Exile and the prophetic: A state of moral emergency

Israel/Palestine
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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.

‘Few are guilty, but all are responsible.’  It’s from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prophetic figure, who died in 1972. I’m still meditating on his statement.

Heschel was outrageous.  He comparedthe American Judaism he experienced in the 1950s and 1960s to a beauty parlor – all fluff and little substance.  ‘Beauty Parlor Judaism’ – ‘Upward Mobility Judaism’ – Heschel spoke the truth.

What would he say about Gaza?

After the 1967 war, he visited Jerusalem and wrote a book lauding the Jewish ‘return’ to the city.  His writing was deeply moving.  He wrote in a poetic spirit that evoked the ages.  In the background was the Holocaust. Though he had escaped, through Germany, England and the United States, Heschel lost most of his family in Poland. 

For Heschel and many Jews of his generation, Israel’s victory in the 1967 war and its taking of Jerusalem was a sign of redemption.  It had been a long and arduous journey from Auschwitz to Jerusalem.

What would Heschel say about what has transpired in Israel in the last forty years?

During his life, Heschel’s understanding of the Arab-Israeli situation was much like the Jewish mainstream. On other issues he was out in the lead. Would Heschel’s understanding of Israel have changed over the years?  Would he step out in the lead today?

We know that another Holocaust personage and a friend of Heschel’s, Elie Wiesel – at least publicly – hasn’t changed his views.   He’s backed or been silent on Israel’s policies, endorsed America’s war in Iraq and supports sanctions and war in Iran if necessary – all for the sake of Israel.

If Heschel were alive today would he have a public disputation with Wiesel?  Would he condemn what we as Jews are doing to Palestinians?

Look at the telegram Heschel sent President Kennedy in favor of African-American civil rights: 

TO PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY, THE WHITE HOUSE, JUNE 16, 1963.
I LOOK FORWARD TO PRIVILEGE OF BEING PRESENT AT MEETING TOMORROW AT 4 P.M. LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE NEGROES. CHURCHES SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTANCE AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE. LET RELIGIOUS LEADERS DONATE ONE MONTH’S SALARY TOWARD FUND FOR NEGRO HOUSING AND EDUCATION. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AID TO NEGROES IS BECOMING A NECESSITY. THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY. 

In this spirit, would Heschel email this message to President Obama with reference to Gaza? 

TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, THE WHITE HOUSE, NOVEMBER 20, 2012.
I LOOK FORWARD TO PRIVILEGE OF BEING PRESENT AT MEETING TOMORROW AT 4 P.M. LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT ISRAELI SANCTIONS AND AGGRESSION IN GAZA WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE PALESTINIANS AND DENY THEM THEIR FREEDOM. CHURCHES SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTANCE AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE. LET RELIGIOUS LEADERS DONATE ONE MONTH’S SALARY TOWARD FUND FOR PALESTINIAN HOUSING AND EDUCATION. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AID TO PALESTINIANS IS BECOMING A NECESSITY. TELL ISRAEL TO STOP OCCUPATION OF PALESTINIAN LANDS AND WITHDRAW TO THE 1967 BORDERS.  THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.

 ‘A state of moral emergency’ – can that be for African-Americans then and not Palestinians now? 

A Marshall Plan for the deprived in America – deprived because of a history of exclusion and racism by American whites.  Can that be demanded for deprived African Americans and not for deprived Palestinians?  After all, Palestinians have been deprived because of a history of exclusion and racism by Jews in Israel, aided and abetted by Jews in America.

Palestinians expose the fault line of the Settler Judaism we have adopted.  We speak justice for others when it doesn’t damage our own interests.  When it comes to our specific responsibility for justice – Israel – we clam up.  Or yell at the top of our lungs – ‘How dare you criticize Israel!’

‘THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.’ 

Indeed.  But where is it to be found among our Jewish leaders?

 

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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