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Exile and the Prophetic: The ‘Free Gaza’ tweets and the challenge for those seeking justice for Israel/Palestine

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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 Free Gaza movement is fracturing. A number of Jewish and non-Jewish former Board members and supporters of the Free Gaza movement are distancing themselves over issues of anti-Semitism.

I’ve had experience in resigning Board membership. Years ago I and other Jews resigned from a Board sponsoring a memorial on Deir Yassin on similar grounds.

The issue in the Free Gaza movement is comparable to the one I experienced in the Deir Yassin memorialization organization. Over time, both developed various takes on Jewish participation in the Holocaust and Holocaust denial. My experience is that those who attempt to dilute the horror of the Holocaust for political or other reasons are practicing a form of anti-Semitism. They are hitting at Jews as Jews.

Don’t get me wrong. With regard to anti-Semitism, I believe that much has changed for the better. I know as well that residuals of anti-Semitism exist. What hasn’t changed on anti-Semitism won’t change unless we deal with some politically incorrect issues.

From what I gather, the leadership of the Free Gaza movement circulated a video and statements that charged “Zionists” with overseeing the Holocaust and concentration camps. Whatever the details of this twisted affair, the whole thing is ridiculous and insidious. Let the protesting former Board members explanation set the discussion:

As former board members of the Free Gaza movement (our terms ended in August, as outlined in a 22 September statement released by Free Gaza, though this was not immediately reflected in parts of the Free Gaza website), we are disappointed and frustrated by the message and video posted on the Free Gaza Twitter account entitled: “Zionists Ran the Holocaust and the Concentration Camps” and by the subsequent messaging posted by Greta Berlin on behalf of the new board of Free Gaza II. Although the tweet was deleted and Free Gaza II clarified that the posting was a mistake and pertinent context overlooked, we believe that the responses posted by Greta on behalf of Free Gaza II have been inadequate. Consultations and efforts made by some of the former members of the board with the current board members were either rejected or set aside, which has added to our disappointment. We had hoped that Greta would provide evidence of the context in which she says she posted the video, but her failure to do so has led us to now publicly voice our deep concern.

Disappointed? Frustrated? Inadequate? Clarified? These are interesting terms to be used at this point in history. The entire episode is sickening.

Indeed, we don’t seem to learn much in our dealings with anti-Semitism. Trying to counter anti-Semitism by labeling it racism or prejudice as the resigning former Board members do, or referring to Jews simply as an ethnic group as Norman Finkelstein did at the American Jewish relationship with Israel forum at the New School a few days ago, is to tread a politically correct line that goes nowhere. This is true as well with Anna Baltzer’s forum presentation emphasizing the need to stop privileging Jewish voices on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

True, anti-Semitism is a form of racism. Anti-Semitism is prejudice. A major theme of Jewish history is ethnicity. Jewish voices have been privileged on the issue of Israel/Palestine. Have you noticed, though, how those Jews who resign from Boards, disassociate themselves from movements to oppose anti-Jewish racism and prejudice or discuss Jewish ethnicity and the privileging of Jewish voices at forums, are relentless advocates on these issues and speak with a distinctive voice?

In the West at least, though no doubt beyond the West as well, I state it boldly: Jews are not simply an ethnic group that has experienced racism and prejudice. Nor are Jews perceived as such. No matter how irritating the thought is to those who espouse the universal values of freedom and equality, anti-Semitism will not be dealt with effectively in this framework. Otherwise, after all these years, why would anti-Semitism persist so blatantly in anti-racism movements on the Left?

In the Free Gaza movement what was circulated widely was evidently supposed to be reserved for a smaller group. The significant story is that such claims could be considered by anyone for any group, large or small. I doubt that such claims would have been considered about African-Americans, Muslims of any stripe, or any other ethnic group that has experienced racism or prejudice. Would video tweets about these groups been sent to even the smaller group? Then why could this be tolerated, indeed promoted, about Jews?

The larger question isn’t about tweeting. The real issue is thinking in these terms. At this point in history, how can such a movement or parts thereof even consider such thoughts?

As well, the claim that Zionism is about a specific movement rather than Jews, therefore narratives such as was circulated are not anti-Semitic, is ridiculous. True, there are Zionists other than Jews and not all Jews are Zionists. However, used in this way, Zionists is code – for Jews. Simply put, what was circulated by the leadership of the Free Gaza movement wasn’t an attempt to deconstruct Zionism in a fair and political way.

