Palestinian women and children demonstrate on January 3, 1988 in Al-Ram in the West Bank.
(Photo: Esaias Baitel/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
Before the Uprising: Jerusalem, 1987
In the spring, 1987, I visited Israel for the fourth time. I had just written, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, though when I arrived in Jerusalem the book was still in galleys awaiting publication.
Since I was an unknown the book’s provocative title was used for advertising my lecture. Hopefully it would encourage busy Israelis, NGO staff and perhaps a few Palestinians to attend the lecture.
The advertising strategy worked. The lecture hall was packed out, standing room only. When I entered the room, the atmosphere was electric. I doubt ‘theology’ attracted many to come hear me. Perhaps it was the liberation theme. Was I going to challenge the idea that Israel was the liberation movement of the Jewish people?
Looking back, with the Palestinian Uprising just months away, it was more likely the mood of the time drew people. The audience was on edge. Something was about to blow.
The first time I traveled to Israel was in 1973, then again in 1984 and 1986. My first visit was occasioned by my Hebrew School’s visit to Israel shortly after the 1967 war. When I asked him who ‘Palestinians’ were, he was overcome with anger. I didn’t understand his anger. I was determined to see for myself.
I returned in 1984 and to meet and travel among Palestinians. I wanted to experience the situation first hand. Though now its commonplace for Jews of Conscience to be among Palestinians, then it was quite rare. Most Palestinians, even in activist circles, had never met a Jew who wasn’t a conquering and occupying soldier. There I was in East Jerusalem, traveling through the West Bank and into Gaza. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved.
My visit occasioned my first encounters with Palestinian ‘martyrs.’ I will never forget visiting a sparsely furnished family home in Gaza and noticing a young man’s martyr photograph hanging in a simple frame on the wall. The young man was the son and brother of the parents and siblings I was sitting with. When they told me his story, I was silent. When they asked me what I was thinking, I was silent. I didn’t know what to say.
As a child I was imbued with Jewish martyrdom through the ages. Were Jews now martyring another people?
When I returned home, I was determined to speak about the injustice Palestinians were experiencing. Like most Jews, I knew little about the true history of Israel. I hadn’t been taught about Israel’s abuse of power or about the dissent that periodically flared because of that abuse. I needed to speak. What was I to say?
My third visit to Israel in 1986 convinced me that I was visiting Israel/Palestine rather than Israel alone. This insight came through meetings with Palestinians within Israel proper as well as the territories Israel occupied. Clearly, Israelis were new to the land, most of them being recent arrivals from Europe. Palestinians were indigenous to the land. They had been newly displaced by Israel.
When I rose to speak in Jerusalem my Jewish identity and explorations in Israel/Palestine were deep within me. I spoke of the necessity of a two-state solution, hardly a revolutionary idea, though one that as yet hadn’t been affirmed by large parts of the Jewish community in or outside of Israel.
What touched the energy – and the nerve – of the gathered audience, however, was my call for a confession by Jews to the Palestinian people for what we had done to them. As well, I called for the immediate sharing of Jerusalem and for reparations to the Palestinian people for what they had lost.
I offered the idea that Jews would never be healed of our Holocaust trauma by oppressing the Palestinian people. Jews could only be healed of our Holocaust trauma when Palestinians were healed of their trauma of dispossession by Jews. If we seized the moment, a joint healing could occur – in what I later called the ‘broken middle of Jerusalem.’
When I sat down, the room was hushed. Yet the rumblings in and around the silence were quite audible. What I said seemed like common sense – to me. What followed was more than three hours of intense back and forth. During breaks the discussion became even more intense.
I had three respondents. On the Jewish side, the first respondent was Michael Walzer, the well- known Progressive Jewish ethicist. Walzer took exception to almost everything I said, most especially, to my statement that Jews were now empowered and that Palestinians were suffering under Israel’s domination. He dismissed my call for confession and reparations as beneath his dignity to comment on.
