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Accusations of ethnic cleansing

As I said in a post yesterday on Cathy Kavenys thread about the meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, Rev. Jeremiah Wright delivered a plenary address to the Society in which he referred to Israeli action in Gaza as ethnic cleansing. Today in the business meeting of the Society, Ron Green, a former president of both the Society of Christian Ethics and the Society of Jewish Ethics, read the following statement responding to that claim.There was no discussion of Greens response, which is too bad because his called for respectful and reasoned debate is exactly right. Here, then, is his statement.I stand before you as a member of the Society who is of Jewish background to report the distress and concern experienced by a number of Jewish members of the Society and the Society of Jewish Ethics following the use of the phrase "ethnic cleansing" by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in his plenary address yesterday. Reverend Wright used this phrase to characterize the current incursion by Israel into Gaza.The formal United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing describes it as "rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnicity or religion." There is widespread agreement that on a spectrum of practices ranging from forced emigration to genocide, the use of "ethnic cleansing" has become almost synonymous with genocide.There are sharp ethical disagreements about Israel's conduct in Gaza. These disagreements occur among Jewish members of our two societies. But there is a solid consensus among us, too, that it is misleading and morally offensive to characterize this conduct as ethnic cleansing, and to do so as a throwaway remark in a context that does not permit audience response. Such charged use of language might be appropriate in a political demonstration, but it has no place in the life of a scholarly society dedicated to respectful and reasoned debate.We ask that our expression of distress and concern be recorded in the minutes of this meeting, and that these minutes, with this expression, be brought to the attention of Reverend Wright.Thank you.Ronald M. Green"


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One must wonder whether Rev. Wright meat his statement literally. If he didn't, then what is the morality of rhetorical statements which exaggerate facts?

Ron Green offers, and Paul supports, a precise legal definition of "ethnic cleansing." This is casuistry, not prophecy. Jeremiah Wright is not engaged in the careful use of legal terms--he is, as he said before, not an ethicist--he is, in my view, a prophet.The language of the Holocaust is often used loosely--about abortion, for example. Some people have called abortion a type of genocide because it disproportionately effects black children.So what you have here, IMHO, is a textbook clash of the prophetic use of language (Wright) with the casuistical use (Green). That's why we need to reflect upon the ethical use of prophetic rhetoric. However, merely saying that it does not conform to the requirements of casuistical rehtoric isn't enough. l

Speaking of rhetorical language regarding the Israeli attacks in Gaza, our (Catholic) own Cardinal Renato Martino had this to say the other day: "Let's look at the conditions in Gaza: It's looking more and more like a big concentration camp." Ethnic cleansing indeed!

Cathy, I don't disagree with what you said, but then the question is how to respond to prophetic discourse. I don't think we can simply say that prophesy can't be held to the standards of precise legal definition. I probably would not have appealed to the UN definition of ethnic cleansing in responding to Wright, but I am sympathetic to Ron's appeal. Israel's actions strike me as grossly disproportionate but that does not make them a form of ethnic cleansing. If you think Wright is wrong, how do you respond to his prophetic claim?

Well, I think that's a problem--but I think the problem can only be addressed by getting the genre right first. There is a just use (so to speak) of prophetic rhetoric and an unjust use. I didn't see Wriight's use of prophetic language here all that different in tone from the language of some of our bishops when describing abortion. Analogizing abortion to slavery--to the holocaust? The question of how to respond to prophetic discourse that one believes is unjust in an effective manner is very difficult. Responding seriously, in a the language of practical reasoning form, is necessary at times--like Ron did. (I have tried to show that in fact, abortion is disanalogous to the Holocaust -in numerous respects). But that sort of response (in my case and in Ron's) will simply insure that the prophetic language isn't taken as the language of practical reason). That's a big step. But it doesn't get at the distinctively prophetic aspect of prophetic langague--the imagery, the poetry, the unceasing demands.Here the options, I think, rhetorically, are limited: You can ignore; you can counterprophecy, you can mock, or you can deem crazy. (Note that what Obama basically did in the election cyle is relegate to Wright to the status of an old, slightly out of touch uncle).

