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Interfaith ecumenical dialogue should give way to interfaith solidarity for Palestine

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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.

 This is a presentation I am giving in Vienna, Austria in an interfaith dialogue.

Never judge a book by its cover.  Don’t judge a religion by its cover either.

The beliefs and doctrines of religion can be argued for and against.  Analyzing religion, however, must move beyond what religion says about itself.  How religion functions in the historical, economic and political realms is important to analyze.

Religion doesn’t stand alone.  Religion exists in time and space – within a socio-political, cultural and economic web.  Sometimes religion takes the lead.  Most often religion follows and does what it is told.  Usually religion blesses what serves its needs.

Whatever their origins, historically Christianity and Islam are empire religions.  Their global presence comes from the colonial web they thrive within.

Though Judaism is called a world religion, it is hard to justify that status.  Christianity and Islam have billions of followers.  At most, there are fourteen million Jews in the world.

That’s just the beginning of deconstructing Judaism’s world religion status.  Most Jews who fall under Judaism’s umbrella aren’t religious at all.  It is more accurate to understand Judaism as a subset of “Jewish.”

Jewish is the main player but, to many, this begs the question.  Why identify Jewish without Judaism, the religion of Jews?  The answer is simple:  Judaism is a latecomer to the Jewish scene, arising more or less in the 4th century and after, mostly as a response to the rise of Christianity as a state religion in the Holy Roman Empire.  Islam follows soon after.  It, too, is a late comer to the religious tapestry of the world.

One way of deconstructing the three monotheistic faiths is to see them as add-ons to cultures and religions already in place.  They are usurpers of indigenous cultures and religions.

So don’t be fooled by the universal claims of Christianity and Islam.  Though they’ve had their place in the empire sun, their institutionalization is troublesome.  As we see in the state of Israel, when Judaism has political power, the result is ambivalent at best.

Is this too strong a characterization for an interfaith dialogue on Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine?  Fair enough.  Tell me, though, what uncritical mutual respect has brought us.  It may be time to take the mutual respect gloves off and have a go at it.

To be fair, though, there are many sides to religion and its institutionalization.  Religion can play an important role – against itself.  This is true especially when political and economic change benefits religion’s institutional privileges and the lives of its adherents.

The specific role that the monotheistic religions play in Jerusalem fits in well with my analysis.  For after the long and often violent history of the monotheistic religions in Jerusalem who could wish anything other than their disappearance?

The holiness of Jerusalem is akin to romanticizing world religions.  The holiness of Jerusalem is the myth of myths.  It nonetheless continues.

Jerusalem’s history features a cycle of exploitation, expropriation, ethnic cleansing, murder and revenge.  This cycle continues today.  With all the drama, what Jerusalem lacks is the ordinary.  The extraordinary often makes living in Jerusalem unbearable.

Rather than focusing on the ills of religion, then, for that is a given and is nowhere better highlighted than in Jerusalem, and knowing that Judaism, Christianity and Islam play a major role in Jerusalem and, of course, in Israel/Palestine, the issue remains.  Can each monotheistic religion and perhaps these religions together help change the division and conflict they helped create?

Indeed, the better side of religion is the resistance to injustice it often blesses.  Like the violence it spawns, religion resists injustice when the prophetic within it is rediscovered.  Various forms of liberation theology are the result and today liberation theology can be found within Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Most often, however, liberation theology is practiced against the institutions that claim the same faith.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam can play a positive role, especially if the situation around them takes a turn for the better.  So, for example, imagine the Prime Minister of Israel decides to confess Israel’s sins against the Palestinian people.  Imagine an Israeli Prime Minister calling the diverse leadership of the Palestinian people to Jerusalem to affirm the Jewish ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, the colonial and illegal settlements in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 war and that Israel was never serious about a real Two-State solution.  Now imagine that same Prime Minister stating that Israel realizes such policies represent a dead end for Jewish Israelis and Jews around the world, all the while deepening the grievous wrong against the Palestinian people.  Imagine, then, Israel’s Prime Minister envisioning the future for Israel/Palestine, starting in Jerusalem, where all of Jerusalem – its goods and services, governance and security, education and ecology – will be shared jointly by Jews and Palestinians.

If a true equality is sought and maintained, it’s difficult to imagine religious authorities in Jerusalem opposing such a project.

If the political situation between Jews and Palestinians is defused, if the entirety of Israel/Palestine is demilitarized, can religion remain militarized?

