Pursuing Justice in Israel/Palestine: Jerusalem and the New Interfaith Solidarity by Dr. Marc Ellis

Published electronically as an exclusive to NECEF Sabeel Canada and the Canadian Friends of Sabeel.


As Palestine Disappears

Over the last months I have been touring, first to Puerto Rico, then to New England, ending in northern Florida.  The occasion was the 25th anniversary of my, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.  A few years ago a publisher the United Kingdom republished my book as a ‘classic’, – quite a designation.

Actually there have been three editions of Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.  The second edition was published in 1989 in the wake of the Palestinian Uprising, adding an epilogue, ‘The Palestinian Uprising and the Future of the Jewish People.’  The third edition in 2004 was expanded by including parts of a book I published in 1990 – Beyond Innocence and Redemption:  Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power.

I mention these editions not as a point of pride – though what author wouldn’t want his book to be published in different editions especially in our instantly out-of-date Internet age – but because what I wrote about years ago is sadly more relevant than ever.  This means the situation in Israel and Palestine remains unresolved and in fact, has become worse.  Just when you think that Israel and Palestine has hit rock bottom, a new bottom surfaces.  The future promises more of the same.

What are we called to do when the bottom keeps dropping, when the suffering of the Palestinian people continues to intensify and when Israeli occupation and expansion persists unabated into the future?  There is so little left of Palestine for Palestinians that only the faintest flicker of hope remains.  The future is a question mark.  The immediate situation is compelling.

My response: we have to begin again.  Throw caution to the wind and stop thinking about civility, friendships and partnerships.  We have to refuse lavish award dinners celebrating interfaith cooperation and stop attending Holocaust memorials.  We have to speak the truth as we see in society, the political realm, in the churches, synagogues and mosques.  We have to speak truth to ourselves, find our voice and get on with it.

For twenty-five years there have been strategies and compromises and things left unsaid.  During this time charges of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and bias against Israel have been leveled.  Meanwhile Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank has become permanent, a wall around Palestinians has been built and the peace process, such as it is, is known around the world as a fig leaf for Israel’s continuing domination of the Palestinian people.

So, with the Two-State solution disappearing as Palestine disappears, the game is up, isn’t it?  The question before us now is conscience.  What does out conscience tell us to think and do in this situation?

No one wanted it to come to this end, but the end has arrived.  The slogans of previous decades are done.  They have lost their authenticity.  ‘Two States for Two Peoples’ – that dream, now slogan, is part of the problem.  Outdated slogans are used by those who, in the first place, blocked what the slogans proposed from coming into being.  Symbolic utterances out of touch with reality are used as enablers of the status quo.

Yet the status quo is unjust and untenable.  As Israel expands and permanently occupies Jerusalem and the West Bank, millions of Palestinians are fragmented, segmented and diminished.  Add Gaza and you have a more complete picture.  Then there are the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and beyond.  Is there no end to this madness?

What is the governmental policy of the United States?  A full and unabashed complicity with Israel.  What is the governmental policy of Canada?  Truth be told, though lacking the power, Canada is little better.  Under its present government it might even be worse.

Religiously speaking, everything is in flux.  Constantinian religious formations – a metaphor for a set of principles and actions that tie religion into enabling and blessing the unjust policies of the state – flourish.  Religious dissenters on issues of politics and society likewise flourish.  Within the Jewish community, the Jewish establishment has embraced a full-fledged Constantinian Judaism.  In opposition, we also see the emergence of Jews of Conscience.  The Christian establishment continues to embrace a full-fledged Constantinian Christianity.  Christians of Conscience seek a different path for being Christian in the world.  A similar division is mirrored in the Islamic community. On the one hand, Constantinian Islam flourishes.  On the other hand, the numbers of Muslims of Conscience increase daily.

Of the many lessons we should have learned by now, first and foremost is that the people we struggle for justice with are our community.  After all, the Constantinian establishments of all religious persuasions realize their interests lay with one another.  Isn’t it time that Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience unite on behalf of justice across the board and especially on behalf of the Palestinian people?

What are we uniting for?  What goals should we be pursuing?  Is the end game a Two-State solution, Israel and Palestine side by side?  Or is the achievement of one state with justice and equality our benchmark?

The solution of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis has eluded us since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  We are further from any type of solution than we have ever been before.  I believe we need to put the solutions aside, at least for the time being, or discuss them as sidebars to our political action.  Whether two states or one, the suffering on the ground cannot end without significant and decisive action to call Israel to account.  By calling Israel to account at least the norms of justice can be spoken of in public.  From there mechanisms of instituting justice can be imagined and implemented in the future.

The unity of Jews, Christians and Muslims – the unity of all those with good will – is the first step toward building a constituency for justice.  Yet roadblocks continue to present themselves.  When we take one step forward, we are confronted with a step – or steps – backward.  Momentum toward justice for Palestinians has been impossible to maintain.

Nonetheless, progress continues to be made in how Palestinians are thought of and how a future Palestine is imagined.  In the main, those struggling for justice have clarified their take on the dire need of Palestinians.  The struggle has broken through on a number of issues that have plagued Israel/Palestine activists for decades.   Work remains, of course, and further discussions – as we act – are essential.  Have we come to the moment where we must abandon previous strategies, throw caution to the wind and embrace the prophetic project of speaking truth to power?