I return to the use the word “tolerated” on purpose. Read the following in the former Board members statement:

We unequivocally reject and distance ourselves from the tweeted video. Such anti-Semitism was never tolerated by Free Gaza or any of the people or groups with which we have worked. We condemn all forms of racism and prejudice, including anti-Semitism.

While I don’t want attach too much weight to words in relation to a statement of purpose, nonetheless, “tolerated” is crucial here I wonder if the former Board members are primarily dismayed that anti-Semitism hasn’t been disciplined or censored by the movement. Or are they incredulous that such thoughts about Jews continue to exist at all. The prior question is where these thoughts come from. Why do such thoughts about Jews continue to exist within movements that are intentionally anti-racist?

Jews who argue “toleration” are fooling themselves. Jews who argue against racism and prejudice don’t appear to others only within the categories of race and ethnicity. Though anti-Semitic adversaries are wrong in their conclusions about Jews, Jewish power and the conspiracy theories that come along with them, they are correct that Jews represent something more than race, prejudice and ethnicity.

What do Jews represent? Jews represent the prophetic in its various forms, a distinctive line in history that is ancient and contemporary. Jews represent a type of prophetic engagement that is not completely assimilated. Jews are not explainable solely within the usual sociological classifications.

Jews also represent empire, assimilate and seek to normalize their condition. My point here is less Jewish exceptionalism or the creation of a privileged ontological status for Jews. What Jews and non-Jews think about these classifications is beside the point politically. The fact that for millennia, Jews have seen themselves as different and have been seen by others as different is enough for my purposes here.

In history, the combination of seeing oneself and being seen in certain ways is decisive. The politics of this combination is well known historically. The politics of this combination today is likewise well known.

It could be that a just political settlement of the Israel/Palestine divide will bring an end to the understanding that Jews are distinctive. This would be a novum in history. Whether Jews and others would benefit from the diminution of Jewish distinctiveness is an interesting point to discuss. I, for one, doubt this will happen and doubt it would good for Jews or for humanity. Regardless it hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in our lifetimes.

Jews are the same as others. Jews aren’t the same as others. Since this is historically the case and today the case, why not let it be?

In the former Board members’ statement the theme of toleration is coupled with a universal appeal for freedom. Though I support such an appeal, this is yet another mistake about Israel/Palestine:

We continue to support initiatives to end Israel’s illegal blockade on the Gaza Strip and its occupation and colonial apartheid practices in Palestine as a whole. It is imperative to be vigilant against racism in all its forms. It is also vital to work for the freedom of all people, and in our efforts to support Palestinians, it is the universal struggle for freedom that has motivated, sustained and guided the efforts of Free Gaza.

Though the universal appeal contains a truth, in the case of Israel/Palestine it has limited value. Freeing Gaza is not, first and foremost, a universal struggle. Freeing Gaza is a particular Palestinian struggle that has garnered support around the world. For Palestinians to mistake their struggle as universal rather than particular is to make a similar mistake that Jews on the Left make about anti-Semitism. It assumes that Jews and Palestinians are subsumed within the larger category of struggles for justice and that others have the same claim on the future of Israel/Palestine that Jews and Palestinians do.

Once you go universal, Jews and Palestinians become iconic figures. In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s language, Jews and Palestinians become “jews” and “palestinians.” As with anti-Semitism as a political force, the iconic nature of Jews and Palestinians has to be negotiated. However, for Jews and Palestinians to cede their struggle to others is an error. This is different than using others as a tool of political leverage.

That Jews – and Palestinians – have a distinctive voice should be more than tolerated. It should be accentuated. It should be celebrated.

Claiming that Jews – and Palestinians – are universal types is the mistake of mistakes. In that light, we become a positive and negative cause for others who discipline and censor – even tweet – our voice as their own.

What does this mean for activists seeking justice for Israel/Palestine? It means, first and foremost, what we know already about the many sharp angles confronting that hope. Whether we like it or not, the Israel/Palestine situation is unlike any other on the world scene. Likewise it means that attempts to shortcut this difference will only enhance the voice of those who seek that justice for reasons that reside outside the ordinary lives of Jews and Palestinians. Moreover, the natural frustration at the years of negative movement in Israel/Palestine brings out the worse aspects of a struggle that is so particular it irritates the inner workings of movements that demand justice in a universal setting they claim as humanity’s birthright.

On the positive side, activists should welcome the testing that comes with this “intractable” conflict that we “know” can be resolved. Since everyone and their brother/sister are involved and self-interested in the Israel/Palestine conflict, the political, economic, military, cultural and religious intelligence we need to apply is enormous.

One day that intelligence will win out. What we don’t know is how many people will suffer and die in the meantime.

