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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.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Last night, amidst the murderous Israeli assault on Gaza, I heard from a friend who recalled a passage I wrote in 1987:

As risky and problematic as it is, we are called today to the wilderness; but the call is a promise of liberation. Chastened by history, we can no longer see liberation as the omnipotent preserve of God hovering over us by day and leading us by night, or simply as the search for the empowerment of our own people in America and Israel. We can ill afford such innocence in the presence of burning children, whether they be in Poland or in Palestine.

Though hardly a neophyte to Israel’s transgressions, my friend seemed shaken by the death toll in Gaza, the targeting of civilians, children being blown to bits. He was also reflecting on a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Thane Rosenbaum that views Israel’s civilian massacres almost as a rite of passage. Jews and others should wake up to the violence, not of Israel, but of Hamas. Targeting civilians isn’t as bad as it initially sounds. In fact, civilian deaths are inevitable. Get over it.

Thane Rosenbaum

Thane Rosenbaum

This is how Thane Rosenbaum parses it:

The asymmetry is complicated even further by the status of these civilians. Under such maddening circumstances, are the adults, in a legal and moral sense, actual civilians? To qualify as a civilian one has to do more than simply look the part. How you came to find yourself in such a vulnerable state matters. After all, when everyone is wearing casual street clothing, civilian status is shared widely.
The people of Gaza overwhelmingly elected Hamas, a terrorist outfit dedicated to the destruction of Israel, as their designated representatives. Almost instantly Hamas began stockpiling weapons and using them against a more powerful foe with a solid track record of retaliation.
What did Gazans think was going to happen? Surely they must have understood on election night that their lives would now be suspended in a state of utter chaos. Life expectancy would be miserably low; children would be without a future. Staying alive would be a challenge, if staying alive even mattered anymore.

Thus, the government in power – anywhere – defines the people’s – including children’s right to life? Does this same reasoning apply for Palestinians in relation to Israel and the Israeli children? Does electing and reelecting Netanyahu mean forfeiting their right to life?
Rosenbaum’s logic is twisted. If enablers have their place at The Hague, such incitement will surely have its day in court.

 

The passage I wrote about burning children reflected the language of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a prominent Holocaust theologian. It came to mind most vividly several weeks ago when Mohamed Abu Khdeir was burned alive after being kidnapped by several Israelis. The inversion of Jewish history was glaring. But I wondered if invoking the Holocaust made sense here. Would it be seen as dwelling in the past?

It was in a 1974 essay that Rabbi Greenberg first wrote about the burning children of the Holocaust as a challenge for the Jewish future. I have quoted this passage often:

After the Holocaust, no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that is not credible in the presence of the burning children.

Rabbi Greenberg’s invocation of burning children came to life in a different way for me when I visited Palestinian hospitals during the first Palestinian Uprising in 1988 and 1989. There I saw Palestinians of all ages but mostly teenagers who had been shot by Israel’s “rubber” bullets. Some were struggling for life. Others were already brain dead. I visited with the parents and siblings of the injured. Above the beds were martyr photos of the children framed by kefiyas.

After I left the hospitals, I wrote a poem about my experience. I used Rabbi Greenberg’s haunting word about burning children to express my experience in the hospitals. In the poem I asked if these Palestinian children weren’t, like the children of the Holocaust, burning too. I felt the Palestinian children I saw were in many ways “our” children. We share a common humanity as starters but for Jews I knew that their “burning” was our responsibility.

Though unintended by Rabbi Greenberg, his Holocaust statement has broadened to include Palestinians who are “burning,” this time at the hands of Jews. What theological statement can we make about God that makes sense to the burning children of the Holocaust – and Palestine?

Speak about God – if it makes sense to the burning children of the Holocaust and Palestine. Taken seriously, the seminaries of every faith would have to close. As would the synagogues, churches and mosques. God-talk cannot make sense to a burning child.

Yet the most intriguing and difficult part of Rabbi Greenberg’s words may be his clause – “or otherwise.” Otherwise would include political, economic, ecological and military statements – and the policies that go with them. Propose and implement these policies without question – if they make sense to the burning children.

Does Israel’s invasion of Gaza pass this Holocaust test?

Does Israel’s occupation of Palestine pass this Holocaust test?

Perhaps no war can pass Rabbi Greenberg’s haunting thoughts. Should we then disband every army and shut down the arms producer worldwide, including in Israel?

As the news reports show and Palestinians know by experience, burning children has become a way of life for Israel. It makes sense to Israel’s government and Jews around the world that supports the invasion of Gaza and even Op-Ed writers in the Wall Street Journal. The burning children of Gaza are collateral damage to a larger more important story.

Like Jewish children were considered not so long ago?

The children of Palestine tell another story – for themselves, for Jews and for history.

Chastened by history, indeed, Jews are – by the Holocaust and now by Palestine.

For in Gaza right now children are burning everywhere.

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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23 Responses

  1. seafoid on July 22, 2014, 9:44 am

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/22/gaza-crisis-john-kerry-and-ban-ki-moon-step-up-attempts-to-broker-ceasefire-live-updates

    “Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has reportedly said that the Israeli army should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in Gaza.

    Dermer was addressing the Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington and, despite some heckling, his speech was “warmly received”, according to the Times of Israel. It quotes him as saying:

    Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israeli Defence Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize… a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.

    • just on July 22, 2014, 9:50 am

      There is something so massively wrong with the wiring. I don’t think it’s fixable at all.

      Black is white, up is down, evil is good.

      • can of worms on July 22, 2014, 11:48 am

        On the contrary. The wiring is well in place. It is not an error, it is a tactic, a war through stupidity. A scheme to destroy intellectual standards.

