly voted it down – by the smallest of margins, two votes. After the evening loss, the morning votes turned out to be more complex. Options of conscience were approved and various Israeli companies were admonished. I would call it a stalemate on one level but in the final analysis a victory for the forces of justice in Palestine.

The warfare is far from over. The violent wing of the Christian tradition still breathes fire and brimstone but the Presbyterians on both sides of the divestment issue agreed that something is profoundly wrong with Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

A civil war within the Christian denominations is being waged over Israel and the rights of Palestinians. During the Shamir years few would have thought it possible that the interfaith ecumenical deal between Christians and Jews might be broken. Back then there wasn’t any daylight between the Holocaust and the Jewish abuse of power. Christians were riding their high horse of repentance for anti-Semitism. It didn’t to matter that another people was suffering at Jewish hands. High level Jews didn’t care. Why should they? Now all of that has changed. Christians have gone international in their justice concerns. The Empire and Progressive Jewish establishments have gone American – without a second thought!

The Uprising years were full of so much. Without romanticizing those difficult times, the mixture of despair and hope was palpable. Last chance was in the air. When last chance is in the air the energy is immense. Einstein time. The arc of the universe was bending toward justice.

No one stood on the sidelines. And strange as it might seem – and this includes the Presbyterian divestment debate – the lesson here is that you never know where history will take us. As Shamir sealed the fate of a Palestinian state, he planted the seeds for the explosion of the Jewish – and Christian – prophetic that we now witness.

Following the Presbyterian divestment debate online, I heard many at the microphones speaking the prophetic word on the plight of the Palestinians. It was deeply felt. And, too, note the deeply divided Jewish contingent at the Presbyterian convention. Obviously the Jewish establishment was lobbying hard to keep these wayward Christians in line. But the line they sought to hold was way to the left of what anyone ever dreamed possible. Jews were also there conferring on the divestment side. They fought an uphill battle for a complete victory – but they shouldn’t hang their heads. History will sort this out. Remember that the narrative of what Israel has done to Palestinians historically – what is happening today – has already been won by dissenting Jews. Few believe the “desert blooming” scenario or the “Jews are innocent/Palestinians are demons” mantra anymore. I didn’t hear any of that language among the Presbyterians. Not a peep.

Crushing the Palestinian uprising ultimately sounded the death knell for the Jewish-Christian dialogue/cooperation/deal making. It has unraveled year by year. Though they continue, Holocaust memorialization – the engine of the interfaith ecumenical deal and now a major factor in trivializing the Holocaust itself – also started its downward slide then. The reasons are obvious. When it became clear that Israel as a state wasn’t interested in justice for Palestinians and that Jewish leadership in America was only interested in silencing Christian misgivings about Israeli occupation policies, it was only a matter of time before the Jewish-Christian love fest came to an end.

Among the liberal Christian denominations, Christian support for Israel is on life support. The back-up oxygen tanks, already in use, are running empty. There isn’t any way of resurrecting the interfaith ecumenical deal. The “Christians are evil/Jews are innocent” genie is out of the bottle, never to return.

For the Jewish establishment, only rear-guard actions are left. They are playing the last cards in the Jewish/Christian deck. But what dissenting Jews – and Christians – hold is the prophetic wild card. That card is wholly different. It holds out the possibility of an entirely new relationship between Christians and Jews – and Muslims – and with people of conscience wherever they are found. So we have the rear-guard. We have the novum. I choose the future.

The Christian civil war rages on. The Christian right-wing remains, of course. It has its highly paid emissaries, university presidents among them. Recently I’ve wondered if there ought to be an ethical bar to become president of a university. Or if there should be revised ethical guidelines for universities to receive Federal funds and for their faculty to belong to scholarly societies. Seriously, does a university that is barred by charter from hiring Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, not to mention Mormons, and has among its stated reasons for expulsion from the university, fornication and homosexual acts – should that university be able to operate as if it is an educational institution in 21st century America?

I haven’t even touched upon other political, economic and social policies supported by some educational administrators – unbridled capitalism, defense budgets beyond the ethical imagination and war waged indiscriminately among them. However, as an equal opportunity critic, I apply this to religious leaders as well. Many of our Rabbis would do little better in a rating system involving these issues. If we’re honest about it, the rabbinate has been a scandal on issues of war and peace – at least in relation to Israel and the Palestinians. Since “loving” Israel now includes a myriad of satellite issues attached to Israel’s security – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran is only the beginning of a wide and seemingly endless list – our Rabbis are globally involved, most often on the wrong side of justice.

There are plenty of right-wing Jews eager to join the Christian right-wing chorus. They don’t even to have to be right-wing on any issue except Israel. Think Alan Dershowitz. How quickly he joins the empire songs that abound. I think of these songs as Empire Doxologies, statements of faith which are objected to at one’s own peril. Do their voices reach heaven? If so, I doubt God joins them in song. More likely God rejects them as idolatrous musings with murderous consequences. If there is a God.

The Jewish civil war is also in full bloom. It isn’t only between the Empire and the Progressive Jewish contingent. Though they have their differences, in the main they share too much of the empire vision to be total adversaries. In fact, playing off one another, Empire and Progressive Jews share a stage large enough to hold them both. While they duke it out in a staged choreography, the situation in Palestine continues to decline. The Palestinians reach bottom after bottom, until a cardinal belief emerges – at least I have held it for some time – that there is no bottom that cannot be broken through. Downward.

Thus the arrival of Jews of Conscience. The seeds for their arrival were also planted during the crucial Shamir years. After a delayed reaction. During the second Palestinian Uprising of the infamous Sharon years more than a few Jews recognized that the faux civil war between Empire and Progressive Jews was just that – fake. Jews of Conscience became serious about the high stakes in the game. It wasn’t long before Jews of Conscience recognized South Africa in the mirror.

With South Africa staring Jews in the mirror there was no turning back.

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