The “meantime” is crucial. It is a learning time that can be applied over the long haul. Our first learning is that treating Jews and Palestinians as if they’re universal types is a mistake. Unfortunately – and in this case, logically – it leads to tweets that prove just the opposite.

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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10 Responses

  1. Danaa on October 12, 2012, 2:05 pm

    What you say, Marc, is always very deep but sometimes shallow has its uses.

    So here are some shallow waters for you – Jewish people are in the forefront of the struggle for palestinian rights. That this should be so is indeed part of the prophetic tradition from whence they came -as you often say. However, Jews cannot apparently divorce themselves from their own privileged status of “eternal victims”, even when they are part of the victimizers of the present. Therefore, sooner or later, their own sense of victimhood is bound to assert itself over the victimhood of others, when a choice is to be made.

    For these reasons, I don’t think that jewish people will be able to lead the grim fight the palestinians face. And grim it is and will get grimmer. Ultimately, the only way Jewish persons will be able to truly help the palestinian cause – if such be their goal – is to cut, with a very sharp knife, the ties that bind them to the Jews of Israel. In other words, to truly actualize the prophetic nature, they must exit the tribal and choose permanent exile.

    • notatall on October 12, 2012, 6:45 pm

      Which so many find so hard to do. I am reminded of the Abolitionist Stephen Foster (husband of Abby Kelley), who used to go every Sunday morning to one of the Christian churches, wait for a break and then rise and denounce the minister and congregation as a brotherhood of thieves for associating with their co-religionists who upheld slavery. After they bounced him out, often roughly, he would pick himself up, dust himself off, and then repeat the performance at another church. His message was simple: Come out from among them.

  2. Exiled At Home on October 12, 2012, 3:32 pm

    “Trying to counter anti-Semitism by labeling it racism or prejudice as the resigning former Board members do, or referring to Jews simply as an ethnic group as Norman Finkelstein did at the American Jewish relationship with Israel forum at the New School a few days ago, is to tread a politically correct line that goes nowhere.”

    Oh, brother…

  3. bobsmith on October 12, 2012, 7:56 pm

    Ellis writes: “Otherwise, after all these years, why would anti-Semitism persist so blatantly in anti-racism movements on the Left?” but doesn’t really address his own question properly.

    There are many explanations for today’s version of anti-Semitism, not the least of which is that much of the world is uneducated and/or deeply attached to conspiracy theories. WorldNet Daily, FOX, etc. in the West certainly flog right-wing conspiracies among “low-information” voters. Similarly and unfortunately, one finds plenty of anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic conspiracy tales in the Arab world. But we must also add — both worlds have plenty more reliable news sources that most people rely on.

    I’m sure I’ll hear outraged voices when I say that Israel is responsible for a large amount of contemporary anti-Semitism, but it seems to spike whenever Israel murders a bunch of civilians, starts a war, kidnaps someone, violates international law, or abuses protesters.

    But Israel is filled with racists like Avigdor Lieberman, or the majority of the half million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and elsewhere, who wrap their racism in a religious sandwich. Or consider the former chief Sefardi rabbi Ovadia Josef, who calls for genocide against Palestinians. Or controversial new religious texts defending the murder of the goyim. Or rabbis during the siege of Gaza telling soldiers to slay the Palestinians like Amalek. If Israeli Jews are saying this, and American Jews reflexively (and reliably) defend them, why wouldn’t someone see Judaism (at least this warped kind) and Jews in general as pretty awful?

    And then there is the fact that anti-Semitism has been completely redefined:
    http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-sharansky-s05.htm

    It no longer refers to spreading rumors that, say, we drink the blood of little children. Nobody believes this crap anymore. Nobody. But thanks to Israeli efforts like Sharansky’s (above), anti-Semitism now is mainly the “denial of a national Jewish homeland” — in other words, calling for a single, secular, democratic state like we have in the United States.

    To get back to Ellis: nobody but Jews cares about the ontological status of Jews. And it would be a good thing for us to accept this as a fact. This is a private thing. No offense to the Amish but, while I wish them well, I don’t ponder their ontological status. They just are and, like all of us, add flavor and variety to society.

    Not just the Free Gaza movement, but all of us, need to fight against real anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The fact that now we are seeing both forms of hate combined in groups like the EDL and in Geert Wilders’ party (although he cynically gives talks in synagogues) should tell us we need to regard them identically. And this means making a clear distinction between revisionist definitions of anti-Semitism and the real one which, like pornography, you know when you see it.

