This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
In the waiting area at the Orlando airport, the Lufthansa passengers sit contently. They are ignorant of the carrier’s part in the Holocaust past. As I was. Though I teach the Holocaust, I am constantly caught up short by depth of the depravity and by the wholesale participation of German society during the Holocaust years. How much of that society lives on in the present is amazing.
Try Deutche Bank. Or Allianz insurance. If they’ve been around long enough in Germany, they profited during the Nazi era. Then remade themselves and survived in the democratic future. Don’t only think German, however. Think Ford, General Motors and IBM. Where the money is, corporations are. In any currency.
Yes I know we shouldn’t make distinctions when it comes to human suffering. And yes privileging the Holocaust is used politically to further the suffering of Palestinians. I still have the politically incorrect gumption to say that there was something different about the Holocaust.
Every institution became part of the Third Reich, though some were reluctant at first. When pushed to the profit wall they all found a way to do their bit for the country. So it is all over the world, then and now. There’s always a reason found to join, even if it’s the old canard – reform from within.
Has reform from within ever occurred in real time?
Yes Gvul – There is a Limit. The first Israeli resistance to invading Lebanon in the 1980s. A reform from within. How did that work out?
Three decades later, where are the soldiers who said “no”? How many remain in Israel. How many have left Israel. Is there a limit to remaining an Israeli in Israel?
Many Israelis who remain, many Israelis who leave, no longer identify as Jewish or even Israeli. Because they are so identifiably Jewish and Israeli, I call them Still/Former Jewish/Israelis. I don’t believe you can leave Jewish or Israeli.
They’re not the only Still/Formers. Wherever they live, Jews of Conscience are Still/Formers. They can’t leave either. Even when they protest their freedom to leave, they “leave” in such a Jewish way that it’s obvious. So Jewish.
Years ago I met Henry Schwarzschild, an ACLU anti-death penalty lawyer. As the Nazis rose to power, Henry’s family left Germany. Many years later during the Lebanon war, Henry wrote and published an official letter of disavowal – from the Jewish state of Israel. The bombing of Beirut was the final straw. Henry was done.
Here in part is his statement:
I will not avoid an unambiguous response to the Israeli army’s turning West Beirut into another Warsaw Ghetto. I now conclude and avow that the price of a Jewish state is, to me, Jewishly unacceptable and that the existence of this (or any similar) Jewish ethnic religious nation state is a Jewish, i.e. a human and moral, disaster and violates every remaining value for which Judaism and Jews might exist in history. The lethal military triumphalism and corrosive racism that inheres in the State and in its supporters (both there and here) are profoundly abhorrent to me. So is the message that now goes forth to the nations of the world that the Jewish people claim the right to impose a holocaust on others in order to preserve the State. I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy….
The response from the right-wing. Predicable. In 2003 the The Jewish Press created an annual ‘Henry Schwarzschild Award’ for “a person in the public spotlight who, by his or her statements, displays contempt for the Jewish people, disregard for historical truth, a desire to sup at the table of Israel’s enemies, or who otherwise plays into the hands of the enemies of Jews and Israel.”
When I discovered this letter, I told Henry that it sounded like resignation from the Jewish people. That couldn’t be accepted. There was no resigning from the Jewish people. Period.
What a delight Henry was. He used to regal me with stories of his Civil Rights days. Henry was one of those Jewish lawyers that surrounded Martin Luther King, Jr. One day I asked Henry what King was like close-up. What set King apart?
Henry set the stage. After a long day’s work, Henry would sit around with King and other Civil Rights leaders in Negro-only motels. There was no air conditioning, so in the Southern heat they would strip to their drawers and under shirts, drink in hand and chat. As Henry looked around he saw others who were King’s equal – in preaching, strategy and courage. Henry paused so I pressed him. If there were others good or better than King, what was it about him that set him apart? Henry thought for another moment, then continued: “There was an aura around King, an aura you could feel. King embodied a destiny – it was right there. Like you could touch it.”
An aura, signaling the presence of a prophet. It isn’t about being better or higher, it’s a presence that is palpable. That in a world that often seems mundane and meaningless, that presence posits meaning. The prophet embodies meaning – at least the possibility of meaning in an apparently meaningless universe. That is why we are drawn to the prophet.
Like other prophets, King embodied the possibility of meaning. That was his aura.
The prophetic community gathered around King as other communities have gathered around prophets before and after.
The prophetic community gathers around the prophet who is doomed. Is the prophet doomed precisely because he embodies the possibility of meaning in an apparently meaningless world? Perhaps.
The doomed prophet – there have been so many in history. Their doom offers others a chance to make their statement of hope in history.
To present that witness to the world, the prophetic community has to live its vision to the fullest.
Still/Former Jewish/Israelis are the Jewish boots on the ground. They have carried violence to others – in our name. Now they join other Jews of Conscience who embody the possibility of justice in Israel/Palestine- in our name.
Where the politics of meaning – certainly not to be confused with prophet’s embodiment of the possibility of meaning in the world – the primary difference being the politics of meaning is a pseudo-Rabbinic gloss on suffering in history rather than a deep encounter with the indigenous of the people Israel – and the politics of International Law – another, this time, secular gloss on suffering in history – have fallen short, Jews of Conscience draw near to the prophetic core of Jewish history.
No gloss. No kippot. Not the United Nations. Not international tribunals. The difference is profound. It is being explored. It awaits articulation.
Henry’s letter. Strong stuff. Declaring himself an enemy of the state. This is dangerous anywhere. Dangerous as a Jew, too. Henry just couldn’t take it anymore. A place for us to start?
The price of a Jewish state – “Jewishly unacceptable.” But we have a state, I replied to Henry. Henry knew this all too well.
Henry had every reason to resign and couldn’t – because letters of resignation from the Jewish people aren’t accepted. Henry’s disavowal of the state of Israel is so strong it betrays a commitment. Henry was a Still/Former, even in relation to the state of Israel.
Henry’s letter about Israel, so angry. Henry’s evocation of King, so tender. You can’t understand Henry with one or the other. They go together.
And his beautiful daughter Hannah, who I know. Who plants olive trees for Palestinians in the West Bank. Henry’s legacy in full bloom. She entering the Still/Former stage, too.
Being Still/Former Jewish, being Still/Former Jewish/Israeli is testimony that nevertheless there is a way forward – through the end. This means that there aren’t any (gloss) detours.
When you a (gloss) detour option is offered know you’re somewhere other than real Jewish commitment. This is fine, if you want some time off.
Everyone needs a vacation. When the vacation is over, we know it’s time to get back to the prophetic work at hand.