Affirming Conquest: Canadian bluster and Obama’s (Lame Duck) Visit to Israel – and Palestine

My recent speaking tour took place immediately following Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird’s surprise appearance in Washington for the Israel Lobby’s annual convention, and during U.S. President Obama’s trip to Israel.  The audiences and I were left wanting more, much more from Obama.  To say he didn’t deliver is an understatement.  Or perhaps he did, at least for Jews — Constantinian Jews, that is.

It is obvious that the hopes supporters placed on President Obama have been sorely tried in many areas of his social, political and economic policies.  This is especially true regarding the Middle East.  In Israel, Obama proclaimed himself a lame duck in the first year of his second term of office.  In sum, he declared a moratorium on pressuring Israel.  He affirmed everything Israeli and Jewish leaders asked of him.

One hardly knew that the U.S. President was also traveling to Palestine.  His itinerary notes Israel – that is where he spent the majority of his time on the ground – and a short visit to the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.  But even in his travel within the 1967 borders of Israel, President Obama was also traveling to Palestine historically and in the present.  Today there are over a million Palestinians who live within the state of Israel.    Shouldn’t their history – including the hundreds of thousands Palestinians expelled from what became the state of Israel – and contemporary life be recognized by the President of the United States?

In Jerusalem and the West Bank, Obama was likewise traveling to Israel, since 1967, Israel has occupied and settled both.  In Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel is firmly in control.  Israel has conquered all of Palestine, from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River.  Just as you cannot visit Israel without finding Palestine, you cannot visit Palestine without finding Israel.

Israel/Palestine, as it has been since 1948, is a tangle and now moreso than ever.  Yet President Obama and therefore American foreign policy doesn’t recognize it as such – at least in its practical policies.  Just the opposite. Canadian practical engagement even more starkly supports Israeli erasure of Palestine, a marked departure under the Harper government from Canada’s historical foreign policy. When Conservative minority Prime Minister Joe Clark in 1979 opened the door to moving the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he just as quickly shut it when he realized he had been duped. Nonetheless, having offended Canadians’ sensibilities, this faux pas was considered a significant cause of his having to call an election, which he then lost, reducing his tenure as Prime Minister to only a few months.  However, last month Foreign Minister John Baird unabashedly trespassed the Green Line, meeting with his Israeli counterpart in East Jerusalem. In rationalizing the meeting as wherever his hosts invited him, he accepts illegally occupied East Jerusalem as the legitimate home of the occupier.

Likewise, the memorial sites Obama visited in Israel were one part of the unbalanced equation.  Visiting Theodor Herzl’s grave site affirmed Zionism as the authentic narrative of Jewish history, the Dead Sea Scrolls as the Jewish historical anchor in the land and, of course, Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, as the contemporary reason for Israel.  With Palestinians, Obama visited the Church of the Nativity, a site identified with the birthplace of global Christianity rather than the Palestinian people. Not included in his itinerary were Palestinian refugee camps, Yasser Arafat’s gravesite or any other markers of Palestinian peoplehood and history.

Even in Obama’s address to Israeli youth the imbalance is obvious.  Once again, the President affirmed the importance of Jewish claims to the land, Jewish history and that Jews, above all else, have a destiny in the land and elsewhere.  Not once did Obama affirm the other side of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 – the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from what became Israel.  Nor did he allude to the fact that Palestinians have a history or that Palestinians have a destiny.  For Jews, he affirmed Jewish claims that stretch back millennia, that Jews have a history and a destiny.  For Palestinians, President Obama stressed a Palestinian ‘need’ for a state.  No historical claim, no history in the land, no history of dispossession, no destiny beyond a need.

President Obama’s plea for Israeli youth to walk in Palestinian shoes illustrates this point.  Unfortunately, the shoes that Palestinians walk in – at least in the President’s rhetoric – are diminished, shoddily made and ill-fitting.  They are charity shoes that a paternalistic Israel is able to give from their entitled largesse.  They are paternalistic, limited autonomy, shoes. Declaring himself a lame duck in the first year of his second term in office, the vision and actions of those concerned actors of conscience in the Israel/Palestine arena should take notice. Canada has taken a yet more aggressive stance, obliterating the right of Palestinians to even challenge Israel’s conquest of their land, history and narrative. In March, Foreign Minister Baird, addressing the Israel Lobby in Washington, threatened “consequences” for Palestinian legal initiatives, effectively ruling out even any Palestinian diplomatic recourse. It sets up the following scenario on the Canadian and American scenes.

Here’s how it goes.  With his reelection, Obama is free of electoral restraints.  He will never run for elected office again.  Seemingly, the President is insulated from electoral concerns as he charts his last years in political office.  This is the time for bold action.  Missing this opportunity, however, means that the American election cycle still looms large.

Soon the midterm Congressional campaigns will be in full swing.  Shortly thereafter, the next Presidential sweepstakes begins.  If we judge from previous electoral politics the only discussion in the electoral arena will be pro-Israel and beyond.  We saw this in the last election cycle where each candidate not only wanted to burnish his credentials on supporting Israel, each sought to outdo their opponents on the pro-Israel bandwagon.  Though the Republican opposition was most bellicose in this regard, Obama affirmed the same politics for himself and his party.

Looking at the political map then, Obama’s lame duck status on Israel/Palestine and Baird’s threats against Palestinian legal and diplomatic initiatives sets up a political scenario for supporting Israel and, politically speaking, silence on Palestinians and Palestine.  For, in the US, what new President would want to risk his or her political capital in their first term by jump starting the ‘peace’ process again? By this time the U.S. election cycle will have already kicked in for another round of pro-Israel/silence on Palestine policies. And in Canada, with the rapid government defunding of global programmes of churches, church-related organizations such as Kairos Canada, and secular NGOs, for even a whiff of involvement with Palestinian NGOs, the big chill is in.

