Exile and the prophetic: The Jewish civil war interviews

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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.

I’ve always loved reading interviews.  Once in a while I’m interviewed.  Looking back over the interviews I’ve given is fun – and depressing.  I have some interviews going back to the mid-1980s. Reviewing them is enlightening.

The video interviews interest me most because they visualize the styles of the day.  The fun part is looking at younger versions of my aging self.  The depressing part is they cover the same ground as they do now.  The only difference is that everything, and I mean everything, is substantially worse.

Sometimes I’m asked to respond to questions in writing.  I just completed one which I include below. Since it is for a Brazilian audience, it will be translated and published in Portuguese.  The venue is the Jesuit Universida de do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos) located in Sao Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.  Haven’t been there but traveling Jewish can be accomplished in many ways.

I wonder if our ever expanding Encyclopedia Prophetica should contain the hundreds, perhaps thousands of interviews on Israel/Palestine over the decades.  The originals of the interviews can be collected in the Israel National Archives.  One day the interviews might be unearthed by a researcher determined to document the traces left by Jews of Conscience.   

The Jewish Civil War Interviews. A stand-alone book?

The Israel State Archives file classification: “Fragments of the Jewish Prophetic in the Golden Age of Constantinian Judaism.” (FJP – GACJ)  Or:  “The Jewish Civil War (1967 –    ):  Jews of Conscience.”  (JCW – JC)

Perhaps there are other interviews on the subject in Portuguese as well.  I’ll ask if the publishers can add this shout out in the publication:

The interviewed Jewish scholar asks that you send any interviews like this in Portuguese to the Israel National Archives.  He thinks it is important since they might be discovered by a researcher who seeks to trace the signs of Jews of Consciencewho are challenging Jewish power today and who are exiled from the Jewish community.  Thus they are not being accorded their important historical status for the future.  Understandably, he fears the disappearance of their witness from the Jewish history and world history.  The author believes that the indigenous of the people Israel is the prophetic and that Israel’s prophetic witness nourishes the prophetic witness of other peoples, including those of us in Brazil who embrace liberation theology.

When it comes out in Portuguese I’ll publish it here as well.  I want to make it difficult for the Israel National Archives to lose track of it.  As well, since most of my readers don’t read Portuguese it might function a bit like John Cage’s “silent,” 4’33” composition.  The (un)readability of the text might awaken us to our own text.

 Of course, there may be objections all around to publishing an interview that can’t be understood by most readers.  What a waste of space!  But think about the possibilities.   How about publishing on Yom Kippur –to be read aloud in synagogues around the world?   In Brazil and Portugal it could be read in Arabic.  That would be interesting, don’t you think?  Or better yet, perhaps Arabic should be the language of choice for our Yom Kippur faithful in the United States.  What an uproar that would bring.  It might occasion a Zion Square lynch update on the Rabbis for Jewish Rights website.

Arabic as the dominant language in American Jewish community on Yom Kippur.  What would Michael (B)Or(e)n(stein) have to say to my Seder compadre, David Gregory, in American English about that?

Here it is, then, the interview, as yet (un)translated.  Think of it as a snapshot of Jewish life.  For the Israel National Archives, Cape Canaveral, Florida, High Holidays, 2012.               

1)       In your opinion, is the analogy of what happens between Israelis and Palestinians in the region with the South African apartheid meaningful? Why?

I am not concerned with analogies.  In history, analogies lead us astray.  I view the world through the lens of Jewish history.  Segregating a people and treating them as if they don’t belong in their own country is wrong.  It is wrong in South Africa.  It is also wrong in Israel.  Palestinians have a right to be free in their own homeland.

2)       The conflict has a political and geopolitical motivation in its origin, hence the organization of the modern Zionist movement. Today, are there theological aspects used to support the actions taken by Israel?

