Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Tuesday, 2 November 2004

Rowan and the Map

This piece was originally written for the Friends of Sabeel (UK)
Newsletter but after its submission, the Executive Committee asked
that I amend it,  removing some of the references to Dr Williams
 (including the title) who was scheduled to appear at the Sabeel
conference in Jerusalem. They felt that some of the references were
unnecessarily critical of the Archbishop and may jeopardise his
attendance at the conference. I agreed to do this and the amended
article which appeared in the December 2003 FOS-UK 
Newsletter under the title “What is Our Responsibility?”

Here is the original article with an added postscript.

Rowan & the Map                                       
November 2004

In mid-October I accompanied Marc Ellis on a speaking tour of the north of England. With two, sometimes three engagements a day in four cities, the tour was both gruelling and uplifting. But it was full of those enduring Ellis images – A Holocaust without God, Jews of conscience unaccompanied carrying the covenant into exile, the broken middle of Jerusalem healed only by a forgiveness with justice at its heart, and, the oft unspoken but ever present confessional: “What we, as Jews, have done to the Palestinians is wrong and what we are doing to the Palestinians is wrong.” But, at the core of every engagement and central to every encounter, the essential heart of this tour: the maps.

Ellis has a thing about maps. I first heard him, this Jew saying what no other Jew on the planet is saying, in 1998. It was at a combative meeting where an exhausted and embattled Ellis was fighting his corner in the face of a hostile audience of Christian theology students and their teachers. That night he talked about “the map of Israel stretching from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River” and it was like something I’d known all my life but never before realised or been able to articulate. Later, I often heard him speak of “the map of Jewish life” and “the map of Jewish destiny,” but only now do I understand what “the map” really means. It means the reality, the certainty of Israel and Palestine, but also of peoples’ lives everywhere, a reality and truth often absent from theology and religious life.

But on this tour, maps were centre-stage. We saw them in four different cities, over ten different venues and in many different incarnations, but always it was “the map”: the map of Israel/Palestine and the map of Jewish life and the Jewish future.

Up they’d come on the screen: Rabin’s map, Netanyahu’s map, Barak’s map and Sharon’s map, and he’d explain each one, “Here are the Palestinian areas, here are the Israeli areas…..See how Israel is here and here and here……..These areas will remain Israel…...”. Until after a while, usually somewhere between “Barak’s generous-offer map” and “Sharon’s final-status map” he’d come clean and say, “Am I the only one here whose finding this just a little repetitive?” There’d be a silence and he’d say softly……“It’s the same map.”

Four prime ministers, four governments, four peace proposals and forty years of struggle and nothing much has changed from the Allon plan of  the late sixties, when Israeli General Yigal Allon called for Jews to acquire as much Palestinian land as possible with as few Palestinian people as possible.  Yes, Allon also produced a map.

 “Now,” says Ellis, “The wall - another terrific idea!” and we see a broad swathe running  through fields, towns and villages, cutting through what’s left of Palestinian life. “This is the clearing of the land for the wall” he tells us, “The wall goes under various names, sometimes it’s a fence, sometimes a barrier and sometimes they even call it a wall,  but to me….” and here he changes shot to one of the wall “…it’s a wall, thirty feet high and 3-5 feet thick.” Another shot…. “Looks like a wall to me” another shot “Yup, that’s a wall” and goes off into a story about how, as a boy, he used to climb a fence to play baseball and he’d climb a wall to get his ball back. He stands back and joins his audience in gazing at the screen. “No, that’s definitely not a wall for climbing over” he says, “To me that looks like a real wall.”

“And that…,” he says and again changes shot, “That’s a sniper tower. Those towers are going to be all along the wall and in those sniper towers will be Israeli soldiers with sophisticated equipment to monitor the Palestinians, and of course with weapons..…”

“Now,” he says, “This is where the wall is going to go.” And again we see the map both as it is and as it will be.  It’s the same map but now it has a wall. “The wall is going here” he says and he traces the wall down along the side of the west Bank facing Israel. “But not just down here,” he says, “but also up here, round here and down here….” And he traces the blue line, now broken to denote the proposed path, up over the West Bank and behind. “It goes behind the Palestinian areas,” he says, “This part of the wall goes behind and right round the Palestinian areas. They’re walling these people in…..a million and a half people are being walled in.” This is not a defensive wall, nor a security wall. It’s not a separation wall or even an apartheid wall. It’s a ghetto wall. The Palestinians are being ghettoised.