        There is no argument for the genocide in Gaza. No argument for zionist ethnocentrism. “What would YOU do?” Indeed. What I would do is deploy insanity, snap the wiring.

        Thus, to return to the NYT: ‘a subjugated people is guilty of self-genocide if they rise against what they know is a more powerful foe….’

      • Chu on July 22, 2014, 12:38 pm

        This group wants everyone to have empathy for them, but they have no empathy for their victims. A little give and take please…

      • Citizen on July 22, 2014, 11:50 pm

        @ just
        Hagree’s speech at CUI Summit was the same, totally upside down the historical and present I-P scenario. These are mad men, utterly evil, thinking they are the good guys. Hard not to compare them with Nazi pot-stewers you can see in vintage films.

    • eljay on July 22, 2014, 9:56 am

      In remarks that are controversial to say the least, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has reportedly said that the Israeli army should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in Gaza. … [The Times of Israel] quotes him as saying:
      ” … the truth is that the Israeli Defence Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize… a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.”

      Dermer also suggested that Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis be given Nobel Prizes in Physics for praying to the One True God with almost super-human fervor.

    • on July 22, 2014, 10:06 am

      Forget that warmly received propaganda. Just last week the NY Times claimed this invasion of Gaza was different than the previous two as it had broad international support. This is known as the Big Lie.

    • Bumblebye on July 22, 2014, 10:18 am

      Restraint that’s led to the death toll currently being above 600?
      What’s the casualty ratio again? Between 70% and 80% civilian on the Palestinian side and what – 95% military on the Israeli side. Remind us again, who are the terroreeests?

      • seafoid on July 22, 2014, 10:20 am

        They have no consistency in the hasbara. First Hamas killed everyone and now the IDF acted with restraint.

      • just on July 22, 2014, 10:26 am

        Ruh roh. Once discipline is gone, it’s a free-for-all, and the smell of desperation becomes pronounced and acrid.

        Oh wait– that’s what we’ve been witnessing for quite a while now.

      • Kay24 on July 22, 2014, 1:40 pm

        It was pathetic to see Bibi stand next to Ban Ki Moon, and compare Hamas to Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and all the “terrorists” names he could come up with. He fails to mention that Hamas is only fighting Israel, no one else seems to be fighting on behalf of the Palestinian people. Considering their mighty weapons, trained military, and the massacre of unarmed civilians, it can be debated who the bigger terrorist really is.

      • a blah chick on July 22, 2014, 2:12 pm

        What, no Orcs?

      • Tuyzentfloot on July 22, 2014, 3:38 pm

        What, no Orcs?

        I’ve read that hundreds of them were spotted gathering in faraway Orcland, with clearly malevolent mindsets towards the Holy Land.
        http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11296051

    • ckg on July 22, 2014, 10:27 am

      CODE PINK was there, and they certainly didn’t warmly receive him.
      http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/blog/jvp-and-codepink-disrupt-cufi-event-to-hold-israel-accountable-for-gaz

    • John O on July 22, 2014, 11:57 am

      I think the key word here is “unimaginable”.

  2. Marnie on July 22, 2014, 10:05 am

    “Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israeli Defence Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize… a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.“ Herr Dermer

    Which begs the question, what could they possibly be holding back?

  3. michelle on July 22, 2014, 10:20 am

    .
    any of us can create a shift in our pages of history
    it would take alot of us to incite an actual improvement
    .
    if this be His Will a prayer to those who have allowed the seed
    of evil to grow in their ‘hearts’ may love overshadow and wither
    the evil this i pray in His Name Amen
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

  4. a blah chick on July 22, 2014, 11:04 am

    Along with Marc Regev Thane Rosenbaum has a face that just begs to be punched.

    • W.Jones on July 22, 2014, 6:28 pm

      Or begs for anti-wrinkle cream?

    • Citizen on July 22, 2014, 11:56 pm

      Yeah, he sure does. Also sorta looks like a geezer cross between the old Mad Magazine logo boy and Chuckie (horror film franchise doll)

  5. W.Jones on July 22, 2014, 11:11 am

    Speak about God – if it makes sense to the burning children of the Holocaust and Palestine. Taken seriously, the seminaries of every faith would have to close. As would the synagogues, churches and mosques. God-talk cannot make sense to a burning child.

    I sympathize- this is a really big problem in the world.

  6. Tzombo on July 22, 2014, 1:57 pm

    The Gawker has been doing a lot of critical articles on Israel/Palestine lately and there’s one on this too: WSJ Op-Ed Defends Killing Gazans in Eerily Familiar Language (http://gawker.com/wsj-op-ed-defends-killing-gazans-in-eerily-familiar-lan-1608731240)

  7. DICKERSON3870 on July 22, 2014, 2:27 pm

    I can easily see Thane Rosenbaum inspiring a future film by Tim Burton. In fact, Rosenbaum reminds me so much of Edward Sissorhands that he has already infiltrated and destablized my mental images for Sissorhands. Now, instead of Sissorhands strictly being played (as usual in the past) by Johnny Depp, there is a very unsettling, strobe-like, harmonic oscillation, or perhaps some type of ensemble, containing both Rosenbaum and Depp playing Sissorhands; and I keep expecting one or the other of them to be rudely ejected à la Woody’s Purple Rose of Cairo.

    P.S. ALSO SEE: “WSJ Op-Ed Defends Killing Gazans in Eerily Familiar”, by Adam Weinstein, Gawker.com, 7/22/14
    LINK – http://gawker.com/wsj-op-ed-defends-killing-gazans-in-eerily-familiar-lan-1608731240

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