Where Green may be off base is that he relegates the horrible bombing, killing and mutilation of the Palestinians, to sharp disagreements. That is unacceptable. This is savagery. Is this the best we can do is state that reasonable persons can disagree? While the children die. While the analogy to the bishops is on target, it may be necessary to state that there is disagreement as to whether there is a zygote or not. Whereas the bodies of the Palestinians is not a matter of dispute. The leaders of Israel have become a huge problem for the world. They have gone from being the most victimized to causing the most victims. Somebody has to dramatize this. Reverend Wright may not have it right. But his ethics might be well above that of Ronald Green whose casuistry might be more of a disservice in this most pressing problem of our time.

Inviting someone whose rhetoric is typically prophetic to give the opnening address at a gathering of speciaiists in ethics whose perspective is largely academic might be taken as a provocation. I have grave reservations about the Israeli incursion into Gaza, but I dont think Wright's contribution to discourse on the subject is likely to be helpful.

There are many issues at play here. First, when a group invites someone like Rev. Wright who uses prophetic language in a provacative way (and I mean provactive in the sense of deliberately intending to provoke) we can reasonably assume that they do so in order to provoke a discussion.Secondly prophecy occurrs WITHIN one's own community. The OT prophets who railed against Israel were in fact Jews. They were part of that community. They were calling the community back to a different understanding of who the community was. Yet the prophet always remains part of the community and can only prophesize within the community. And the prophet is most almost always rejected by the community. This was of course the experience of Jesus in the highest degree. I recall seeing Rev. Wright's entire 'chickens coming home to roost sermon' after 9-11 and I thought he was bang on. I would not have retreated from that homily one, single bit. He was exactly, precisely prophetic and accurate. But prophetic rhetoric of the sort REv. Wright used is inappropriate in this context as he is not a member of the Jewish or Arabic or Muslim community.HOwever, a note about casuistical use of language. I don't agree that Green is even on solid ground in that area. For example:"The formal United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing describes it as rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnicity or religion. That is exactly, precisely what occurred when Israel was created!!The West is saying, ya but lets let that one go and deal with the situation as it exists right now. If Green was being prophetic he might have said, yes this is wrong and we as a people should not be doing this. But that, is NOT, the right answer as far as the Jewish community is concerned. It might be (I say might because it would have to be discerned) the prophetic one, but it would not be popular.Methinks he was being a little bit Jesuitical (and I mean that now in the negative sense of the term) with his use of casuistry.

It seems clear here that Rev. Wright was invited as a "lightning rod" to provoke discussion.What's unclear is how to respond.If, in fact, his presentation was prophetic, I think the discussion should be not how to respond to him, but to us - for prophetic language seeks to ask us to reassess and to change for the better,In this world shot through with much hatred, violenc eand division, reflection of that type is indeed useful.

How would anyone on this post--prophetic or casuistic--describe the policy of Jewish settler's on the West Bank (or to be precise some of the Jewish settlers), who have taken Palestinian lands sometimes with and sometimes without the cooperation of the Israeli government and/or the IDF? Ethnic squeezing?

I thought Mr. Green's response was entirely appropriate.I think the way the issue has been framed in this thread puts us between the horns of a false dilemma, in which the truth claims of prophetic language are unchallengeable by reasoned discourse.In this case, to allow the claim of ethnic cleansing to stand unchallenged is to permit the debased and perverse use of language for one's own ends. Objecting to this is not some mere academic quibble.