    Again, to quibble with Ellis: whether a miracle happens and a two state solution is again somehow possible; or Israel eventually becomes a secular, democratic state that honors both its Jewish and Palestinian culture and religion; or every Israeli Jew again disperses throughout the Disapora — Jews will continue to keep Jewish traditions and culture alive. The physical state of Israel is not the same as the idea of biblical Israel. The religious among us would even keep the latter alive.

  4. lyn117 on October 12, 2012, 9:15 pm

    Thank you for explaining why the twitter was antisemitic. My instinct said it was, logic said it wasn’t. Logic says it isn’t antisemitic to accuse one group of Jews (zionists) with assisting in mass murder of millions, however false the charge. It isn’t, after all, anti-Palestinian to say that Palestinians are running Gaza or the West Bank bantustans (internally at least). It isn’t anti-Palestinian to say that some of them collaborate with Israel. But, as you explained, in this case “zionist” is a stand-in for “Jew”. I’m glad to have my instinct validated.

    However, when you accuse the board or former board of Free Gaza of antisemitic feelings I have to draw the line. Some of those you accuse are Jews, like Adam Shapiro. They may or may not have entertained ideas such as in the tweet, that is, that zionists directly helped murder millions of Jews. The charge of antisemitism is so often leveled at supporters of Palestine that all of us have to figure out what is and what isn’t antisemitism (I guess you don’t have to determine who’s antisemitic, you’ve already decided). That this particular charge was put forth by a known antisemitic and conspiracy theorist who provides no other evidence than rambling innuendo makes it easy to figure out it really is antisemitic. If the charge had been put forth by an unbiased historian (if there is such a thing) with solid evidence to back it up (and I won’t even claim historical “evidence” is always that), would you still regard it as antisemitic? How do you regard the charge that zionists collaborated with the nazis in expelling the Jews from Germany earlier in the nazi rule, or that some attempted alliances with Hitler in the 1940’s, of which I’ve heard there’s at least some evidence?

    I don’t think Greta Berlin is antisemitic, and what she tweeted was entirely valid subject for discussion among supporters of Palestine, and privately, because we might have a different take on them than supporters of Israel. Supporting Palestine undoubtedly makes one more open to to harboring the idea that zionists worked against Jews or collaborated with the world’s worst criminal. All the more important to go examine those ideas for their antisemitic content, the better to eschew antisemitism in oneself and one’s movement.

    As for the “Jews represent the prophetic in its various forms …” business, I frankly find that a bit of self-absorbed and exclusivist naval contemplation. The word “prophet” originates from the Greek. Sorry to be so harsh.

  5. dbroncos on October 12, 2012, 10:53 pm

    “Jews are the same as others. Jews aren’t the same as others. Since this is historically the case and today the case, why not let it be?”

    I would appreciate some elboration on these points which you have expressed before on previous posts. Also on the idea of what you refered to as the Jewish quest for normalization.

  6. American on October 12, 2012, 11:18 pm

    ‘Ellis writes: “Otherwise, after all these years, why would anti-Semitism persist so blatantly in anti-racism movements on the Left?”’

    I get the impression from reading your stuff that you wouldn’t trade anti semtism for anything in the world……obviously it gives meaning to Jewish existence.
    What would you be without it?…not distinctive, not a special people?..that’s what it revolves around doesn’t it?
    Hopeless.

    • wes on October 15, 2012, 3:30 am

      American

      why not try taking a train in france with a skullcap on, someone just might knock some anti semitism into you

  7. Richard Congress on October 15, 2012, 8:54 pm

    Exile and the Pathetic, re: Mark Ellis’ bigoted, ethnocentric rant posted on Mondoweiss Oct 12

    Over these past several months I’ve wondered why Phil Weiss has
    seemingly made the column by Ellis a fixture on his otherwise
    excellent blog. After a few days of actually reading Ellis’ postings
    and trying to parse his tedious stream-of-consciousness entries about
    the trivia of his daily activities and cryptic allusions to “the
    prophetic,” I finally gave up and stopped reading his stuff.

    But I at least kept running my eyes over his column just to see if
    anything was there of interest. Finally, there was something —
    something especially noxious.

    I don’t know Greta Berlin, or know anything about her activities. I
    also haven’t seen the offending Twitter message that says Zionists ran
    the Nazi death camps. Berlin has apologized and says that sending it
    out was a mistake and that the Twitter was supposed to go to a certain
    group of people (I guess like a listserve) to discuss. And that the
    content was supposed to be discussed as an example of something to be
    opposed.

    Is she being truthful, or not? Is more behind this incident? I don’t know.