Grade for President Obama’s travel to Israel – and Palestine?  From the beginning, it looked like a ‘C’ grade or below was in the offing.  By the time he left Israel – and Palestine – President Obama was dipping below ‘F.’ In my view he reached a new low, surpassed perhaps only by Canadian actions.  By declaring his lame duck status, pandering to Jewish concerns in Israel and domestically in the United States and by relegating Palestinians to second-hand shoes, President Obama earned the grade ‘P.”  Pathetic.


Narrative – washing

Narratives are important.  They are the lifeblood of individuals, communities, religions, even nation-states.  Who and what we are, where we are going – this is the stuff of the human journey.  Without narratives, we are doomed to meaninglessness.  In the political realm, an unrecognized or demeaned narrative means banishment – to the other side of history.

What happens on the other side of history?  Jews know this well.  Yet one doesn’t have to move to the extreme of the Holocaust to see the consequences.  Palestinians are experiencing this now.  How else could Obama’s travel and rhetoric be organized in the uneven way it was if he didn’t privilege the Jewish narrative and diminish the Palestinian narrative?

The metaphor of walking in someone else’s shoes is telling.  In real life everyone wants and needs their own shoes.  In our own shoes – in our own history – we walk tall whatever our material conditions in the present.   This is how Jews historically walked tall despite our difficult and sometimes impossible circumstances.

It is here that Obama and Baird did the most damage.  Through the symbolism and rhetoric of their visits, the Canadian Foreign Minister and U.S. President each reversed the narrative gains many of us in North America have worked so hard on achieving over the last years.  They contravened the historical record carved out by a new generation of Israeli historians and the work of Jewish theologians and political activists. They undercut Palestinian thinkers and activists, as well as Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience working toward a new understanding of interfaith solidarity.  An entire generation of work to move beyond the impasse in Israel/Palestine was undermined.

Thus their pathetic performances in Israel – and Palestine – has political ramifications beyond the ordinary give and take of political life. They gave renewed energy to the forces that deny Palestinian freedom and to those who seek to silence Jewish dissent.  In Christian circles, They undercut the important work of struggling within the churches to find the correct balance –  In Canada even by direct defunding intervention — in effect a rebalancing of Jewish and Palestinian concerns for justice and equality.

Isn’t this what the movement of justice for Palestinians is about?  For Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience the hope is to elevate concern for Palestinian freedom, not the disparagement of Jews or even of Israel.  What is wanted is a change of focus, the birth of a new solidarity with Jews and Palestinians and with Jewish and Palestinian history.  What is wanted is a mutual dependence, an interdependence of Jews and Palestinians that creates a new path of equality and justice.

How can this be achieved when the narratives that are accepted as authentic and decisive are so lopsided, when Jewish history and destiny are recognized but only a Palestinian need?  When the Holocaust is memorialized but the Palestinian Nakba – the 1948 Palestinian Catastrophe of displacement from their homeland – is unrecognized or passed over in silence?

Though the Holocaust is historical and memorialized, the Nakba continues on in the present day.  While some Jewish leaders harp on the marginal existence of Holocaust denial as if that is the central public experience of Holocaust discourse, the Palestinian Nakba is consistently avoided and denied.  Denial of either is shameful.  It is beneath us ethically and spiritually.  When discussing Israel/Palestine, why is such denial condemned on the Jewish side and tolerated, even mandated, with regard to Palestinians?

When Palestinians speak for themselves and are spoken for by others who side with their cause, Palestinians are uplifted.  They are accorded the same respect that Jews and others deserve.  A historical wrong is righted, at least symbolically.  Palestinians were cleansed from their land.  They have a right to be free in their own homeland.  This is where the narrative must begin.  Of course, Jewish history can and should be factored in, though no longer as the dominant actor.  The discussion of Jewish history must carry a stated proviso that no history of oppression justifies the permanent displacement of another people.

Think of Pinkwashing – the attempt by Israel to present its liberal credentials on gay and lesbian rights to the world as an example of Israel’s democracy, freedom and respect for diversity.  Israel presents its liberality over against the ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilized’ Palestinian/Arab world.  Now think of Narrativewashing – as the attempt by Israel, the Jewish establishment and President Obama to wipe Israel’s slate clean as a nation – with Jews as a people – as examples of democracy, freedom and respect for diversity.  True enough, there is a democracy for Jews in Israel but in relation to Palestinians then and now, it is not true at all.

For Palestinians, Israel is not a democracy.  Rather than being flawed, with regard to Palestinians, Israel’s democracy is intentionally absent, even violated.

Political action exists within narratives that are constructed and deconstructed.  Work on behalf of justice for Palestinians is the attempt to create narrative space for the freedom and dignity of the Palestinian people.  This was the same work done after the Holocaust to create narrative space for the freedom and dignity of the Jewish people.

What is essential for Jews is essential for Palestinians, too.  As Jews we cannot hold up our own need for dignity and empowerment while denying the same to Palestinians.  Unless Jews are deserving, whereas Palestinians are not.



