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Interfaith solidarity from the perspective of a Jewish theology of liberation

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Portions of this attached lecture were given as part of the panel “A Faith-based Response to the Crisis of Imperial Capitalism” during the Peace for Life 3rd People’s Forum, October 23-27, 2013, Jeju Island, South Korea. 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.

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.  This year is the 25th anniversary of the book’s Spanish translation, Hacia una teologia judia de la liberacion.  In English, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation is in its third edition.  As I write a 25th anniversary edition of the Spanish translation with new commentary is being prepared for publication.

The Spanish translation was originally published in San Jose, Costa Rica in 1988, a fateful year of despair and hope.  Among other events, that year witnessed turmoil and revolution in Central America as well as the Palestinian Uprising in Israel/Palestine.  Both events were central to the evolution of a Jewish theology of liberation.  Both events are more distant and more relevant today than they were then.  So, too, is a Jewish theology of liberation.

Another event occurred at that time which was very important to the development of a Jewish theology of liberation and a Jewish liberationist understanding of interfaith solidarity as well.  It was my meeting with the well-known Korean and Catholic priest, Reverend Mun Kyu Hyun, at the Maryknoll School of Theology in New York where I was teaching.  Reverend Mun became my student and wrote his thesis on a theological justification for the reunification of Korea under my direction.

Sort of.  After taking my course on commitment and community in the 20th century, Reverend Mun asked if I would direct his thesis.  Since he had spoken very little in class, I was surprised by his request.  Though I knew little about Korea, his topic fascinated me.

Several months later Reverend Mun came back to me with the finished product which I read and approved.  After my approval, he requested a meeting.  He had an important question for me, one for which I was totally unprepared.

Reverend Mun wanted my permission to put his thesis into action by traveling to North Korea, speaking with people there and then crossing back into South Korea.  The idea fascinated me but I was curious as to what would happen if he did as he proposed.  Reverend Mun responded matter-of-factly.  He would be arrested at the border, tried for breaching national security and jailed for some years.

I was taken aback.  I wasn’t quite ready for the severity of the sentence.  Was he really asking for my permission?

Reverend Mun’s embodied theology resonates in my life today.  How do Jews and Christians – Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and people of all faiths – translate principles into action?  How do we take principled action in our diverse and globalized world?

Reverend Mun exemplifies this challenge.  As a Catholic whose faith community is global, he is, at the same time, thoroughly and distinctly Korean.  My encounter with Reverend Mun reinforces my understanding of the international interfaith challenge.  Our encounter also raises questions about the specific challenge facing Jews in the coming years. The bridge for Jews in our globalized world is within and outside Europe, Israel and America.

My encounter with Reverend Mun portends a new paradigm for a student-teacher and interfaith spiritual relationship.  Was I Reverend Mun’s teacher or his student?  As Jew and Christian, we were student and teacher to and for one another.  This fruitful exchange is revolutionary in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.

Here, though, there is another twist.   By the time I met Reverend Mun, the Jewish-Christian dialogue had stalled in the West. The impasse was related to the state of Israel and its continuing abuse of Palestinians.  As well, an international imperialist system that benefitted the West and Jews within it was being highlighted by Christians becoming more aware of global injustice.

The Jewish community was celebrating our new found empowerment in Israel and the West.  But some Jews were beginning to recognize our empowerment as a new enslavement.  Did my encounter with Reverend Mun have something to say about Jewish empowerment and the need for Jews once again to ponder the complexities of liberation?

Reverend Mun is a fierce Korean nationalist.  He opposes all imperialism, including the imperialism that comes from Europe and America.  When Jews are part of American imperialism, his opposition remains.  Where should Jews stand on this issue, with the West or with the peoples of the world on the underside of the world economic system?  Did Reverend Mun and the Latin American activists who welcomed the Spanish translation of a Jewish theology of liberation offer a bridge for Jews, especially Jews of Conscience, out of our new found imperial imprisonment?

Here I would like to share with you some reflections on this continuing journey started 25 years ago.  To do so, I feature and explore the prophetic as articulated in a Jewish theology of liberation as it has evolved over the years.  I do this through ten short meditations that are independent of each other and are loosely bound together.  I end with some concluding thoughts.

My aim is to trace certain trajectories and possibilities within a Jewish framework that broadens into solidarity with people of different faiths and secular outlooks as well.  I believe such solidarity is necessary for Jews and for people of faith everywhere.  It is the key to creating a future worth bequeathing to our children.

1  A Jewish Theology of Liberation Then and Now

The conceptual framework of a Jewish theology of liberation is simple and quite traditional.  The rest is commentary.  In its essence a Jewish theology of liberation was born of the Jewish tradition’s focus on the prophetic.  Indeed a Jewish theology of liberation locates the prophetic as the indigenous of Jewishness historically and in the present.

Without the prophetic there is no reason to be Jewish.  From Biblical times to the present, the prophetic has haunted Jewish life and the two world religions Judaism helped give birth to – Christianity and Islam.  The prophetic within Christianity and Islam derive in large part from ancient Israel.  Whenever Christianity and Islam seek to recover the prophetic they return to the Hebrew prophets for inspiration.

Though globalized within Christianity and Islam, the Jewish indigenous prophetic has developed a tradition that is independent of the religions that carry it.  Today the prophetic within each religion is in a civil war with forces that seek empire over the prophetic.

In the civil war with the empire realities of our own faith traditions, we experience solidarity with those who embody the prophetic in each religion.  This solidarity is defining of what I call the New Diaspora – the emergence of Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience as a  community battling against the empire tendencies found in each religion.

