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Exile and the prophetic: Chomsky in Gaza

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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.

Chomsky is in Gaza. It just popped up on my screen.  Accompanying the title is a video image. Chomsky is seated, microphone in front of him, speaking.  An iconic – prophetic – presence.

Chomsky was invited to speak at the International Conference on Applied Linguistics and Literature (ICALL), hosted by the Islamic University of Gaza.  His topic: “The Arab Spring and the Future of Foreign Policy in the Region.”

Chomsky is eight-three years old and on his first visit to Gaza.  The press conference clip is vintage Chomsky.  Both his wide-ranging analysis and dead-pan delivery are etched in the minds of everyone who has been politically active over the last half-century.  Of course, he rarely talks of his Jewishness.  That would be way too personal for someone like Chomsky.  Yet he isn’t understandable outside of his Jewishness. 

Indeed Chomsky is his own brand and has been for decades.  His name conjures up an entire tradition of thought in the service of justice.  We have ‘Chomsky’ the individual.  We also have ‘chomsky’ the concept – what he means beyond his person.  Like ‘Jew’ and ‘jew,’ Chomsky/chomsky is an individuated and collective reality. 

As Jews, we should be grateful that such a prophetic presence arrived in our time.  Likewise, we should be grateful to have witnessed such a flowering of Jewishness in the darkest moment of Jewish history.  Chomsky in Gaza is a sign that the prophetic remains alive in Jewish life. 

The prophets keep arriving at Israel’s doorstep.  Chomsky in Gaza is a literal rendering of the metaphor.  Today, we can’t imagine Jewish life without a state.  Thus to be a prophet within the people Israel in our era is to confront injustices committed by a Jewish state. Gaza is at Israel’s doorstep.  Now Chomsky is there, too. 

As a Jewish prophetic presence, Chomsky is totally focused on the particular.  At the same time, his range is so expansive its mind boggling.  Yesterday I read a review of Neil Young’s new memoir in the New Yorker that speaks to this seeming dichotomy.

The reviewer, Alec Wilkinson, has an interesting take on Young’s worldview, a world where reading is non-existent.  Then he circles back to Bob Dylan’s memoir where reading is central.  When I saw that Chomsky was in Gaza, I immediately made another connection.  Chomsky embodies both sides of the prophetic Wilkinson describes. 

The juxtaposition Wilkinson makes is intriguing for a variety of reasons.  On the music scene and in public venues, Young and Dylan represent more than rock music.  Early Dylan and late Young provide bookends of the modern prophetic.  Or their respective careers highlight both aspects of the prophetic.  One bookend is outspoken.  The other is deeply internalized.

If an examination of the prophetic seems out of place, think of the discussions about anti-Semitism that raged these last weeks.  Anti-Semitism has its own particular arc.  It points as well to a larger problem.  Activism without a deep encounter with the world and self runs aground. 

It is not enough to be committed to an issue.  Issues come and go.  The recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine is an example.  When a British jurist on the tribunal bullied one of the few Palestinians to speak, the difference between issues for an outsider and fidelity to one’s own people became clear. Though outside help is needed, the issue of Israel/Palestine is primarily between Jews and Palestinians in the land and Jews and Palestinians in their Diasporas.  I take Jews and Palestinians struggling together on the justice front over outsiders whose issue has become Israel/Palestine any day of the week.

When issue-activism and the world of injustice collide, the collision isn’t pretty.  Nor is the cause for that collision resolved in its immediate aftermath.  Most often, sometimes with an adjustment or two, the world goes on as it is.  As the Free Gaza ruckus continues, Gaza is as it is.  Israel, with elections looming and Netanyahu raising his voice about Iran, is as it is.  Egypt, even with the Arab Spring, is as it is. 

The change that we see within ‘it is as it is’ is usually minor.  Don’t get me wrong.  Minor change is extremely important to living human beings and to societies.   If minor change isn’t important why bother to vote for Obama over Romney?  That’s why the debates are superficial.  Even the candidates know that they represent the status quo and have only minor differences between them. 

Change around the edges is crucial.  Change inside the edges takes a lot more time.

Even minor and important change goes back and forth.  So we need a long range plan, that strategic depth I’ve written about.  Strategic depth has to do with place and psychology.  It has also to do with spirituality.  I define spirituality as that place/psychology where we encounter ourselves and the Other at another level.  It is immediate and in person.  It is long range and across distance. 

