This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
This week I was invited to speak in Bethlehem at a conference “Mission in the Context of Empire: A Call for Global Theological Resistance in Palestine.” I was asked to address Jewish theological perspectives on the liberation of Palestine. Though I am unable to attend the conference, the topic during this time of upheaval has heightened importance.
Thinking Jewish and theologically, I believe Jews have reached yet another crossroads in the ongoing saga of Israel-Palestine. In light of the current tensions, raising high the beautiful elements of the Rabbinic tradition is no longer helpful. Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s accusations of Palestinian participation in the Holocaust, and perhaps because of his misguided incitement, appeals to the Holocaust and for security in a hostile anti-Jewish world increasingly ring hollow.
Though interfaith prayer vigils and pilgrimages continue to gather in Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land, their weakness is obvious. Is it also wrong to continue on as if we only understood each other better, Jews and Palestinians would reconcile their way into a just future?
The reckoning that should have come after Israel’s latest decimation of Gaza, hasn’t. The reckoning that should have come after Israel’s latest settlement construction and incitement on the ground, hasn’t. The scenes of Jewish mobs marauding in Jerusalem and the West Bank, known around the world, hasn’t occasioned a reckoning either. When is enough, enough? When will the international community, when will we, say enough?
No matter the claims of religious adherents, theology without empire at its beck and call is ineffectual. Anti-empire theology lacks guns and tanks. It cannot tear down the walls that surrounds much of Palestine, including such noted cities as Bethlehem and parts of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, since theology is often at empire’s right hand, theology set against the injustices of empire is important. Theology against empire can hold fast, speak the truth, witness over the long haul. It can prepare a future beyond empire.
The sun sets on every empire. A Star of David-wrapped empire cannot escape this fate. Nonetheless, Palestine will not be liberated on our lifetime, if by liberation is meant a full Palestinian state or equal rights within a bi-national unitary Israel-Palestine state. For the years ahead, both the two-state and one-state options to resolve the Israeli-Palestine conflagration are an imagined hope. Our time is a time of waiting. With much suffering. And much more to come.
This is the meaning of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s declaration with reference to the occupied Palestinians territories a few days ago: “At this time we need to control all the territory for the foreseeable future.” Netanyahu pushed back against those who believe there is a “magic wand” to solve Israel’s situation. Netanyahu’s conclusion referring to Israel is stark: “If I am asked if we will forever live by the sword – yes.”
No person, religion or nation lives by the sword forever. Empires forget the obvious corollary of living by the sword. They rarely acknowledge the question if the inevitable dying by the sword makes the empire worthwhile while it lasts.
Empire seldom sees a way beyond the sword. Though empires never predict their demise, demise defines their power. Living by the sword “forever” is the feverish response to the demise lurking right around empire’s corner. Hence, empire’s use of force escalates after empire’s has defeated its appointed adversary. For empire no subjugation of the defeated is enough. More subjugation is always needed.
The alarm bells surrounding the recent state of emergency gripping Israel and the Palestinians is Jewish state power exerting itself ever more forcefully over a subjugated Palestinian people. Yet this state of emergency is hardly what we usually think of as an emergency, as an exceptional event that needs immediate attention after which the pattern of natural flourishing life returns.
A recent action alert from the YWCA of Jerusalem added “endless” to the state of emergency Palestinians are experiencing. When an endless state of emergency becomes normal, when emergency becomes the ordinary, then “endless” and “emergency” lose their meaning. Palestinians do live under an endless state of emergency. This has become their normal way of life.
The Palestinian normal endless state of emergency has taken different forms since the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. However, it all started with Israel’s creation. There is a straight line from Israel’s emergency creation to the emergency today. This straight line, with extensions, will continue for the foreseeable future.
Are the commitments of conference-goers, churches, NGO’s, the United Nations and individual nation-states, all of whom repeatedly register their complaints about Israel’s occupation, also part of the normal endless state of emergency we witness in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gaza and beyond? With time-lapse photography of Bethlehem, for example, moving from the beginning of the 20th century until today, we recognize that the normal endless state of emergency is reaching a terminus. Less and less land, continuing economic de-development, enclosure and now ghettoization, with militarization as far as the eye can see – these are easily recognizable signs of the end.
These signs of the end should be clear to Jews. Though heated discussions continue as to the relation of Israel’s brutality and Israel’s emergence as an apartheid state, for Jews it is more helpful to see a city like Bethlehem through a Jewish rather than a South African historical lens. Through the lens of Jewish history, where others see apartheid, Jews see the Warsaw Ghetto.
This image is limited. It is not meant as an analogy to the Nazi Holocaust. No one in their right mind believes that the Palestinians citizens of Bethlehem will wind up like the Jews of Warsaw. Nonetheless, the reflection on Jewish history is important and dissenting Jews, including Jewish Israelis, have been referencing past Jewish ghettos in relation to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians for decades. These historical references point to the great reversal of Jewish life, one that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overturn. It has to be the originating point of contemporary Jewish theology.
After the Holocaust and after Israel and what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people, Jewish theology today begins with the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israel and enabling Jews around the world. Any Jewish theology that begins elsewhere is a deflection.