On Anti-Semitism

What is the interfaith ecumenical deal?  Between Jews and Christians it is about a history of anti-Semitism and how that plays out in the present – at least what is defined by the Jewish establishment as anti-Semitism.   The Jewish-Christian dialogue is about overcoming anti-Semitism but the definition of anti-Semitism is crucial.  Clearly, negative views of Jews are anti-Semitic.  However, distinctions have to be drawn.  One can be in solidarity with the Jewish people and oppose policies of the state of Israel, which displace and discriminate against Palestinians.

What is anti-Semitism as defined by the Jewish establishment?  Criticism of Israel.  In the interfaith ecumenical deal, anti-Semitism is defined as turning one’s back on Israel and wanting Israel destroyed.  In doing so, Christians return to the historically Christian-sponsored demeaning of Jews.  This negative epithet has occasioned many Christians of good will pulling away from the dialogue.  The deal is simple:  if a Christian criticizes Israel it is seen as a form of anti-Semitism. This serves to warn Christians that to support Jews they have to be silent about what is happening to Palestinians.

Christians who are no longer silent about the plight of the Palestinians are characterized as anti-Semites.  To avoid this appellation, many Christians disappear from the dialogue/deal front.  Others become more active in opposing Israeli policies toward Palestinians.  Fortunately, in their work for Palestinian freedom, Christian activists are joined by an increasing number of Jews of Conscience.  In turn, these Jews of Conscience are labeled as self-hating Jews by the Jewish establishment. Muslims of Conscience increasingly join forces with Christians and Jews of Conscience on behalf of Palestinians, which is increasingly evident in the Canadian churches. This is New Diaspora in action.

Yet it is also true that anti-Semitism remains, even among those who struggle for justice for Palestinians.  These are surviving remnants of a long history of anti-Semitism.  Though they exist, they are not defining.  Nonetheless, these remnants must be addressed.

Anti-Semitism poisons everything, not the least of which is the vision of those who hold these views.  For how far can really go in political solidarity, let alone mental health, when Jewish conspiracies are seen around every corner?

Anti-Semitism is the dead-end of critical thought.  This is true on the Right of the political spectrum and the Left as well.  In fact, the Right and Left join hands on anti-Semitism.  This goes to show how deep these currents run in global political and religious discourse.

Though neither Christianity nor Islam is anti-Semitic in their core, both religions carry these prejudices as normative, at least historically.  There have been periodic and increasing struggles against these tendencies in both religions but the Israel/Palestine conflict has enflamed the issue.  The struggle against anti-Semitism is made more difficult precisely when it needs to be banished once and for all.

How then do we distinguish opposition to Israeli policies against Palestinians from anti-Semitism?  This is a question the Jewish establishment has already asked and answered.  Obviously their answer is a non-starter, a deflection, a desire to remain unaccountable.  Nonetheless, the challenge remains.

On a personal level, I have periodically experienced anti-Semitism in some Israel/Palestine activism.  Most recently it has shown up in the Gaza flotilla movement where anti-Semitic language and images was distributed among some of the leadership.  Interestingly enough, this was immediately confronted by Jews and Palestinians active in the movement.  Though I wrote about this, I did not experience it directly.

My recent experience of anti-Semitism has been with BDS, though I hasten to add that the movement – which I support – is not anti-Semitic.  This came in Ireland and Scotland after the most recent Israeli invasion of Gaza when leaders of the movement in both countries hosted me.  In Ireland, I was amazed to find a leader who wouldn’t use the words ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Israel,’ as if they neither existed.  In Scotland, I found a leader so imbued with Jewish conspiracies that I wondered if there was any other reason for world events that didn’t go his way.

What amazed me is that both of these BDS leaders were startled when I was taken aback by their view of Jews and refused them – as if I should ascent to their language and view of the world.  When I didn’t, they were surprised and troubled.

The entire experience was a throwback in real time.  They had Jews on their brain.  They were mixing facts and fiction into a mythic brew.

Another experience was with a now deceased Biblical commentator who thought that the Hebrew Bible was a colonial and violent document – with a vengeful God – and that because of this Jews were somehow responsible for the actions Christians had done in the Bible’s name.  Christian conquests and empires were laid at the feet of ‘the Jews.’  When I suggested he concentrate on his own Christian tradition of violence and atrocity, he blew me off.  His mind was on Jews, pure and simple.

Some years ago, I had the experience of working with a group seeking to memorialize the dispossession of the Palestinian people.  The idea was a good one – it still is – but soon several of the group began visiting Holocaust deniers in prison.  Though I believe in the free expression of ideas, expressing solidarity with Holocaust deniers is a warning sign.  Holocaust denial is less about history than it is about hitting at Jews.  Holocaust denial is imagining Jews inventing an experience of suffering in order to conquer the world.

There are other more subtle expressions of ambivalence about Jews and Jewish particularity that should not be characterized as anti-Semitism but can be experienced as such by Jews.  I have found this sometimes in the One-State discourse that is flourishing now.  In the One-State discourse, which features a number of Jewish Israelis as well, speaking as a Jew from the place of Jewishness is frowned upon, if not forbidden.  Claims about Jewish history, even the sense that Jews have a calling and a destiny, is seen as a retro claim of superiority and chosenness.  Those who speak of Jewish particularity as the place from which a deep solidarity with the Palestinian people becomes possible, even mandatory, are left on the margins of the discussion, if not dismissed altogether.

This ambivalence about Jewish history and tradition should be discussed openly.  But then the ‘universal’ appeals of Christianity, Islam and even the Palestinian cause must be thought through as well.  I find that claims of universality are usually disguises for particular sensibilities/causes/truths that adherents want seen in a more expansive light.