The monotheistic religions are not alone in their civil war or in the solidarity found in the prophetic.  The New Diaspora includes people and faiths from around the world.  Buddhists, Hindus and others are found there as well.

Though particular in focus, a Jewish theology of liberation has asked the following question for the past 25 years:  Are the divisions of religion, based around contradicting faith and doctrinal truths, the divisions that religious people of conscience should accept as defining?  These divisions are often counter-productive.  They seem increasingly false.

Why bind those who seek prophetic community with those who seek to embrace empire?

Those who come together in the hope of a world beyond empire are joined beyond the divisions of assent and history. Embodying the prophetic, they share chastened and fragmented truths.  In the end, through commitment and action, more truth is created among and around the prophetic community.

2   Jews on Both Sides of the Empire Divide

Jews have always been on both sides of what I call the “empire divide.”  You can see it clearly in the Bible.

According to the Biblical narrative, the Israelites were slaves in the land of Egypt.  Yahweh, the unspeakable and unpronounceable God of Israel, reappears to liberate the Israelite slaves from bondage in Egypt’s empire.

The drama is palpable.  In Egypt, the God of Israel is unknown.  Like the Israelite slaves, the God of Israel is of no account in Egypt’s empire.

After God appears to the slaves the struggle with Pharaoh and Egypt’s empire God ensues.  Perhaps the most famous confrontation with empire in history occurs when Moses and Aaron challenge the Pharaoh to let the Israelites, God’s people, go.

Already, the prophetic combination of God’s power and justice is in place.  It is the injustice done to the slaves of Egypt, in this case the Israelites, which precipitates the showdown.

Slaves confronting empire in the name of the God of Israel – this is only the beginning.  Once freed from slavery and empire, God promises the Israelites a destiny in the land of Canaan.  First, though, the Israelites have to travel out of Egypt’s empire and trek through the desert where they are tested for endurance and steadfastness.  Only then is Israel allowed to enter the land.

What test does God set before the Israelites in the land?  The Israelites are commanded to create a new kind of society, one based on equality and justice.  In the words of the Biblical sociologist, Norman Gottwald, Israel is commanded to create a social equalitarian decentralized tribal confederacy.  Freed from empire, the Israelites are to create a society unlike the one they left in Egypt.

What seems worthy isn’t easy to accomplish.  Creating a new kind of society is difficult.  This societal project becomes the sticking point of Jewish history.  Jews continue to wrestle with it today.

Once in the land, the God of Israel joins the creation and maintenance of a just society with the worship of God.  The quest for a just society engenders the Sabbatical cycle found in the Bible.  The Sabbatical cycle is a rigorous social and economic method of periodically undermining and de-creating economic and political power that accumulates over the years.

This quest for a just society is also represented in the Biblical discussion of earthly kingship.  The Bible represents God as opposing earthly kingship because of its tendency to promote the same kind of empire God delivered the Israelites from.  When Israel chooses earthly kingship, empire is already on the horizon.

The Biblical prophets are commissioned by God and warn Israel that injustice carries with it dire consequences.  First and foremost, injustice leads one away from God.  In fact, injustice is worshiping power, status and money like a God.  The Bible defines this as idolatry.

In ancient Israel, idolatry is the last straw.  Adopting empire in the land, Israel forsakes its destiny to be a light unto the nations.  The prophets are clear:  returning to God is returning to justice; abandoning justice is abandoning God.   Abandoning justice and God means that Israel is turning away from its destiny.

What follows is exile.  In the Bible, exile is life without destiny and without God.

3  The Explosion of the Indigenous Jewish Prophetic

Among Jews today a civil war is being waged on the empire divide originally found in the Bible.   It remains unresolved.  Will Jews as a community make a decision for the prophetic once and for all?

The prophetic is the indigenous of ancient Israel carried into today’s world.   Even Israel’s freedom is judged by the prophets and God to be dependent on justice.  However, the indigenous prophetic is too onerous.  Ancient Israel cannot abide the prophetic and its demands.   Contemporary Jews cannot abide by the prophetic either.

How can any community embody the prophetic and survive?  There are always those who seek power, ideologically at least, for the betterment of the community.  Embracing the prophetic leaves the community vulnerable to forces and communities seeking their own power and destiny.  Don’t Jews – doesn’t every community – need empire to project their influence and destiny?

The historical journey of Jews seems to make this point emphatically.  Without power and empire Jews have found it difficult to survive the majority cultures Jews have lived within.

In the 20th century Jews suffered the Holocaust, the mass death of six million European Jews.  In turn, the Holocaust helped lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel.  Once again the empire divide came into play – with a series of complications, first among them the question of God.

The prophets of ancient Israel were commissioned by God.   After the Holocaust, it is difficult for Jews to call upon God.  If the God of Israel promised liberation to the slaves of Egypt and to be with the people throughout their journey, where was God in the Holocaust?  In the time of greatest need, Jews were without earthly and heavenly protection.  How can Jews rely on others or God?

The empire leanings of contemporary Jewry are understandable.  With six million Jews slaughtered in Europe, abandoned by the world and by God, why shouldn’t Jews seek empowerment in the state of Israel and America without thinking about the consequences for others?  Against the odds, though, there is now a renewal of the prophetic within the Jewish world.  Especially in America and Israel where the great majority of the world’s Jewish population resides, the contemporary form of the prophetic, embodied by Jews of Conscience, is exploding.

One cannot understand this explosion in post-Holocaust Jewish life without exploring the persistence of the prophetic.  However, accounting for such persistence in our deconstructionist age is far from easy.   Everywhere identity formations are under assault and properly so.  Often identity is simply a mask for establishing power over others.