“Now, what happens to people walled in like this? Think about it!” (Ellis says that a lot: “Think about it!”) “Well, first, those who are able to leave are going to leave, and the rest will just be walled in. How are they going to eat? How are they going to produce food? How are they going to work? Think about it! How long before they have to start flying in food to these people? How long before the people inside start killing each other to get at whatever is let in? Think of the violence inside these walls! And think of the violence that’s going to come out of these walls! What do you think is going to come out? Birthday emails? Do you think love balloons are going to come floating up over the wall? And after the violence has come out, what about the violence that’s going to go in! We know what Israel does when twenty Jews die in a suicide bomb attack? How about when a hundred die? Or five hundred!”

“Now,” he says, “Here’s a page from Newsweek, hardly a radical publication, it’s not Israeli nor Palestinian, and here’s a two page spread they ran on the wall and it’s dated…..,” and he closes in on the picture and peers at it, “…it’s dated June 9th 2003. Now I’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust, about exactly when did the world know? When did the world definitely know about what was going on? Most books say around nineteen-forty-one or, at the latest, forty-two. Well we now know exactly when the world knew about this wall.” He peers down again at the bottom left of the picture, “…June 9th 2003. There it is. Newsweek, June 9th 2003. So no-one can say they don’t know about the wall.”

He then returns to the map of where the wall is going to go. It’s the same map as all the other maps. The map of Israel from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River, the map of Jewish life and destiny, Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon’s map. It’s the same map, only now there’s a wall around it. Now it’s a ghetto, something we Jews know a lot about. It’s the map of what we Jews have done and are doing to the Palestinians and it’s the map of the Jewish future. As Ellis has been telling us for years, it is the end of Jewish history as we have known it and inherited it.

At Bradford University Peace Studies Department, before forty students he asks for a moment of silence. “I want to take a moment of silence and look at that map…. and ask all of us….. ‘What is our responsibility in relation to this map?”

Thirty seconds pass.

“…..And what does this mean, looking at the map, about who we have become as Jews.”

Five seconds pass.

“And what does this mean for who Britain, Tony Blair - who must have seen the map if I’ve seen it, and the United States government, who have we become to allow this to be built?”

Seven seconds pass.

“…And who have we become when we can say, ‘Yeah, I saw the pictures. It’s being built.’ And not be totally outraged!……. And what does a Peace Studies programme concerned with conflict resolution do with THAT?

Responses vary but mostly there’s silence. In Liverpool someone suggests that maybe the wall could be a good thing, because then the world can’t say that the conflict is symmetrical, that it’s so blatant surely the world will have to do something. Ellis replies that if he were a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 would he think that it’s a good thing? “Would I be calling over the wall, ‘Hey, they’ve walled me into this ghetto but, you know, maybe it’s a good thing. Perhaps it’s for the best!’”

But it is at the evening meeting in Bradford, at a community centre before an audience of around a hundred Christians, including many priests and church dignitaries that, for me, the true message of this tour is revealed. As before, after the map of the wall, he calls for a moment of meditation. After the silence he says, that he is sure Tony Blair knows about this and then, “Now your Archbishop, or Rowan as everyone seems to call him, Rowan must know about this map, I know the previous archbishop did” And he begins to talk about George Carey, how he met with him, had a full hour with him, even how he was jealous of the Archbishop’s robes. Apparently Carey heard him lecture in 1982 and had even read his first book, ‘Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.’ So what did George Carey say about the map? Ellis answers his own question, “Zilch!”

Someone says that perhaps he’s being a little unfair on Carey, who after all has, spoken out more forcibly since he retired. Ellis tells about the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who also wanted to write about Palestine and also said that he would do it after he retired. “So I said, that he should probably do it after he died. That’d be a new way to write about difficult things. Do it after you die!” 

