This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
It’s official. My Skype lecture into Al Aqsa University in Gaza has been postponed. Reason? Bombing. Gaza is under siege by Israel – again.
During my thirty plus years as a Jewish theologian lecturing on the issue of Israel-Palestine, the universities sponsoring my lectures received numerous bomb threats. Often under police protection outside and within lecture halls, my lectures have gone on. Until today, I have never had a lecture cancelled due to bombing.
As a teacher, and a Jew, it is a strange feeling to be teaching students under Israel’s violent control. The students who will not hear my lecture today might be maimed as I write – by Israel. They, or their loved ones, might be killed as I write – by Israel. In this situation, Not In My Name takes on a different resonance.
A few days ago I returned from a conference on Palestine in Istanbul. During the conference we talked and strategized about the plight of Palestinians around the world. Many at the conference were Palestinian, some born in Palestine, others outside their native land. All agreed that the reality on the ground is getting worse, for Palestinians in Palestine, in the Arab world and beyond. All agreed that Palestine will become free one day and soon.
On the issue of Palestinian freedom, I am agnostic, decidedly so. I was criticized for my view.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine is permanent, I stated. I had important provisos: If the facts on the ground and the Middle East, American foreign policy and the international world order remain as they are. I added an additional caveat: By permanent I mean for the foreseeable future, the next twenty-five to fifty years, the lifetime of the young Palestinians I was so grateful to spend time with at the conference. If Gaza was free, just and healthy, this would mean the lifespan of the Palestinians I was to spend Skype-time with today.
The opposition to my view was so strong that my qualifiers went unnoticed. Were they unheard or were the conference participants in denial?
The organizers of my now-postponed lecture had asked me to focus on my writing during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014, including my exchange with Max Blumenthal as he visited Gaza after the war. After I encountered Max’s reflections and photography of devastated Gaza, I sent an email expressing my concern for his safety and mental health. Viewing this devastation, let alone living within it, is harmful on every human level. I was heartened when I heard back from him, thanking me for my concern. Max asked a question that haunted him and haunts me today: What should he be thinking as he walked through the rubble of Gaza? My response: “Max, you are witnessing the end of ethical Jewish history.”
The organizers also asked me about my relationship with Edward Said. For the students in Gaza, as for Palestinians around the world, Said is regarded, quite rightly, as a heroic figure. I hold the same view.
My relationship with Said is one of the great treasures of my life. In Istanbul, I thought of him constantly. I think of him today as the bombing of Gaza continues.
Said never let the urgency of the Palestinian situation overcome the necessity of deep thought. He had no time for cheerleaders, especially when the chips were down. Said would have understood “permanent occupation” as my challenge to chart new ways of thinking and organizing for Palestinian freedom.
The students in Gaza were on my mind as well. As I listened to the conference presentations, I wondered what they would think as their plight and prospects were considered. They live what we discussed.
I met a number of Gazans at the conference. Most were just a few years older than the students I won’t be addressing today. Their experiences are harrowing, their futures up in the air. They were clear-headed. They aren’t interested in cheerleaders either.
As a Jew, I feel that everything Jews struggled and suffered for has been squandered. There doesn’t appear to be a way back.
At the Istanbul conference was another Jew, the Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe. The Jewish American critic, Norman Finkelstein, was invited but, due to pressing personal matters, could not attend. He appeared via Skype. Both addressed the politics of Israel-Palestine and were well received.
Other than in my presentation, there were few comments about Jews and Jewish history, except the generous division that many Palestinians make between Zionism, an abhorrent political ideology, and Judaism, a respected Abrahamic religion. Israel was mentioned only in the negative. Palestine was the point of reference.
As bombs fall on Gaza, the ability to speak of Jewish particularity in a positive frame is becoming almost impossible. Like permanent occupation, my focus on Jewish particularity, especially the prophetic as the indigenous of Jewish life, is difficult to hear. Should I and other Jews of Conscience go silent?
Today I was to speak of Jewish life to the students in Gaza. Imagine this: A Jew from the United States speaking about the Jewish prophetic to Gazans being bombed by Israel.
The cognitive dissonance is too great to tolerate, let alone explain.
This is where we have arrived. As the bombs fall on Gaza – again.