Essentialism must be analyzed for obvious and hidden imperial formations.  Nonetheless, the call for a universal sensibility is another essentialist identity formation.  Universal identities or, better, identities that claim a universal sensibility, are disguised particularities.  These particularities can become quite large, say for example Christianity or Islam, but their size and claims belie their dependence on historical and contemporary imperialism.  This is true of the great universal, modernity, itself a world religion, whose claims and force have no bounds.

As we shall see, the Jewish prophetic is bound in a dialectic of the particular and the universal.   We find ourselves in a conundrum:  what claims to be universal isn’t; what is deemed narrow can become a gateway to solidarity beyond one’s own particularity.

4  Constantinian Judaism and the New Diaspora

There is a relationship between the indigenous Jewish prophetic and Christian liberation theologies around the world.  There is also a tie with Islamic liberationists thinking, though this is in need of more exploration.

Christian liberation theology is impossible without the recovery of the Jewish prophetic.  It is precisely with the recovery of the Jewish prophetic that Jesus, imprisoned within Constantinian Christian formations for more than a thousand years, is set in motion.  Linking Jesus to the Jewish prophetic, Christians are called away from doctrinal affirmation as salvation into the heart of history.  In Christian liberation theology, Christian life becomes less about salvation than a prophetic fidelity within history.

A Jewish theology of liberation calls Jews away from the Constantinian formation of Judaism in our time.  By Constantinianism, I mean the embedding of religion within empire.  In the Constantinian formation, the state blesses religion with status, acceptance and affluence.  In turn, religion blesses the state and its policies as somehow attached to a transcendent power and purpose.  The direct reference of Constantinianism is to the Emperor Constantine who in the 4th century made Christianity, then still a minor and outcast sect, the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Constantinianism comes in many forms beyond Constantinian Christianity.  Constantinian Judaism and Constantinian Islam are the most obvious to mention.  There is a Constantinian Buddhism, a Constantinian Hinduism and, of course, a Constantinian secularity that sees modernity as the only path to progress in the world.

Though seemingly divided by religious and national loyalties, Constantinians of all stripes inhabit the same orbit of ideas, values and politics.  Today we have a linkage of these various Constantianisms.  Their different symbol structures only serve to disguise their similar goals and behavior.

Those who exercise conscience in all religions are also linked by their political, economic, and ecological practice.  People of Conscience who embody their traditions of justice are in conflict with the mainstream of their community.  For all, conscience applied means exile.

The notion of exile begins in the Bible and resonates within the Jewish tradition.  It is the inevitable other side of the prophetic.  But as every tradition has its version of the prophetic, each tradition has its history of exile.

As Constantinians of all traditions come together in their practice of abusive power, religious people of conscience come together in their active solidarity for justice.  In this way, justice seekers are closer to one another than they are to those in their birth community who seek empire.  They come together in the New Diaspora.

The New Diaspora is the gathering place for people in the broader tradition of faith and struggle.  Here exiles from every community and geographical location are welcome.  Each of the traditions represented in the New Diaspora is fragmented and broken by history. The task is to share those fragments with each other as the community struggles together for a just world.

As the prophetic of different traditions converge in the New Diaspora, so, too, the different traditions of exile converge.  As important as how each tradition understands the prophetic is how each tradition handles exile.  What spiritual resources for sustenance are available in the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu traditions for those in exile?  Can the similarities and differences found between the traditions regarding exile be shared to help each other maintain one’s sanity and commitment in difficult times?  As with the prophetic, those who wield power use exile to isolate and debilitate those who struggle for justice.  Can exile when shared across traditions be turned around and become a sign of strength and renewed focus?

In the New Diaspora, no one tradition suffices or dominates.  The idea is not to make whole what has been broken.  Rather through sharing what is broken another level of commitment and depth comes into being.

Struggling for justice – and compassion and reconciliation – means a suffering beyond what has already been experienced in the civil war within one’s own community.  In suffering and struggle, only accompaniment will suffice.  “Truth,” if it exists as promulgated, is tainted with injustice and empire.  In the New Diaspora, truth takes a second place as it should have historically.

The task of those in the New Diaspora is to share their lives in the creation of a new world.  Accompanying each other, we create more truth to be shared with each other and the world.

5  Confessing Israel’s Crimes as the Path to Revolutionary Forgiveness

The contemporary explosion of the Jewish prophetic is embodied by Jews of Conscience.  Despite this explosion, the prophetic within the larger Jewish world is atrophying.  The Jewish prophetic is being persecuted by the Constantinian Jewish establishment.  Like all Constantinianisms, the Jewish establishment wants to hide the prophetic from the world.

Jews of Conscience are in exile from the mainstream Jewish community.  I envision Jews of Conscience carrying the Jewish covenant into exile with them.

The primary issue is the state of Israel and what Jews in Israel – with the enablement of the American Jewish establishment – are doing to the Palestinian people.  The confession Jews around the world need to make is obvious:  What we as Jews have done to you, the Palestinian people, is wrong.  What we as Jews are doing to you, the Palestinian people, is wrong.

That confession heralds a new beginning.  Clearly, it is not in the offing now.  The opposite is the case.

From the origins of the state of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have been wronged.  In the years surrounding the birth of Israel, more than 750,000 Palestinians were cleansed from Palestine to create room for a Jewish state.  The expansion of Israel continues apace today in settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Various peace process efforts have served as smokescreens for Israel’s continued expansion.  Israeli expansion continues under the latest peace effort sponsored by the United States.