Walzer’s response was visceral. He admonished me with harsh words about my character and Jewishness. His body language said it all. Throughout his response his hands were shaking. When he finished he sighed in exasperation. He was enraged that a Jew would speak like I had.
An American-born Rabbi was the second respondent. He offered a Jewish history lesson, informing me – and those gathered – that the rabbinic system had been replaced by the prophets. Though he admired my passion, I was speaking from the wrong period in Jewish history.
Like Walzer, the Rabbi’s response was physical. As he admonished me, he placed his hand on my shoulder and then on my neck in a cajoling way. Unlike Walzer who dismissed me, the Rabbi was trying to bring me back into the fold.
Elias Chacour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and Greek Orthodox priest was the third respondent. Chacour was courteous and insistent. He affirmed my presentation and criticized my respondents. Had they forgotten Jewish ethics and Jewish history, of having been demeaned and oppressed? Didn’t they know from the Jewish tradition that injustice is wrong whether it’s perpetrated by others or by Jews?
Neither Walzer nor the Rabbi engaged Chacour. Nor did they speak to me after the initial round of presentation and responses. After they left the lecture hall, the discussion continued deep into the night.
During the Uprising: Palestinian Martyrdom, January 1988
Just months after I returned home the Palestinian Uprising erupted. Though the Uprising started out like many a skirmish in this conflicted land, it quickly escalated beyond anyone’s imagination. Soon Palestinian protests and strikes were everywhere. Palestinians demanded freedom and a state of their own.
Israel cracked down violently. Causalities mounted. Palestinian injuries and deaths became commonplace. Israel’s jails overflowed with Palestinian prisoners.
Visiting Israel/Palestine was always an eye-opener for me. This time I sensed a profound difference. During my last visit I felt a new urgency for Israel to address Palestinian claims. Now Palestinians were making their own claims.
The Israeli response was mixed. Israel’s brutality was manifest. Palestinians had to be punished for rising up. Since most Israelis were taught that ‘the Arabs’ only respected force, power needed to be exerted. Power would pacify the situation. During the Uprising, though, Palestinians kept pressing their claims despite the hardships imposed by Israel. Because of this, some Jewish Israelis changed their views of Palestinians and the situation itself. They developed a new-found respect for Palestinians. They knew a Palestinian state was necessary.
Trying to frighten Palestinians into submission wasn’t working. Wound, kill and imprison Palestinians one day and the next day more Palestinians were on the street. Though Israeli disdain for ‘the Arabs’ continued and in some cases deepened, the other side of the coin was a new admiration for Palestinians who were willing to struggle for their state as Jews had struggled for theirs.
In the early days of the Uprising I encountered Jews and Palestinians crossing communal lines to provide medical help and relief for injured and imprisoned Palestinians. These groups formed bonds of mutual support and circulated statements based on that solidarity. Though, some groups had begun before the Uprising, they solidified under the pressure of Israel’s repression. Other bonds materialized within the ongoing Uprising.
The entire situation was fraught and with its own contradictions, yet it was clear then, and even more so from our vantage point today, that the Uprising years were a time of hope despite the brutality. It was precisely the willingness of Palestinians to continue resisting despite their suffering that awakened some Jews within Israel and beyond to think again and demand a change of Israel’s policies.
Looking back, the Uprising was the best and probably the last chance to establish and institutionalize the mutual respect between Jews and Palestinians that could lead to a two-state solution and, over the years, to a path of justice and reconciliation between the two peoples. That this didn’t occur is a tragedy. We are so much further away now than we were then.
My visits to the hospitals in Jerusalem and in Gaza City were the most difficult for me. There I found young men and women lying in their beds paralyzed or brain dead who had been injured by Israel’s self-proclaimed ‘rubber’ bullets. Their extended family was often in the room standing vigil.
The rooms were stark. They were decorated with the son or daughter’s picture, usually placed on the wall behind the bed. Often there were kafiyas and, of course, the still outlawed Palestinian flag.