“I mean, come on…..Are we serious here? I’m talking about our responsibilities. We all have pressures and we all have difficulties but what are our responsibilities as people in the world and as people in leadership positions? And what are our responsibilities to this map? And do we speak, or do we never speak? And do we speak sometimes when it’s at a cost or only when there is no cost? Sometimes we wake up to something at a certain time and not at another time. So we can’t always speak in time. But my feeling is that George Carey didn’t speak in time for reasons other than that he didn’t know.”

“Now, George Carey had delegation after delegation coming to him and begging him to speak out. Sometimes these would be Palestinians who came back time after time begging him to say something. And what did they get? ‘Yes, yes, this is terrible, I feel for you and I pray for you, but..”

Then there is another intervention from the hall. Someone says that it’s not so easy being Archbishop, that one has to be careful what one says, and when, and to whom, so as to get the maximum benefit.

“Okay,” says Ellis “Again I’m a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and the Archbishop of Canterbury comes to visit and says, ‘This is terrible Marc. I really feel for you, but I really have to tell you, it’s …it’s …it’s complicated. For a person in my position, it’s complicated. Now I really feel bad about what’s happening to you, but I’ve got to use my influence where it will achieve most. I can’t shoot it on anything, I can’t waste it. I’ve got to use it strategically. But let me tell you, I’m going to give you a promise Marc. I’m going to go back and I’m going to meet with the Queen and the prime minister and I’m going to say that I met this Jew, Marc Ellis, and he’s in the Warsaw Ghetto. And it doesn’t look good.  But listen….….pass the sherry.’”

“Now you may say that’s an unfair portrait, but I think we do have to think about the people inside the wall and what they might say about the workings of those in power. We need to think not about how complicated things are, but about what a person in the situation would think of that complication. For my part I hope I would have had the dignity to throw him out. I think he could have dealt with a good kick in the rear and out! But maybe I would have hugged him and said, ‘thank you so much and remember me in your prayers.’”

“Now your present archbishop, Rowan Williams, what’s Rowan going to say about it? I know he’s going to Jerusalem in April, to attend the Sabeel conference, what will he say about it then? Carey and Rowan are supposedly completely different, so will he say anything different from George Carey? By the time he gets to Jerusalem I don’t know where the wall will be but it’s going to be a lot more. I don’t know if he’ll see the wall. I don’t know if he really wants to see the wall. But I wonder what he’s going to say. I can just imagine his statement:

“It’s a horrible situation that the Palestinians are enduring. Our hearts and our prayers go out to them. We hold them in our heart. Our hearts also go out to our Jewish brothers and sisters who have suffered so grievously in history.  They need security. They have a right to their existence and to their security and our hearts go out to the Palestinians and our prayers as well. We hold them in our hearts……….”

It was the last night of the tour. On my way out of the meeting someone, a priest, says to me, that he’s really not sure “I mean I really don’t know…..it must be so terrible, those suicide bombers…I mean, what are the Israelis supposed to do?”

Next day it was down to London and home. Marc was supposed to have had a meeting with the Archbishop, now cancelled. Dr. Williams has other things on his mind.

In the days and weeks that followed I’ve thought a lot about that tour, about the maps and about the wall. While I was away, Sabeel (UK) sent a desperate letter to every single Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishop in the country and to many senior ministers of the United Reformed Church in England, pleading that they speak out “…before it is too late.” Just one reply was received, from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Wales.

For me, two questions remain. The first is: the wall is a precursor to what? The second concerns the Archbishop’s forthcoming visit to Jerusalem next April. Will he work behind the scenes? Will he use his influence strategically? Will he come at all? After all, he does have a great deal on his mind at the moment. But, most of all, as the wall goes up twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and the destruction of the Palestinian people in the Holy Land goes on unabated, my question is: what will Rowan Williams say to us in Jerusalem?

Postscript: The Archbishop has subsequently informed Sabeel that he was unable to attend the Sabeel conference because of “diary commitments”.


Paul Eisen is a director of Deir Yassin Remembered