Exile and the prophetic: When the Holy Land 5 attorneys reached out to me

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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.

With the storm’s passing, the beach morning sky is filled with pastel pinks and blues. The rising sun is bright orange. We’ve lost a lot of beach sand but, in comparison, the New York City subways are flooded. In the Northeast, devastation is all around.

That’s the way storms are.  Sometimes they pass close by and leave beauty in their wake.  Other times, they hit you head on.  You’re left to pick up the pieces. 

With the storm’s passing, the beach morning sky is filled with pastel pinks and blues.  The rising sun is bright orange.  We’ve lost a lot of beach sand but, in comparison, the New York City subways are flooded.  In the Northeast, devastation is all around.

Trying to protect ourselves against storms is perfectly normal.  But if we carry self-protection too far, it’s self-defeating.  We set ourselves up for a different kind of storm.  On the political front those storm often comes from outside – from the defeated – and from within – from conscience. 

Take the Holy Land Five.  Their appeal was just turned down by the Supreme Court.  Yesterday a trio of Mondoweiss authors described the case as follows:

The Holy Land Five – Shukri Abu Baker, Mohammad el-Mazain, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader, Abulrahman Odeh – were convicted of providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza through zakat committees allegedly connected with Hamas. The case relied on ”secret evidence” from an anonymous Israeli intelligence source. Four of the five defendants are now serving sentences in a Communication Management Unit, or CMU, an “experimental” detention facility outside of oversight from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where two-thirds of the inmates are Arab and/or Muslim. Detainees in these facilities are subject to arbitrary policies that restrict their movement within prison cells, and minimal contact with the families and attorneys.

The “anonymous Israeli intelligence sources” is quite something.  Did they whisper sweet nothings in the judge’s ear?  In Hebrew?

I love the name of the facility where the Holy Land Five are locked up.  A detention facility with ‘communication’ and ‘management’ in its name must be special.  They should name one of the prison blocks ‘Michel Foucault.’  The sign over the entrance:  ‘Orwell’s Vision.’

I’ve known about the Holy Land Five for years, even before they became national news.  Because of unusual circumstances, I knew details of the case before the trial began. 

It happened like this.  One day I received a call at home from an attorney representing the defendants. She wanted to know if I was willing to consider being an expert witness in the case.   She explained the general case.  When she finished, I asked the subjects they wanted my testimony to cover.  Her response:  Jewish history and the state of Israel. 

The initial idea was that by explaining the situation of Palestinians – and from a critically engaged Jewish historical perspective – the jury might look more favorably upon the defendants.  I would provide a general framework since the jury who wouldn’t know much, if anything, about the Middle East. 

The jury would be exposed to another side of the story.   The lawyers for the Holy Land Five were trying a reverse twist.  The jurors would assume a Jew to be against the Holy Land Five.  If a Jew would testify on their behalf, could the defendants be all that bad? 

Seen through Jewish eyes, my testimony would raise issues with the government’s case.  Were the defendants being singled out because they were Palestinian, Muslim and Arab?  The September 11th hysteria worked against them. The Patriot Act was their doom.  The designation of Palestinians/Islam/Hamas as terrorists had to be undercut.  A Jewish surprise might upset the government’s applecart.

An added plus was that I was located in Texas and teaching at a major Texas university.  The lawyers felt that the combination of Jewish and local would be a plus.

Soon preliminary position papers were arriving by post.  Over the next months, I had several more hour-long phone discussions with different lawyers.  The intensity was palpable.  I agreed to be an expert witness. 

Something happened.  The strategy shifted.  I never heard from them again.

My decision to testify is ephemeral compared to suffering of the Holy Land Five.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about.  After all, I was directing a Center for Jewish Studies in the heart of the Bible Belt.  I was the only director of such a center in the nation – perhaps in the world – with views like mine.  To put it mildly the local Jewish community and their national enablers were constantly on my case.   

If I had testified for the defense, my fate would have been sealed – earlier.  I say ‘earlier’ because the fate of a Jew of Conscience in American institutional life is fated.  It’s only a matter of time. 

If I testified, I would have asked for a witness protection program.  Relocation would be mandatory.  By now, I’d have taken a new name and changed my facial features.  I’d be writing under a nom de plume. 

Whose witness protection program would I choose?  It couldn’t be the one run by the United States government.  They wouldn’t take me. 

Jews of Conscience should have their own witness protection program.  I can imagine meeting a Rabbi from Jewish Voices for Peace who, like me, has gone underground.  For the most part, Rabbis go incognito anyway.  How else could they survive a mainstream congregation?  They might as well do it for justice.

Those who enable Israeli oppression of Palestinians would have found me.  It’s hard to stay underground when you have no place to go and there’s Jewish power around every corner in the land.

What sealed my fate – later – is the essence of what it means to be Jewish.  It is to be a pariah – for the sake of justice.

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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