I noted a peculiar silence in the hospitals, pierced periodically by the cries of the patients and the weeping of their relatives. It was as if in these individual lives a nation was poised between birth and death. The jury was still out. Hope for the future or a tragedy beyond words.
Seeing I was a foreigner, some parents explained to me the Palestinian colors and what each color symbolized. Other parents spoke of their son or daughter. Once I was identified as an American, they asked how America allowed Israel to get away with this violence. Didn’t the Americans understand what Israel was doing to Palestinians?
On a few occasions I was introduced as a Jew, who wanted peace and justice for Palestinians. The latter part of the introduction was essential. The usual response to my Jewishness was, ‘Welcome.’ It seemed important to the parents that not all Jews were like the soldiers they typically encountered. Not all Jews wanted to do what was done to their sons and daughters.
In their parent’s eyes I felt a challenge. Since I was Jewish, couldn’t I do something to change Israel’s and America’s policies? The whole thing was so absurd and so violent – and their child was now injured for life or would soon die – couldn’t I talk sense to the powers that be and change them so everyone could just live together?
I felt helpless. The parents were appealing to me in their hour of ultimate grief. I knew I had no power to change Israeli or American policies.
I was a symbolic marker, trapped between brutality and conscience. I was a witness to what Jewish history had become. I wondered how Jewishness had come to this.
In my previous visits, I sat in Palestinian homes where the martyred were present in the hearts of the family. Their portraits hung on the wall. Now I was in hospitals in Jerusalem and Gaza City where young people, children really, were lying in hospital beds surrounded by loved ones.
Often the newly injured were brought by ambulance as I stood silently in the hospital rooms. The doctors were sleep deprived. Medicine was sparse. The blood for transfusions was in short supply. The doctors were heroes without the means to do their work.
Though the Uprising generated hope against hope, in the hospitals there was an air of resignation, as if an entire generation of Palestinian youngsters would become casualties. What would become of the injured and bereaved once the Uprising was over? If a Palestinian state was born the sacrifice, while extreme, would be worth it. What if after all this sacrifice, the occupation continued and the possibility of a Palestinian state receded?
I wondered what the martyrdom I was witnessing would mean to Jews and Jewish history. I began to understand that Palestinian martyrdom meant the end of Jewish history as we had known and inherited it.
I was witnessing the end. Would there be a new beginning?
After the Uprising: The Birth of Jews of Conscience, 1993 – 2012
During the Uprising discussions in Europe and the United States mirrored discussions in Israel and Palestine. Amid great suffering, an opportunity was at hand. Never before or since has so much contestation, cross community solidarity and hope been abundant in Israel/Palestine.
In the Jewish community a time of reckoning was at hand. At the beginning of the Palestinian Uprising, American Jews came face to face with what had become the Jewish witness in the world. The Uprising gave ordinary Jews a chance to see the use of Israeli power close up for the first time.
While Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was roundly celebrated and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1982 less so, it was the Uprising that brought Israel’s actions into the lives of American Jews. By this time, Palestinian aspirations were understood by the broader public and by many Jews themselves as legitimate. Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian protest took many Jews by surprise. For these Jews, it was time to honor the Palestinian desire to have a state alongside Israel.
Coming face to face with Jewish destiny – was Israel’s fate to become a permanent occupying power? – Israel’s actions struck many Jews as repressive and regressive as well. Among other things, American Jewish investment in Holocaust commemoration was at stake. It was increasingly difficult to argue Jewish innocence after the Holocaust while brutally crushing the Palestinian desire to be free. Israel was showing a Jewish face that American Jews didn’t recognize and, above all, didn’t want seen in America. While once a boon for Jewish pride and status, Israel was quickly becoming a liability.
Israel’s crushing of the Uprising split the Jewish community at its roots. What American Jews saw was a coming civil war where Jews lined up on both sides of the Israel/Palestine power/justice divide. The Jewish civil war could be averted if the Palestinian issue was settled once and for all. Besides, once the Jewish civil war erupted, a Pandora’s Box full of dirty linen would be exposed and debated in the Jewish community and beyond.
