In one of the more far-flung areas of the American south, a vital conversation is unfolding that informs the future of Israel. Waco, Texas is rarely remembered if not in the same breath as religious cults, particularly the siege of the Branch Davidians in 1993 which led to the death of their leader David Koresh and 82 adherents of the faith. But over the past couple of days, a movement to counter dogmatism within Judaism and to reaffirm the social justice imperatives of the Jewish faith has emerged. Why Waco one might ask? Perhaps it is a function of the matrices of global Zionist power that have rendered many of the major metropolises and their ivory tower university campuses a nuisance for “Jews of conscience.” Waco, however, is off the grid both geographically and psychically, unlike the site of germination for contemporary Zionist strategy which emerged from New York City’s Biltmore Hotel in 1942.
The conference at Waco, convened by Professor Marc Ellis, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, is titled “Encountering the Jewish Future: A Global Interfaith Conversation.” The conference commenced with a ceremony in honor of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Who would imagine a conference on Judaism starting with an homage to one of the most eloquent critics of Israel’s systematic erasure of Palestinian history, culture and livelihood and the most articulate voice for Palestinian collective identity? That is precisely why this movement is exceptional.
Since the founding of the state of Israel 1948, Zionists have continuously argued that their settler-colonial state faces an existential threat. One can dismiss this expression as a calculated strategy to contain criticism and justify brutal actions by the state against its adversaries. However, there may be some truth to this often blind paranoia which is fed to both Israelis and the West. In reality, Israel’s existential threat comes not from Hamas missiles or Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiating prowess. It comes not from the so-called Palestinian demographic bomb. It comes not from the gentle cajoling that Arab governments and their shackled league describe as “pressure.” It comes not from the increasingly well-organized global Palestinian rights activism through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) or the international condemnation of Israel’s actions. It comes not from fear of the UN investigations or resolutions. Nor does it come from the tidal waves of international public opinion, from college campuses to the highest echelons of political power, that underscore the growing impatience of the international community towards Israel's policies and actions.
Instead, Israel’s existential threat comes from within. Ellis who is himself a “Jew of conscience” is the author of a 2009 book entitled Judaism Does Not Equal Israel: The Rebirth of the Jewish Prophetic. In this volume, he charts the future of this movement arguing that it is multipolar, moral, compassionate, experiential, spiritual, empathetic, and ambitious. He appeals to the most orthodox principles in prophetic Judaism, prompting anti-Apartheid Archbishop Desmond Tutu to declare in the book’s foreword “I thank God for Marc Ellis…[He] calls upon Jews to hear again the cry of the oppressed in their midst, see their anguish, and follow a God who delivers the downtrodden.”
While sometimes Ellis might feel alone in Waco, those who share his vision are multiplying. Speakers at his conference represent a patchwork of disciplines, faiths, backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities and ideologies but share one vision for Judaism—justice. The lectures include topics like Israel’s victim-perpetrator dynamic, the necropolitics of the state, the struggle between being a State of Israel vs. being a People of Israel, the decolonization of Jewish thought, and developing a post-Holocaust perspective.
Beyond Waco, Ellis is certainly not alone. He is in the company of notable thinkers like the renowned linguist and critic Noam Chomsky and progressive Rabbi and activist Michael Lerner. But he is also in the company of ordinary Jews, from 82-year old Reuven Moskovitz, a Holocaust survivor who was on board a Jewish boat bound for Gaza to break the Israeli blockade of the territory. When asked why he participated in the campaign he told an AFP reporter “It is a sacred duty for me, as a [Holocaust] survivor, to protest against the persecution, the oppression and the imprisonment of so many people in Gaza.”
It includes ordinary Jews like Canadian artist Mia Feuer from Winnipeg who grew up in a conservative environment and who traveled to Israel only to find herself living in the West Bank among the victims of Israel’s occupation. Feuer’s experience precipitated an artistic implosion that produced works inspired by all that she witnessed and experienced, from volunteering to teach art to Palestinian children in refugee camps to being tear-gassed by the Israeli Defense Forces while protesting house demolitions Bil’in. Her most recent solo show in Burlington, Vermont featured a large metal turnstile resembling the rotating spoked gates that one would find at an Israeli checkpoint. Her exhibit included footage of a young man playing the oud on the campus of Al-Najah University in Nablus despite the killing of several students on the same site earlier in the day. Adjacent to the video was a mounted green neon sign that reads “Shwaya, Shwaya” one of the most commonly used phrases in the Palestinian vernacular. With the pace of life inhibited by Israeli occupation and Palestinian Authority cronyism, “Shwaya, Shwaya” is a consolation, an attempt to cope with the trials and tribulations of Palestinian life.
Accused of being traitors to Israel, self-hating Jews, or pawns of global anti-Semitism, these “Jews of conscience” continue to move forward unabated, expanding the horizon for mutual understanding in the exilic prophetic tradition. From the Chomskys and the Ellis’ to the Moskovitzs and the Feuers, from Waco to Winnipeg, they are the throbbing heart of a Jewish movement that speaks of their people’s outrage at the blatant dehumanization being wrought in their name and in the name of their faith and heritage. They are the Jewish Palestinians—the only true existential threat to Israel’s Zionist logic.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. His column appears every other Thursday.