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Where was God in the Warsaw Ghetto? Or in Gaza?

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN for its Special Meeting of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. (Photo: Reuters)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN earlier this year. Lately he said, “Shall we recall Auschwitz?” in condemning the Gaza slaughter (Photo: Reuters)

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.

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. seafoid on July 11, 2014, 9:53 am

    God is funny. In absentia 1939-45 and she turns up in 1967?
    Pull the other one.

    And all those murdered Jews were part of Her plan ?
    What if everyone in Israel now is part of a similar plan? Say God decides.
    The logic is nuts.

    • mijj on July 11, 2014, 11:31 am

      we have peculiar ideas about “god”. Assume he/she/it/whatever has human characteristics and has notions of “greater than/less than” “better/worse” “favors/despises” etc.. YHVH and the whole tree of related god-names clearly shows “god” is one of the pre-scientific pre-objective ways that the forces of nature are examined and explained – ie. pure subjectivity and therefore a receptacle for projected human psychology and nothing whatsoever to do with objective reality.

      Eg. as far as i can tell, the kabalah is centered round the meaningful interpretation of the progression of integers: 0,(0/0),(0/0/0),1,2..10. As if the integers are a model for manifestation from the abstract to the real. This leads to the illusion that there is an absolute sense of greater than, more pure, closer to god, etc.. But the integers are human psychological constrained imperfect subset of the complete, perfect, mathematical 2-dimensional space. Where there is no absolute center or scale. There is nothing to distinguish one region from any other, or one scale of space from any other. So, even in the true mystical sense, there is no absolute “better than”, “purer than”, “closer to god”, etc. . Any sense we might have of “better than” or “purer than” is entirely subjective and is created to serve a human purpose, (moral or immoral).

      TLDR: Morality is a natural evolved quality. “god” has no intrinsic morality.

      NB: The development of mathematics was unnecessarily hampered because we traditionally thought of numbers as quantities (eg. integer quantities, discrete quantities) rather than space – eg. negative numbers, sqrt -1, etc are not a mindbending hurdle if numbers represent relative range&rotation in space. Eg. -1 as space represents semicircle rotation at unit range. Thus square root of -1 is half of a semicircle rotation at unit range. Nothing mysterious or mindbending at all.

      /whoops! .. excessive blather

      • seafoid on July 12, 2014, 3:15 am

        God is often too busy dealing with sports results to work on other stuff.

  2. Kay24 on July 11, 2014, 11:05 am

    God is always AWOL in my opinion. There is no justification for ignoring the suffering of innocent, helpless people. There cannot be a plan that will justify, little kids having to endure suffering and death. As human beings we would stop it, if we had the power to do so, so why not a compassionate God?

    God looked the other way during the holocaust, and now he/she does the same when those whose parents experienced it, turn around and inflict pain and suffering on those under their military powers, and who uses every stinking excuse they can find to massacre these people.

    • bintbiba on July 11, 2014, 12:45 pm

      God ? what,where ,who, how? There is no ‘skywizard’ conducting this infernal cacophony!! Plllease!
      What we wish to be out there to save and protect, is of our own invention…and is within us. So there !! What you get is what we can and/or don’t do unto the Other.
      We are the Heaven and Hell of our poor miserable selves.

      • Kay24 on July 11, 2014, 12:54 pm

        Okay bintbiba, I get your point, and agree with you, have some chamomile tea and relax. Heh. :))

      • ritzl on July 11, 2014, 1:47 pm

        Well exclaimed!!, bintbiba.

        One of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies is in “A Fairy Tale: A True Story” (a movie about Belief at every turn and level of the human condition).

        Q (from 9-year old Francis): How do you know when you are grown up?

        A (from 12-year old Elsie): When you know how someone is feeling – who is not you.

        Does the Golden Rule come from “The Book” or the eyes of another person? I don’t know which is easier (or harder??) to ignore. Maybe they work together. Maybe the deepest, most fervent hope of “The Book” is to get people to look into each others’ eyes. Elephino.

      • bintbiba on July 11, 2014, 3:04 pm

        Wondeful comment,ritzl !
        It is when I need words the most ,that words are hardest to find . One of the reasons I stay glued to Mondoweiss… is the brilliance of so many of you in writing so well.