Perhaps.  Probably not.

To think that religious authorities will sacrifice institutional power for justice is unrealistic.  What’s in it for them or the religion they represent?  But if politics moves in a justice direction the equation shifts.  When justice and peace become the watchword in society, religion can make that same move.

Dissenters within religious communities should pay attention.  The prophetic texts within the canonical books that are overlooked, downplayed or misinterpreted by religious authorities are justice oriented, decisive and explosive.  Most often prophetic dissenters are exiled by their religious communities.  Many have to abandon aspects of their religious formation to stand for justice.  The exile justice seekers experience is a religious tradition unto itself.

Here the differentiation between Judaism and Jewish is heightened.  For you see, unlike Christianity or Islam, the Jewish indigenous is the prophetic.  Judaism, for all its diversity and interesting sidebars, like all religions, disciplines the prophetic.  Yet in Jewish life, the prophetic is ancient and distinctive.  Whenever it seems contained in Jewish life, the prophetic remerges.

Ritualizing Jewish life in Judaism and before in ancient Israel has always been risky.  As a people and within a state formation, Israel’s indigenous prophetic remains the final arbiter of what it means to be Jewish.

Rather than Judaism, the Jewish prophetic might initiate a breakthrough in Jerusalem.  To be sure, Jewish is hardly limited to or even found primarily within Israel/Palestine.  In fact, Jewish refuses to be constricted to Israel the state.  The indigenous prophetic is much broader.  Rather than Judaism’s dubious status as a world religion, the Jewish prophetic appears on the world stage.

The Jewish prophetic is on one side of the empire divide.  The empire divide pits the Jewish prophetic against those Jews who refuse to believe the prophetic can secure Jewish life.  Speaking here in Vienna, it is hard to claim that the empire builders of Jewish history, including those in the Jewish establishment in America and Israel, are wholly wrong.  How did the Jewish prophetic fare in relation to the Holocaust?

Nonetheless, within Jewish empowerment even after the Holocaust, the Jewish prophetic is on the move.  It is exploding in our time.

The Jewish prophetic is proclaiming to the Jewish people an essential fact:  that, though, as Jews we come after the Holocaust, we also come after Israel, and what Jews have done and are doing to the Palestinian people.

Jews of Conscience in and outside of Israel embody the Jewish prophetic in our time.  They engage the Jewish empire builders and their religious enablers.  A civil war it is today as it has always been in Jewish history – the Jewish prophetic versus Jewish empire.  Today that civil war is sharply delineated:  justice for Palestinians over against the relentlessly expansionist state of Israel.

It isn’t only Jewish that needs to confront empire.  Palestinian Muslims and Christians need to confront their own internal empire builders.  Palestinian empire builders are found in politics and religion as well.  At this point in history it seems that Palestinian authorities are unable to create a future for the Palestinian people.

As for the interfaith ecumenical attempts to sow justice in Jerusalem, they have fallen into the abyss of mutual mistrust or a too easy harmony.  The latter is usually subsumed under the romanticized rubric “Abrahamic Faiths” or “The Children of Abraham.”

In both, Abraham becomes a common father for the otherwise quarrelsome faith communities.  Void of a political solution, Judaism, Christianity and Islam conjecture pacific myth as reality.  The Holy Land has a habit of doing this to otherwise reasonable folks.

Even if politically incorrect, I would be remiss if I didn’t state it boldly.  The mythos of the Abrahamic Faiths and The Children of Abraham take us only as far as a romanticized image can.  We know that theoretical religious brother and sisterhood frequently co-exists with invested injustice, especially when the religious territory is highly charged.

With few exceptions, Jewish religious authorities today are a scandal to Jewish history.  The conservative religious authorities and their enablement of injustice toward Palestinians are obvious.  Yet the formation of the state of Israel and its expansionist policies have mostly been guided and enabled by otherwise liberal Jewish religious authorities.  It’s a tangle.

Palestinian Islamic and Christian leaders aren’t far behind in their scandalous behavior.  If we add to the mix, Middle Eastern and international representatives of Islam and Christianity, the situation becomes dire.  Jockeying for their position in Jerusalem, often the Palestinian population in the land is overlooked.  In the eyes of religious leaders, the religious significance of Jerusalem is transcendent.  Ordinary Palestinians take a second seat.

