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?