I believe that Christianity and Islam are particular rather than universal religions – though they have gone global primarily through conquest and imperialism. I also believe that Palestinians have a quite unusual and strong particularity which should be celebrated. The Palestinian cause may have universal appeal.  In essence, though, it is a particular struggle to achieve and maintain a particular identity in their Palestinian homeland.

The inability to speak about Jewish particularity is no doubt fraught.  This is due to various strands of religious history and because of the way the Jewish establishment uses Jewish particularity as a blunt instrument against others.  Yet there is another way of seeing Jewish particularity, first and foremost as the birthplace and residence of the prophetic.


The New Golden Rules (of Interfaith Ecumenical Dialogue)

When our narratives expand and become self-critical, when solidarity across narratives becomes the norm, interdependent empowerment is the watchword.

We all know that the interfaith ecumenical dialogue has become a deal – with political consequences.  I first broached this in Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation 25 years ago.  Has the interfaith landscape changed since that time?  You bet is has and for the good.

Yes, the battles still wage – the battle is being waged as I write – but the handwriting is on the wall for all to see.  Everyone with knowledge of the Israel/Palestine situation knows the score that upends the dialogue/deal:  Israel – and Jews for that matter – is not innocent.  What Jews have done and are doing to the Palestinian people is wrong.

When this matter is raised in interfaith discussions, the typical response has been that Jews are innocent, if there’s a problem it is with ‘them,’ – the Arabs, the Palestinians.  They have never accepted a Jewish state.  What Israel does to defend its right to exist is justified.  Israel does only that – defend itself.

If you’ve noticed, the bellicose way that used to be stated has dropped away or is asserted to an audience that no longer accepts it at face value.  Too much unjust water is under the bridge.  Often the defense of Israel is absent or it remains it is muted.  What is left is Israeli power and the various constituencies that defend Israel.

Israel as innocent?  The narrative has changed too much to make this claim boldly without contradictory voices being heard.

How about Israel as redemptive for the Jewish people, the safe haven for persecuted Jews?  That, too, has taken a hit.  Is there any more dangerous place for Jews to live than in Israel?  Here I write of the material consequences of Israeli expansion, occupation and war.  I also reference ethics.  Indeed, Israel is a dangerous place for Jewish ethical life.  It is impossible to square the Jewish ethical tradition with the taking of land, cleansing populations and imprisoning and murdering those who struggle against oppression.

Is Israel worse than other ethnic cleansers and occupiers?  We need only look at Canadian and American history to find our answer.  No, Israel isn’t worse, though unlike others in previous centuries, Israel’s conduct continues today.  The trouble is that Israel isn’t better, which is the claim of most Israel supporters.

If Israel isn’t better – or worse – but more or less the same, then Israel cannot claim an exceptional status in world affairs.  This means Israel has to be held to the same standards of international law as other countries.  When Israel’s history is narrated we have to demand it be narrated in the same self-critical fashion we expect of any nation’s history.

Thus the New Golden Rules of Interfaith Ecumenical Dialogue:

For Christians:  ‘When our salvation is dependent on the oppression of Others, it cannot be our salvation.’

For Jews: ‘When our liberation is dependent on the oppression of Others, it cannot be our liberation.’

The New Golden Rules of Interfaith Ecumenical Solidarity mean that the dialogue and deals going on for so many years are over.   It’s time to act on behalf of justice as our bond together.

That is the community many of us find ourselves in anyway, a community of those exiled from societal, religious and political norms – including the interfaith ecumenical dialogue – that has ceased to make sense in our life journey.  It is only a matter of time before we understand that as exiles we will not be returning to our birth communities as they are presently configured and that our real community is with fellow exiles.  I call this community the ‘New Diaspora.’

In the New Diaspora exiles carry our fragmented, haunted histories and traditions with us.  No one tradition will predominate in the New Diaspora, nor should it. In the New Diaspora, exiles speak openly, decide freely and share our stories across boundaries and borders.   Exiles realize the stakes are too high for exclusivity.   Without this sharing we are less in and of ourselves.

This involves religion as well.  No longer can the Jewish, Christian or Islamic traditions claim a monopoly on salvation or liberation.  In fact, the New Diaspora affirms that salvation and liberation, however defined, can only be accomplished together, with one another, across all sorts of divisions, including the doctrinal and political divisions that have set us apart.

Realizing that we are in this together, old baggage slips away.  True, we carry our own inheritance with us into exile but in the New Diaspora we see other inheritances – and thus our own – in a new light.  With regard to Jews and Palestinians, the baggage is clear and ongoing.  However, many of the old arguments and divisions are stale, distant and unproductive.  We reproduce them at our own peril.

The New Diaspora is a place where the reproduction of what has divided us must be critically examined.    From the Jewish side, is it so that the Holocaust mandates a Jewish state of Israel that displaces Palestinians and expands endlessly?  From the Palestinian side, is it so that the state of Israel is only, everywhere and fated always to be a colonial imposition in the Middle East?

In the New Diaspora, the metaphor of Constantinian establishments of all communities are distant.  Of course, they are also inside of us.  The struggle across borders and boundaries is among and within us.  Can we come to a new place within and among us, one that preserves a particularity of life and experience while also sharing life in a new solidarity?

The New Golden Rules are central to our life together.  This makes our political work respectful and impactful.  It addresses injustice as it promotes reconciliation in history and the present.  For coming together in a self-critical way – in solidarity with one another – the narrative landscape changes.  Instead of deals which promote ascendancy and silence, we speak a truth that is individual and common.