Here is an opening for Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience inside and outside the land.  Under the “transcendent” radar, religious dissenters must forge a partnership beyond religious authorities and institutions.  This route abandons the interfaith ecumenical framework and the dialogue that is endless and which goes nowhere.

People of Conscience across religious lines see the interfaith ecumenical dialogue akin to the endless peace process that also goes nowhere.  Why continue to invest in an interfaith/peace process where the stakeholders have a vested interest in the continuation of division, privilege and injustice?

The task before us is to locate and embody a new interfaith solidarity whose primary focus is justice for Palestinians.  At first glance, this seems political rather than religious.  True enough.  But since overt politics have failed to reverse Israeli hegemony in Israel/Palestine, the field for justice must expand.  The appeal for justice should be multi-layered.  As well, the pursuit of justice requires deep and extensive roots for the long run.

Along with politics, a new interfaith solidarity deals with economics, culture and religion.  The battle has to be waged both within Israel/Palestine and in the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas.  It will be joined in the Jewish/Palestinian Diaspora evolving in our time.   From there, Jews and Palestinians in and outside the land can reach out to the international scene to combat Israel’s ascendancy.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) exemplifies such a force.  Here Jews and Palestinians from all over the world are joined by people of good will from every geographic and religious (and non-religious) orientation.

Have you noticed that BDS and the Jewish/Palestinian Diaspora down plays and abjures overt religiosity?  To suggest a religious approach even by a minority is scoffed at by the BDS movement.  With BDS we have an interfaith solidarity – without overt religiosity.

Would it be better if there were no religious affiliation in Jerusalem and beyond?  After all, secularism has its own Gods.

Though a critique of the monotheistic religions may be painful, it is also necessary.  For after religion we are left with the unadorned and wildly free prophetic.  If the Jewish prophetic in concert with the prophetic of other religious traditions doesn’t solve the world’s problems – or even the future of Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine – at least we will know where we stand.

Rather than religion, it is time for the prophetic witness all over the Jewish, Christian and Islamic world.  Why not begin with Jerusalem?

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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19 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    November 16, 2013, 3:14 pm

    Whatever their origins, historically Christianity and Islam are empire religions. In other words, perhaps originally Christianity was not an empire religion but became so due to imperial support? But if its original teachings were not imperial, perhaps it is a philosophy that itself is still not imperial?

    Their global presence comes from the colonial web they thrive within. Christianity was certainly present throughout the 1st-2nd century Roman empire due to the colonial web- its adherents preached to Roman slaves throughout that empire using its Mediterranean transportation routes. Of course, Marxism and liberation movements also spread through the colonial web.

    “Christianity and Islam have billions of followers.” OK. The most loyal adherents are often in the poorest regions of the “empires”.

    Isn’t it comparing apples and oranges to say:
    One way of deconstructing the three monotheistic faiths is to see them as add-ons to cultures and religions already in place. They are usurpers of indigenous cultures and religions. So don’t be fooled by the universal claims of Christianity and Islam
    Christianity’s “universal claim” is that it does not give preference to one nationality over another. It does not claim that it has not added on to any previous religion. Actually it claims that it is the correct Jewish worship, but that is another story. The point is that even if it adds on to other religions does not mean it is biased against one nationality or race over another.

  2. W.Jones
    November 16, 2013, 3:29 pm

    “For you see, unlike Christianity or Islam, the Jewish indigenous is the prophetic. ”
    Prophecy is not “indigenous” to Christianity? Why? In ancient times there were gentile prophets like Balaam, so prophecy is not strictly nationalist. In Christian tradition there are prophets leading up to today- people who help or even prayerfully heal others and have visionary predictions. There are also the Liberation theologians if that’s what you mean.

    As for the interfaith ecumenical attempts to sow justice in Jerusalem, they have fallen into the abyss of mutual mistrust or a too easy harmony.
    Have Christian ecumenical peace activists fallen into an “abyss of mistrust”, and if so, how? Is there a way out of their abyss?

  3. just
    November 16, 2013, 6:56 pm

    I consider myself, thanks to my educators, a discerning and inquisitive reader.

    I’m having a difficult time digesting this, Professor.

  4. RoHa
    November 16, 2013, 8:59 pm

    “For after religion we are left with the unadorned and wildly free prophetic.”

    Free prophetic with every purchase? Or do we let it run free in the national parks?

    “If the Jewish prophetic in concert with the prophetic of other religious traditions doesn’t solve the world’s problems”

    No sign of it offering any solutions to anything so far.