      • bintbiba on July 11, 2014, 3:04 pm

        Wonderful comment. (correction).

      • ritzl on July 11, 2014, 3:28 pm

        I think we learn [a lot] from each other. I know I do.

        Sooo… Bakatcha! :)

  3. Baldur on July 11, 2014, 11:07 am

    Since I don’t believe in any god(s), I believe the only ones who do pass judgement is ourselves – although nature has it’s laws as well, they are not moral, but solely based on might-makes-right. So in that sense, the global collective has the role a a judging God on this matter. The question is: when will people worldwide rise up against Israel’s racism?

    I would look at Israeli internal demographics as a ticking bomb that will eventually leave the nation alone, destabilized and without allies. If you want to look at that through a theological perspective, you could say that Israel has been given time to make peace, allow refugees back and make a state for all citizens that is not based on ethnic cleansing of the ones you don’t like.

    Look at the increasing number of children from religious schools. These are now about 40% of the newest high school generation (!) and 82% percent of them believe Arabs should not be able to vote. Compare this to 47% who believe this in secular schools. This means there is already a majority of people in the newest generation who would want to institute real apartheid without trying to hide it in any way.

    In about 10-15 years, Israelis from religious schools will constitute a definitive majority of all school students. Think about how their values compare to those of their parents.

    Accordingly, the conflict will likely only get worse in 10-15 years to come. But at the very latest in 2030, demographical trends in public opinion are going to make it outright impossible for the US to support Israel any longer.

  4. aiman on July 11, 2014, 11:36 am

    The oft-repeated question of the alleged absence of God during the Holocaust is actually an ethnocentric one. The question cannot be answered since it goes into the issue of suffering which precedes humanity. It is all the more amazing since, in this case, it happened at the cusp of industrialisation, the ultimate manmade thing, and thus the first form of industrial-scale killing. I do know who was present during the Holocaust and who is present in Gaza: human beings or so-called if by human being we mean being human.

  5. bintbiba on July 11, 2014, 1:28 pm

    Dear Kay24… I was not addressing my fury at you. Just needed to blow a gasket!!
    Chamomile is good . ;))

    • Kay24 on July 11, 2014, 2:11 pm

      I know. I was just kidding you. Hey, I need plenty of chamomile tea, when I read about the atrocities against the Palestinian people, by Israel. I feel I need to blow a gasket too, and feel so mad that the powers that be are doing absolutely nothing to help these people. Next time you have some chamomile, moroccan mint tea, or any other tea, enjoy the moment. Cheers.

      • bintbiba on July 11, 2014, 2:58 pm

        I’ll raise a mug to you, Kay24. You are’ muy simpatica’ ! :))

  6. LuLu on July 11, 2014, 1:42 pm

    Everything has a reason and a plan… God is going to strike the Zionist to a point of no return. God is just, He will not send punishment until a appointed fixed time, He lets them have their respite and evil ways. Everyone is going to die, what these Zionist need to worry about is that they will never die when they are thrown in hell.. That is forever too! God tests people with suffering and for patience. He already seen all this that is happening. My brother text me yesterday and ask why God is not helping.. I told him, as I said above…

  7. Citizen on July 11, 2014, 2:02 pm

    I read the article and all the comments to date. I think it’s time to put this show on the Jerry Springer show, and ten listen to Jerry’s philosophy at the end each segment.

  8. iResistDe4iAm on July 12, 2014, 10:20 am

    With the December 2008 invasion of Gaza, Israel found itself facing “a strategic loss on the battlefield of public perception,” according to Canadian journalist, Jeet Heer. In a National Post column he asserted:

    …In Los Angeles, young Jews wearing keffiyehs marched outside the Israeli consulate carrying signs reading “Difference Between Warsaw Ghetto & Gaza? 70 Years.”

  9. libra on July 12, 2014, 2:48 pm

    Professor Ellis: Thus we are left with the memory of a God who wasn’t silent – as God – in Gaza and beyond – is today.

    With Israel upping the level of its outrages against the Palestinians, poor Professor Ellis must be really struggling to find someone else to blame to finally settle on God – or his absence.

    But is God really absent in Gaza? It seems to me that once again the Old Testament God of Israel is very much present, smiting its enemies from the sky with a vengeful – if not genocidal – lust. I would have thought our Prophet would have something to say on this.

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