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Our indigenous preoccupation

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Yesterday on Yom Kippur, I underlined a statement by Franz Kafka’s biographer, Reiner Stach.  Stach was commenting on the underlying intensity of Kafka’s famous letter to his father:  “To identify deliberately with characteristics that the community regards as strange, insane, or anti-social requires a high degree of reflectiveness.”

Stach’s use of the word “reflectiveness” is suggestive.  It might mean introspection or preoccupation.  Perhaps it is a combination – an introspective preoccupation.

Since Yom Kippur’s ancient extremity has passed, we can once again ask what this holy day means in its increasingly deceitful and sometimes genuine observance.   On Yom Kippur, Jews are meant to probe their personal lives and the life of the community.  Jews are expected to be preoccupied with this probing.  But since the contemporary observance of Yom Kippur often misses the mark of this intention – which is personal and communal confession/redirection – it’s crucial to identify with what the community regards as strange, insane and anti-social.

What better characteristic to identify with than the prophetic, that strange, insane and anti-social indigenous of the Jewish people?

The claim that the Jewish form of the prophetic is the root of the Jewish tradition and is peculiar to it is challenged by neo-conservative Jews and Jews on the universalist Left.  Jewish neoconservatives want empire without internal critique; Jews on the universal Left want justice without a claim of particularity.  However, due to the highly charged nature of Jewish history, no matter what Jews want they can’t have it both ways.

This undividable quality of Jewish life is the special and irritating detail about being Jewish.  Along with Jewish neoconservatives and the Jewish Left, this is what drives non-Jews crazy about Jews.  We are living through only the latest installment of this maddening maze.  Even the Bible features this specifically Jewish enigma.

To have a high degree of reflectiveness, one needs an introspection that is an indigenous preoccupation.  This can only come from concentrating on a particularity that is self-possessed.  By self-possessed, I mean confident, self-assured, poised, certain, rooted.

If justice is an issue, and if that issue is Israel/Palestine, it’s a loser.  How does one remain steadfast when all indications are that the Israel/Palestine Jews of Conscience argue for is lost?  That is why we should be wary of those who primarily see Israel/Palestine as a political or religious issue.

Many issue fellow travelers are here today and gone tomorrow.  As well, they often carry important contradictions at the heart of their commitment which becomes evident when the going gets tough.

The self-possession necessary to be steadfast over the long haul is only possible if reflectiveness is embodied.  This is especially so when the broader community and society think that the commitment one embodies is strange, insane and anti-social.

What the larger community and society thinks is strange, insane and anti-social is indeed the case – from their perspective.  But then if the prophetic is so outlandish, so out of the box as to really be insane, why condemn and attempt to erase every vestige of it from Jewish life?

The desire to disappear the prophetic is so vehemently pursued because the prophetic is at the heart of Jewishness historically and in the present.  The persistence of the Jewish prophetic cannot be explained away.  Nor can it be explained any other way.

Is the discussion of the Jewish indigenous preoccupation relevant in our highly political world?  I thought a lot about this on Yom Kippur.  Then in this morning’s news a report  –  American and Russian negotiators have agreed on a plan that will rid Syria of its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014 – reconfirmed the importance of the prophetic.

Surely, the agreement is a positive development.  It is better than the threatened highly dubious US missile strike.  But this means that nine months or more of intense haggling and posturing on the Syrian chemical weapons’ stockpile issue will ensue.   More importantly, the agreement means that the US and Russia have probably agreed that the Assad government, albeit in weakened form, will continue into the future.  Ostensibly highlighted, the suffering of the Syrian people has taken a back seat.

The Syrian people are “collateral damage.”  The agreement portends further collateral damage as well.  International attention over the next year will be focused on Syria rather than Israel/Palestine.   Israel will deepen its occupation of the Palestinian people.  Palestinian suffering will intensify.

For Jews of Conscience – but as well for Palestinians – our indigenous preoccupation is the only way forward.  Those who come along as allies are welcome.  But the territory we’re exploring is increasingly strange, insane and anti-social.  Only the Jewish prophetic – combined with the Palestinian prophetic – will suffice.


Marc H. Ellis
About 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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5 Responses

  1. Danaa
    September 15, 2013, 6:03 pm

    I will again take an issue with Marc’s pressumption that the suffering of the Syrian people will take back seat due to the ingenuous rescue of the hapless US regime by the very capable Russians. For one, what could possibly make Syrians suffer more than an endless barrage of missiles falling upon their cities and the people, killing countless people? for another, what could possibly be worse than a continuation of the American/Saudi/israeli “inspired” terror war against a perfectly legitimate government, the only purveyor of law and order in that country, for better or worth? those 2 M refugees were brought courtesy of American/Saudi bandar/israel neocon policies, who saw to it that some minor demonstrations in a few locations were turned into a bloody armed insurrection, a would-be civil war in which countless people died. except it never was much of a civil war really, before barbarian hordes of takfiris from the outside, made it so. It is the US, ruled by Israel, allied with saudi super-reactionary, al-qaeda supporting saudis that caused the lion share of the suffering that the Syrian people had to endure. If anyone is to be held to blame it is the horrid, evil neocons who will not rest until every country that dares to stand up to the miscreant creation of Israel is pulled asunder.