From the beginning Zionism was mostly secular but there has always been a religious wing of Zionism.  As with secular Zionism, the religious wing was diverse.  This included spiritual Homeland Zionists like Martin Buber who argued that Jews and Palestinians should share Palestine.  Today, most religious Zionists use the state to further their messianic claims exclusively for Jews.  Having said that, Jewish religiosity is more difficult to characterize than Christian religiosity.  The division in Jewish life between the religious and the sacred is nuanced once you move beyond the simple categories of belief and non-belief.  Thus, I would argue that religious and secular, state and homeland Zionism have historical-religious aspects.  Dissent within Jewish life, especially regarding Zionism and the state of Israel carries the same historical-religious theme.  For the most part, of course, Jews simply argue as Jews.  Nonetheless Jewish argumentation is always colored by a sense of peoplehood and destiny.  I would call the ground of this deep encounter with Jewishness historical-religious.

3)       What is the relationship between religious Zionism and political Zionism? Nowadays, are they different? In which moments do they mix themselves?

Religious and political Zionism is mostly quite separate.  They also work together toward certain goals.   One common goal is domination of the land and politics in the expanding state of Israel.   Another common goal is that the land of Israel is for Jews alone.  Both religious and political Zionists believe that Jews have to be privileged in Israel and Palestinians pose a threat to Jewish sovereignty.  Of course, there are gradations and divisions.  For the most part, religious and state Zionists diverge on fundamental issues of Jewish destiny and agree on the practical elements of Jewish ascendancy.

4)       How do you analyze the role of religion in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

The conflict between Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine is primarily political.  The conflict is about land, peoplehood, statehood and the resources to maintain them.  Of course, religion is present as well.  Obviously Jerusalem is central to the three monotheistic religions – this shared religious heritage heightens the political drama.  As in other parts of the globe, religion tends to follow the tenor of political situations.  Since Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine in general are militarized, Judaism and Islam are as well.  If the political situation is demilitarized, Judaism and Islam will follow.  Because of the demographics and other factors Christianity plays a limited role in the Israel/Palestine political equation. 

5)       What is the position of the various streams of contemporary Judaism in relation to the conflict? In general, has the international Jewish community a clear position in front of Israeli actions in the Middle East?

In general yes, the Jewish community follows what I call a Constantinian line.  In the last decades a Constantinian Judaism has formed which supports Israel without question.  When there are questions, they are muted to maintain Jewish solidarity.  Alongside Constantinian Jews are Jews of Conscience.  Jews of Conscience break with Constantinian Jews.  They see the Jewish community’s alliance with empire as betraying the very concept of what it means to be Jewish.  There is a civil war in the Jewish community between these two groups.  Of this civil war, there is no end in sight

6)       What is the meaning of “Just Peace” and what is its relationship with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The questions of questions!  The international consensus is two states for two peoples, Israel alongside Palestine.  The reality is that Israel has taken so much of Jerusalem and the West Bank that few believe that a two-state solution is possible any longer.  Some argue for a one-state solution where Jews and Palestinians live side by side within a state with equal citizenship regardless of ethnic or religious background.  Neither scenario is likely in the near future.  Today, we have one state, Israel, which dominates the land from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River.  There are millions of Palestinians within Israeli control; they are without the fundamentals of citizenship and equality. 

7)       In your opinion, is a direct dialogue between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the state of Israel the shorter way to achieve peace in the region? Or may the UN as a representative and interventional institution be the most effective way? Why?

Neither will work.  It’s a matter of power, which Israel has and Palestinians don’t.  There isn’t any power that is able or willing to push Israel back to its 1967 borders.  The UN is powerless.

8)       How do you theologically explain the conflict in the Middle East? In your opinion, is it possible to make an interpretation of the sacred texts in the light of what is happening today in the region?

I doubt sacred texts will do much good in the Middle East or elsewhere.  Living the prophetic is what we can do.  Though the prophetic is doomed to failure, prophetic failures open the possibility of change in the future.  Every peace plan known to humanity has been tried in the Israel/Palestine conflict.  What we need now is the truth.  Let the prophetic chips fall where they may.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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2 Responses

  1. Citizen
    September 24, 2012, 6:13 am

    Maybe the truth is simply the greater power rules, whether economic or military power, or, as in this case, both. Within the largest power, economic power rules.

  2. DICKERSON3870
    September 24, 2012, 7:49 am

    RE: since most of my readers don’t read Portuguese it might function a bit like John Cage’s “silent,” 4’33” composition. The (un)readability of the text might awaken us to our own text. ~ Marc Ellis

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