This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Recent events in Gaza hit hard, coinciding as they did with the 70th anniversary of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba. Will Gaza soon fade from the global news? Israel can no longer be thought without the Nakba, can it?
During the 1st intifada I wrote that the Israeli occupation was over. Some thought this an optimistic assessment, as if life for Palestinians and Israelis would now move beyond occupation. That wasn’t what I was thinking, just the opposite. I thought the Rubicon had been crossed and either Israel would negotiate a two-state solution or place its foot on the accelerator and take as much of Palestine as it could.
Neither happened exactly as I thought. Yet I was hardly wrong either and the question of questions remains thirty years after my initial understanding: When an occupation becomes permanent is it still an occupation?
Words are important. Though clearly some of the expressed horror at Israel’s actions in Gaza bespeak a disturbing subtext about Jews in this and that position of power, the overwhelming expressions of horror are correctly directed at the incredibly outrageous use of unbridled state power against a defenseless and encircled population in Gaza.
The permanence of Israel’s control is undoubted in any political analysis. Everyone knows, including Palestinian leadership, that Israel, with other powers in the region, especially Egypt and Jordan, and still others outside Europe, including the United States and the major powers in Europe, are uninterested in anything but a subjugated and controlled Palestinian population. The progressive NGOs and church denominations in the West at least, even in their recent statements of outrage, more or less argue the same political line. No country or entity is willing to sacrifice enough to reverse the occupation of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank or Jerusalem. So the scandal of the abuse of state power, laid correctly at the feet of Israel, must be spread globally.
Is global responsibility going to do the trick and somehow strike a real, rather than symbolic, blow for Palestinian freedom? If I were a Palestinian, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Or I would begin to breathe again since Palestinians having been holding their breath for seventy years and counting. What do we say to those lesser entities that cannot turn the tide, who have too little power, but can at least pay up for their concern in a witness that is intentional, unmistakable, without reserve and, in a way that in the eyes of their opponents, is bound to seem outrageous?
Here’s what I think: In Gaza, the end will continue. As it has for decades. But not only for Palestinians. For Jews within Israel and Jews outside Israel, the historical judgment is certain. Let’s be honest. And realize that the Jewish approach to Israel and the Palestinians, improving modestly over the years but severely compromised, will continue to be interrogated by the suffering of Palestinian populations in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine.
Palestinians are trapped. Jews are too.
On the Jewish side of the permanent occupation, statements from rabbinic organizations have been woeful, weak, carefully (deceitfully?) balanced, on the one hand and on the other. Statements on Gaza by Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and its sister organization in the United States, T’ruah are prime progressive examples of this. The statement from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association is similar and perhaps worse. Speaking of these statements in the most charitable way, I find a timidity which mystifies and compromises their outrage.
In these statements, the rabbis present themselves as conflicted. On the one hand, they bemoan the loss of Palestinian life. On the other hand, they celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel as a beacon of hope. Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem also occasions a conflicted conscience. In their view, Jewish history has awaited a renewed presence in Jerusalem for thousands of years. The rabbis are still on board flying the Israeli flag. Their aside? On the embassy move, perhaps the timing was wrong.
On what looks more and more like a colonial settler regime, the rabbis are silent. On the structural racism that pervades Israel and its outlook, again silence. On conquering another people and the permanence of occupation, perish the thought. These so well-educated rabbis seems lost in their rabbinic texts. They are experts in knowing who Jews were. They seem unaware of who we have become.
The Rabbis want it both ways and it seems they have it – if they don’t probe the historic and ongoing connection between Gaza and the state of Israel. Reading their statements, and dealing with rabbis for many years, I wonder if they understand these connections. Most rabbis cut their teeth on advanced Hebrew and rabbinic studies in programs in Jerusalem, a city they know part of, the Jewish side, and a city they extol in wondrous language. I ask: Has the thought ever entered their heightened religious imagination that their Hebrew language proficiency and religious attachment to the land was achieved in a highly militarized apartheid Jewish state?
Rabbis should close their eyes and imagine their stay in Jerusalem in a new way. Imagine their rabbinic training was guarded by Star of David helicopter gunships. Imagine that the snipers who murdered unarmed Palestinians within Gaza are guarding the rabbis-in-training as I write.
For the rabbis, some of this strange duality no doubt harkens back to their rabbinic training as leaders within the Jewish community. How far can rabbis go without divorcing themselves from the people they are trained to serve? There is more though. Ignorance of history and the real situation in Israel-Palestine to start but, it seems, the rabbis in question lack an overall ability to understand that as Jews we have reached an end; the end of ethical Jewish history as we have known and inherited it. Continuing to appeal to the Jewish ethical tradition as they do in their statements is akin to hiding their rabbinic heads in the sand. In what tradition do these rabbis now stand, in real time? It may simply be self-interest. Are they afraid that the end of ethical Jewish history spells their rabbinic end too?