If as a Jewish theologian, I begin with historical understanding of empire and then, moving Jewishly, see Bethlehem through the lens of the Warsaw Ghetto, the question of a Jewish theological perspective on the liberation of Palestine takes on a specific and haunting shape. What does the Jewish theology of liberation I first wrote in about in the mid-1980s say from this vantage point?
Like other ghettos in Jewish history, the Bethlehem Ghetto is surrounded by a wall, a hostile population and a heavily armed military. This time, however, the ghetto dwellers are Palestinian; they live and die on the other side of Jewish power.
The great reversal of Jews being oppressed and now being the oppressor has been discussed, parsed and explained in many ways. Often the analogy of the abused child becoming the adult abuser is offered. Yet psychological reasoning about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians has reached its terminus. It has become part of normal endless state of emergency.
Does continuing such discussions enable this incredibly destructive, violent, ghettoizing normal? From the Jewish side, keeping the Bethlehem Ghetto in mind, a recent video showed a rabbi from a group known as Rabbis from Human Rights being pursued by a Jewish settler wielding a knife. The rabbi was protecting Palestinians from marauding Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a good and dangerous deed. Since 1988, Rabbis for Human Rights has affirmed the goodness of Israel and sought its adherence to Jewish ethical values.
The question before Rabbis for Human Rights and other progressive Jewish individuals and groups who similarly call Jews to their ethical tradition remains. Has the appeal to Jewish ethics to be embedded in Israel as a Jewish state, even in its righteousness and courage, unwittingly become a tool of empire? Such appeals mostly provide an outlet for limited Jewish dissent without impacting Israeli state power as the Bethlehem Ghetto becomes permanent.
Though controversial even on the Jewish Left, a Jewish theological perspective on the liberation of Palestine cannot shy away from this question. Do ethical Jews, rabbis and lay people, progressive religious and secular Jews alike, provide a rationale to convince other Jews to pursue the liberation of the Bethlehem Ghetto? Or do they, and here I include myself, unwittingly, act to preserve Israel’s oppression by channeling and limiting dissent to the “protection” of Palestinians who are destined under the Israeli system to be subjugated? If the best of Jewish theology and secular activism, grounded in the desire to protect Palestinians and limit Israel’s injustice, is inadequate, is there anything within Jewish theology or Jewish life in general that can confront the ever-expanding and ghettoizing state of Israel?
So many Jewish efforts to confront Israeli power have been launched in Israel and America over the last decades. There has been and remains a civil war between Jews of Conscience and Empire Jews or, better, between Jews who seek to embody the Jewish prophetic where community and equality is stressed and Jews who seek to adopt a Constantinian sensibility of power for Jews over others.
The struggle between prophetic Jews and Constantinian Jews is epic. Rooted in the Bible, the Jewish civil war is ongoing and intense. However the permanent ghettoization of Palestinians signals a turning point in Jewish history. Does it as well point to a terminus in Jewish history, where Jews, once known as ethical stalwarts, have now become the warriors that pursued Jews over the millennia?
If Jews, in direct action and through enablement of Israel’s empire, have ghettoized Palestinians, Jewish theology is caught in this Jewish civil war which, like the Palestinian situation, has become the normal endless state of emergency. The only way out it seems is to announce the end of the Jewish civil war by Jews aligning themselves with Palestinians as a united front against the Jewish establishment in Israel and America.
Theologically-speaking, coming into solidarity with the Palestinian people means a return to the indigenous prophetic roots of the people Israel rather than a return to the land. That the prophetic is the indigenous of the people Israel is obvious within the Biblical rendering of the origins of the Jewish people. The Exodus is the place to start with the prophetic; a liberating God choosing an enslaved people whose destiny, in the words of the Biblical scholar, Norman Gottwald, was to create a socially equalitarian, decentralized tribal confederacy in the land of Canaan. When that project is troubled and ultimately dismissed by Israel’s rulers, God calls the prophets to judge Israel’s betrayal. The betrayal of the social project, noted explicitly in Israel’s creation of a society where the widows, orphans, strangers and the poor are marginalized, is linked directly to God’s project, presence and protection.
With the Biblical prophets, Israel’s betrayal is potentially and often concretely a disaster for Israel itself. Within the Biblical paradigm, how far off base the contemporary state of Israel is, is telling. In the modern sense this is true as well. Jewish ethical principles with the Biblical God and today, after the Holocaust, mostly without God, say a decided “no” to what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people. Yet the power of the state of Israel and its enablers continues unabated. A God-rescue isn’t around the corner.
Today a Jewish theology of liberation can only embrace the naked and unadorned indigenous Jewish prophetic of ancient Israel. Yet in that embrace the evolution of the prophetic must be embraced as well. Without God, Jews can only witness to what was, the memory of a God of liberation that acted in history, and what is, a spiraling downward of Jewish history without redress. The Jewish prophetic thus exists today within the darkest reaches of a Jewish history gone terribly wrong.
In the abyss of Jewish history, Jews must begin again – with Palestinians. This is a sharply-focused way of understanding what I realized many years ago: That the only way to be faithful as a Jew today is to embrace the Jewish covenant, a covenant that has fled from the precincts of Jewish power.
That the Jewish covenant, and thus the Jewish prophetic, reside in the Palestinians ghettos Jews have created is difficult for most Jews to contemplate. Perhaps this is why Netanyahu’s “forever” sword signals a fight within and outside Jewish history until the end.