Renewing the Prophetic

Ancient Israel is the birthplace of the prophetic, which Jews of Conscience embody today.  Those who stand for justice across the board embody the prophetic in our time.  Working with Jews and others on behalf of the Palestinian people is the central prophetic task of our time.

The historical and contemporary difficulties related to the prophetic are many.  While solidarity with the Palestinian people for its own sake is crucially important, that solidarity’s most controversial aspect may lay elsewhere – in re-presenting the prophetic to the Jewish establishment which seeks empire as its security.

The anger Christians encounter from the Jewish establishment on the issue of Israel/Palestine may have less to do with the accusation of anti-Semitism than it does with the recovery of the prophetic as the essence of the Jewish calling.  To place the prophetic boldly in front of the Jewish establishment is to confront Jewish identity at its core – in solidarity with the Jewish prophetic tradition the Jewish establishment is rejecting.  No wonder the psychological turmoil found there!

In re-presenting the prophetic to Jews, Christians and Muslims – we have to check their sensibilities to make sure that the re-presentation of the prophetic is a sign of solidarity rather than derision.  Deriding the Jewish prophetic is a form of anti-Semitism, a kind of prophet-envy that has deep psychological and historical roots.  After all, Jews reside at the birth of both Christianity and Islam, as the canonical documents of both religions attest to.  Christians and Muslims have been wrestling with ‘the Jews’ forever.  They will do so as long as both religions exist.

The ambivalence of Christians and Muslims being belated and inheritors – even as they claim superiority in Jesus and Mohammed – will always rest at the center of Christianity and Islam.  Nonetheless, the opportunity to deal with the ambivalence toward Jews – and thus the ambivalence that Christians and Muslims have about their own faith traditions – has arrived.  That such an opportunity is contentious should not surprise us.  But now, for the first time in history, Jews of Conscience are in the mix as well working side by side with Christians and Muslims of Conscience – as part of a new solidarity.

Jews of Conscience serve as a check and a prod for Christians and Muslims.  Christians and Muslims serve as a check and a prod on Jews of Conscience.  All are in a struggle to renew the prophetic in our time.  Jews, Christians and Muslims are here – together – in solidarity.  This is a novum in history.

In the struggle for the prophetic there is no return to the former sense of Judaism, Christianity or Islam.  All three religions are being interrupted in their individual histories by this specific call for Palestinian freedom.  Those participating in a political quest for Palestinian freedom are, at the same time, involved in a broader historical journey – the quest for a global interfaith prophetic.

Real progress on Israel/Palestine for justice and reconciliation is ushering in a new age of interfaith solidarity.  The divisions between the religions that have been established and used for purposes of power and prestige are dropping away.  Divisions between religions are being overturned.  More and more these divisions are being declared as an error of monumental proportions.  They are being discarded on the dust heap of history.

In the churches the struggle for Palestinian freedom has reached a crescendo.  I don’t think this is coincidence.  For decades now, various denominations have been recovering the prophetic impulses of their own tradition.  Various forms of liberation theologies have emerged during this time.  Interestingly, but again not by coincidence, the Christian embrace of the prophetic is directly linked with its recovery of the Jewish prophetic.

The recovery of the Jewish prophetic sets Christianity – in fact, Jesus himself – in a new dynamic.  Rediscovering that dynamic, Christians have encountered the world with a new angle of vision.  This includes the Palestinians – but, again, this most important step on the road to Christian recovery directly involves Jews and the Jewish prophetic.

So far it has been relatively easy for Christianity to go the Jewish prophetic route.  Depending on the specific justice issue, the Jewish establishment has either been supportive or silent.  It is only when Israel is involved that the Jewish establishment brings its pressure to bear.  This is because the world of the Jewish establishment has narrowed over the years.   Today it is limited to Israel and a variety of Jewish concerns linked to Israel.

Since the prophetic recovery of Christianity has had its leeway with Jews.  The true test is now, when the weight of the Jewish establishment is brought to bear on it.

Palestinian freedom and the confrontation with Constantinian Judaism is the most difficult trial of the renewed prophetic thrust of Christianity in our time.  Are Christians willing to pay the cost that comes with re-presenting the Jewish prophetic to Jews themselves so that Palestinians can become free?

It goes without saying that if the Jewish prophetic is recovered and re-presented in a renewed triumphalism on the Left, it will simply demonstrate the conundrum that Christianity has often found itself in.  The conundrum is the Christian understanding of itself as triumphant, containing the truth no matter how broadly it spreads its wings.

Jews and many Christians of Conscience find this empire side of Christianity off-putting, even as it works for justice.  Moreover, if takes this route, Christianity and, in its own way, Islam, will lose its opportunity for self-critical reflection and course correction.  Inevitably, such empire Christianity, even when right on political issues, will morph into an anti-Semitic crusade.  Then where will Christians find themselves?


The Promised Land/Christian Zionism

In re-presenting the prophetic to Jews and, by extension, to Christians and Muslims, the obstacles are many.  It isn’t just the Jewish establishment in the way. History exists.  Fear is everywhere.  Real lives are at stake.  Panoplies of religious and political symbols are tested.  The challenge is to keep our eyes on the prize.