Focus is crucial.  We need aspects of our lives that go forth and other aspects of our lives that draw us back.  In short, we travel from our core outward.  We then move back to our inner core.

Traveling out and in and for a few moments in our lives feeling out and in as one, is the essence of the prophetic.  Did you ever speak/act the truth and feel that oneness of intention, being and action?  This is the place of our truth as we think/feel/know/experience it.

Without labeling it the prophetic, Wilkinson explores this dimension in his interview with Young.  The interview takes place during a long drive.  Young is at the wheel: 

On the ride Young told me that he didn’t read, but I might have guessed anyway. He was a reserved and slightly grave figure, and talking with him was like being trapped with someone whose mind had no reach. He could only talk about what he felt or had seen or thought. I couldn’t respond to one of his remarks by raising an idea it had made me think of and have him make some connection to some other thought and then respond to that. A part of him seemed to have been arrested at a very early age. I am, of course, accustomed to meeting people I don’t feel able to talk to, or who aren’t interested in talking to me. I hadn’t expected, though, to find that someone whose work had ranged so widely had no curiosity about such an obvious possibility for enlarging the imagination, or to have been so indifferent to it. He seemed like someone who had worked at the same factory for years and years without ever wondering what lay to the left or right of the gates. Finally, I asked who he liked to read, and he said he didn’t read, and I thought, Bingo.

 Wilkinson continues and ends with the difference he finds with Dylan:

After the ride it occurred to me that his lack of reading accounted for some few of his lyrics being insipid or sentimental. He apparently had no examples of language carrying complicated thoughts or feelings, the way they are carried in the poems of writers such as Philip Levine or William Butler Yeats or the prose of a writer such as Isak Dinesen. The words Young writes fit his songs, often aptly and forcefully, but they are nothing like as elegant as his melodies. He has a superb sense of melody, perhaps even an underappreciated one. Some of his songs seem to be urgent bulletins from the deeper regions of the psyche—I am thinking of “Helpless,” but only because it is the first one that comes to my mind; there are many, many others. He has been an explorer, claiming territory that wasn’t on the map before or had only been hazily illuminated, and the simplicity of his writing is sometimes partly responsible for the music’s deep effect. I’m not talking about him here as a musician. I’m talking about his presence on the page. Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” has a succinctness and a complexity of thought and narrative that is the result of literary technique, of compression, of placement and juxtaposition, and of shrewd and penetrating judgments. He expresses himself capably, even handsomely, because he reads and thinks. He has ranged more widely than simply within himself.

The juxtaposition Wilkinson makes between Young and Dylan is fascinating – especially in relation to the prophetic.  I see Chomsky in between the two, taking a little from both.  If we substitute the prophet for Young and Dylan, the prophetic reads something like this:

A prophet is a reserved and slightly grave figure. When you encounter a prophet you feel trapped.  It’s like being with someone whose mind has no reach. The prophet can only talk about what he feels or has seen or thought.  You can’t respond to one of his remarks by raising an idea it had made you think of and have him make some connection to some other thought and then respond to that. A part of the prophet seems to have been arrested at a very early age. Indeed, the prophet is like someone who has worked at the same factory for years and years without ever wondering what lay to the left or right of the gates.

Some of the prophet’s words seem to be urgent bulletins from the deeper regions of the psyche.  He is an explorer, claiming territory that wasn’t on the map before or had only been hazily illuminated. The simplicity of his speech is sometimes partly responsible for his words deep effect. I’m not talking about him here as anactivist. I’m talking about his presence in the world.

Another prophet I met has a succinctness and a complexity of thought and narrative that is the result of literary technique, of compression, of placement and juxtaposition, and of shrewd and penetrating judgments. This other prophet expresses himself capably, even handsomely, because he reads and thinks. He has ranged more widely than simply within himself. 

Have you ever been “trapped” with someone whose mind seems so focused she has no reach beyond herself?  You probe and pry seeking expansiveness, perhaps something shared like a hobby or an off-topic endeavor.  You get nowhere.

You think – this woman has to have another dimension, a dimension we share, because, after all, we’re both human.  She can’t be any different than I am.   On the other hand, her focus is uncanny.  Even when you’re together she seems to come from somewhere else.

