Speaking truth to power
Will the long history of the Jewish people end in the displacement and ghettoisation of the Palestinian people? Marc H Ellis* offers a Jewish perspective
As the prime ministers of Palestine and Israel leave Washington this week, politicians and interested citizens around the world ponder the future of the Middle East. Over the decades encounters in Washington have yielded little in the way of movement towards a just and lasting peace.
Just the opposite. For decades now the facts on the ground have been moving in a decidedly negative direction. Israel continues to build settlements, confiscate land and displace more and more Palestinians. The much discussed Wall of Separation simply acknowledges the emerging borders of an expanded Israel.
Though the future is open, a movement towards justice and peace would mean a radical reversal of Israel's relentless drive to encircle, ghettoise and conquer the Palestinian people. From the standpoint of historical forces this reversal seems unlikely. At this moment, it seems the best Palestinians can hope for is a negotiated surrender, a cessation of Israel's expansion, so that one day another more just reality may come into being.
As an American Jew who has watched and commented on this process for the last 20 years, I can only lament the failure of my own community to speak and act on the truth in relation to Israeli power and Palestinian suffering.
This failure is historic and devastating. The ethical witness of the Jewish people, struggled for and nurtured over the millennia, has been seriously compromised. At least within the mainstream Jewish community, it is on the verge of disappearing.
The voice that once spoke truth to power in religion, philosophy and political commentary is now articulating and purveying the policies of power and might. Where once we suffered, especially in our long sojourn in Europe, we now cause suffering. We once criticised those who were silent in the face of our suffering. Now we are silent in the face of the suffering we are causing.
Here I write about the Jewish establishment in America, an establishment that never tires of speaking to the world about our suffering in the Holocaust. The Jewish establishment continues to speak about anti-Semitism in the current tense as if the world is always and everywhere against Jews and Jewish interests.
The issue becomes confused. Anyone who questions Israeli policies is branded a Jew-hater. This also applies to Jews who criticise Israel. For the Jewish establishment these Jews are self-haters, too weak to assume power, always underestimating evil in the world.
During the current Palestinian uprising and especially after 11 September, the rhetoric of the Jewish establishment has become more vehement. Any Jew who speaks of the need to end the occupation of the Palestinians is deemed a traitor and worse. Often, Jewish dissenters are accused of creating the context for another Holocaust.
Nonetheless, there are Jews who continue to struggle for justice and who define the centre of their Jewishness through solidarity with the Palestinian people. Unlike the Jewish establishment, these Jews say no to the occupation of another people and see this "no" as a yes to the deepest ethical values found within Jewish history.
Jewish dissenters ask a simple but basic question. Will the long history of Jewish people end in the displacement and ghettoisation of the Palestinian people? If Jews do not want to be defined by suffering, do we want to be defined by the exercise of unjust power? Like other peoples, Jews want to be safe and secure in the world. Is that universal desire to be achieved by denying the same hope to the Palestinian people?
Though the Jewish establishment denies the existence of Jewish dissent, it is found everywhere in the Jewish world. We know of its existence in Israel, especially among the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupation. It is found in America among Jews who have organised to oppose the occupation. Organisations such as Women in Black and Not in My Name have flourished over the years. They represent a small but vibrant minority of Jews.
Jews who are in solidarity with the Palestinian people should be seen as contemporary bearers of the ancient prophetic voice found in the Hebrew Bible. They are Jews of conscience who reach out to others, especially those who are suffering, and seek an accountability of state power, especially when it is exercised under the guise of innocence and redemption.
It is important for Jews and others to know of this voice, to experience it first-hand. Unfortunately, Jews of conscience have been denied an audience on the American and international scene. To the media, they are unknown. The Jewish establishment pursues and punishes them. Thus the debate about Israeli policy is constricted and restricted, especially in America and even within the Jewish community. Jews of conscience are prophets crying in the wilderness.
What message do Jews of conscience have for the Jewish community? Their message is simple: end the occupation, dismantle the settlements, destroy the Wall of Separation. Confess that the oppression of the Palestinians has been deliberate and wrong. Begin to rebuild a Palestine/Israel where Jews and Palestinians are citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. Open Jerusalem to this equality and share it willingly. Practice justice and generosity throughout the land.
To the world Jews of conscience present an alternative vision. The roadmap as it is today is too limited -- it is less than Oslo -- which itself was simply a negotiated and disguised occupation. The roadmap is a cease-fire, the first step back towards Oslo, which is only a step towards a broader vision. Even the end of Israel's occupation is only another step towards a further expansion of what ultimately must be an interdependent empowerment of Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine.
With the visits to Washington over the hard work begins again. The words of commitment and hope that flow from the mouths of prime ministers are difficult to trust. The facts on the ground speak a language that is clearer, more precise, closer to the truth, and ever more difficult to reconcile with visions of justice and peace. Those facts should be the starting points for words and, more importantly, actions
The task before us as Jews is to continue to speak the truth. Only conscience can guide us here.
That the exercise of our conscience involves exile from the Jewish establishment in America and Israel is unfortunate and unavoidable. Yet it also places us with others who are struggling for justice around the world, especially those who suffer under Israeli power, the Palestinian people.
This is the fate of Jews of conscience in our time. Let it be a witness to our history and to a future worth bequeathing to our children.
* The writer is professor of American and Jewish Studies and director of the Centre for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University. His latest book is Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes; The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century (Pluto Press).