The prize is justice and reconciliation not belief structures we agree or disagree on.  Therefore, Jews can believe that Israel is the Promised Land for Jews – even that God promises the land for Jews.   Christian Zionists can believe that the Jewish return to the land sets the stage for the second coming of Christ.  Jews and Christians in the West can see Israel as repentance for the Holocaust.  On the other side, Palestinians can want all of their land returned to them, with Jews or not. Palestinians can want the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.  Islam, too, can make its various claims.  Claims on the (un)Holy Land are endless.

How so many layers and violence can exist in the land and the religions that claim is difficult, if not impossible to cope with.  They will never be sorted out completely.  What is needed is a place where Jews and Palestinians can live with each other in peace, equality and justice.  The theoretical structure of ultimate life in the land should be left for others and for another time.  The task of Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience is to cut through the layers and violence that allow Israel to continue expanding and for Palestinians to continue suffering.

Far from being only a timid response to other people’s beliefs, this live and let live principle allows for a radical political incision and a religious commitment that moves beyond the theoretical.  First, to be dealt with is the immediate injustice to Palestinians.  How can Israel be forced to stop expanding?  Then the question becomes withdrawal.  How can Israel be forced to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem? How can Gaza be freed of blockade and monitoring? Palestinian empowerment is essential here.  How can Palestinians become empowered to create their own real state?

Yet here we face the puzzle which is hardly theoretical.  Since none of this is likely to occur over the next decade or beyond, what is to be done on the practical level to help prepare the ground for the change that must occur – even as we have no idea when it will?

The theoretical model of Two-States as a wedge through belief structures on all sides has failed.  The One-State model is just that – theory.  No analyst of any stripe or faction believes Israel will voluntarily withdraw to the borders of 1967.  No analyst of any stripe or faction believes that Israel will allow or be forced to embrace a One-State solution based on citizenship regardless of ethnic or religious background. This was certainly reinforced by Canada’s Foreign Minster John Baird when he threatened sanctions against Palestinian diplomacy.

And this is what Obama affirmed by declaring himself a lame duck on Israel/Palestine. Why did Obama do this?  On the one hand, he knows significant movement on Israel/Palestine isn’t going to happen in the short-term.  Why should he go out on a political limb that has no political rewards?  On the other hand, he bowed to the world consensus regardless of the rhetoric used by various political actors.

If we respond that the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine is unfair, unjust and untenable and that history is always open to change, I agree.  Yes, something, sometime, a momentous breakthrough, is going to happen.  Unfortunately, it is more likely to be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions than it is a smooth transition to justice and reconciliation.  I can’t wish this catastrophe upon anyone and besides, who knows to which sides’ advantage such a catastrophe will move.

With the Two-State and One-State option dead for the foreseeable future, and the political world having mostly given up or worse playing each side to their various advantages, the pressure points for real change are few.  This is where the prophetic option of speaking truth to power presents itself most strongly.

Operating in the prophetic realm through symbolic action prepares the way for broader real change when the moment arrives.  This preparation has already started.  It needs to be deepened and urgently applied, paradoxically, without asking how effective such action is.

One of the problems in the Israel/Palestine activism of past decades has been the attention paid to beliefs of particular communities and constituencies in order to work with them effectively.  Part of this is was to make sure no offence was committed.  As in, how can we cater to the concerns of the Jewish community so it can be converted to justice for Palestinians?  How can we bring Christians from various denominations and beliefs closer to embracing Jews and Palestinians without offending Jews?  How can we work the political system with its different personalities and parties to our advantage?  How much truth can we tell and when does truth-telling get in the way of our political work?

My personal favorites are the slogans used to organize protests when the organizers are fully aware that the slogans do not reflect reality and actually enable the oppression to continue.  Their patronizing response:  how else can we mobilize people to work on the issue?

Holding back truth.   Catering to certain religions and constituencies.  The list is endless.  Decades have been wasted in trying to break through in this way.  How much more time is left?

While it is true that slowly but surely all of these sensibilities, options and slogans drop away, the time wasted is enormous.  We find it difficult to face the fact that while we are so much more aware of what is going on, on the political front our work has failed completely.  Knowledge increases – the situation on the ground grows exponentially worse.  If we simply admit this correlation won’t be reversed in the short term, then we can let go of what has gone before us.  We can admit what the situation really is.

My (sometimes unpopular) point is to forget about targeting beliefs – most often that’s a resentment tactic for those losing the struggle.  Most anything can be found in one way or another in the Bible, including the Promised Land for Jews and Christian Zionism.

The prophetic is found in the Bible, too.  The point about the Bible is choice rather than ‘truth’ and anyway it is beside the point whose Biblical interpretation is right or wrong.  Rather than belief, what needs to be established is that any action that harms others has to be stopped at the Bible’s edge.   Action rather than belief.  Practice rather than theory.

‘Yes’ to a diversity of beliefs whether they’re my cup or tea or not.  ‘No’ to injustice whether it’s to Jews or Palestinians or anyone else.

Another Golden Rule?


God at the End of Jewish History

I once knew a woman who didn’t believe in being rescued but has been rescued often herself – she just called it something else.  She saw rescue as a sign of surrender and weakness.  My view is if you never need rescue you don’t live life fully.  Rescue is a human need.  It is the deepest and purest act of human solidarity.

Shall we rescue each other, our traditions, our hopes and our ethics?  Surely, we need one another.  We can only accomplish this together.  But as in any rescue, one has to put the other before one’s self.  In rescuing another you place yourself in danger – you might end up like the victim who needs your help.  However, if you spend too much time thinking about yourself or the relative worth of the one in need of rescue, you’ll hesitate too long.  You might decide that the other person, tradition, hope, or ethics isn’t worth the cost.