The Two-State option for Israel and Palestine has been eclipsed by Israel’s expansion.  Left is some form of autonomy for Palestinians surrounded by Israeli power.  Worse, in the aftermath of Arab Spring, Israel has been integrated into the Middle East security network.  Israel and its Middle Eastern allies – Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the front line – seek to contain the Palestinians in a restricted autonomy that suits their needs for political stability.  Though a Jewish theology of liberation concentrates on Jewish responsibility, clearly the Palestinians are also limited by the desire of Middle East governments to secure their own survival and flourishing.

Many think that the situation of the Palestinians cannot become worse.  They are wrong.

Jewish history is complicated and has a right to its own sensibility.  The outright condemnation of late 19th and early 20th century Zionism is too easy.  Much of early Zionist thinking centered on the coming emergency for Jews in Europe. Some of it sought a “return” to a homeland in its Biblical geographic origins.  Part of early Zionist was state oriented.  Part was oriented toward a Jewish homeland in Palestine to be shared with the Arabs of Palestine.

To simplify Zionism as if it had no basis for existence in an increasingly hostile Europe is wrong.  Seeing Zionism as singular or seeking only the domination of the Arabs in Palestine is misleading and false.  That the outcome of Zionism was a state that displaced and continues to displace Palestinians is true.  Historical distinctions are important.  It allows depth and compassion without deflecting the cause of justice.

Jews in Israel and around the world need to confess injustice done to Palestinians so that justice and reconciliation can evolve between Jews and Palestinians in the future.  Jews can only overcome this history of injustice by working with Palestinians toward a full and inclusive equality.

Jerusalem is the place to begin this journey.  It is the broken-middle of Israel/Palestine.  Jerusalem is central to both Jews and Palestinians on a variety of levels, including religion.  A just future begins with the equal sharing of Jerusalem.  This includes all aspects of life, from joint schooling and integrated neighborhoods to policing and governance.

Sharing Jerusalem would begin the process of a revolutionary forgiveness that allows for both Jewish and Palestinian history to be carried forward in a new way of justice and equality.  When forgiveness has at its heart justice, the traumatized memory of each community recedes over time.   New memories of inclusion and solidarity take hold.

Once the memory of inclusion and solidarity predominates, past memories of trauma give way.  One day a violation of Jews is experienced as a violation of Palestinians; a violation of Palestinians is experienced as violation of Jews.  When this point is reached, revolutionary forgiveness has been achieved.

 6  Still/Former Jewish/Israelis

Israelis and the Palestinians couldn’t be further from revolutionary forgiveness than they are today.  Justice will be denied for the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, Palestinian suffering continues.  Exile for Jews of Conscience deepens.

Jews of Conscience have reached the point of no return.  The Jewish tradition has a long history of exile and return.  But for the first time in two thousand years, Jews whose grandparents and parents did return to the land are leaving Israel.  Some Jewish Israelis of Conscience have given up.

Why leave Israel?  Israel has permanently conquered Palestine.  Israeli Jews of Conscience cannot see a way forward.

To the surprise of many, some of these Israeli Jews no longer identify as Jewish or even Israeli.  Their cultural background as Israelis is obvious to anyone who comes into contact with them.  Their passion for justice and the way they articulate it is typically Jewish.  Seen in the larger arc of Jewish history they embody the prophetic as some Jews always have.  Despite their protestations, it is best to see these dissenters as Still/Former Jewish/Israelis.

What is important about these Still/Former Jewish/Israelis is that, unlike American Jews who support Israel from a safe distance, they have been the Jewish boots on the ground.  They have experienced and perpetrated Israeli policies against Palestinians.  They have come to the conclusion that the injustice is too much.  They are unable any longer to commit to these policies or benefit from them.

In many ways these Still/Former Jewish/Israelis have experienced the end of Jewish ethical history as we have known and inherited it.  They are the vanguard of the Jewish people.

What to do at the end of Jewish ethical history as the oppression continues and even escalates?  Exile and the prophetic is the only option but the impulse of both is to join with others of like mind in the New Diaspora.  There, these Still/Former Jewish/Israelis often find Palestinians of Conscience who have either been driven out of the land by Israel or can no longer take the limited vision and corruption of their own Palestinian establishment.  Like the Israelis who leave Israel, the Palestinians who leave Palestine form their own particular diaspora. At the same time, they often find themselves coming together in the Jewish/Palestinian Diaspora that is evolving in our time.

The Jewish/Palestinian Diaspora has its own distinct particularity outside the land.  This bodes well for the future of Israel/Palestine in ways we can hardly envision today.  Outside Israel/Palestine, Jews and Palestinians connect in ways that are impossible within the conflict.  Outside, they can see themselves and each other in a different light.  Working together in a mutual solidarity, the Jewish/Palestinian Diaspora is already forging a path beyond what exists in the land today.

In terms of future understandings of Jewish identity, the exile of Jews of Conscience from Israel means that the Holocaust and Israel, so central to Jewish identity, is being transformed.  While it is true that Jews come after the Holocaust, Jews come after Israel as well.   Jews come after what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people.

Still/Former Jewish/Israelis embody this dual after.  Jews are no longer innocent.  Israel is not our redemption.

7  The Colonial in Jewish Identity

After the Holocaust – this has been the central theme of Jewish identity in Israel and America since the 1960s.  Two events defined the rise of the Holocaust as central to Jewish identity – the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the rise of Holocaust theology in the United States.  From that time on the Holocaust has been central to Jewish life.

In Jewish identity, Israel is linked to the Holocaust.  Whereas Jews were without power in the Holocaust, thus the deaths of six million Jews, Israel is the place where Jews have power and are no longer dependent on the protection of others.  Thus, to challenge Israel as a Jew is fraught with historical images of destruction and death.  For some Jews, it raises the specter of another Holocaust.  In Jewish history, the stakes are still high.