There are some Jews in the more radical and informed activist community who think that spending time on “Jewish” in relation to Israel-Palestine is a sign of privilege and, besides, it is wasted time better spent on turning the historical tide. People are tired, many Jews included, of Jews showing off their (quite safe) anguish as Palestinians are buried and the hospitals in Gaza overflow with the injured for life. Understood. But since I am a Jew and thus responsible with other Jews in relation to Jewish history, narrating my outrage in another form would be evading my responsibility, a sign of privilege writ large.
“Jewish” is important in history and will continue to be in the future. Among other things, and in a special and distinctive way, “Jewish” is the root of the global prophetic. Jews drawing near to, embracing and embodying the prophetic isn’t just privileged grandstanding. The prophetic is the Jewish indigenous. It is the only reason to be Jewish. It also remains an essential part of the global prophetic. An (un)rooted global prophetic can show itself off in dazzling colors. Where will it lead us?
Israel’s occupation of Palestine is permanent in any way permanence can be understood today. This means as far as our historical eye can see, for our purposes, say the next twenty-five to fifty years at least. There will be ongoing negotiations within that permanence, with some changes for the better and others for the worse. With that permanence we need to pay attention to another permanence, resistance, which I fold into the prophetic, when the prophetic is thought in a multilayered way and includes both the political and the spiritual.
If you think the movement back and ahead to the prophetic is apolitical, an understandable thought, look at the argument that international law will turn the occupation upside down. Think in practical terms. The major powers of the world and, in turn, those not so major powers who court the major powers or are dependent upon them, have a definite interest in containing the violence against Palestinians. So far so good. They even have an interest in containing the extension of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Good as well. What they lack is an interest in ending the occupation of Palestinian land and life as things are now and, even more, a reversal of the occupation to the 1967 borders.
Although there is increasing discussion about the borders of 1948 and indeed the very concept of a self-defined Jewish state, international law and the international community goes nowhere near this issue. Even the original supporters of Palestinians in the Arab world, at least some major players there, have incorporated Israel into their security survival strategy. Among them, Egypt and Jordan operate as national restraints on Palestinian ambitions and are crucial in keeping Palestinians contained. Saudi Arabia’s links to Israel are strong and becoming stronger. Outside of the Middle East, Europe has historic obligations to Jews and has played a significant role in arming Israel. In turn, Europe continues to buy Israeli arms battle tested on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In the near future this will include some of Israel’s war innovations during the last weeks in Gaza. The United States interests and policies are too obvious to discuss here but, just with a side a glance at Syria, think: What is Russia’s interest in a real and viable Palestinian state?
In relation to Gaza, there is outrage, appropriately so. I add a sense of doom. No matter what I think personally, is doom a responsible public outcry? Is doom another way of expressing outrage or a way of giving up? These questions are real. What we are learning is that for the time being, my definition of permanent, the Israel=Palestine will remain pretty much as it is.
When we think of social, political and economic change in different parts of the world, in most places the change that occurs will be on the margins. Make no mistake, change on the margins, for good and ill, involves matters of life and death. That change is worth mobilizing for. But to think, for example, that the overall situation in the Philippines or Brazil or the United States, will change in a steady and quick succession is an illusion. In Gaza and among Palestinians in general, any intervention on the side of good is likely to bring marginal change – within a permanent occupation. Often payback for good behavior will follow, disciplining the “unruly” forces, a Faustian bargain that the Palestinian Authority and, in reality rather than rhetorically, Hamas, has entered into.
As throughout history, the innocent and the ordinary suffer through history as others, who may have previously suffered, in the Jewish case, in history’s view quite recently, inflict more or less the same abuse they suffered. Until, at some time in the future, the Wheel of Power and Powerlessness moves again. The Jewish prophetic and all those who join in the prophetic have to act to stem that suffering and also, at a step or more removed, maintain an ability to think independently.
During the Great March of Return multi-week protests, anyone who has been around the issue of Israel-Palestine has seen the same negotiators and commentators doing and saying the same things as in years past. This includes those we agree or disagree with, those who have lost their cutting edge if they ever had one, and those we know are corrupt. True, the discourse has evolved. More and more can be said. Yet, within that positive narrative change, politically, the losses have been unrelenting. Devastating. I doubt there is a conflict in the world where consciousness has evolved so much and political losses have been so massive, as it has with Israel-Palestine
So let us drop the pretense! Be honest! The end Gaza is experiencing will continue. The ethical end Jewish history Jews are experiencing will continue. What to do at the end? Palestinians will decide for themselves. So will prophetic Jews.