Exile and the Prophetic: Rachel Corrie – On the field of battle

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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.

I awoke this morning at four in the morning, my apartment shaking, a loud noise outside my bedroom window. I was startled, then I remembered. A rocket launch, delayed because of Isaac, was lifting off. I scrambled out of bed and hurried outside. I saw the rocket lifting into space.

I couldn’t fall back asleep. I lay awake trying to wrap my mind around some big-time cognitive dissonance. It continued through the morning hours.

I was thinking about Rachel Corrie. Then I thought about Republican members of Congress on a recent junket to Israel. After dinner, they decided to go for a swim in the Sea of Galilee. One of the Congressmen went skinny dipping. It was huge news. The New York Times reported: “For eight expense-paid days, House Republicans visited Israel’s holiest sites, talked foreign policy with its highest officials, and dined at its most famous restaurants, including Decks, known for its grilled beef, stunning views of the Sea of Galilee, and now, for an impromptu swim party.”

So what if an entire people next door are being walled in by the Congressman’s hosts.

The reason for these junkets – to keep the lid on the truth and American foreign policy on Israel’s side. So we learn that the American Israel Education Foundation, an offshoot of AIPAC, has organized more than seven hundred all expenses paid trips for members of Congress since 2000. Included, of course, are the top-tier hotels and private tours to Yad Vashem and Bethlehem.

I wonder where these hundreds of Congressional junketeers were when the Rachel Corrie verdict was read. Some may have been junketeering when she was killed. Did they know who she was, what she stands for, the meaning of her life and death?

After a fantastic night rest at a beautiful hotel, the dual whammy of the Holocaust and the birthplace of Jesus must be something special. I’m sure the private Congressional tour eliminates the bothersome view of Palestinian Christians, now surrounded by walls in in their own city. Why spoil the religious sensibility of our Christian members of Congress with the Christians of the land?

The reporting features the political nature of these junkets. But they don’t mention Palestinians – Palestinians don’t appear in the Times article. Disappearing Palestine. Disappeared Palestinians.

Good to know, though, that these trips are bipartisan. Representative Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, endorses the tours as a “rigorous, serious, and educational opportunity to understand the complex challenges Israel faces and the resiliency of the Israeli people in building a vibrant democracy through which to meet these challenges.”

Must be difficult for Hoyer and his fellow democrats to pronounce the words “apartheid” and “Palestinian.” Haven’t heard it in the Republican convention either.

The Rachel Corrie verdict strikes me the same way. The powers that be want to keep a lid on her fate. It’s a bipartisan affair. Why spoil the American love affair with Israel?

The verdict was predictable. Israel as innocent. But even if a guilty verdict was returned, would Israel’s policies have changed? Would the junkets have been discontinued or radically changed?

It makes you want to throw in the Holy Land towel. It makes talk of the Jewish/Palestinian Diaspora seem a theoretical construct. Without political teeth.

Should we throw in the Holy Land towel? My good friend, Keren, that indefatigable Jewish convert, hasn’t. Still, she spends much of her days now baking Challah bread and tending a peace garden with a Palestinian friend in Washington, D. C.

Like many of us, Keren is coming to an end of sorts, though I’m not sure she knows it. She’s hit a stone wall on the justice theme. Recently she has become quite sensitive to incendiary language about Jews in the Middle East war of ideas. Like many Jews of Conscience she’s in an impossible situation. Her courageous ISM work for justice – like Rachel’s – isn’t bearing fruit in any discernible way.

So Keren is knee-deep in the practice of exile. She embraces the New Diaspora fully. There isn’t a bone in her body that thinks she’s going back home. Only the future is still-born.

In the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot pictures Krishna, a divine incarnation, instructing Arjuna, on the field of battle. Surveying the scene, looking toward the past for wisdom, knowing also the fate which awaits him and his companions, Arjuna hesitates. Krishna implores him: “Not farewell/but fare forward, voyagers.” Doubt is resolved. Arjuna commences battle.

The prophetic doesn’t accept fate or instruction – as definitive. We always have choice – to turn within history. On the Jewish Biblical front rather than the Hindu Bhagavad Gita front, fate is chosen rather than endured. Yes, Arjuna reflects for a moment. There seems to be a possible break in the action. Perhaps he can break the action and change the script in another direction. Krishna has other ideas.

Arjuna – the fine archer and peerless warrior – on the field of battle. Keren – Jews of Conscience – on the field of battle. Rachel Corrie – on the field of battle. Not farewell but fare forward – voyagers?

Transpositions in time. Rabbi Irving Greenberg writing in the 1970s: “After the Holocaust, no statement, theological or otherwise, can be made that is not credible in the presence of the burning children.” To which my son, Aaron, at the tender age of 14, and as a response to an Israeli spokesman he heard speak at my university as Star of David helicopter gunships struck Palestinian towns and villages in 2000, wrote: “You are now undermining the ‘Name of God’ as I see it.”

Here in stark contrast, the inability to speak of God. With children burning. Jewish. Palestinian. Young Aaron asking the question the venerable Rabbi Greenberg is unable to ask: Aren’t the burning Palestinian children also our own?

Rachel Corrie giving her life. For the burning children. Of Palestine.

Since there are burning children, burning at our hands, so the impossible question – if it makes sense in the presence of burning children – is (im)possible to speak if it doesn’t make sense to the burning children of our time, which we are responsible for.

As voyagers, prophetic conscience is our guide. Our asceticism is like the training of a fighter – with conscience. We move in different directions, against the grain of history and toward the suffering, even and especially when it is caused by us.

We aren’t bound to a history that unfolds before us. We aren’t directed to overcome doubt. By a God. And if we are so directed, we can speak back and argue. We can and must disobey.

As actors within history, where we stand, where we move and don’t move is defining of our prophetic freedom.

Prophetic freedom. This is our Jewish fate – on the field of battle.

Aaron admonishing Rabbi Greenberg – on the field of battle.

Keren – on the field of battle – burning children everywhere.

The Rachel Corrie’s prophetic freedom – on the field of battle – practiced.

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Lovely tribute. Hope all those CONgressmen choke on their bagels. The mass of humanity will never forget Rachel Corrie!

Thank you. Very moving.

Maybe you aren’t as confused as you sometimes appear to some of us.

Prof. Ellis: I agree with you when you write: “After a fantastic night rest at a beautiful hotel, the dual whammy of the Holocaust and the birthplace of Jesus must be something special.” Resting at a beautiful hotel, seeing Yad Vashem with its strong, emotional portrayal of the Holocaust, and then visiting the birthplace of Jesus, which is emphasized in Christmas, must be a moving, special experience for the legislators, especially the visits happen one… Read more »

Thank you, Mr. Ellis. Onward and upward.