Twenty-five later we can see how prescient Jews were. The Palestinian Uprising precipitated a Jewish civil war that continues to be waged. In fact, the sides are now so far apart that a fissure has opened that might never be bridged. Unheard of at the time, it is now a regular occurrence to hear Israel’s birth described as the ‘original sin’ of Zionism and Israel itself. Whereas then the discussion of a real Palestinian state alongside of Israel was just beginning, today the discussion has shifted to a one-state solution.
During the Uprising years, the memory of the Holocaust still informed the limits of Jewish dissent. To cite the Holocaust in the public discussion of Israel/Palestine today is to signal a bygone era. Rather than injecting historical depth into the question of Jewish identity and ethics, raising the Holocaust reveals deflection and retreat.
The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 signaled the end of the Palestinian Uprising. Though controversial in some quarters, Oslo was widely heralded in the broader Jewish community. Though most Jews, including the Jewish establishment, knew little of the accords details, they welcomed the ‘historic’ signing. With, Israel’s image once again on the side of the angels, Jewish innocence could be reasserted.
The Oslo Accords were signed the year the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, D.C. No doubt it was coincidence that the Oslo Accords, which portended the rescue of Israel’s image but soon failed, was also the height of Holocaust consciousness that, too, was about to become less and less relevant.
The failure of Oslo looms large. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin two years later was crucial as was the celebration – really whitewashing – of his memory. Having become a saint, at least in Jewish memory, thus skipping over Rabin’s history as an ethnic cleanser and implementer of the crushing of the Palestinian Uprising, Jews in Israel and America retreated to a sanctuary. In that sanctuary, Palestinians either didn’t exist or were resistors to a solution of the Israel/Palestinian impasse.
Meanwhile, settlements continued to grow. The rise of Benjamin Netanyahu signed the death certificate on Oslo and any hope of a two-state solution. For all practical purposes, the next decade and half were dominated by Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. With the likely reelection of Netanyahu in January that dominance is likely to stretch to two decades or more.
Jewish dissent continued during these years. After the crushing of the second Palestinian Uprising in 2000 and beyond, the mainstream Jewish case for Israel settled into a predictable pattern of deflection and denial. With the Jewish establishment in the lead, the mainstream Jewish community abandoned any pretense of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Israel or bust.
With the issue of Jewish ethics ostensibly settled after Oslo, the discussion was abandoned. Jews returned to remembrance of Holocaust safely enshrined in American power. Focusing on the Holocaust and Israel, mainstream Jews thought they could ride out future criticisms of Israel.
For many years the Jewish civil war was conducted between the Jewish establishment on the one side and Progressive Jews on the other. This split became clear during the first Palestinian Uprising when Progressive Jews asserted themselves as the carriers of Jewish ethics. The ethical banner Progressive Jews held high contained the Holocaust and Israel but skewed in the direction of justice and healing. That and their critique of American power clearly differentiated Progressive Jews from the Jewish establishment.
Yet the second Palestinian Uprising introduced another dimension which demonstrated that Progressive Jews were clearly aligned with Jewish ascendancy and priority. When Palestinians took their own destiny in their hands and this time refused a pretense to non-violence, Progressive Jews balked. The Palestine, Progressive Jews envisioned was imagined, modeled and managed by Jewish needs for recognition and security.
While the Jewish establishment hardly hid its disdain for Palestinians, the limits of Progressive Jewish thought showed paternalism toward Palestinians that bordered on racism. In Progressive Jewish thought Palestinians aren’t agents of their own destiny. As it turns out, Progressive Jews are more like their civil war adversaries than either side wants to admit. When the going became rough in the early days of the second Palestinian Uprising, Progressive Jews showed their true colors. They had become the Left-wing of the Jewish establishment.
