Exile and the prophetic: Gaza’s referendum on Jewish leadership

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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.

So we have a staged ceasefire abandoned at the last minute.The bombing of Gaza continues.  Now there’s a bombing in Tel Aviv. 

Hillary is in Ramallah talking with the Palestinian Authority.  Should she be in Gaza speaking with Hamas?

One radio commentator said it well – a pointless week of pointless violence.  Nonetheless, the status quo is a victory for Israel.   

Questions about Jewish leadership remain.  The status quo benefits them, too.

On the leadership theme, back for a moment to Abraham Joshua Heschel. Then on to to J Street.

If Heschel were alive what would he have said during last week?  What did J Street have to say?

Were Heschel alive, his challenge would be formidable.  If he spoke for Palestinians in Gaza, I mean if he really laid it out there, the exalted status he achieved during his lifetime and after would be on the line.  How he is remembered in Jewish history would be at risk.

Is it worth the hit?

Leaders are recognized because they have something of substance to offer, take the heat and survive to fight another day.  Then with the winds of history at their back, their once controversial ideas become normative.

In time, the subversive voice becomes a leader of the mainstream or at least a person the mainstream respects.

Once having achieved iconic status, however, the winds of history continue to shift.  Leaders face a dilemma.  Should they risk what they first risked and barely won?  The chances of making two subversive pivots and winning them both are chancy.  Can the leader afford to turn her back on the consensus and strike out again on her own?

The stakes are high.  Everything you invested in is up for grabs.  True, it’s up for grabs anyway.  One never knows when new leadership will emerge and leave the previous leadership behind.  So most leaders negotiate what they did once with what’s happening now.  If they’re lucky they reach a negotiated settlement.  Their influence continues.

Negotiating the middle ground, however, doesn’t make things happen.  Progressive Jews have been doing this for decades.  J Street, the latest incarnation of Progressive Jews on Israel/Palestine, have been trying to negotiate the middle ground on everything, including Gaza. 

Read excerpts from their November 18th statement below.  Its title: ‘Enough of Silence.’  The question is whether the statement is enough or whether it is silence in another form:

We thank President Obama and those in the international community working to achieve a ceasefire. We urge every effort to de-escalate this conflict as quickly as possible.

Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself against rocket fire and against those who refuse to recognize its right to exist and inexcusably use terror and violence to achieve their ends.

Now with Israeli forces poised for a possible ground invasion and rockets flying closer to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we must ask whether actions being taken today advance long-term security and stop the cycle of suffering. Do they bring us closer to ending this conflict in two states for two peoples, or do they leave us farther away?

Four years ago, those of us who critiqued Operation Cast Lead asked whether massive military action would end the rockets and make Israel more secure.

Clearly, we have our answer. Today, rockets are more numerous and powerful. Israel is more isolated in its region and more ostracized around the world.

And now the cycle begins again – and we must not be silent.

Military action may stop the rockets for a while at a cost of hundreds or even thousands injured or dead.

But military force alone is inadequate as a response to the broader strategic challenge Israel faces. Only a political resolution to the century-old conflict with the Palestinians resulting in two states living side by side can end the conflict.

Without that, in a few short years, we’ll be right back here again: anger deeper, rockets more powerful, and political forces yet more extreme…..

Trying to be balanced, J Street tips Israel’s way big-time.  Their pandering is a way of cajoling Israel – and Jews in the United States – to accept a two-state solution through the back door.  In their mind, American political leadership is the way forward – get going Obama!  But then President Obama is right there with J Street.  He won’t even talk to Hamas.  He’s tipping toward Israel, too.

Is Egypt doing the same, tipping toward Gaza while trying the back door to a two-state solution?

Whatever door you use, including aborted cease-fires, Israel’s nowhere near accepting two real states.  So in lieu of two states everyone is on board to re-stabilize the unstable situation in Gaza.  This leaves Palestinians in Gaza hanging out to dry.

The issue behind the rhetoric is what does the tilt this way or that mean and, more importantly, what’s on the other side of the back door for Palestinians.

It’s not that J Street doesn’t push the envelope somewhat.   A few paragraphs in their statement caught my eye in this regard:

Sadly, too few in Israeli politics today are willing to say that the strategic threat to the survival of Israel is not the rockets from Gaza, but the failure to achieve two states before it is too late.

Even more sadly, there is apparently little audience in Israel for such a message. We are told the Israeli people have given up on peace, that we shouldn’t talk of peace, that it’s a dirty word today.

But then, they revert:

Without a serious effort promoted by the President to achieve two states now, we may well witness the end of our dream for Israel to exist as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

Enough of tears and bloodshed – a great Prime Minister of Israel said before he was tragically gunned down seventeen years ago this month.

Enough of silence, we say.

The loud and clear lesson from the latest violence for President Obama must be that we cannot avoid acting boldly to end this conflict now – before it is too late.

The question before us iswhat constitutes ‘acting boldly?’ Invoking Yitzhak Rabin and the failed Oslo Accords?  Cautioning Jews about the demographic threat to the Jewish majority in Israel?

Quoting Heschel to J Street:  Today, what is our high moral grandeur?  What is our spiritual audacity?

Calling on the United States could be both – if – America was willing to go the distance – through the front door.  Yet no one believes that this is the case.  And besides, isn’t it the responsibility to call out Jewish leadership in America and Israel to speak and act its own mind without relying on the President of the United States?

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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4 Responses

  1. seafoid
    November 21, 2012, 9:36 am

    Quoting Heschel to J Street: Today, what is our high moral grandeur? What is our spiritual audacity?

    This is pretty audacious


    “The Lubavitch rebbe said that ‘whoever serves in the IDF gets his place reserved in the world to come.’”

  2. pabelmont
    November 21, 2012, 9:48 am

    Yes, America and American Jews (another matter) need leaders and haven’t got them. Maybe too many people remember that America is a very violent country. President Kennedy was poised to do great things and he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. was actually doing great things and saying great things and predicting that he would not live to see the day and he was right, he was assassinated. That’s America’s way of dealing with upstart politicians.

    Who dares to be an American leader any more? And we need leaders desperately.

    American Jews have had no leader since Heschel. Pity. Worse, Israeli Jews have had all too many “leaders” of the military its-all-ours school.

    Most pity: Obama dares not (or has no desire to be) a leader on this issue, and coupled with all the USA-generated bloodshed seems to have joined the mass-murderer school of governance in which USSR and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (and Israel) so ably showed the way.

    Be kinda sorta nice if Americans had a choice (or a voice) about the selection of our leaders and policies. Wish I’d voted Green, woulda been better for my soul.

  3. Citizen
    November 21, 2012, 9:55 am

    RE: “Hillary is in Ramallah talking with the Palestinian Authority. Should she be in Gaza speaking with Hamas?”

    Yes, but that’s like asking Ms Rice to have not parroted what Obama’s handlers told her to about the cause of the attack on the US embassy. Further, Hillary does not have the depth to be a new Kissingeresque shuttle diplomat (and Kissinger knew he could never be POTUS).

    I doubt Hillary deeply knows that:
    81% of Palestinians “believe Israel’s long goal is 2 annex Palestinian territory occupied in ’67.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/20/how-israel-could-really-harm-hamas0.html via @thedailybeast

    In other words, most of the natives think the PLO leaders are being played for fools by Israel.

  4. seafoid
    November 21, 2012, 10:16 am

    I suppose it is all inextricably linked to this


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