In the early years after World War II, the Holocaust stood alone with Israel as a response to Jewish suffering.  For most Jews today, Israel takes center stage.  In the early years Jews saw Israel as a defensive outpost of Jewish empowerment.  Today that vision is more difficult to sustain.  For most of the international community, Israel is an aggressor nation, a Western colonial outpost in the Middle East.  Some Jews of Conscience are beginning to see Israel in that light, too.

What has been absent in Jewish consideration is what befell Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Likewise, what has happened to Palestinians since Israel was established.  The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the founding of Israel has continued with Israel taking more and more territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Considerations of ethnic cleansing and Israeli expansion are absent from Jewish identity formation.

This issue of Jewish identity in relation to the Holocaust and Israel is complex, as is the question of Palestinian dispossession and prospects for freedom.  Nonetheless, the absence of Palestinians in Jewish identity formation prevents Jews from coming to grips with what Jewish empowerment has meant for Palestinians.  Such absence likewise prevents Jews from realizing that with power comes responsibility and accountability.  Without Jews realizing the second after, there is no way to develop a mature understanding of what it means to be Jewish in our time.

Whatever Jews believe about the necessity of a Jewish state, Israel represents a wrong committed against the Palestinian people.  While Jews cannot go back to a previous disempowered situation, movement ahead is impossible without reckoning with the cost of Jewish empowerment.  First and foremost, the cost of Israel is borne by the Palestinian people. It impacts as well the Jewish ethical tradition.

The inability of Jews to come to grips with the wrong done to Palestinians indicates a colonial sensibility – Palestinians are somehow less worthy of dignity and justice than Jews.  That sensibility is now ingrained in Jewish life.

Though the state of Israel cannot be explained only as a colonial adventure, it cannot be explained without it.  Formed within the context of Jewish life in Europe, Western Jews, with the assistance of Western colonial powers, created a state for Jews outside of Europe.  That was the origin of Israel.  Since its origins and increasingly so in the last decades, Israel’s primary patron has been the United States.   The United States, as Europe before it, views the Middle East through a Western colonial lens.

Decolonizing Jewish identity is the task ahead but how can that be accomplished when Jewish leadership in Israel and America continue to deny justice to the Palestinian people?

8 Anti-Semitism as a Form of Colonialism and the New Interfaith Solidarity

The interfaith ecumenical dialogue between Jews and Christians began in earnest after the Holocaust.  It should be celebrated as groundbreaking, even revolutionary, on a variety of levels.  For the first time in Christian history, many individual Christians and church denominations confessed their crime of anti-Semitism against the Jewish people.

The demonization of Jews permeates Christian history.  Rather than an aberration, anti-Semitism has formed part of the mainstream of Christian tradition.  Integral to its history, especially within Europe, anti-Semitism has its corollary in dominant European Christian understandings of non-European peoples.  What Christians did to Jews inside of Europe, Christians did to others outside of Europe.  In its essence, anti-Semitism should be seen as a form of Christian colonialism.

The interfaith ecumenical dialogue portends a new relationship between Jews and Christians.  Christians no longer define Jews.  Jews define themselves.  To a large extent, Christians have cleaned up their theological and doctrinal house of anti-Semitic doctrines and images.  No longer are Jews defined primarily as the progenitors of Christianity.  Nor are Jews defined negatively as observers of an outdated law code.

For many Christians today, the “old” covenant exists side by side with the “new” covenant.  Though Jews and Christians have their separate path toward God, both share the same God and their own covenantal fidelity.  Together Jews and Christians became more than they are separately.  Many Christians affirm a common spiritual path for Jews and Christians.

For most Jews, self-definition includes the state of Israel.   Establishment Jews especially see Israel as the Christian vehicle for repentance from the sins of anti-Semitism.  Many Christians accept Israel in this way.  Over the last decades a Christian post-Holocaust theology has developed.  This dovetails with Jewish Holocaust theology and involves another revolutionary reversal in Christian theological history.   Following parts of Paul’s teachings, Jews and Christians are more than partners in the road to salvation.  Jews take priority.  Christians are grafted onto the Jewish covenant.

Unfortunately, the demonization of Jews has given rise to a romanticization of Jews.  Whereas Jews were often depicted as demons in Christian theology, Jews are now seen as angels.  Much of this has to do with restoring the credibility of Christianity after the history of anti-Semitism, so crucial to the Holocaust.   Thus it has less to do with Jews that with the Christian view of its own future.  One negative colonial sensibility has been replaced by another more positive one.  Nonetheless, colonialism is the same whether in a demonic or romanticized form – the definition of the Other by the powerful and for their own sake.

Over the years, as the Palestinian issue has become known to Western Christians, their understanding of Israel has changed.  Yet when they broach their concerns to establishment Jews, Christians are rebuffed.  They are charged with reverting to anti-Semitism.  The silence of Christians is demanded.  Thus the interfaith ecumenical dialogue has become the interfaith ecumenical deal.

Over the past few years, Christian denominations have taken action on the Palestinian issue, bringing forth and sometimes adopting in their denominational conventions various forms of boycott, sanctions and divestment from Israel’s occupation of Palestinians. Christians of Conscience confirm their stand against anti-Semitism.  They also decry Israel’s abuse of Palestinians.

Jews of Conscience have been crucial in this effort.  While in previous years Christians and Jews stood respectfully in their separate quarters, Jews and Christians of Conscience have come together in a new justice-seeking solidarity.  Meanwhile, the Jewish establishment attempts to vilify Christians and Jews who stand for justice for Palestinians.