A third player in the Jewish civil war – Jews of Conscience – was born. Whereas, Progressive Jews struggle to maintain their place in the Jewish world, perhaps with the hope of becoming the next Jewish establishment, Jews of Conscience realize that cutting corners on dissent to placate the Jewish mainstream means fabricating an ethical Jewishness that no longer exists. Rather the task is to strike out into the exile wilderness to communicate of what is going on in Israel today.
For Jews of Conscience, the hope is less to rescue Jewish innocence or the place of Israel in Jewish life than it is to speak the truth about Israel/Palestine without appealing to any constituency, Jewish or otherwise. Jews of Conscience also re-cross the divide that began in the first Palestinian Uprising, though this time with an even more critical view of the future possibilities of Jewish life.
On the concrete policy level, Jews of Conscience understand that the arguing a two-state solution is over. So, too, are the days of prioritizing Jews, Jewish history and Jewish ethics. The idea of a Jewish return to innocence is behind them. The days of invoking the Holocaust are long past.
For Jews of Conscience what is happening to Palestinians today is in continuity with what happened to Palestinians in the birth of the state of Israel – ethnic cleansing. Jews of Conscience ask if Jews can be silent, cut corners or deflect this central fact and call themselves Jewish.
The Future: Kairos Jewish/Palestine, 2013 and Beyond
As I write on the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Uprising, the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine has reached another level of intensity. Israel’s actions in Gaza and announcement of settlement expansion in and around Jerusalem are the latest provocation that represents the underlying need for Palestinian freedom. This present situation once again illustrates the need to address the Israel and Palestine from many perspectives, including the Jewish perspective.
Recently I was invited to speak at a conference related to the World Forum – Free Palestine in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I was asked to respond to the Kairos Palestine document written by Palestinian Christians in 2009. Their title – ‘A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering’ – tells it all
Kairos Palestine was the Palestinian response to the original Kairos Document written in 1985 during the apartheid regime in South Africa. The original Kairos Document was a theological statement issued by a group of South African theologians based predominantly in the black townships of Soweto, South Africa. The statement challenged the churches’ response to the institutionalized brutality of South African apartheid. Among other provocative findings, the authors defined apartheid as a Christian heresy. The Kairos Document is a prime example of contextual theology and liberation theology. It has served as a template for other countries and contexts to speak their truth to power.
Kairos is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment. The Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While chronos refers to chronological or sequential time, kairos signifies a break in time in which something out of the ordinary happens. However, that out of ordinary time has to be recognized. Better, it has to be seized.
Though I had been asked as a Jew with a Muslim and Christian colleague, to respond to the Kairos Palestine document – a worthwhile endeavor – I also believed it was important to sketch a Jewish understanding of the need for Jews to seize this moment in Jewish history. Therefore I sketched the framework for a Jewish Kairos document from the perspective of a Jewish theology of liberation. I titled my proposal, ‘Kairos Jewish: Notes from a Jewish Theology of Liberation.’ As you shall see, my hope is that eventually there will be a Kairos Jewish/Palestinian document as well.
Below I outline in brief areas that a Kairos Jewish document would cover. To be succinct, I list major areas of my initial exploration with a short explanation of each area’s importance. My hope is that this will provide impetus for other Jews to explore the possibility of a Kairos Jewish document. I also hope that non-Jews of every background will become more aware of that part of the Jewish community that is struggling with and embracing its deepest calling for justice in the world. On the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Uprising it is time to seize this moment.
The Jewish Prophetic: The Indigenous of the People Israel
Ancient Israel gave the prophetic to the world. The prophetic is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. Without the prophetic there is no reason to be Jewish.
Though the Bible contains God’s promise of the Land, the prophetic takes precedence over the Land. The prophetic is the final judge of Israel’s behavior. We know this through the prophetic that helped Israel escape from bondage in Egypt but also because, once in the Land, Israel was judged by its devotion or lack thereof to justice and compassion. While there are a variety of aspects of Jewish identity in the Bible, the center is the prophetic. The prophetic is the indigenous of the people Israel.