The truth of prophetic language is, of course, discerned. Before going any further we should read and/or hear the Rev. Wright's address in its entirety."In this case, to allow the claim of ethnic cleansing to stand unchallenged is to permit the debased and perverse use of language for ones own ends."Speaking of ethnic cleansing in the context of casuistry is frought with difficulty since, as far as I know, it has a relatively recent history. I think that as a legal category, under interantional law, it only emerged as a result of the conflict in the Balakans. I don't know if there was an international court in which specific charges of ethnic cleansing were levelled, what the defence was and what the outcome was.Since the term "ethnic cleansing" is relatively new as a legal concept, and even then only under international law (which may or may not have jurisdiction over some countries such as the US) and even then hardly prosecuted, it is as much a political term as a legal one if not more political than legal.

it seems to me that "ethnic cleansing" is an unfortunate phrase, first and foremost because it is a metaphor, and metaphors are notoriously difficult to interpret with any degree pf confidense. Second, it also carries a heavy load of affective meaning, but In its case it means that the "cleansing" is not something positive (as most cleansing is thought to be) but, rather, its affetive content is something rrehensible. Unfortunately, it does not convey any precise degree pf reprehensibility (as does, for instamce, "first-degree murder"), which makes its affective content rather indeteonate. It's not a weasel word, but using it to describe a hellishly complex set of circumstances doesn't seem to advance us towards a solution..

That should have been "rather indeterminate".

Speaking of ethnic cleansing in the context of casuistry is frought with difficulty since, as far as I know, it has a relatively recent history. I'm not referring to legal niceties or casuistry at all but to the plain meaning of the term as it is apt to be understood be the average hearer. Rev. Wright is not a lawyer, nor is he known for being politic or mincing words. As I see it, therefore, it's legitimate of Mr. Green to interpret Rev. Wright's use of the term as he did and to take offense.In my opinion, the term was not used with regard to any carefully though out definition, legal or otherwise but with the intention of shutting down discourse and evoking a knee-jerk emotional response from the hearer. To me, the effect of such careless use is to drain utterances of meaning. As you say, the truth of prophetic speaking may be discerned, but if the prophet robs language of meaning in this way he also robs it of its power to express that truth.

Where Green may be off base is that he relegates the horrible bombing, killing and mutilation of the Palestinians, to sharp disagreements. That is unacceptable.As I read the remarks, he is not trying to whitewash the horror or the bloody consequences. He is claiming that opinion among Jews is divided as to whether or not these consequences, bloody and horrible as they are, are completely unjustified or the tragic and unavoidable results of what others see as a threat to Israel's existence.

I'd be very keen to get an answer to Peggy Steinfels' question: What term do we use? Over at my blog Pontifications I raised some stir by writing about Cardinal Martino's "concentration camp" remark and saying if he had to go for a WWII/Holocaust reference, the Warsaw Ghetto might be closer, but still not apt or useful. to a critic here too: I cited Godwin's law, that the longer a discussion goes on, the more likely someone will invoke Nazi comparisons. Fascist is invoked in anlmost every conflict (peaceful or not), and along with Fundamentalist is the most misunderstood and misused epithet in circulation. Is there a corollary after Godwin's law has been affirmed? What language can we properly use in this case? Some have tried apartheid with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, of course backed by the notorious UN "Zionism=Racism" resolution. So what is the best term? Is there a neat historical parallel? Or must something be invented? God knows there was plenty of ethnic cleansing before the Balkans in the 1990s "invented" the phenomenon. I think the recourse to explosive language is natural with those who are most directly affected by the conflict, and it can be a bit rich for those of us at a safe distance to engage in deep linguistic analysis. Clearly there is a natural instinct on the part of those under fire to use Holocaust language against Israel, to shock and retaliate. Is prophetic language also the language of the oppressed, not just the angry?Check out this CNS story about a Pakistan diocese that blasted--with the approval of the bishop--the Israeli actions:

"The church strongly condemns the unjust and merciless attacks by the imperialist Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Israel's increasingly cruel and tyrannical aggression on Palestine," Father Aftab James Paul said at a press conference Jan. 5. Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad and two other priests accompanied him as he read a statement, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.Father Paul is director of Faisalabad Diocese's Commission for Interfaith Dialogue. It and the diocesan justice and peace commission organized the press conference in Faisalabad, 150 miles south of Islamabad."We appeal to the Organization of the Islamic Conference to raise its voice against the tyrannical and despotic forces. We pray that Allah helps the whole world establish peace and serenity," he added.Father Paul told reporters it is imperative that the United Nations and Islamic organizations play an effective role in countering U.S. and Israeli actions. The OIC, an association of 57 member nations, works to protect the interests of the Muslim world.The priest explained that bombings by American forces have claimed enough innocent lives in Afghanistan and Iraq to amount to open terrorism. "We strongly condemn the merciless attacks and growing ruthless aggression of American and NATO forces. We demand that America stop its interference in these areas," Father Paul read.He also denounced the situation in Gaza, where Israeli bombardment and ground attacks since Dec. 27 had killed hundreds of people. By Jan. 9, more than 760 people, at least half of them civilians, had died in the fighting."The blood of innocent people is being spilled for fun in Gaza," Father Paul said, adding that the assault comes on top of Israeli restrictions that have long victimized the Palestinian people.

Over the top? Maybe not from their point of view.

After Jeremiah Wright's performance at the National Press Club back in April of 2008 -- and possibly well before that -- he forfeited the right to use "prophetic rhetoric" and be taken seriously. People can be quite brilliant and make great contributions in one area and be irrational crackpots in another. Jeremiah Wright has done a lot of very fine things, but he has no standing, as far as I am concerned, on matters of national or international politics.Someone in the roundtable segment on one of the Sunday morning news shows yesterday pointed out that both Israel and Hamas rejected the UN's call for a cease-fire. You would expect a people being subjected to ethnic cleansing to want it to stop immediately. One wonders if the Pakistani Christians ever condemned the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel, or suicide bombings in Israel. One wonders at a priest who says, "We pray that Allah helps the whole world establish peace and serenity."Having said that, to quote myself from Vox Nova, "Terrorism played an important role in the creation of Israel (the Irgun and the 'Stern Gang'), and several important Israeli leaders got their start as terrorists. I can remember watching films on network television of Israeli soldiers deliberately breaking the arms of Palestinian boys who they caught throwing rocks. And of course theres the blowing up of homes to punish entire families for the wrongdoing of one member. Its brutal and ugly, as is this current war." Anyone who supports either side without having grave reservations is out of touch with reality.

David Nickol: for the record shouldn't we note that it was Hamas that is said to have rejected the UN's cease fire resolution (and I believe it was Hamas-in-exile in Damascus); it was not the "people being subjected to..." namely Palestinians living in Gaza.There have been many expulsions of people from their lands, but not called ethnic cleansing. Seminoles were tossed out of Florida--was that our own Andrew Jackson? The Czechs expelled the Sudeten Germans after WWII for which they have since apologized. The British ethnically squeezed the Irish off productive land... Let's see? Where would this end?

"The truth of prophetic language is, of course, discerned. "Thank you, George D., in my opinion this is the heart of the matter.In the Old Testament, there were also false prophets. Prophetic discourse that doesn't ring true, rings hollow.Prophets are dangerous - that is inherent in prophecy. Prophecy is not meant to reinforce the status quo. Prophets seek to be agents of change. Often that is good. But therein lies the danger of false prophets - not all change is for the better. We must be willing to stand up and repudiate prophetic discourse that is not true. For that reason I commend Ronald Green. FWIW, I found his response to be effective. As a Jewish person, he could have responded with outrage, and everyone would have understood. Yet he chose a measured, reasoned tone, and it was the perfect antidote to Rev. Wright's overheated rhetoric.

I think the recourse to explosive language is natural with those who are most directly affected by the conflict, and it can be a bit rich for those of us at a safe distance to engage in deep linguistic analysis.The experienced reality is most likely far uglier and complicated than one imagines. My issue is not some aesthete's concern about linguistics but the fact that one becomes anesthetized to the knee-jerk sloganizing after a while then and desensitized to the whole bloody mess. Time after time, the usual suspects weigh in with the usual rhetoric and nothing changes.