The opening between Jews and Christians is important as a model for an expanding interfaith solidarity built around confession, justice and reconciliation.  Dropping negative and romanticized colonial and thus mythic conceptions of Jews is the first step in a true interfaith solidarity between Christians and Jews.  Criticizing real injustices for what they are is the next step.  Only through a true solidarity with each other’s particularity can both steps be achieved simultaneously.

9 Sustaining the (Anachronistic) Prophetic With/out God

Where does this solidarity lead?  In the New Diaspora all particularities, even those that pretend to universality, are fragmented, chastened by history, injustice and exile.  The challenge is less to create a new universality, for that, too, will simply be a disguised particularity, but to deepen our understandings of the particular fragments from the past that survive and speak to us.  This will help create a new particularity that opens out toward others.   Keeping one aspect of our lives in the past and another in the present, the future can unfold in its depth and originality.

For Jews this means a contemporary presence which is not only contemporary.  Why not bring into the present the past and future prophetic?  Because, as past, thus as an anachronism, the prophetic is steadfast.  As future, the prophetic, again as an anachronism, is evolving.

The prophetic has always been out of step with contemporary reality.  It is always unstable.

The Bible is full of instability.  The Biblical narrative is defined by instability.  The prophetic was born of the God of Israel, an unstable God.  The people Israel carry instability through history.

We return to the empire divide that runs throughout Jewish history.  Empire is the attempt to make individual and communal life stable against the odds.  Especially when the prophetic is indigenous, as it is in Jewish life, the struggle for empire represents a desire to contain the unstable God of Israel.  This is why the Bible posits that Israel as empire is equal to adopting a God other than the God of Israel.

The stability of Jews is instability.  Throughout history, Jewish life has been characterized by instability.  In the modern era the state of Israel was proposed to end the instability of Jewish life once and for all.  But as we have seen, the Jewish prophetic has reemerged.  The state of Israel is unstable.  Jewish life is unstable.  Yet another Jewish civil war has erupted on the empire divide.

The contemporary Jewish civil war ostensibly revolves around the state of Israel’s security and the demands of justice for Palestinians.  True enough up to a point.  At another level, though, the struggle is about normalization and assimilation.  When both became possible for Jews after the establishment of the state of Israel – in light of the Holocaust – unexpectedly the prophetic red light appeared.  Soon the Jewish prophetic was re-energized.  Today it flourishes.

Still, questions about the future of the prophetic abound.  In this long and permanent exile, what will happen to the Jewish prophetic?  In the New Diaspora, will the Jewish prophetic simply combine with the prophetic of other communities?  Will Jewish particularity and other particularities be lost in this confluence of various streams of the prophetic?  Does it matter if Jewish and other particularities vanish over time?

It is important to analyze how the prophetic is sustained in Jewish life and in the life of other communities.  Though the quest for justice is uppermost in our world, the assumption that the prophetic is self-energizing may be mistaken.  Thus the foundations of the prophetic are important to think through.  Where does the prophetic come from? How does the prophetic continue and deepen as life and the world changes?

The question of God is at issue as well.  In the Jewish world, at least, the prophetic is carried by Jews of Conscience who have little, if any, interest in God.  To them the very mention of God seems already a dodge, an attempt to abstract us from the justice issues at hand.  Many Christians and Muslims see it another way.   They are able to work through the hypocrisy of their faith traditions and remain in a relationship with God.

This quite distinctive Jewish secularity is important to the new interfaith solidarity.  It’s a way of keeping religion and religious adherents honest.  And it has a distinguished and evolving history within Jewish life.  Among others, this distinctive Jewish secularity includes Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt.

If we step aside from Jewish secularity for a moment, what if the Jewish relationship with God comes through the prophetic?  That by embodying the prophetic, Jews are already with God.  This is so even if Jews of Conscience are silent about or argue against God and maybe precisely because of it.   What if the prophetic once in the world through God now exists independently of God?

10 Beyond Innocence and Redemption

There will always be empire.  The prophetic voice will never die.  The battle is joined in every generation, everywhere.  On the underside of European history for the last 1500 years, Jews are survivors of empire.  In the 20th century, Jews were the victims of the Nazi empire.  Who can blame Jews for joining the empire ranks after this experience?

Perhaps Jews were victims of history because they didn’t have an empire of their own.  This is one way of viewing Jewish history.  Perhaps Jews didn’t have an empire of their own simply because they were without the power to create one.  We know that when Jews had the chance after the Holocaust, Jews worked toward and achieved empire.  Nonetheless, a minority of Jews of Conscience ultimately struck out on their own.  They refused to assimilate to empire.

Using suffering as a weapon is as old as humankind.  In the hands of some Jews, the Holocaust has become an instrument of power.  In this way, the Holocaust has become instrumentalized.  And because of the minority status of Jews in the world, those Jews who oppose empire have been accused of creating the context for another Holocaust.

Yet the dichotomy presented – power or no power, security or Holocaust – is a false one.  As always and for every community, the challenge is to achieve an interdependent empowerment.  An interdependent empowerment balances the needs of one community with other communities.  Power is not a zero sum game.

An interdependent empowerment portends sharing the memory of suffering.  Here one community’s suffering becomes a challenge to the suffering of other communities.  For at some point in history every community suffers.   Every community causes suffering to others.

Sharing the memory of suffering means shared accountability for causing suffering to others.  No community deserves to suffer.  No community is innocent.   Empowerment, especially when used against others, is not redemptive.  Individuals and collectives need to move beyond the paradigm of innocence and redemption.