From the beginning of Jewish history, Jews have struggled with the demands of the prophetic. How can an individual live the prophetic and survive? Can a community live the prophetic in history?
To deal with the anxiety of the prophetic, parts of the Jewish community embrace empire. By definition, empire is a way of life that accumulates and dominates the materiality of the world and its peoples. The idea and practical results of empire is to assuage the anxieties that accompany being vulnerable to self, others and nature. For Jews the desire for empire accompanies the essence of its identity toward the prophetic.
The Jewish Civil War
Throughout Jewish history – and today – epic battles have been waged between the prophetic and empire. These battles are internal, hence the terminology, ‘Jewish civil war.’ Moreover, Jews have featured prominently on both sides of what I call the ‘empire divide.’
In contemporary times the Jewish civil war is between Jews of Conscience – on the front line of justice for Palestinians – and the Jewish establishment – with its uncritical support for the state of Israel. In between are the great majority of Jews who live in hope of a peaceful world but who mostly participate in the normal realities of daily life.
Today, the great majority of Jews live within empire – in the United States and Israel. Thus the Jewish civil war is conducted within empire realities. In the West, Jews have been known for associating with movements for justice. Over the last decades, however, the neo-conservative trend among Jews has become strong. Much of this neo-conservatism flows from the elevated positions Jews enjoy within the United States and with the increasingly right-wing politics in Israel. As important, many liberal Jews are caught up in the empire realities of the United States and Israel.
The Palestinian issue is front and center in the Jewish civil war. Jews who embrace the prophetic Jewish tradition are fierce advocates of Palestinian human and political rights and speak their message boldly. Jews who embrace empire deny those rights and censor those who speak for them, including Jewish dissidents. At stake is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. Is the prophetic or empire the center of Jewishness?
After the Holocaust and After Israel
In the years 1933 – 1945, European Jewry underwent a massive assault at the hands of empowered Nazi and other Fascist ideologies. During this time, one third of the Jewish people were murdered. For all practical purposes, Jewry was cleansed from Europe. The loss of European Jewry profoundly impacted Jewish life in the United States and Israel, as well as in Jewish communities in Latin America, the Arab world and elsewhere.
Contemporary Jewish life is lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Israel’s birth in 1948 was just three years after World War II came to an end and is viewed by many Jews as a positive response to the Holocaust. For establishment mainstream Jews, Israel is the place for the surviving remnant of Europe’s Jews to find security in the world of nations.
After the Holocaust, Holocaust consciousness, often analyzed under the rubric, Holocaust theology, developed. Naming and exploring the meaning of the Holocaust has been traumatic for Jews as well as a challenge to the Jewish future. After the Holocaust, what does it mean to be Jewish?
The establishment mainstream of the Jewish community named Jewish empowerment after the Holocaust as the main lesson of the Holocaust itself. After all, many Jewish communities lived as unarmed minorities among majority Christian cultures. They were defenseless under the Nazi onslaught.
The main thrust of Jewish life after the Holocaust has been to make sure that Jews are never again defenseless. Thus the state of Israel is a major material and symbolic center of the notion that Jewish empowerment has been accomplished.
Yet today, Jews also live under the shadow of Israel’s injustice to the Palestinians both in Israel’s formation as a state and its subsequent expansion. If the Holocaust demands empowerment, Jews now live after empowerment has been attained. Jews live with the sins empowerment entails.
Jews live after the Holocaust and after Israel which means, among other things, that Jewish weakness is balanced with Jewish strength. ‘After Israel’ also corrects the frequently used rhetorical device ‘after the Holocaust’ that seeks to minimize Jewish accountability for its injustice toward Palestinians.
The State of Israel
From the beginning of the Zionist movement, the assumption of Jewish power within a state framework has been controversial. When Israel was formed a majority of Jews were ambivalent about having a state. Jewish internationalists were against the state’s creation. So were Orthodox Jews, whose formation was in the Diaspora. Zionists were themselves split. Some Zionists wanted the normalization of the Jewish condition only a state could ensure. Other Zionists believed in the special quality of Jewish life in a Palestinian homeland shared with the Arabs of Palestine.