    On these high holidays, it is the Russians we should all give thanks to, for being at least cleaver enough to see a way out, even the American regime-change peddlers and deliberate bringers of chaos and misery to muslims the world overt, had their evil plans mislaid. Watch those peddlers foam and wail and derive a small measure of satisfaction that, at least this once and for a short time, the Syrian people will have a chance to live another day. Hopefully, Assad’s army will be given enough time and space to rid the countryside of the CIA/Mossad/saudi paid jihadi death squads, followed by promised reforms and reconciliation.

    As for the prophetic tradition this year of vaunted jews everywhere, I didn’t see all that much in action. All I saw are some very confused communities of thinkers, with many a thinking cap all agog. Some individuals who saw clearly, because they were able to resist the propaganda and were perhaps able to remain true to their own professed universalist traditions. as for certain others? it may suffice to mention that from now on, the sad symbols of grand jewish traditions will forever have to include the spectacular fall from grace of Roger Cohen and the moral self-compromise of Krystof (I assume he is jewish). Out there in the front, pushing a cart of much used “values” surrounded by a chorus accompanying the spectacle. A cantatic production of much gnashing of teeth and wringing of arms by ever-so-many fine souls, who knew not what to think (feeling generous today – no more names for the hall of shame!).

    For a real prophet for the times on all matters Syria, read Moon of Alabama from yesterday, Sep 14:

    After that, let’s all have a good cry for what Syrians had to endure, like iraqis before them , Afganis and Egyptians. later, should bernard’s optimism turn out to be prescient (let us hope and pray for that), we could have another one of those group therapy sessions for the wounded jewish soul (sorry, not-jews, and so-so jews, and almost-jews and wanna-bes. You’ll have to get your own therapy racket…..for a very modest fee, i can help, you know…).

  2. Frankie P
    Frankie P
    September 15, 2013, 9:03 pm


    Your commentary is accurate like a laser, but I must point out that it distracts Prof. Ellis, who seems to believe that enough introspective preoccupation with his Jewish navel will result in the extraction of the Jewish prophetic from said belly-button.


  3. Walid
    September 16, 2013, 1:29 am

    Great right on summary, Danaa, up to the closing part that included MoA’s linked one-sided timelined version of the Syrian rumble. The way it had been reporting on the Syrian conflict was not very different from the “propagandic” manner the anti-Assad factions had been presenting their one sided bogus version of the events. The sorry chapter is far from being closed and Assad hasn’t won anything but time as having Russia on his side doesn’t really guarantee anything; if I had to pick between fair-weather friends, I ‘d take my chances with the US rather than the Russians by a long shot. Neither the Russian regime nor the Syrian one are exclusively made up of saintly people as MoA would have you assume. It wasn’t that long ago that Syria was an American torturing partner in the renditions program and it hasn’t been that long ago that Syria ended its 20-year iron fisted people-vanishing occupation of Lebanon consented by the US. The Syria story was not about a simple good-guy and bad-guy situation that it was made out to be.

    • Danaa
      September 17, 2013, 1:14 pm

      Walid, not my intention to beatify Assad and frankly, neither did MoA. I am not sure whether you read the piece I linked – the history he provided, stretching from 2006, which is when the insiduous plan to break up Syria was born (thanks to Hezbollah’s relative success) is interesting. Assad is an authoritarian and no one denies that. But he is also the only card Syrians have for not seeing the break-up of their country and a disintegration into Iraq-like mayhem. To make assad into a “hitler’, the worst tyrant ever, is sheer nonsense, of course, and merely serves the ’cause” laid out by the israeli handlers of the US foreign policy broken apparatus. To see kerry dangling to the tune of his handlers IS the most pathetic sight we have been served in many years. To hear the emanations coming out of the AIPAC firsters, our pretend senators and reps, is to cringe in embarassment. To hear Alan grayson go out there and practically call it like it is – a dodgy dossier – and hear how the American people weighed in on the side of common sense , is to have a sliver of hope.

      You may put your faith in America, which is fine as long as you accept that there is no independent american policy apart from israel, which dangles American presidents from a shoe=string. And you know very well what the plans are in israel for lebanon. It is to partly to deny hezbollah a supply route through Syria that that the Syrian people had to be made to suffer so. As for Russia, well at least there’s independent policy there, or seems to be. We never doubt that putin does what he feels is in Russia’s best interests. We always doubt what Obama – or any American president – does. as a result, when we see Putin speak and act, we understand the logic of where he is coming from. When an American SoS or president speaks, we only hear incoherence, because they are not acting as free agents, but rather try to serve a foreign agenda, mixed in a crazy soup, with “something American”. Incoherence is the result. and the American people – they may not be well informed, but they sense when they are being sold a bill of goods.

      In any case, you are doing MoA an injustice. his is one of the few places one can read cogent analysis of the situation in Syria. Realpolitik in the old tradition at its best. You may disagree, but from a dispassionate look at what’s best that can happen to the Syrian PEOPLE, is to have assad defeat the jihadi forces of evil sent courtesy of bandar-Bush, hand-in-hand with israeli manipulators. It bothers me to see how many who could care less about the actual Syrian people, nonetheless purport to speak for them. Let the Syrian people decide their own government once the foreign interventionists and blood-letting barbarians injected into their country are defeated. A transition requires order, not chaos. And assad’s government is the sole agency that seems capable of maintaining that order.

      Unless of course, you are looking forward to keeping millions of Syrian refugees in lebanon, the better to de-stabilize it next, right along with the salafi hordes coming next to lebanon.

      Again, I think if you read that particular piece of bernard that I linked to, you may find much to agree with there. I am not sure about the rosy conclusions, but one can hope.

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