This is part nineteen of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Hodgepodge today, picking up errant strands I’ve been writing about and going at them again. But finishing with an Edward Said flourish. Call it a trip down memory lane.
Speaking of oligarchies and ritualized suicide and being left with nothing, making it matters. In Israel. In America. No doubt the notion of making it is shared all over the world. Like squandering.
If you don’t make it, you’re left with nothing. Is that how we want it to be or is that just oligarchies talking. Or us picking up the oligarchy accent?
I doubt Israel would have born without Jews having made it in America. We often reference the Holocaust for the creation of Israel. No doubt that was crucial. But the Jewish Diaspora had much to do with the creation of Israel. It has much to do with its existence today. Injustice toward Palestinians – difficult to continue without American Jews lobbying for and deflecting injustice.
Empowered Diasporas are crucial back home. Though the “home” I write about came from the Diaspora rather than the other way around. Jewish history is different, even when it comes to states formed from outside. Though South Africa in the mirror means this part of Jewish history shares similarities. Meaning, Israelis as white colonial settlers. (Yes, I don’t believe that’s all of the story but we can’t understand Israel’s story without it.)
I’ve been asked how to surface the colonial in Jewish life. As in, workshops or teaching. I would forget the teaching for now, at least in university settings. Teaching about Jews except in the romanticized form is the third rail of university life. As in, terminal. Like breaking down the Holocaust into its component parts, emphasizing the clash of the German and Soviet empires where millions of folks, including millions of Jews, were caught in between. Timothy Snyder calls the death mill between empires the Bloodlands. Not much room for the Holocaust there. We’ll save that for another day.
Jews as Orientalists – without even knowing it. Hannah Arendt’s nightmare of who Jews would become. Though she couldn’t escape her Western upbringing completely. Arendt thought Arabs should be delighted with an enhanced Jewish presence in the Middle East because of the Western know-how Jews brought to the backward region. In Arendt’s mind, Jews were without a history of colonialism. Yet they became thoroughly colonial once outside the European cauldron.
As for workshops on the relation of Jewish identity and colonialism, simply adopt the methodology various workshops on racism and sexism use. Apply the same rubrics. Feature Jewish thinking/images/stereotypes on Arabs, Palestinians and Islam as starters. But also expand it so Jews can look at how we function in the West historically and in the present. Don’t forget Jews of Arab background and how they are seen within the dominant Jewish discourse. For God’s sake, don’t organize the workshop around rediscovering Jewish identity. You might end up celebrating Shabbat in a sweat lodge.
The idea is to break out of our comfort zone, not retreat into a safe for Jews in non-Jewish space. If you need some Jewish thinkers that will challenge your workshop attendees try Marx and Arendt. Even with all their flaws, they’re giants compared to Jewish thinkers today. Remember, the challenge isn’t Jewish purity, which has never been, or any other purity, which has never been. We need to walk with our Colonial Mezuzah – no use pretending it doesn’t exist within us.
Assign Edward Said to read, without thinking he was perfect. I knew Said and loved his princely manner. He was handsome and debonair, a super elite and a man of the people. I have so many stories of my encounters with Said that one day I will share more fully.
It might not surprise you that regarding Said’s work and persona, I think against the grain. In his writing and lecturing, Said made it explicit that he didn’t believe in essences with regard to identity. This included Jews and Palestinians. Yet I know he believed that Palestinians were something special, real special. Otherwise why would he have gone ballistic when Arafat sold out the Palestinians at Oslo?
Leaders sell out their peoples on a regular basis, why should the PLO be any different? The PLO wasn’t any different. Palestinians are. To think that the Palestinian witness to the Arab and global world would be sold out for dime store mansions in the Gaza Strip infuriated Said. It sent him over the edge.
Said is used by Palestinians and Jews in the One State elite circles as the universalist among universalists. They rely on his rhetoric rather than what he believed. Here is my take. Said believed that Palestinians were different than other Arab collectivities. Palestinians had a message for Israel, other Arabs and the world. Of course, he didn’t say this as such. Said was way too sophisticated for that kind of particularity and besides he would sound almost Jewish if he started down that road. Though if you might remember, Said proudly laid claim to be the “last cosmopolitan Jew.” More than a few of his close friends were Jews, of the cosmopolitan variety naturally.
When I was around Said, I used to marvel at the legions of followers who came up to him as supplicants. He abhorred that – at least he said that to me – and he also couldn’t live without it. Not for a second. That was part of Said’s greatness. But on the essence stuff, he was in with both feet.
Said was wonderful to be around, yet I also felt his aloneness. It surrounded him. He also cultivated it. As if he couldn’t function without being set apart. Though I loved Said – there will never be another Palestinian like him – some of his thought was superficial. There were areas of thought, especially spirituality, he wouldn’t approach.
In my estimation, Said was too negative about deeper levels of engagement, as if they could only be articulated and accepted on infantile levels. This was a huge mistake on his part and on the part of the “universalist” secular Left. The secular Left, at least to my mind, isn’t really secular at all. They cling to their beliefs as strongly as any religious believer. Sometimes more so.
There is so much aloneness in the world. Anyone who pioneers new ways of thinking experiences it. Probably needs it. Said referred to me as a friend but my own sense is that Said didn’t have friends in the usual sense. Said was on a mission. Mission-folks are somewhere else on the friendship continuum.
Said marked my life in significant ways. Interestingly, they were on the levels he wouldn’t go near in his own thought. Like the time he found me teaching in central Texas. Said couldn’t believe that I could end up in Texas, so in his mind, I couldn’t be living where I was, in fact, living. When I asked him why I couldn’t be living where I was living, he thought for a second and said: “Because I can’t picture you living anywhere in particular.” When I pressed him on the point he continued: “Marc, I cannot imagine you living in a home in one particular place. I think of you as an itinerant Jewish prophet.”
So much for the secular Said.
This didn’t make him religious in the typical sense. He was far too intelligent for that. And too broken by the failed promises of religion. Yet, it is also true that Said retained an almost elementary understanding of religiosity. As if, though every other field of inquiry could, indeed had to be, relentlessly moving in deeper directions, religion had no place to move. He was wrong, of course, but certainly the Christianity and Islam he knew and the Judaism he experienced, even the Jewish Renewal colonial stuff, certainly didn’t open his closed religious universe.
But then, why not simply honor me with what would be his highest accolade – that I was intelligent and provocative? From Enlightenment Said, intelligent and provocative were the highest accolades.
Said hungered for a world that is more than thought. His writing is a beacon searching for that point in the ocean where the treasure is finally spotted, then salvaged and brought to shore. The shore eluded Said.
When I share my PowerPoint presentation as I travel, I always include Said’s picture among Jews of Conscience. I know he wasn’t Jewish, though he did claim his cosmopolitan Jew status with great pride. Since he claimed to be a Jew, why not include him among Jews?
I also include Said there because he accompanied many Jews into the night side of Jewish history. While doing this, he neither gloated nor held himself above the fray. Said never baited Jews. Just the opposite, Said had a soft spot for Jews who lived up to his (un)essential sense of Jewish intelligence, analytical skills and, yes, compassion.
I have come to believe that Said’s claimed status as a cosmopolitan Jew was an ingenious cover to draw closer to the Jewish prophetic. Said wanted to be near the prophetic and its claims to penetrating the depths of history.
In another lifetime, Said may have appeared as one of those Jewish prophets. Or perhaps, in his own way, he already has.