Exile and the Prophetic: Question for B’nai Jeshurun – What red line needs to be crossed for you to speak out without reservation?

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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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.

‘Injustice is my enemy.’ Granted, it sounds sanctimonious. I don’t mean it that way but Rabbi Gordis’ love talk about Israel and Gaza drove me over the Empire Cliff yesterday.

Then last night I received word that the Rabbis and lay leaders of B’nai Jeshurun had softened their email supporting the United Nation’s resolution on Palestinian statehood: ‘While we affirm the essence of our message, we feel that it is important to share with you that through a series of unfortunate internal errors, an incomplete and unedited draft of the letter was sent out which resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment.’ The rabbis also “regret the feelings of alienation that resulted from our letter.”

Feelings of alienation – are the Rabbis leaders or followers? Feelings of alienation – is it more alienating to placate feelings or speak the truth about justice?

The synagogue leadership also affirmed that they are ‘passionate lovers of Israel.’ Oh, yes, but are they really? Loyalty oaths always engender suspicion.

Love for the Jewish people – an old loyalty one. A new loyalty oath: love for the state of Israel. In some mainstream Jewish circles now it’s even okay to be a loving critic of Israel. ‘Love’ has to be shown or at least spoken but to what end? To demonstrate that you are an authentic Jew and thus have a right to speak?

In the mainstream Jewish world, Palestinians, too, have to show their love for Israel – if they want to speak on their own behalf. For a Palestinian to love Israel is to deny their own existence. Therefore, by definition, in the mainstream Jewish community, Palestinians forfeit their right to speak about Israel. And since as the old country song tells us, love has its limits, if a Jewish dissenter goes too far in her criticism of Israel, no matter what they say about their own loyalties, they’re out too. They’re with the Palestinians.

Obviously, injustice can’t be the only litmus test. Most American Jews benefit from mountains of injustice. Israel is a highly stratified and racialized society as well. Most Jewish dissenters in America and Israel I admire come from the top of the economic, cultural and educational heap.

However, living with injustice and perpetrating it daily are two different things. Besides, knowing that no society will ever be perfect doesn’t prohibit us from speaking strongly against egregious injustice even if the ones speaking are flawed.

There is a difference between living with economic differences and occupying another people. There is a difference between working though the political system for economic change and strangling another’s economy and politics to keep a people under your thumb.

Yes, being conservative on some matters, I do prioritize Jewish history. I do think Jews have a special calling. I believe in a yet unrealized Jewish destiny. Against all academic odds, I believe that the Jewish prophetic is the greatest gift in to the world in history. So I’m willing to be painted Jewish blue.

However, visiting Palestinian hospitals in 1988, standing by the bedsides of Palestinian children that are paralyzed for life or brain dead, watching their parents and siblings grieve, knowing that there’s another way and that Israel isn’t taking it – how long should I and other Jews of Conscience show their love for our own people when injustice is institutionalized to deny and demean an entire people?

So let’s give it time. Let’s say, overlook the obvious until we have straightened it out. Let’s say, that because of Jewish priority and a history of suffering hanging out our dirty linen for others to see isn’t a good thing.

I will read off some dates – not the big ones – just random dates and Rabbi Gordis and the Rabbis and lay leaders of B’nai Jeshurun please tell me when I can speak and retain my Jewish authenticity. Now there must be some time when I can speak so I will go slowly. Tell me when: 1950…..1958…..1965……1971…..1979…..1986…..1994…..1999…..2003…..2008…..2012…..2017?

During this time has Israel crossed any red-line for you? Since so much has been involved, and since you haven’t spoken out, please tell me where the red-line should be? Are you saying that no matter what Israel does or how long this goes on – no what matter what – it’s Israel or bust? Is this what you mean by giving Jews priority?

I agree that it can’t only be justice. Compassion and reconciliation has to be part of the equation. This makes intention crucial. Outside of the rhetorical flourishes, what are Israel’s real intentions?

I haven’t abandoned my Jewishness because of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the birth of Israel. However, I can’t live with that fact without calling Jews to account for this crime. I haven’t abandoned my Jewishness because of Israel’s policies of closure, monitoring, targeted assassinations and numerous invasions of the Palestinian territories Israel occupies and controls. However, I can’t live with the fact without calling Jews to account for these crimes.

To embrace my Jewishness is another level altogether. Calling Jews to account for injustice is one thing; acting on behalf of the victims of that injustice is another. To become a partisan for justice is the essence of the Jewish prophetic.

The prophetic is a danger zone. To enter that zone with preconceived notions of who you can and can’t love is folly. In the prophet zone everything you knew becomes undone.

In the prophet zone, you can’t know in advance who your friends and enemies are. If you do, you’ll be caught up short.

You can’t enter the prophet zone walking on Jewish egg shells. If you do, those egg shells are going to crack with your first steps. If you stay the course, the prophetic will turn your Jewishness upside down.

Let’s put it this way: In the prophet zone you don’t send apologetic emails for alienating those who want to maintain Jewish power at expense of the Palestinian people.

It’s like the fog of war, once you enter the prophet zone your preconceptions fall away. Only your conscience remains – on high alert.

Is the prophet zone a bed of roses? Not on your life.

However, if the alternative is celebrating Shabbat with a New Age fervor on the stylish West Side of New York City while Palestinians are imprisoned in Gaza, count me out.

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. pabelmont
    December 7, 2012, 11:16 am

    You DO nail the preposterousness of it all. The professors of ethics sinking in a sea of injustice and apologizing for timidly raising — what ? — their own subject, ethics!

    The rabbis are supposed to be teachers, aren’t they?, and to teach ethics! In short, either to BE powers, or to SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER (to their own congregations, to AIPAC, to President Obama, etc.).

    Feelings of alienation – are the Rabbis leaders or followers? Feelings of alienation – is it more alienating to placate feelings or speak the truth about justice?

    The synagogue leadership also affirmed that they are ‘passionate lovers of Israel.’ Oh, yes, but are they really? Loyalty oaths always engender suspicion.

    Here’s a Quaker story for you, a case in point perhaps. (Hope I tell it right.)

    There are two types of Quaker meeting for worship. In one, the congregants might sit for the whole hour silently waiting for the spirit to call them to stand up and speak; and in the other there is a hired preacher whose job is to preach a small sermon at each (otherwise possibly silent) meeting.

    A young man from the first type of meeting took a job as preacher in a distant town at the second type of meeting. At the first (and second and third) meetings for worship he sat silently waiting the spirit to call him to preach. After three times silent, the elders talked to him. When he said he was waiting for the spirit, the elders said, well, in that case, they’d pay him when the spirit called them to pay him.

    Haven’t the Rabbis’ congregations been paying them to preach? And shall they not preach “truth, justice, and peace, and in that order”?

  2. Les
    December 7, 2012, 2:59 pm

    Dec 07 2012

    Jewish Establishment Crashes Down On Rabbis Who Endorsed Palestine Vote


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