For Jews, this means balancing the innocence of Jewish suffering with the culpability of Jewish empowerment.  It is to choose an interdependent empowerment with Palestinians.  Though the move toward an interdependent empowerment is a risk so, too, is the attempt to maintain an empire in perpetuity.  Even in the most practical terms, since the sun sets on every empire, what will happen to the Jews of Israel when the sun sets on the Israeli empire?

Then there are the human and ethical consequences of ruling over another people.  A tradition that has the prophetic as its’ indigenous is haunted by the very power it seeks.  A minority of its population will constantly raise the red flag against empire.

The Jewish prophetic will never let the state of Israel and the Jewish people rest easy in empire.  But, then, when empire falls away, as it surely must, what will be left for Jews other than power?

The Future

I return where I began, with a Jewish theology of liberation, now 25 years later.  We have noted where Jews have been and sketched out where Jews are.  So, too, with the interfaith ecumenical dialogue/deal.  What is the Jewish future and our future together?

Clearly the past 25 years have difficult ones for Jews, at least in the ethical realm.  The possibilities of resolving the conflict with Palestinians with justice and equality are, for the time being, over.  Whereas there is much discussion today about the end of the Two-State option and with some proposing a secular democratic unified One State of Israel/Palestine, the reality is that one state already exists:  Israel controls the land between Tel Aviv and the Jordan River.  The difficulty for Israel is that there are millions of Palestinians within that state, millions that Israel is determined to keep with either second-class citizenship or no citizenship at all.  What will happen with this arrangement and how Palestinians – and ultimately Israelis – can survive this injustice is unknown.

A Jewish theology of liberation called for the renewal of the Jewish ethical tradition.  That call fell on deaf ears.  Today the Jewish ethical tradition is on life-support.  Other than rhetorical pleas, it is without a future.

Exile it is for Jews of Conscience.  This exile will deepen in the coming years.  There is no way back.

When I met with Central American activists as Hacia una teologia judia de la liberacion was being published in Costa Rica in 1988, I remember thinking that Jews belonged among those who were struggling – and suffering – for justice.  Jews, at least Jews of Conscience, do not belong among the empire elite.  But where can Jews of Conscience go?  Where can they find a home?

Should Jews of Conscience become like the European activists that teach in international peace programs and roam the globe suggesting solutions to the problems their nations and traditions helped create?  Though most peace workers are secular, they carry on the European religious missionary tradition they so emphatically condemn.  Here it is important to recall Simone Weil’s injunction – those who are uprooted are destined to uproot others.

Rooted in the prophetic, Jews of Conscience press forward.  But Jews of Conscience can only press forward with others of different faiths – who likewise press forward.  As with Jews of Conscience, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others of conscience only fool themselves if they think their exile will end.  The mainstream of all our communities assimilate to power when they have a chance.  The main function of normative religiosity is to discipline and eviscerate the prophetic.

If our home is exile and the prophetic our center, how can we avoid an uprootedness that uproots others?  It would be sad to see our collective fate approximate the fate of our European friends.  Can the New Diaspora become a home for the rooted and uprooted?

The future will demand a new probing of identity on all fronts.  At issue is religion, but, as well, national and geographic backgrounds are at stake.  Ecology increasingly takes center stage.  Gender issues continue to be important.

The glue of it all is the prophetic.  Here a constant evolution is to be reckoned with – and welcomed.

Historically, the prophetic is hardly innocent.  It, too, needs to be held accountable.  When one looks at the origins of the prophetic there is too often harshness and explicit violence in its imagery.  As well, the prophetic has traditionally been dependent on God.  In the New Diaspora that dependency can be spoken of only in private among like-minded individuals.

A prophetic dependent on God being affirmed in public is the foundation of a religiosity, even in the pursuit of justice, which seeks full assent.  The days of full assent to God are over.

This was the German Protestant pastor, Dietrich Bonheoffer, sense of the “secret discipline” for Christianity after World War II.  Because of the betrayal of Christians, in Bonheoffer’s view Christianity had lost its right to be practiced in public.  Christianity could no longer be presented as a faith that others should assent to.  Bonheoffer wrote about the secret discipline in prison before he was executed for his resistance to Hitler.  We are in a similar time of religious betrayal.

It is unclear if Bonheoffer felt that there would come a time for a reappraisal of the secret discipline.  If, in fact, Christianity might reappear on the public scene after an exile filled with repentance and reorientation.  It is also unclear whether Bonheoffer’s early somewhat conservative theological sensibilities would survive the secret discipline and reemerge as a justice-oriented whole.

Whatever future Bonheoffer envisioned, a revived Christianity – or Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism – is no longer to be wished for.  The New Diaspora is too varied and too global.  Internal self-correction and the disciplining of holistic claims must be sustained as a positive sign of historical and religious maturity.

The future of interfaith solidarity follows.  That future will be found in the sharing of religious symbols and theologies chastened by history and deprived of an unequivocal assent to God.  Thus interfaith solidarity is more than a dialogue or an attempt to place a tradition’s history in the best light.  Interfaith solidarity begins with a confession of each tradition’s culpability and the inability for traditions to be rescued from the compromised position they dwell within.

In the New Diaspora the prospects for renewal are past.  Exile without return is the watchword.

Does that mean a new and deepened secularity will be embraced?  Here Jews of Conscience may play a special role.  Since Jews of Conscience embody the indigenous prophetic their need for overt religiosity is negligible.  In the New Diaspora they are constant reminders of the hypocrisy of most religiosity, including some of the religiosity employed in justice-seeking.