Leave it to real life to make straight the theoretical questions.  Who would have thought, for example, that with the history of the Holocaust and the pressures placed upon Jewish thought in relation to the state of Israel, that the Jewish prophetic would explode in our time?  It goes against the grain of self-interest and security.  Why risk empire when your people have existed under the foot of empires for so long?   Jews of Conscience are rescuing the Jewish prophetic from oblivion.

In relation to Christianity, again reality trumps theory.  After the history of Christian empire that came to fruition in the death camps of Europe, who would have thought that liberation theologies of many stripes would emerge around the world to challenge Christianity itself?  Here is another attempt at rescue.  Imagine Christianity after the death camps without liberation theology.  The credibility problems would be enormous.

Like all religions, Islam has many faces, but in the contemporary world who would have thought that a distinctive, progressive and self-critical Islam would emerge in North America?  It is and will continue to grow stronger.  And going against the grain, who would have thought that Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience would come together in a coalition for justice and reconciliation in the Middle East and beyond?  This mutuality is the practical realization that communities cannot go it alone.

In the New Diaspora a religious revolution is occurring with profound political implications for the future.  Yet true to the ancient quality of these traditions, Jerusalem remains a central point of engagement.  The land of the three monotheistic faiths continues to haunt the modern world with its violence and hope.

Shall Jerusalem be rescued from its division and violence and become a symbol of hope for the modern world? In 1994, the Jerusalem Patriarchs and Heads of Churches concluded, “Jerusalem is a symbol and a promise of the presence of God, of fraternity and peace for humankind, in particular for the children of Abraham…None can appropriate it in exclusivist ways….<rather they must> give back to Jerusalem its true universal character and to make of the city a holy place of reconciliation for humankind.” On the one hand, if Jerusalem became ordinary and if ordinary Jews and Palestinians could live there in security and equality, it would amount to a modern miracle.  On the other hand, Jerusalem in its very ordinariness would then be a symbol beyond itself.

Jerusalem is like the prophetic – destined to exist in its different forms and visions.  Both will continue to accompany the human journey.

Jerusalem is the middle of Israel/Palestine.  It is also the place where two broken peoples meet.  Jews and Palestinians are martyred peoples.  Can they show the world that the martyred can rescue each other from a fate that denies their inheritance and possibility?

Without the prophetic there is no meaning in the world.  There may be no meaning in the world. The prophetic embodies the possibility of meaning in the world. The possibility of meaning in the world can be embodied in the broken middle of Jerusalem.

But not without a struggle that seems to have no end.

In our lifetime victory is unlikely to occur.  Nonetheless, we can embody that possibility here and now.  By embodying that possibility we embody hope for ourselves and for others.  This beginning makes hope real since it is already here.  How and when it will spread to the broader community and world we cannot say.  By accepting the invitation ourselves we also invite others on the journey.

In the prophetic journey we often find ourselves alone.  We also find solidarity with others on the journey.  As we embody the prophetic, as we enter that difficult dialectic of solitude and solidarity, we are on our way.  To where we will arrive – who we will find when we arrive – are questions we cannot answer in advance. Ultimately, these are not the overriding questions.  The journey is the destination.  What happens beyond us is part of the journey and beyond our control.

What can be said of God on this journey?  After the Holocaust, thoughts about God are conflicted.  Speech about God is even more difficult.

For Jews, the question of God now comes after Israel as well – that is, after what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people.

One Holocaust theologian believes that after the Holocaust one can only speak about God if it makes sense to ‘the burning children.’  After Israel, Jews have to ask if the burning children include Palestinian children as well. Palestinian children are our children, too.

Speak about God – if it makes sense to a burning child.  This same theologian suggests that the only real response to the question of God and burning children is to rescue those children burning today.  After rescuing burning children, we might be able to speak about God again.

If the prophetic embodies the possibility of meaning in the world, the prophetic likewise embodies the possibility of God in the world.  I stress ‘possibility’ since the burning children of the world suggest an absence of meaning and God.   Again theory cannot resolve this issue.  We have to take a stand, announce our bias and get on with life.

When we fall by the wayside, we need help from others as they need help from us.  What a glorious time we live in when the person buoying my spirits as a Jew is a Christian or a Muslim and where a Christian is buoyed by a Jew or a Muslim.  Even a short time ago, who would have thought that a Christian or Jew might aid in a Muslim’s struggle to be faithful to the embodiment of justice and reconciliation?

Martyred peoples present a warning to others about the possibility of being martyred themselves.  There is another warning, this time to themselves.  In the desire to be empowered after martyrdom, martyred communities might – as they often do – martyr others.  This is what Jews have done to Palestinians.  Yet when we see our martyred image in the face of the Palestinian Other, we cannot help but cringe.  Is the martyred face of the Palestinian Other our own?

Jews of Conscience embody this knowledge.  It is fascinating and instructive that Jews like Sara Roy and Amira Hass, both children of Holocaust survivors, are so forthright in their support for Palestinian freedom.  Is this because they see their parents’ face in the suffering of Palestinians and know that the Jewish people cannot be healed of our trauma by permanently oppressing the Palestinian people?

When the power needed to heal is used over against another, healing becomes more distant.  Power over is a recipe for the same martyrdom visited upon the newly victorious.

Wherever God is and whatever God represents, martyring another people cannot make the absent God present.  Another Golden Rule:  ‘The God who was absent in your martyrdom cannot be made present by oppressing another people.’

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