You wonder if she is an explorer.  Perhaps she is, but certainly not in the usual sense.  You try to share the terrain of her exploration.  That terrain is the prophetic.  You come up short.

Another experience:  You meet a man who is both succinct and complex in thought and storytelling.  His judgments are shrewd and penetrating.  He is well read and a thinker to boot, a prophet-philosopher if you will.  You feel that he is most deeply himself when he ranges beyond himself. 

Again, you are caught up short.  The prophet you encounter is so deeply present that you feel an absence.  His focus is so expansive that its individuation is extreme.  There is an asceticism to his being. 

Once again, you are caught up short.  You don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with.

What is the meaning of this encounter?  You’re not quite sure.  What you do know is that something significant is taking place.  It’s like an out of body experience.  When you follow the arc of his thought you arrive somewhere else.

Is that ‘somewhere else’ Chomsky in Gaza?  The cultural and religious differences are profound.  At this point in history, it makes perfect sense.  Where else should the Jewish prophetic be?  Where else can it be?

Again the contrast with the Free Gaza tweets is amazing.  Like Sara Roy in her memorial lecture in honor of Edward Said, Chomsky is the real thing.  They’re both Jews who can’t keep silent.

Chomsky is so focused and well read, I doubt one like him will come again.  Yet his dead-pan delivery, like Neil Young’s, has a relentless literary arc, like Dylan’s.  In his analysis, Chomsky doesn’t call attention to himself.  Yet his style is unique.  It has a literary character all his own.

Chomsky, nearing his end, in Gaza – embodying the prophetic – at the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it – is much more than a news flash.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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14 Responses

  1. lyn117 on October 21, 2012, 7:02 pm

    I hate to rain on your parade, but as far as I know Chomsky is an atheist. Not a Jew by religion. Perhaps he considers himself a Jew by culture or genetics, and perhaps he’d be complimented to be called a prophet, but “Jewish prophetic presence?” Did you ask him if he considers himself an example of the “flowering of Jewishness”? Why do you think he’s not understandably outside his Jewishness anyway?

  2. bobsmith on October 21, 2012, 7:57 pm

    Sometime ago I complained that Marc Ellis, in a particular post, wrote elliptically. This posting of his demonstrates that his strength as a thinker derives from his appreciation of elliptical thought. I take it back.

    • LeaNder on October 22, 2012, 6:27 am

      I never thought about an elliptical style, or in other words I never moved much beyond the ellipsis in a sentence. This one picks up on the tools he used to transfer Cage to the prophetic. That’s all I can say. We may feel that this is powerful and in the end surrender, since deep down in our souls musicians were our early prophets. In our rebellion against the world as it is. As someone said on Annie’s article about Chomsky in Gaza, he is one of the people that is fascinating, since he never surrendered to the world as it is, has never grown up, so to speak.

      Maybe one of the moderators can take a look at the formatting of the Ellis archive page, that’s on my mind for longer now. Somehow the numbers don’t show completely.

  3. annie on October 21, 2012, 8:51 pm

    wow

  4. joecatron on October 21, 2012, 10:01 pm

    Is this the place to lodge a similar claim to Desmond Tutu on behalf of Anglicanism? That would make infinitely more sense.

  5. dbroncos on October 21, 2012, 11:46 pm

    ” I take Jews and Palestinians struggling together on the justice front over outsiders whose issue has become Israel/Palestine any day of the week.”

    We Americans who are neither Jewish nor Palestinian may not have an ethnic/religeous stake in I/P, however we’re also in hoc up to our necks in I/P. Every significant, lethal attack involving international terrorism against US citizens going back more than 40 years, up to and including 9-11, have direct links to I/P. Even worse, and more ominous, have been our responses to those attacks – Afghanistan, Iraq and now, possibly Iran. One thing leads to another doesn’t it, Mr. Ellis. We Americans, all of us, are paying an IMMENSE cost for supporting Israel’s colonial crusade. These things carry some weight on the “justice front”, no? We are not “outsiders” as you put it.

