This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Is there a theological lesson in the ongoing bombing and perhaps soon to be invasion of Gaza? The West Bank has already been invaded – and looted. With scores of “kidnapped” prisoners to boot.
Rumors of a US brokered cease-fire have surfaced. This would bring back John Kerry and his crew. Not to mention the recycled Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. What a horrible lot!
Freezing the status quo is in Israel’s interest. Damage done. Negotiating starts up again from the new facts on the ground.
With the ongoing war, whatever the shape it takes in the coming days, theology is a side issue or even irrelevant to most observers. But for those who for some inexplicable reason are drawn to God – without making any claims for that unrequited condition – the matter of God is most serious.
To sum it up politely, it doesn’t look good for God.
Many years ago I cut my teeth on the question of God in history via the Holocaust and Richard Rubenstein’s classic book, After Auschwitz. Rubenstein wrote of God’s silence and absence, or worse, knowledge and inaction, during the Holocaust. Because of my immersion in the Holocaust world, I think Palestinians and their supporters who await God’s intervention are barking up the wrong cosmic tree.
Irony of ironies, Palestinians should pay close attention to the Jewish theological obsession with God’s silence, even as they are invaded and bombed by the heirs of the Holocaust.
I also think that Jews should pay close attention to Palestinian suffering and its relations to question of God. That intense and repeated suffering is being visited upon Palestinians in the name of the Jewish people, the Holocaust and the Jewish God is a reversal of epic proportions.
Without question but rarely identified as such, Israel’s continuing injustice and oppression is a formative event in Jewish life that parallels the Holocaust in importance. Thoughts about God today come after Auschwitz and after what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people.
Jews already have a strained relationship with God. That relationship cannot escape the ramifications of Israel’s violence.
Think of Israel’s bombing of Gaza as the coda on the question of what Jews can think about God after Auschwitz. We can’t go back to God. We can’t go ahead with God either.
Palestinian religious supporters around the world, among them many religious Muslims and Christians, along with a handful of religious Jews – whatever language and imagery they employ to call on God and their governments – should likewise take note of God’s silence. When their prayer vigils end, effective action is minimal.
Should prayer services for the victims of Israel’s violence thus be halted?
Yesterday a good friend of mine, who wants to remain anonymous, responded to a question about the lack of response from other countries on behalf of Palestinians. Where are they in this latest flare up of the Israeli-Palestinian war? My friend’s response:
Theological rule of thumb – to be observed and thought through: Every person (and country) looks out for their own interests. Call it political original sin. No one outside benefits from siding with Palestine in real terms. The sacrifice is too great. Some Palestinians don’t side with Palestine either – in their concrete actions. What would happen to the Palestinian governmental and economic elites, for example, if Palestine became free? This is where theology starts from.
Political original sin? Self-interest isn’t only personal. What my friend suggests is that despite the rhetoric, the best appeal is one that materially enhances the one you appeal to. This is better than the rhetoric of sacrifice for others. Despite the religiosity around sacrifice, few embrace sacrifice as a way of life.
Have we strayed from the question of God? Not really. You see the silence of God in Gaza is akin to the silence of God in Auschwitz – in the following way: A defenseless people are under assault by a powerful military for the sole reason of further subjugating them. Of course, all sorts of other reasons are offered and, yes, the analogy isn’t exact. President Abbas was rightly criticized for suggesting when he asked apropos of the Gaza bombings: “Shall we recall Auschwitz?”
Or was Abbas cutting too close to the Jewish bone?
True, the situation of Jews then and Palestinians now is not exactly the same. So if it helps focus our minds perhaps best to substitute the Warsaw Ghetto for the Auschwitz death camp.
Where was God in the Warsaw Ghetto? Does ramping down the analogy help the Israeli government and Jewish establishment in America breathe a sigh of relief?
Predictably the response to Abbas was swift and certain. Noteworthy is the response from Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League:
This is unacceptable language and accusations coming from the leader of the Palestinian Authority. We are used to the outrageous criticisms of Israel coming from Palestinians, but President Abbas has reached a new low in calling Israel’s self-defense action, after hundreds of rockets have been launched at Israeli civilians, a “genocide,” and then by going even further by comparing Israel’s actions to the murder of 1.5 million Jews at Auschwitz.
Mr. Abbas is frequently referred to as a “moderate” Palestinian leader, and many still hold out hope that this is true. At a time when the Middle East is overrun with extremism in places like Syria and Iraq, to have the leader of the Palestinian Authority further inflame the region with these outrageous comments, is disappointing and dangerous.
We call on the United States, the European Union and other responsible governments to clearly, forcefully and unequivocally denounce these outrageous statements from President Abbas.
This is where we have arrived politically and ethically. Foxman is a Holocaust survivor and a prime enabler of Israeli violence. He doesn’t hesitate to lecture Abbas on the Holocaust of history and how different (and lesser) the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people really is.
Actually, rather than a statement, Abbas posed a question. Is it wrong for Palestinians and Jews to recall Auschwitz in the invasion and bombing of defenseless people by the self-proclaimed Jewish state?
Memory is like that. The suffering of one when perpetrated by the former sufferer is likely to bring historical memories to the fore – on both sides.
Theologically speaking it seems that Foxman and the Israeli government, with its many supporters, is announcing God’s vengeance on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. The sins of the Palestinians are variously defined. The main sin of Palestinians seems to be resisting their demise and asserting their dignity. How dare them!
You don’t have to go as far as Auschwitz or even the Warsaw Ghetto to appreciate – and support – the Palestinian struggle. Or use the historical memory of Jewish suffering to make your point.
When it comes to God, it’s more or less the same story. While Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in a God who intervenes in history, the better part of our belief is that once upon a time God did so – and decisively.
Thus we are left with the memory of a God who wasn’t silent – as God – in Gaza and beyond – is today.