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Exile and the Prophetic: Chomsky’s ‘Letter from a Gaza Jail’

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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.

Election Day. Even with the limitations we know too well, I know who I want in America’s driver’s seat

Days that serve as landmarks come and go. Like Yom Kippur. Election Day. Everything is hyped up. There’s something at stake. Then the day after arrives.


I wrote yesterday about the issues that haven’t been discussed in the presidential campaign. Here’s another one: How about a new sense of Jewish ethics for the coming years?

This would include refusing to benefit from the arm’s industry in the United States or Israel. Question: Is it really possible to withdraw from that which funds our lives?

My son Isaiah, who is in his second year of university, broached this in an email exchange with his Dean last night. True, he didn’t get too far. Nonetheless, the principle is worth raising as the election proceeds.

You see Isaiah is trying to forge a spiritual ethic that doesn’t explicitly come from the Jewish tradition or from God. The specific issue with the Dean was the food service at his university:

My Jewish background and emerging spirituality have guided me to pay close attention to the ethical principles of my actions, and the implications of those actions. I am vegetarian because I abhor industrial food-processing and distribution practices and because of my views on animal rights. I consider this a practice of “Kosher” for modernity. I also am committed to avoiding wasteful practices related to my consumption of food and other materials.

The Dean responded immediately but not with the positive response Isaiah hoped for. It turns out that the Dean is vegetarian, too, and doesn’t have a problem with food service he uses for campus lunches. When Isaiah emailed him again pointing out issues the Dean skipped over, I called him and asked him to ratchet it down. The Dean could only listen to so many complaints. Industrialized food service wasn’t one he was going to address.

I told Isaiah that he has to understand the amount of waste involved in affluent societies, ours included. It isn’t just about food. What we consume is endless. What we waste is endless. But in the end, it’s an entire history or parts of a history that is wasted.

What we throw out could evolve toward the betterment of us and others. Sustainability isn’t only about material resources.

The new “Kosher” as Isaiah put it – to stop wasting food and other resources – to pay attention to the ‘ethical principles’ of our actions, and the implications of those actions.

Kosher, in Hebrew, fit, referring to animals that can be consumed in accordance with Jewish law. Its derivative and evolving meanings: what is legitimate, permissible, genuine and authentic. Kosher as opposed to treyf, derived from the Hebrew word terefah, which means torn. As with kosher, treyf originally refers to food that isn’t fit for consumption. Its derivative and evolving meanings: what is illegitimate, impermissible, disingenuous and inauthentic.

Fit/torn. Appropriate/wrong. Whole/broken. Maybe too black and white. Dualistic as well. Traditions are like that. Grey is a significant part of our human condition.

Nevertheless, the Jewish tradition has a point about limits. When we cross the ‘limit’ line, we’re somewhere else than where we should be.

Identity-wise, we’ve crossed the Jewish limit when violence becomes a way of life. When violence is embedded in our actions, attitudes and religiosity we’re somewhere else than where we should be.

What happens when the limit line has been crossed so often that the line no longer exists? This is the great unasked question in Jewish life.

You see in the beginning, even of the state of Israel, the warning signs were clear. Though the warning signs were overridden, they remained. Then they moved further and further until it seems no warnings are declared anymore.

The only warning signs left are about our own survival. Can we survive our own violence?

But then the warning reappears. From the past. From the present. It’s not about us. It is about us.

Yesterday, Noam Chomsky reported on his visit to Gaza:

Even a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total control of some external force. And it hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to begin to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where a million and a half people, in the most densely populated area of the world, are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the further goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement that will grant these rights will be nullified.

Chomsky’s Letter from a Gaza Jail:

‘Even a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total control of some external force.’

‘With no other purpose but to humiliate and degrade.’

Isaiah’s ‘Kosher for modernity’:

‘My Jewish background and emerging spirituality have guided me to pay close attention to the ethical principles of my actions, and the implications of those actions.’

Thoughts on Election Day. Passing the warning torch and all.

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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3 Responses

  1. yourstruly on November 6, 2012, 10:53 am

    chomsky’s letter from the open-air prison that is gaza brings to mind –

    gaza and the warsaw ghetto

    same place
    different time
    while the world stands by

    *slow motion in gaza

  2. pabelmont on November 6, 2012, 11:16 am

    Thank you. MLK did some great things. And certainly, when people who call themselves “Jews” are running a country which, they say, is maintained “for the Jewish people”, it makes sense for those Jewish people to say something about the ethics of that country.

    Just as some people ask universities and others to “divest” from companies that directly profit from the occupation, anyone who considers him/her self part of the “Jewish people” should call on Israel to “divest” from state-terrorism and all the rest.

  3. Graber on November 6, 2012, 8:43 pm

    We’re continuing our book group discussions on Judith Butler’s “Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” where the constituency is drawn mostly from the local JVP chapter.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about redeeming Judaism, and redemption. Yet considering the depth of Israel’s actions, it sometimes feels like there’s too much trauma done by Jews, in the forms of injustices past and present.

    In Arabic, the word for Israeli? Yehud. Jew.

    Then I speak with Jewish activists.. They can’t find synagogues. They are almost.. displaced by the synagogue. To bear witness to Israeli aggression is to join the diaspora. Like their renunciation of Israeli citizenship.

    Suddenly, it feels as though its not just Zionism that’s on the line.

    Judaism in exile. For so long it has been. Is it now? Will it be if and when Israel becomes a democracy?

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