Exile and the prophetic: The Russell Tribunal on 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.

I’ve been watching the live-streaming of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine being held in New York City. This is the fourth session of the tribunal and deals with “US Complicity and UN Failings in Dealing with Israel’s Violations of International Law Toward the Palestinian People.” Speakers include former adviser to Palestinian negotiators Diana Buttu, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, author and activist Ben White, the Palestinian Center for Human Right’s Raji Sourani and more. Jurists include Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Mairead Corrigan Maguire.

The first session was held in London – “International Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Violations of International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, and War Crimes”- the second in Barcelona – “Complicities and Omissions of the European Union and its Member States in the Ongoing Occupation of Palestinian Territories by Israel and the Perpetuation of the Violations of International Law Committed by Israel” -the third in Cape Town: “Are Israeli Practices against the Palestinian People in Breach of the Prohibition on Apartheid under International Law?” Lots of ground covered.  Israel and all its enablers.

As you might expect, the suspense before the verdicts must is palpable.  Can you imagine any of these juries announcing a “Not Guilty” verdict? 

Yesterday, during the lunch break, “We are the Palestinian People” was live-streamed.  Clearly this is a Kangaroo court.  Nonetheless it’s getting the word out that in the major centers of the world, Israel is perceived as conducting a criminal enterprise.  The evidence presented at these tribunals is considered and voluminous, legal and academic.  Hyperbole is kept to a minimum.  There’s hardly a religious or mystical word to be found.

The public airing of Israel’s violations of International Law – with Israel’s enablers like the United States and the United Kingdom being called to task – is gaining ground globally.  Soon there may be enough influential people speaking of these crimes to make a difference.  At least the tribunal is able to meet, do its work and publicize its findings.  When the tipping point will arrive is another story.      

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine covers all of the bases.  From corporate complicity to war crimes to apartheid, no stone is left unturned.   From what I gather, however, there is one glaring absence:  a discussion of Jewish history and Jewish particularity.  But since such discussions have historically been retrogressive, why include them now?  

Watching the tribunal, I remember Barry Commoner, a founder of the modern environmental movement, who died a few days ago.  Commoner was a prophetic Jew – with the proverbial name change. Commoner’s parents were Goldie Yarmolinsky and Isidore Comenair.  Commoner was active to the very end.  He was a one-man Russell Tribunal on the faltering ecology of the planet.  

Reading Commoner’s obituary, I was especially taken by the continuing relevance of Commoner’s “Four Rules of Ecology.” These rules may be applied to the various Russell Tribunals of the future: 

Everything is connected to everything else.

Everything must go somewhere.

Nature knows best.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Tracing the thought behind Commoner’s four rules, the prophetic comes into view. It seems that Commoner’s overarching concern was not ecology as such.  Instead, it was the radical ideal of social justice.  Commoner believed that environmental pollution, war, national security and racial and sexual inequality were related to the central problem of unjust political and economic systems.  These systems couldn’t afford to pay attention to our ecological future. 

To say Commoner was way ahead of his time is a misnomer.  In the prophetic concept of time, he was right on schedule.

Translated into the prophetic, Commoner’s Four Rules of Ecology might be (re)read as the Four Rules of the Prophetic: 

The prophetic is connected to everything else.

The prophetic must go somewhere.

The prophetic knows best.

There is no such thing as a free prophetic.                

These are interesting rules.  But there doesn’t seem to be a destination. 

Prophetic rules for what?  For Russell Tribunals?  Perhaps they are rules of prophetic engagement.  Or are they guidelines?  Then again, they could be foundational principles for the prophetic or rules of thumb when thinking through the prophetic.

Regardless which you choose, the Four Rules of the Prophetic seem limited, if not strange.  How to apply them is a problem as well.  What could rules such as “The prophetic knows best” mean in real life?

Then again, even if the Russell Tribunal on Palestine know what’s best for Israel/Palestine, where does its verdict go?

The prophetic is costly.  It doesn’t come cheap.  The outcome is always in doubt.  The prophetic isn’t about success.  Its failure is likewise costly.  There is no such thing as a free prophetic.

The cost of the prophetic?  That could be a fifth rule:  “The cost of the prophetic is exile.”  Then we need a sixth rule regarding exile:  “Exile is where the prophetic is practiced.”

In a totally secular way and in ways unbeknownst to itself, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine is part of the exiled prophetic.  When the verdict comes in, everyone will go home.  The situation in Israel/Palestine will remain.

While it’s obvious that Israel doesn’t want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved by International Law, do Palestinians want to go that route?  Remember, as has been pointed out in first session, there are gaps all over the place in International Law and United Nations resolutions. One of those gaps means a “legal limbo” with regard to Palestinian refugees.

Even so, if we think first and foremost about achieving justice or whatever justice International Law would render Palestinians, there remains a reality check about life together in Israel/Palestine that cannot be resolved in a legal framework.  The Russell Tribunal is important and limited.

What we need is a confession and a movement toward justice that begins a process of healing and reconciliation.  Then the jury’s verdict will take on another level of importance.

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In the Russell Tribunal, “there is one glaring absence: a discussion of Jewish history and Jewish particularity. ” Hunh? Wha? Why not “Ugandan history and particularity” or (perhaps more aptly) “Palestinian history and particularity”. In a criminal court it sometimes happens that prior to sentencing the court will hear pleas of unhappy childhood (of the criminal) in mitigation of a harsh sentence for a harsh crime, but not — I think — to avoid a… Read more »