Exile and the prophetic: Obama’s Robben Island

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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.

The goal posts in the Middle East peace process keep moving as our Secretary of State’s couples therapy has failed again.  Instead of today or tomorrow the hope now is to get that dashing couple, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas, to a common table before the UN Geneva meetings in September.

Does it matter if they sit together now or then?  Jump-starting the peace talks is like waiting for the Palestinian Authority to collapse or perpetually warning that the Two State solution is almost dead.  These death watches will stretch out over the next decade.

Meanwhile our President is making nice in South Africa, visiting with Nelson Mandela’s family and admonishing the world that the best way to honor Mandela is to embody his values in our own life.  Well said Mr. President.   Where are his values found in your life?

Even in Africa, everyone knows you’ve let things slide.  And in the Middle East, well the best we can say is that you didn’t do much different than your predecessor.  True, you wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that George Bush started.  However, you enflamed many during your Presidency and made the American presence in both countries permanent. 

While it seems you don’t have the appetite for military intervention, you also don’t have the strength to block the interventionist appetites of the hawks in Congress and the military.  You’re like a policeman directing traffic who gives conflicting signals to drivers on both sides of the road.  It’s confusing – and dangerous. 

On Israel/Palestine, your two engaged envoys, George Mitchell and John Kerry, have failed miserably.  Their failure is directly related to what you didn’t give them to offer – justice for Palestinians.

What are we to conclude about your character that you so movingly invoke with regard to Nelson Mandela?  Politically, you lack the foundation for strong and effective action.  Your moral tone is rarely matched by your political initiatives. 

Overall, history will judge your Presidency weak and ineffective.  The most positive aspect will rest on your first campaign for President.  Your election signaled a crossing of the color barrier unique in American history.

What you didn’t want to be remembered for – being the first African American President of the United States – is what history will remember you for.  Significant, but as I’m sure you would agree, not enough.

In your memoirs, perhaps you will lament that you didn’t stand up to Israel and its lobby and tell Jews what we needed to hear – that Palestinians had a homeland taken from them, that Palestinians have a history and that Palestinians deserve a real state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Yet why lament while you’re still breathing Presidential air?  Why not instruct your Secretary of State that it’s time for some tough love.

Accept Nelson Mandela’s character as your own and risk the American equivalent of Mandela’s Robben Island’s prison cell.  Speak the truth about the history and future of Israel/Palestine.  Then do something about it. 

You’re visiting Robben Island right now.  Announce your tough love there – from Mandela’s cell.

Make it your letter, akin to another hero of yours, Martin Luther King, Jr., from the Birmingham/Robben Island jail. 

What better time to honor Nelson Mandela who knew that South Africa’s freedom would never be complete without Palestinians being free.

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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