    “at least we will know where we stand.”

    In a position to try using human reason and human decency.

  5. Walid
    November 17, 2013, 2:55 am

    Why do the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have to be deconstructed in the first place? It’s being proposed that the gloves be taken off and having all three in the ring going at it defoliating each other’s myths, chief among them their respective claims to Jerusalem. Marc feels that once the 3 religions are stripped of their religiosity after having scratched each other’s eyes out, they will be free to pursue their quest of the prophetic. This is somewhat contradictory since without religiosity, of what good is the prophetic?

    I doubt that BDS exemplifies a religion-free force that is issued from the absence of religiosity since BDS is fueled by the ethics and morals that are inculcated primarily by religion. The mythical claims to Jerusalem by the 3 religions can be deconstructed by historical, archeological, architectural and other analyses that don’t need to have any of these religions dissected or destroyed. A case in point is the Muslim’s claim to the city that is based on an interpretation of a dream and the aspirations of an emerging empire wanting to have a competing holy city of its own, both having nothing to do with the structural foundations of the great religion that is Islam. The same could be said about the claims to the city by the great religions of Judaism and Christianity. The myths have to be deconstructed, not the religions.

    • W.Jones
      November 17, 2013, 3:03 pm

      Christianity doesn’t really claim to a particular city anymore than another city. It does claim a spiritual Jerusalem though.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        November 18, 2013, 5:09 pm

        “Christianity doesn’t really claim to a particular city anymore than another city.”

        Not so much now, sure. But it did, and how. (And a relic can be seen in the lunacy that is the governance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has resulted in, among other things, a mason’s ladder from at least the 1750s remaining in place because the Christians’ overlapping claim to that piece of property…)

      • W.Jones
        November 20, 2013, 1:21 am

        As an ideology Christianity does not lay claim to ownership of the Sepulchre.

        However what you say has more than a grain of truth because the Sepulchre has value to Christians and the Church has an ownership claim to it in a legalistic sense. However ownership of it in particular is not a goal or belief of the religion. That is my understanding.


      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        November 20, 2013, 11:22 am

        Frankly, I get your distinction between ideological and legalistic, but I don’t really buy it. In my opinion, if “Christianity” is anything, it is “what Christians do.” So to the extent that Christians invaded and fought for centuries to assert rights of ownership over the holy land (and indeed, the claimed right to access the holy places, like the Holy Sepulchre, which animated the Crusades, was, at a minimum, an assertion of an ownership right), that is part of Christianity regardless of whether it is framed as being scriptural, ideological, cultural or historical. Although, I must admit, that your statement makes me conclude that the lunacy that I referenced earlier with regard to the governance of the Holy Sepulchre probably stems from the fact that the claims were more cultural than not.

      • W.Jones
        November 20, 2013, 6:16 pm

        “Frankly, I get your distinction between ideological and legalistic, but I don’t really buy it.”

        Uh oh…

        (just joshing you, W.Tanaka)

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        November 20, 2013, 6:23 pm

        okay, then I used your comments to have a nice discussion with myself. It was very fruitful, if truth be told, so thanks!!

      • W.Jones
        November 20, 2013, 7:00 pm

        What I could say is that those Christians’ claims to that specific territory are based in part on their faith, but they are not “the faith”. Christianity, a faith or religion, teaches that the resurrection occurred, and its religious Tradition points to specific places where those Messianic events occurred. If you pick a broad definition of Christianity that goes outside just the Bible and its main ideas, then you can say that Christian Tradition records that in the past the Church owned territory there.

        Then, based on the religious teaching that (1) the resurrection occurred there and (2) the fact recorded in Tradition that the Church did own it, a Christian who believes in private ownership can claim that the Church has some kind of historical and cultural claim to that land.

        However, the Christian teachings (1 and 2) that this private land claim is based on do not say that the Church should own that particular plot of land. Certainly many Christians would like very much to own it, but it is not a teaching or belief to do so.

        The most that can be said as far as Christian beliefs is that ideally everyone would be Christians, and that then the earth would belong to Christians, but that ultimately it always belongs to God.

        Looking at it from your viewpoint saying it is what Christians do, I feel this is a bit of a stretch. A person can have a religious belief that they should obey their parents and to their clergy. Their parents or clergy person then tells them to buy a piece of land someplace. It seems a bit of a stretch to say that it is the religion telling the person to do that.

