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.
As Yom Kippur draws ever nearer, thoughts about what confession means – and doesn’t mean. Typically, we think confession purges the past. We begin again with a clean slate. I have come to think that confession is more about the future. Yom Kippur is about the future – as it could be.
Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who sees confession and the future as linked with helping others in need. Though she doesn’t want those in need abandoned, she isn’t too high on the “helping” option. Reason: the world out there is dangerous and, for the most part, meaningless. Self-deception lurks as well. The desire to help others often masks our need to be rescued. Altruism isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
The end result of this logic? Give what you can but don’t endanger what you have. What you give away won’t be returned.
Those who have been through the wars where collusion and lies reign can hardly deny this logic. On the personal side, lessons are there to be learned. What we give of ourselves and what we hold back are concerns with regard to intimacy. So, too, on the public front.
Hannah Arendt divided the world into private and public realms, essentially signing on to my friend’s position. I wonder, though, when we venture within or outside are the private and the public so divided they exist in separate worlds?
A few years ago at the Carter Center, I touched on this topic in a discussion with Mitri Raheb, the Palestinian Christian pastor in Bethlehem. The Carter Center was hosting its annual Human Rights conference. The Jewish side of things was represented by me and the director of B’Tselem, the longstanding, pioneering and most prominent Israeli Human Rights organization.
B’Tselem is an important organization. When B’Tselem is mentioned we think of an organization that documents human rights violations by Israel and by doing this protects the human rights of Palestinians. Moreover, B’Tselem does this to help move Israel to a Two-State solution. In this way they are quite like Rabbis for Human Rights which I also admire and have written critically of.
I view B’Tselem in a somewhat different light. Though it seems B’Tselem’s focus is on the immediate violation of human rights, the most important work it does is historical in nature. B’Tselem is documenting the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it.
By the “end of Jewish history,” I mean the ethical framework of Jewish history. What I mean by “as we have known and inherited it” is that Jewish history will continue but in a way that Jews of Conscience cannot embrace.
Founding in 1989 during the first Palestinian uprising, B’Tselem is creating a significant, detailed and devastating indictment of the Golden Age of Constantinian Jewish life. I’m sure that the Israel National Archives is collecting their documentation. These files will stand alongside the materials documenting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israel’s founding and, among other things, the recently discovered transcripts of conversations concerning the Sabra and Shatila massacres. B’Tselem’s investigations and publications should also be included in my proposed Encyclopedia Prophetica.
Several years ago I discussed my take on B’Tselem with the chair of their Board. I expected push-back. She thought for a moment, and then told me I was right. At the Carter Center, the director of B’Tselem couldn’t understand a word I was saying. She’s still stuck in the “Jewish rescue” mode.
B’Tselem’s website description of itself is fascinating in this regard. The first thing it wants to do is to insure Jews that publicizing Israel’s human right’s violations accords benefits to Jews and to Israel. I believe that B’Tselem is being honest with itself – just like Rabbis for Human Rights is honest with itself. Honest, that is, up to a point.
Read their response to the rhetorical question they pose: “Don’t you worry that you are making Israel look bad?
B’Tselem’s primary goal is to ensure that Israel respects human rights in the Occupied Territories and fulfills its obligations under international law. Publicity has often proven effective in improving Israeli policies and for this reason we are obligated to publicize policies that harm human rights and run counter to Israel’s legal obligations. While B’Tselem reports on some of the least attractive aspects of Israeli policy, in doing so we highlight some of the best aspects of Israeli society. B’Tselem is part of Israel’s vibrant, civil society, working in spite of the difficult security situation to improve our society from within. We are proud to represent this part of Israel to a world which is all too often unaware of it.
B’Tselem’s reflection of itself is true of their intentions. True to their intentions, they also argue how effective they are in work with the Israeli government and army. In effect, after all these years, B’Tselem, like Rabbis for Human Rights, can be judged as enablers of the occupation as others have in the issue of the role of NGO’s in Israel/Palestine. But, at least in relation to B’Tselem, their intention is only a superficial understanding of what they are doing historically speaking.
This brings me back to Mitri Raheb. I first met Mitri in 1984 as he was just starting out. A more humble person you can’t find. Because he is so humble, I thought that, unlike other Palestinian Christians who appealed to the West, he wouldn’t build an organizational mini-empire.
On the humility side, I was right. On the organizational side, I was wrong. Primarily through his German contacts, Mitri has an important and productive presence in Bethlehem. Obviously, his important work is dependent on the outside for finances. This outside connection also brings his organization some protection from Israeli authorities.
Despite Mitri’s work, the political and economic situation in Bethlehem is disheartening. If we had a slow motion tape of the developments in and around Bethlehem since I first visited Mitri, we’d note substantial changes for Palestinians all around. All of them are negative. This includes the Wall that snakes around the city. Yet this is only the most visible sign of a Palestinian city under siege.
In the almost twenty-five years I’ve known Mitri, he has always been kind and considerate. At the Carter Center, I also experienced a rougher edge. In a short discussion about aid and hope, I noticed the edge. Mitri dismissed the idea that Palestinians would be rescued by outside forces, no matter their good intentions. To set a more hopeful tone, I mentioned President Carter and his support for Palestinian rights. Mitri’s demeanor remained the same.
President Carter attended all the conference sessions and almost wept when he spoke on the plight of the Palestinians. He is quite an advocate to have. However, Mitri, his congregation, city and people have had many “friends” voicing their support for years. This includes B’Tselem. Where had this support brought Palestinians?
When a people is abandoned to the extent that even those who help can’t do much of anything besides voice moral support, a cynicism about history and humanity can become the norm. Standing on the “helping” side, our arguments against cynicism are limited.
I wonder if Mitri has lost faith in humanity.
As a Christian he follows a messiah who suffered for humanity and thus “redeemed” creation. Does the continual plight of the Palestinians test his faith in redemption?
Do Jews of Conscience who land on his doorstep restore his faith in humanity or in their weakness and limitations do they challenge it even more?
Mitri on Yom Kippur. Think of the confession needed which might bring about a different future – if it was acted upon. We know it is not forthcoming. Worse though is the following: If such a confession was forthcoming would the city of Bethlehem be liberated?
B’Tselem is documenting the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited. Being collected in the Israel National Archives.
B’Tselem is documenting Mitri’s end, too.
What will Bethlehem be like when the curious researcher arrives somewhere down the historical road?
Yom Kippur’s confession is about the future we refuse to embrace.