Exile and the Prophetic: Live From New York!

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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 was a High School debater. My debate coach constantly reminded us to pay attention to the audience. What message do you have to present? What is the make-up of the audience? Coach was quite a character. She was always on me to cut my hair short. She was a great defender of Richard Nixon. Nonetheless, her debate pointers were right on target.

I asked myself her questions as Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb appeared at the United Nations. His message was obvious. Yet the audience Netanyahu addressed and, as important, what audience he thought he was addressing, is unclear.

The UN’s representatives weren’t his audience. In general, they’re not listening to anyone at the podium. They know these speeches are political posturing. Israel has another problem. Israel’s support in the UN has dwindled to the point of no return.

Is Netanyahu’s real and imagined audience Jews in American and Israel? Think what a small audience this is. The American population is less than two percent Jewish. The number of Jews in the world is so small it hardly registers on a percentage scale. As well, there are other avenues for speaking to the Jewish community. Why waste an international audience for a small slice of the global population?

Add evangelical Christians to Netanyahu’s audience. In a Presidential election year these energized multi-millions are important. However, Netanyahu is preaching to the evangelical Christian choir – and the Constantinian Jewish choir as well. Why play to his base when Israel is desperately needs broader international support?

Instead, Netanyahu should have rebranded Israel – and himself – in the world’s eyes. Even if it was only political posturing, at least his real and imagined audience might have taken notice. With the tumult in the Middle East continuing, Netanyahu could have made his play for peace in the Middle East.

Instead, Netanyahu offers more of what has come to be expected of him and Israel. He further played into that expectation with an amateurish cartoon stunt. It made him a laughing stock around the world. Even the Christian and Jewish choir he’s preaching to wondered what he was thinking.

Listening to Netanyahu, I remembered an incident many years ago of a nursing home scandal that reached the national media. The owner of a prominent New York, Jewish-owned nursing home was found mistreating residents to enhance profits. I remember the Jewish owner testifying before Congress, kippah prominently in view. Seeing this scandal on national television horrified me. It was the other side of the Sandy Koufax World Series sit down that Jews of my generation took pride in.

As I look back at my horror, my – our – naiveté stands out. Naïve I was but at least I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

As the Netanyahu carton bomb started circulating on the internet, I thought of how far we have come. I wasn’t shocked at the injustice of his speech or his politically charged simple mindedness. I have come to expect this as the essence of contemporary Jewish life. Nor did I recoil on how pedestrian Netanyahu is in his thought process. For the most part, I have given up on the future of the Jewish intellectual tradition.

It’s tempting to see Netanyahu as a one-off caricature of Jewish political culture. Instead, we should consider Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb as a quintessential example of the dumbing down of Jewish life. Whatever personal and political idiosyncrasies he possesses, Netanyahu represents a broader and deeper change in the Jewish condition.

Is this change part and parcel of Jewish empowerment, especially when empowerment is defined by a Jewish state? If the Jewish state has to be defended at all costs and exist forever beyond specific emergency years then we can expect more of the same in the future.

“More of the same” has been around for decades. Instead of being shocked by Netanyahu’s cartoon bomb or, more importantly, the injustice he speaks and acts out in his political life, Jews of Conscience simply mocked him. As a character on Saturday Night Live, Netanyahu would do well.

Maturity is an important aspect of growth and development. It comes at a price. Our naiveté diminishes. We come to expect less from others – and ourselves.

The audiences we play to, the audience we are, shifts. In the world we hope to grow into, cartoons are a thing of the past.

That the “leader of the Jewish people” – as David Gregory named Netanyahu – would appear at the United Nations with a cartoon bomb in hand is laughable. It’s also too sad to contemplate. That we are no longer shocked makes it even worse.

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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One Response

  1. piotr
    October 2, 2012, 9:38 am

    Netanyahu achieved some important objectives.

    First, he did not betray any familiarity with an actual shape or content of nuclear weapons which (according to my sources) do not consist of a roundish container filled with uranium powder and with a burning fuse. Message: Israel is an innocent state that would not know how those things look or work.

    Second, given that vagueness, the red line he has drawn was both bold (seemed to be one inch thick!) and vague, which is useful in diplomacy. Message: you make us worried, so watch out! We have no idea what you are doing.

    Third, some detractors at home (Israel) and abroad doubted Israel’s ability to draw red lines. Clearly, they have egg on their face. By drawing one red line rather than several, and keeping the marker for the future use Natanyahu proved that he can escalate if necessary.

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