Much of the global religiously-oriented justice community involved with anti-imperialist activism seeks to distance themselves from Jews.  Here I include such otherwise breakthrough efforts like the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT).  This works against the New Diaspora in a variety of ways.  First, it deprives the broader community of those who carry the primal prophetic.  Second, it divests the New Diaspora of a more overt, though distinctly Jewish, secular sensitivity.  Third, it works against Jews of Conscience by limiting their reach and protection.  At the same time, it isolates the broader Jewish community from a minority of their population that sponsors global justice activism.  This allows empire Jews to go on their way more easily.

Overall there is a need to confront the lingering sense of discomfort with Jews in the international justice-seeking arena.  Simply because a person is in exile from one’s own establishment hardly guarantees that he or she is free of prejudice.  Especially with Israeli abuse of Palestinians as a central issue in the international discussion, Jews loom large, even and perhaps especially when they are not physically present.  The various myths of Jewish conspiracy and domination are alive and well in various sectors of the world.  The New Diaspora is hardly free of myths about Jews.

In the end, though obstacles remain, the convergence of the prophetic in the New Diaspora is well on its way.  With climate change and the various justice issues around the world, the stakes have never been higher.  More and more people have entered exile on behalf of conscience.  The question remains as to whether the prophetic or empire will win the day.  The Jewish empire divide is a universal problematic that can only be struggled against by rooted particularities in a broad based coalition.  So, too, with the indigenous Jewish prophetic, now shared and embodied around the world.

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. W.Jones
    October 26, 2013, 2:47 pm

    We were doing pretty well up until 4.0 on Constantinianism.

    By Constantinianism, I mean the embedding of religion within empire. In the Constantinian formation, the state blesses religion with status, acceptance and affluence. In turn, religion blesses the state and its policies as somehow attached to a transcendent power and purpose.

    First, Constantine merely became Christian and legalized it, the religion did not become the empire’s official one until later.

    Second, this characterization of the faith’s relationship to the state is not necessarily correct. One would assume that the era of Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII would be one of the climaxes of “Constantinian Christianity.” In fact, the leader (Metropolitan) of Russia’s Church denounced Ivan the Terrible for killing political opponents and the Metropolitan was himself killed for it, after which he was considered a martyred saint. Years later, due to Peter the Great’s fear of the Church as an alternate power, that Tsar Peter abolished the Patriarchate, not to be reestablished later until the Russian Revolution.

    Something similar can be said about Henry VIII his treatment of the Church leader St Thomas More, who was the author of the book Utopia, an early root of Utopian Socialism and “Liberation Theology”!

    This is why Christians in the Holy Land who value their ancient heritage do not consider themselves faith-bound to believe in some earthly government, even if the government recognizes the state and the Church leaders may encourage some secular leaders to act righteously and support them and the government when they do so.

    This is much different than making the state by definition a matter of faith. If it was and the two were simply united like two branches of government, the Churches’ opposition to Ivan IV and Henry VIII would not be foreseeable.

  2. W.Jones
    October 26, 2013, 3:04 pm

    This is the description I am talking about:

    The direct reference of Constantinianism is to the Emperor Constantine who in the 4th century made Christianity, then still a minor and outcast sect, the official religion of the Roman Empire. ~M.E.

    In fact:

    In January 313, Constantine legalized Christianity… Christianity was to be tolerated and even supported by the State where conflict was not apparent. However, it was only one of many acceptable religions…
    the Christian faith was to be declared the official religion of the Roman empire under an edict proclaimed by emperor Theodosius I on February 28, 380 AD.

    In other words, the concept of “Constantinian Christianity” is taken to begin with the mere allowing of Christianity back in 313 AD, and then it is assumed the Church’s theology from that point on is basically subservience to the state, which is simply not that case, given, for example the many instances of struggles between the two.

    In Christian theology, there is the people of God, and Christ is the people’s king. The theology is not that the Roman empire is “the” people of God and the emperor is the leader of the Church. That is not to say that the Church and State have no relationship, as even in the New Testament we read about how our goal is not to overthrow the pagan emperor in a violent political struggle, and in fact even our enemies are those we should bless, which of course is a hard teaching. Thus it is not a surprise that the Church would in some sense bless the emperor after he became Christian, but it does not mean they are religiously bound to government obedience in everything no matter what.

    Constantinians of all traditions come together in their practice of abusive power

    For what it’s worth, Christians in the Holy Land, including non-Palestinian ones, would generally be in a sense “Constantinian Christian” because Constantine is a saint in the eastern Churches, and we are to emulate the saints. (Feast Day May 21)

  3. mcohen
    October 26, 2013, 4:37 pm

    marc ellis says

    “The future of interfaith solidarity follows. That future will be found in the sharing of religious symbols and theologies chastened by history and deprived of an unequivocal assent to God. Thus interfaith solidarity is more than a dialogue or an attempt to place a tradition’s history in the best light. Interfaith solidarity begins with a confession of each tradition’s culpability and the inability for traditions to be rescued from the compromised position they dwell within.”

    probably one of the most powerful statements I have read on religion in many years.

    well said mr ellis

  4. Les
    October 26, 2013, 7:21 pm

    Pass this Alan Grayson comment on to the Jewish and non-Jewish owners of the NY Times and managers of NPR, as well as the other owners/managers of our big media, regarding Israel’s ethnic cleansing and occupation of the Palestinians.

    “The point I’m making is that if you don’t speak out against it, then in effect, you’re collaborating with it.”

  5. Walid
    October 27, 2013, 3:22 am

    “Constantinian Judaism and Constantinian Islam are the most obvious to mention. ”

    Yesterday, seafoid touched lightly on the Islamic one in his allegoric referrence to the coming of a Salahuddine. I didn’t get if by that he was insinuating the liberation of Jerusalem from the current infidels or to signal the extinction of Zionism.

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