        So in the example of the Crusades, if the Pope announced that “the faith says” that they must own the Sepulchre, then Catholics might argue that it does because the Pope can state the faith. Protestants would disagree, but anyway I think he did not say that. Christianity says that its strongest beliefs are in the Bible and Ecumenical Councils when everyone agrees. Otherwise you are allowed a certain latitude when it comes to disagreeing with theologians and leaders about the faith. Anyway, I am not aware of those figures talking about ownership of the Holy Land as a doctrine, but that the Crusaders thought it was something God inspired them to do.

        Finally I will add that statements like the Kairos Documents and Church of Scotland documents were declarations by church leaders- in the case of the Kairos Pal. Document, one coming from many churches. They do a good job explaining what Christianity says about this topic and they teach universalism on it instead of private Church ownership of a specific property, actually going as far as to disagree there can still be specific land claims for one religious group only.

        Take care, my philosopher friend.

      • W.Jones
        November 20, 2013, 7:22 pm

        the lunacy that I referenced earlier with regard to the governance of the Holy Sepulchre probably stems from the fact that the claims were more cultural than not


        As for the Sepulchre, yes it is an interesting history. For a few centuries naturally Christians did not own it, but they passed down ideas of where it was. Then in Byzantine and Caliphate times the Church was a steward over the land, and after Church divisions arose the Ottomans apportioned stewardship of the property between them, which they have kept until today. So the actual claim they assert is a legal one, and the justification is religious in a cultural sense that is based on the importance of the place to their religion. This contrasts it with the ownership being a religious idea or in other words a “postulate of their philosophy.”

        In contrast, some religions really do assert claims over specific land as a matter of religious teaching.

      • W.Jones
        November 20, 2013, 9:10 pm

        I used your comments to have a nice discussion with myself.

        Me too.

        It is nice writing with you.

      • W.Jones
        November 20, 2013, 9:29 pm

        Actually I think Yes someone could argue that the Crusaders thought they needed to capture the Holy Land, and that God’s Spirit told them to do this. One can conclude that for the Crusaders it was a religious belief.

        But I believe it is an overgeneralization to say that Christianity said to do this, but instead I would say that they developed their own Christian beliefs claiming the land. I would make a similar distinction between Christianity and the Christian Zionists’ beliefs.

        The religious ideas of the Crusaders and the “Christian Zionists” are rather specific to them, rather than being accepted by all Christendom at that time. Actually, the native Christians actually living in the Holy Land typically oppose(d) both the Crusades and the C.Z.s.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Woody Tanaka
        November 21, 2013, 9:06 am

        Yes, I would agree that I was being overbroad. But my approach to these matter has always been to look beyond what is, for lack of a better term, announced doctrine, to see how the religious actually live their religion, as a key to determine the content of that religion. From that perspective, the fact that the Crusaders (and a large percentage of Christendom) found the conquest of the holy land to be a religious duty, makes it akin to, if not identical to, saying that at that time and place Christianity (i.e., the aggregate of the religious beliefs of all the Christians) did make a claim on the land, even if was not a claim or belief shared by all Christians. But I would admit that this is an idiosyncratic approach, but one which resolves the dilemma posed by religious folks claiming one thing and doing another.

  6. Dan Good
    Dan Good
    November 17, 2013, 9:28 am

    Do any organizations or advocacy groups exist that support or enable the resettlement of Palestinians? Maybe this should happen. Why not relocate Palestinian families in the place where the Zionist settle left? How can Israel allow the people of Palestine to languish without any help or relief? If the Zionist movement advocates the settlement of Israel then why should it not at the same time advocate the re-settlement of people living in Plaestine?

  7. mcohen
    November 18, 2013, 7:24 am

    Marc ellis

    would you consider that belief in G-d can exist outside relegion
    that the prophetic in this context is at its strongest
    that abram was neither jew,christian or moslem
    survival comes first and relegion provides the will and intent.what follows on from that as history has shown is sorrow tears and blood
    Relegion is merely a guide to reaching that point where a belief in G-d is all that is needed and the adornments of relegion fall away enabling one to free yourself of the need to use relegion as a survival tool
    it is at this point that the prophetic becomes “wildly free” ,a guide to mans soul.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      November 18, 2013, 5:13 pm

      “would you consider that belief in G[o]d can exist outside rel[i]gion”

      Nonsense. All you’ve done here is declare a private religion to be a non-religion. Belief in your God or other gods, by itself, is enough to constitute a religion.

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