Burning Children and the Duty to Resist

by Mark Chmiel

In May 1968 Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan wrote a statement on behalf of the Catonsville Nine as to why they were performing an act of civil disobedience in protest of the Vietnam War.  It reads, in part, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children.”

Mary Moylan, another of the Catonsville Nine who burned draft files with homemade napalm, stated at their trial:
To a nurse
The effect of napalm on human beings
Is apparent
I think of children and women
Bombed by napalm
Burned alive by a substance
Which does not roll off
It is a jelly
It adheres
It continues burning
This is inhuman absolutely
To pour napalm
On pieces of paper
Is certainly preferable
To using napalm on human beings
By pouring napalm on draft files
I wish to celebrate life
Not engage in a dance of death

Several years after the Catonsville action, a conference was held at Saint John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan, the theme of which was confronting the Holocaust.   Orthodox rabbi Irving Greenberg gave an address that criticized both religion and secular modernity for their roles in laying the groundwork for the Nazi genocide.  Greenberg formulated a maxim to serve as a check on theological and other presumption when it came to what Yiddish speakers referred to as the khurbn, or catastrophe: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”  He went on to assert, “To talk of love and of a God who cares in the presence of the burning children is obscene and incredible; to leap in and pull a child out of a pit, to clean its face and heal its body, is to make the most powerful statement—the only statement that counts.”

One year ago this summer, American Jewish theologian Marc Ellis kept a blog at the Mondoweiss web site, during which he commented on the escalation of Israeli violence in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These reflections were subsequently published as a short book entitled, Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza.  Ellis explicitly invokes Greenberg’s maxim (as he had done frequently in previous works).  He advises: “The doctors [in Gaza], Jewish or not, are the ones caring for burning children.  Listen to them.  And interfere with business as usual.”

In light of Israel’s massacre in Gaza, Ellis lost his patience with religious institutions’ unwillingness to engage in such interference: “Speak about God—if it make sense to the burning children of the Holocaust and Palestine. Taken seriously, the seminaries of every faith would have to close. As would the synagogues, churches and mosques. God-talk cannot make sense to a burning child.”   As Greenberg and Berrigan held decades earlier, what is needed is the fracture of good order, the good order that facilitated the concentration, expropriation and extermination of European Jews; the good order that allowed the U.S. government and military to unleash hell on earth against the Vietnamese (Robert McNamara estimated 3 million Vietnamese dead because of  the war; 58,000 + U.S. military personnel were killed); and the good order in Israeli society that has facilitated the ethnic cleansing, ghettoization and  strangulation of Palestinians.

Israel’s rampage against the Gazans most focuses Ellis’s attention on Jewish history, Jewish ethics, Jewish identity, and Jewishness. He aims to contribute to an urgent  intra-Jewish communal reckoning:  Jews can only be free as a people when the Palestinians  achieve their freedom.

For many years Ellis has been announcing  the end or death of Jewish ethics, given what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians and given the steadfast support given the preponderant Jewish state by Jews in the West.  For example, when referring to Israeli journalist Amira Hass, Ellis avers, “However one defines the Jewish condition, Jews like Hass continue to argue for a Jewish morality in the state of Israel that no longer exists.”  Yet Ellis himself places hope in what he calls Jews of Conscience, who evidently exist in Israel as well as outside, when he claims early in the book that  “I write as a Jew on behalf of Jews of Conscience in America, in Israel and around the world.”

There are pockets of resistance in Israel—journalists like Hass and Gideon Levy,  activists like the young anarchists and organizers of boycott from within, soldiers who have refused to have anything to do with the occupation,  poets like Aharon Shabtai and philosophers like Adi Ophir. Indeed, what are Jews of Conscience but Jews who embody prophetic interference in the political, cultural, religious, and economic zones of Israeli life, an interference which is the only statement that counts.

The Jewish prophetic that Ellis has championed is not dead. And, of course, that is no comfort to the grieving and outraged Palestinians—in the refugee camps, the West Bank cantons, and the Gaza prison. At the end of Adi Ophir’s The Order of Evils, he affirms, “Often, all one can do is avoid complicity in systems of discourse and action that produce Evil, and only take part in local resistances. There’s no knowing in advance what the side effects of such resistances will be or how much evil they, in turn, will produce. But the systems producing evil are never sealed and because they are always networks permeated by indeterminacy rather than permanent and ossifying structures, there’s no ruling out hope, and there’s no dropping out of the duty to resist.”

Sources
Daniel Berrigan, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
Marc Ellis, Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza
Irving Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust, edited by Eva Fleischner
Adi Ophir, The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals

Advertisements