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 early morning, the church bells ring on our compound. I inquired about the church that the bells were ringing from. The question drew a look of amazement, as if there might be a church that served the Peace Studies program. Of course, there wasn’t. Christianity isn’t present here at all. Only a unused Chapel remnant. Why then the ringing (un)church bells?
Too, my Brazilian Tibetan Buddhist, quite an interesting story of silent devotion, felt strange with her moment of silence before meals, hands brought together at the end. So she scrapped it for the time being. She isn’t losing her religion and people here don’t think much about religion either way. Are my international Peace Studies students above religion just because they think they don’t have one?
Identity, too, as if, the European students don’t come from somewhere. Their idea, more or less, is that identity is imagined and constructed, so there isn’t a defined place from which our consciousness – and our bodies – exist and move in the world. Can that really be the case? They struggle with this question of identity as if something is at stake.
We’ve had fun with it in my small group. As I repeat endlessly, I agree that identity, that we, are imagined/constructed but – not only. We need to find the deepest part of our identity, from which we can wrestle and struggle toward transformation.
Not only – the caveat. Important. My Israeli student, a Jew, also American, as well a woman. My Palestinian student, an Arab. Not sure if she is a Christian or a Muslim. Other mixtures. Egyptians with mixed European backgrounds. These backgrounds influence who we are. Our own histories shape us. We have an identity. We aren’t just free floaters.
Yesterday the film about the Rwandan genocide – “Shaking Hands with the Devil” – caused a controversy. About images of atrocity crossing in and out of our consciousness. Why do we subject ourselves to these images? Holocaust images and even Holocaust education forced on the Austrian and German students at such a young age, almost as if they were responsible, quite intensive. Unduly invasive?
A week at Buchenwald or Auschwitz, the study centers there where retreats are held. Yes, I mean retreats, there’s a religious sensibility about the time they spend in The Other Kingdom. Or what was. An issue: whether we should continue to use mass death as an educational tool.
The Auschwitz to Jerusalem theme has lost its bite. Since Jerusalem is too hot on the ethnic cleansing scale over these last decades. Besides, the original ethnic cleansing continues in slow(er) motion. If we are to disembark from Auschwitz to Jerusalem we should walk to Yad Vashem from Deir Yassin, where Palestinian villagers were massacred by Jewish forces in 1948.
Crime follows crime. We can’t talk about the Holocaust without talking about Palestine. Walking Palestine is a start.
Images and history. The discussion leapt to history as problematic. Why keep reminding us of history, especially the history of atrocity. Doesn’t that just encourage the cycle of violence and atrocity? Since it’s used by the powerful to justify almost everything.
Understood, but then should we forget those who died as victims? The important debate, did they die as victims or as martyrs, victims meaning dying without any meaning, martyrs meaning that their death has a meaning – in what direction? That issue, in what direction do we take the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, is the challenge.
I offered memory – travelling toward empire or toward community? – as the question of victims/martyrs. Memory as a form of power over. Memory as a critique of power. What the Catholic theologian – German to boot – Johannes Baptist Metz called the” subversive memory of suffering.”
The memory of suffering as a blunt instrument. Power over others. Jews over Palestinians. Or memory as a path of solidarity. Jews with Palestinians.
Branching out. Jews over Palestinians – against the world. Jews with Palestinians – with the world. Over against. Solidarity with. The initial particular dynamic of memory carries over into the universal. With Jews. With Palestinians. With everyone.
To break the cycle of violence and atrocity – disengage from that cycle? This, too, came up in our discussion. Is there a way out? The question of questions – always. Yes the cycle will continue in the world – but not only. Since the cycle, (un)like identity, is constructed only. So if our identities moved far along the Community Road, perhaps we could intervene to stop stockpiling more and more images of destruction and death.
Too much destruction and death on the screen is a downer. For sure. Constant repetition dulls the mind. We turn off. Or break for lunch. Of course, issues for the privileged. For those who experience violence and atrocity in real time there are no breaks for lunch.
When violence and atrocity isn’t an image, where does it go? To what end is it put? Which, then, the world has also to cope. We, on the other side, have a role. To complain about having to see the images on screen is instructive. Seeing is believing. It is also numbing.
The world of the bereaved. Jerusalem and beyond. The world that watches the bereaved on screen. Two different worlds. Living in the same world.
The Norway Island Massacre a year ago. In the program there are several Norwegians. They’re ramping up for commemorations that will be etched in their collective minds. The Norwegians are finally joining the league of the bereaved. This leads – where? A paper on the subject is brewing for one of my Norwegian students. I ask whether there is an international committee to advise Norway on how to deal with remembering the victims, since there is a commemoration industry waiting to swing 9and be paid) into action. No doubt some Holocaust industry folks are involved. I doubt anyone from Rwanda is up for appointment.
Anyone from Palestine? They are not allowed to commemorate their Nakba – their catastrophe. At least in Israel. Maybe they could bring the Nakba to the attention of the West through the Norway catastrophe. Or would that be seen as political?
Interesting, commemorating the Holocaust. (un)Political? Commemorating the Nakba. Political? Palestinians would be seen as trying to take the suffering stage for other reasons than burying the dead.
Holocaust commemoration – as a form of politics by other means. When we bow our heads in silence, Star of David helicopter gunships patrol the Palestinian skies.
No helicopter gunships for Palestinians. Not one. Is this because they lack the power – and the nation-state – to make their (un)political commemoration statement to the world?
Nakba memorials. Invitation to international advisory committees. Dependent on Palestinian empowerment. Only then will the Palestinian dead be recognized as (un)political. Everyone has to bow their head for the Holocaust dead – including Palestinians. Otherwise it will be felt that they are making yet one more political statement. The day may come when Jews bow their head when the Palestinian dead are remembered. Palestinian martyrs, will they one day be considered martyrs by Jews?
A martyred people honoring the people they have martyred. That will signal the end of the war of ideas in the Middle East. Don’t hold your breath.