The great Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, was a homeland Zionist. She opposed the creation of a Jewish state for fear that such a state would become like other states – with boundaries and a militarization that involved armaments and censored thought. Writing in 1948, Arendt argued specifically that if Israel became a Jewish state it would ultimately come to resemble ancient Sparta. Israel would be dominated by the military and on a permanent war footing.
Whatever the arguments from Jewish history about the need for a Jewish state, its creation was a disaster for Palestine and the Palestinian people. Palestinians refer to this as the Nakba, their catastrophe. In creating Israel, 750,000 or more Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from Palestine. Since then Israel has continued to expand its borders and render more Palestinians refugees.
Over the decades of Israel’s expansion, the geography of Palestine has been permanently altered in favor of Jews. For Palestinians, the entire history of Israel can be seen in the disappearance of Palestine and the space for Palestine life to survive and flourish.
Jews of Conscience
Various Jewish groups have tried to address Israel’s expansionism and its permanent occupation of East Jerusalem and large areas of the West Bank. During these years, Israel has invaded Lebanon several times and occupied, lock-downed and invaded Gaza on numerous occasions.
One of these groups is Progressive Jews who stand between the Jewish establishment and Jews of Conscience. Progressive Jews are important because they frame the limits of Jewish dissent on Israel. Because of the Holocaust and the heavy investment of Jews and Jewish identity in empowerment, most arguments against excessive Israeli policies toward Palestinians have revolved around the Jewish ethical and theological tradition now being transformed by Israeli power.
Progressive Jews have argued a midway position. They demand that Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state be recognized. In turn, Jews recognize the right of Palestinians to have a state of their own alongside Israel. Nonetheless, Progressive Jews insist on prioritizing Jewish needs for a state and security. Often their arguments belittle Palestinians and make them dependent on Jewish largesse. An example is their argument that any future Palestinian state has to be demilitarized. In their scenario, the borders of a Palestinian state will be patrolled and controlled by Israel.
By curtailing a rigorous debate on Israeli history and power, Progressive Jews help enable Israel to continue its occupation. Progressive Jews are the Left-wing of the Jewish establishment. In my own naming of the Jewish establishment as Constantinian in its scope and operation, Progressive Jews are the Left-wing of Constantinian Judaism.
Breaking with the Constantinian Jewish establishment and Progressive Jews, Jews of Conscience believe that contemporary Jewish life is based on an empowerment that oppresses another people. Since this oppression is likewise redefining what it means to be Jewish, Jews of Conscience have no choice but to strike out on their own.
Jews of Conscience have come to the end of a bickering between Jews that amounts to little in substance and almost nothing in relation to Jewish and Israeli politics. Jews of Conscience have entered into exile from the mainstream and progressive streams of Jewish life.
In Kairos Palestine, the Jewish prophetic is re-presented to the Jewish community. With the prophetic atrophying in the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel, justice for Palestine, meaningful in and of itself for Palestinians, likewise re-presents the fundamental directional choice in Jewish history – the prophetic or empire.
Jews of Conscience take that choice seriously – after the Holocaust and after Israel. By after Israel, Jews of Conscience mean after what Jews have done and are doing to the Palestinian people. In taking the stand that solidarity with the Palestinian people is solidarity with the prophetic in Jewish history, Jews of Conscience place their faith in an interdependent empowerment with Palestinians and others around the world.
This is the Jewish kairos: to work toward a future of an interdependent empowerment among peoples. The possibility of an interdependent empowerment – after the Holocaust and after Israel – is the moment to be seized by Jews.
With a state, now finally safe within empire, and against a mobilized and powerful Constantinian Jewish establishment, the risk that Jews of Conscience take in their witness shouldn’t be underestimated. With the varying views that others have of Jews, trust is difficult. Even in the most enlightened circles there still exist views of Jews that are negative and conspiratorial. In exploring this interdependent arena, Jews of Conscience experience trust and disappointment.