    Be that as it may, just focusing on the words in Ellis’ latest post
    about Jews in history , what is antisemitism, universalism, the
    supposed sins of the left and the ever, transcendentally hovering,
    crank references to “the prophetic” is enough of a reason to dismiss
    Mark Ellis as someone who is not only a mystical obscuritanist, but a
    peddler of reactionary crap.

    These are Ellis’ own words:

    “Indeed, we don’t seem to learn much in our dealings with
    anti-Semitism. Trying to counter anti-Semitism by labeling it racism
    or prejudice… or referring to Jews simply as an ethnic group as Norman Finkelstein did at the
    American Jewish relationship with Israel forum at the New School a few
    days ago, is to tread a politically correct line that goes nowhere.
    This is true as well with Anna Baltzer’s forum presentation
    emphasizing the need to stop privileging Jewish voices on the issue of
    Israel/Palestine….

    “In the West at least, though no doubt beyond the West as well, I state
    it boldly: Jews are not simply an ethnic group that has experienced
    racism and prejudice. Nor are Jews perceived as such. No matter how
    irritating the thought is to those who espouse the universal values of
    freedom and equality, anti-Semitism will not be dealt with effectively
    in this framework. Otherwise, after all these years, why would
    anti-Semitism persist so blatantly in anti-racism movements on the
    Left?…”

    Ellis continues:

    “What do Jews represent? Jews represent the prophetic in its various
    forms, a distinctive line in history that is ancient and contemporary.
    Jews represent a type of prophetic engagement that is not completely
    assimilated. Jews are not explainable solely within the usual
    sociological classifications….”

    Ellis then goes on to attack the left’s secular humanist stance of
    universal values

    “Though the universal appeal contains a truth, in the case of
    Israel/Palestine it has limited value. Freeing Gaza is not, first and
    foremost, a universal struggle. Freeing Gaza is a particular
    Palestinian struggle that has garnered support around the world. For
    Palestinians to mistake their struggle as universal rather than
    particular is to make a similar mistake that Jews on the Left make
    about anti-Semitism. It assumes that Jews and Palestinians are
    subsumed within the larger category of struggles for justice and that
    others have the same claim on the future of Israel/Palestine that Jews
    and Palestinians do.”

    Why does Ellis attack Norman Finkelstein for referring to Jews as an ethnic
    group? Why does he attack Anna Baltzer for NOT wanting to give Jewish
    opinions on Palestine/Israel special weight or better said, a veto.
    Why does he reject viewing Israel/Palestine from a universalist
    perspective. Is the Palestine solidarity making any claims to determine their future?
    What’s up with this retrograde/supernatural nonsense
    about “the prophetic?” Why the vitriol over the left’s alleged
    antisemitism?

    Jews are not transcendent, or innately “prophetic,” or more moral than
    other people. They are no better and no worse than anyone else. The
    world does not see Jews as prophetic, or magical either (maybe he’s
    thinking of evangelical Christians who see Jews as the raw material to
    detonate the second coming of Christ, who will save the Christians and cast
    the Jews down to hell).

    To understand Zionism, Israel and the Palestinian struggle you have to
    see it as a battle of a colonized people against an illegitimate,
    colonial settler state. The European-born Zionist movement saw the
    world through the same racist, Western lens as did the colonial
    powers, such as the UK, Turkey,and Russia—all of which Hertzel lobbied
    for sponsorship of a Jewish state.

    It’s anti-colonialism and universalism that allows us to truly
    understand what’s going on in Israel/Palestine. Israel’s system is
    like apartheid. The Palestinian’s struggle is like that of the
    Vietnamese against the USA, and the Baharainis struggle against the
    Saudi and US backed monarchy. International solidarity is a good
    thing.

    Why the particularism of Ellis about Israel/Palestine? He offers no
    logical cogent reasons. The left is allegedly anti-semitic and any criticism the
    left makes of anti-semitism isn’t good enough for Mark Ellis. Israel
    is exempt from univeralism, Jews are special, not a mere ethnic
    group—they are “prophetic,” above the mundane world. What inference
    can you make? Where do his arguments lead? It appears to me that Elis
    believes that the Jews have a special, spiritual claim to Israel,
    activists who work in support of the Palestinians struggle for equal
    rights (they tend to be on the left) are anti-semities or tolerate
    anti-semitism, no matter how much they deny it.

    In my opinion it all ties together and points to Ellis’ worldview as
    exempting Jews and Israel from having to conform to the values and
    behavior of “lesser people.” In short, Ellis is politically rightwing
    and more than soft on Zionism. His main role is spreading confusion
    inside the movement.

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