  6. wes on October 22, 2012, 2:57 am

    dbroncos

    before you finger the point you need to ask what have these 3 countries have in common
    Afghanistan, Iraq and now, possibly Iran.

    well all three have huge resources and america has been plundering those resources at a steady rate
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mining_in_Afghanistan
    and you say this is connected to the i/p conflict
    “we americans”
    are hypocrites to even have the audacity to finger the point at israel
    the audacity to wipe out iraq for oil
    nooooooo bronco you are not outsiders
    just plain old plunderers

  7. wes on October 22, 2012, 7:52 am

    Good article
    Hope chompsky can surf because there is a big wave coming this week
    Maybe even get to wear his hawaian shirt
    Aloha baby surfs up

  8. quercus on October 22, 2012, 8:21 am

    The disturbing preoccupation with all things “Jewish” in Mr. Ellis’ writing smacks of a truly ugly chauvinism. Mr. Chomsky can’t be understood outside outside of his Jewishness? Is Mr. Ellis serious? I’ve read and listened to Professor Chomsky for years and he is quite clear about his views; views which any reasonable human being should and could understand. You don’t have to know he is “Jewish” and quite frankly his being Jewish is totally irrelevant.

    Perhaps Mr. Ellis can’t be understood outside his Jewishness, as he makes painfully clear from his writings; or then again, perhaps he can. Or is my writing this “anti-semitic”?

  9. CitizenC on October 22, 2012, 9:05 am

    Ellis is an avowed critic of Israel, a critique which fails only at the limit, in this Jewish essentialism, as shown here. “You can’t resign from the Jewish people”. Marx was Jewish (father converted to Christianity to keep his job after the defeat of Napoleon rolled back emancipation, and Marx was not raised in a Jewish household). Ellis refuses to admit the category of secular citizenship, and by implication, secular liberalism, even though he rejects Zionism—on religious grounds. He and his followers are “in exile from the Jewish people, carrying the Covenant with them” he proclaimed to a one-state conference. No, the Jewish People are in exile from humanity. Ellis’s Chomsky groupyism is very sad. Even as Israel prepares to annex Area C, Chomsky defends 2-state, with the State Dept and J Street, what a failure.

  10. Donna Nevel on October 22, 2012, 9:25 am

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Noam Chomsky lately and his unique and magnificent contribution to the global movement for justice. I think what Marc Ellis wrote about him is beautiful and incredibly moving.

  11. manfromatlan on October 22, 2012, 2:08 pm

    Oh, Lordy. A Jewish debate about Chomsky as Jewish from a Jewish perspective, the closest to a perpetual motion machine I have yet to discover. “Yet he isn’t understandable outside of his Jewishness”? Indeed? I thought that when I read him or follow his speeches what attracts me is I see, not his ‘Jewishness’ but his essential humanity and compassion, just as when I look at Archbishop Tutu I don’t see the cassock or the Christian, I see the person.

    Chomsky as Jewish prophet? Sure, I suppose one could say the same about Karl Marx, but I think Chomsky’s orthodox Jewish background gave him the linguistic knowledge for his academic work, and even, perhaps, his passion for world improvement. I would still agree, a Jewish prophet, and even if he is flawed, we love him still.

    But, Gilad Atzmon isn’t also a Jewish prophet? And why not? This is where we come to the boundaries of this discourse. Such as “Though outside help is needed, the issue of Israel/Palestine is primarily between Jews and Palestinians in the land and Jews and Palestinians in their Diasporas. I take Jews and Palestinians struggling together on the justice front over outsiders whose issue has become Israel/Palestine any day of the week“?
    WTF? Why not between Jews and Arabs or Jews and Muslims (or Christians?) You want to limit debate to only between the oppressor and the powerless and not the broader “outsider”? Are you even aware of or would you allow debate with the role of the prophetic in Islam or Christianity? Because the sum total of the prophetic in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought is that “there is no compromise, no quarter given to the other”

    Not your wishy version of that, sorry.

  12. CitizenC on October 22, 2012, 6:06 pm

    Though outside help is needed, the issue of Israel/Palestine is primarily between Jews and Palestinians in the land and Jews and Palestinians in their Diasporas. I take Jews and Palestinians struggling together on the justice front over outsiders whose issue has become Israel/Palestine any day of the week.

    What an unbelievable statement. I missed it on first reading, too hasty. I said that Ellis has no concept of secular citizenship, nor of liberal society, with his essential view of Jewishness. This certainly confirms it.

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