Regardless, by seizing the moment – embracing the Jewish indigenous, the prophetic – Jews of Conscience stand up to be counted.
Kairos Without Theology
The Biblical prophets are commissioned and in dialogue with God. After the Holocaust, Jews ask how one can call upon God. Where was God in Auschwitz?
Now with Jewish empowerment and instrumentalization of the Holocaust as a lever for power – and with all those in empire who claim God as being on their side – Jews of Conscience are even more wary of theology and God-language. This is why the overwhelming percentage of Jews of Conscience is secular in orientation. For these reasons and more, a Kairos Jewish document will be mostly secular in tone and rhetoric.
Kairos Jewish will be different than other Kairos documents that have sprung from the South African original, including Kairos Palestine. In a desire to confront Jewish empowerment head-on, Jews of Conscience avoid the theological side track. Perhaps by embodying the indigenous prophetic of the Jewish community, there isn’t a need to proclaim the source of the prophetic.
From the other theologically-centered communities of Christianity and Islam, this prophetic secularity might prove a stumbling block. Still, as Christians and Muslims re-present the prophetic to the Jewish community, the embodied Jewish prophetic re-presents a secular challenge to Christians and Muslims. When does theology represent an advance toward justice? When does theology make justice more difficult to achieve?
The Jewish wariness of the theological challenges those who articulate their faith as the cornerstone for justice. Similarly, Jewish wariness of the theological can remind faith communities that theology is sometimes employed simply to prove they are authentic Christians and Muslims.
For Jews of Conscience authenticity derives from the pursuit of justice. The prophetic call seizes the moment in history when everything is on the line.
Jews of Conscience seize the moment by challenging the idols of our time, including idolatry often found in religious traditions. And since the Holocaust and Israel have become the idols of the contemporary Jewish world, Jews of Conscience strike out into the Jewish wilderness beyond the Gods that have been presented to Jews by their own community and by other communities, too.
Jews and Palestinians of Conscience in Israel/Palestine and in their respective Diasporas should come into solidarity. Embracing the prophetic call for justice but also the related prophetic call for compassion and reconciliation, Jews and Palestinians of Conscience are deep in exile. Their exile is in relation to the states and authorities that govern them as well as from large parts of their respective communal leadership.
Perhaps Kairos Jewish should be superseded by Kairos Jewish/Palestine. By facing one another, not only will this solidarity be uplifting for both communities, each can also support and self-correct events, images and hopes that are inherited and deeply felt by both Jews and Palestinians.
Any future for Jews and Palestinians will require a joint effort. In Kairos Jewish/Palestine, the communal, cultural, political and national elements of each community will be openly discussed. Religion will take its place among these other elements, ceding its priority to become part of an expanding view. This will have the effect of liberating theology from its own confines.
By disciplining religion in Kairos Jewish/Palestine, Jerusalem as a holy city is relativized. Instead, Jerusalem becomes the broken middle of Israel/Palestine for Jews and Palestinians. In Jerusalem both peoples will gather and form a new history together. Israel/Palestine as the Holy Land becomes another land, now filled with hope and promise for a shared future.
In Jerusalem, justice and forgiveness will be at the forefront of a ‘revolutionary forgiveness.’ The hope is that by forging a new path of justice, compassion and reconciliation, the divisions of the two communities will be overcome. Over the years, the violation of Jews will be of grave concern to Palestinians and the violation of Palestinians will be of grave concern to Jews. When revolutionary forgiveness is achieved the violation of one will be exactly equivalent to the violation of the other.
Since revolutionary forgiveness – with justice at its heart – will occur one day in the future, why shouldn’t Jews and Palestinians of Conscience who have already arrived at this destination share it with a world that is looking for signs of hope?
On the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Uprising, it is time to honor the victims of that era as well as those who worked together to give birth to justice and reconciliation among Jews and Palestinians.
The hour is late.