David Nickol: for the record shouldnt we note that it was Hamas that is said to have rejected the UNs cease fire resolution (and I believe it was Hamas-in-exile in Damascus); it was not the people being subjected to namely Palestinians living in Gaza.Margaret,The Palestinians living in Gaza democratically elected Hamas to represent them. There was a ceasefire, which expired, and Hamas declined to renew it. I think the Israelis are responding not merely out of all proportion, but against their own best interests, so it is doubly appalling that so many people are being killed. But Hamas speaks for the people of Gaza, and if the Palestinians don't want Hamas representing them, they should vote them out.

Btw, given Hamas' well-known goal of eradicating Israel, it is ironic or worse that Wright accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing. Is Wright prophesying or collaborating in a war?

When did "prophet" become synonymous with "blow-hard wing-nut"? I had hoped that we had heard the last from "Rev" White. He seems to revel in the spotlight in a very unhealthy manner. I'm certain he has achieved some great advances for the African American community in Chicago, but his constant conspiracy theory/inflamatory statements are reducing to rubble any good he may have already achieved.And David, I think there is an old adage that applies to the Palestinians of Gaza: You made your bed, you lie in it. They elected Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization and, Hamas goes about provoking a half-dozing tiger and is surprised when the beast rears its head.But Hamas, whose "militants" wear civilian clothing and hid amongst a civilian population have nothing to loose (and the left is always ready to level charges of war crimes against Israel, but fail to raise the slightest voice against those war crimes). If they score military victories against Israel they are seen as the defenders of the people (at the expense of the moderate Fatah) and if they suffer terrible defeats, the growing discontent will fill their ranks with more suicide bomber/volunteers.I am no foreign policy expert, but I believe Israel is playing into their trap. The only response is a big carrot and a big stick. Heavy fighting mixed with vast humanitarian aid and an extension of liberties for those Palestinians not hell-bent on the destruction of Israel. But maybe the hatred is too entrenched after 60 years of broken promises, neglect and simmering anger.

FWIW a false prophet is not so much one who is incorrect but one who is an opportunist and uses people instead of challenging them. The true prophet does everything for those s/he works for and is all out for neighbor. As Jesus put it: "All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them....... The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

"FWIW a false prophet is not so much one who is incorrect but one who is an opportunist and uses people instead of challenging them."I don't disagree. Here is what I had in mind regarding false prophets: In the OT, the true prophets were those through him God spoke. In that sense, prophets were authentically revelatory - they revealed God's words and will for his people. False prophets claimed this charism, but their words were not God's authentic words.Today, when we refer to a person, or that person's words, as "prophetic", I believe we're using the term in a somewhat different or analogous sense. That is not to deny that God still calls people to proclaim the truth - perhaps, as was the case with some prophets in the OT, reluctantly, and detrimentally to their personal safety and well-being. Even if today's prophets don't add to revelation, they can still perform many of the salutary tasks of the OT prophets: decrying injustice, condemning the exploitative powerful, calling people to repentance and conversion, and reminding them of God's authentic revelation (Jesus, of course, being the captstone and essence of God's revelation). If we have something analogous to OT prophets today, then there is also an analogous need to discern between authentic and inauthentic prophecy.To be clear: I don't say that Rev. Wright is a false prophet. Yet if he is to wear the prophet's mantle, it is incumbent on him to use words that ring true.

Ringing true--depends upon with whom? What's the difference between Cardinal George analogizing the abortion situation to slavery and Jeremiah Wright's use of the term ethnic cleansing? I don't believe prophetic rhetoric is largely meant to persuade--for people not persuaded, it just highlights the significant disanalogies, in both cases. In most cases, it functions to shore up the will of those already convinced--and likely to be disheartened.

David Nichols: As I recall who voted for Hamas is a bit more complicated than you suggest. I don't have time to recover the story, at the moment... But can we assume that in a democratic election not everyone voted, not even the majority, for Hamas, or for the winner. After all, Fatah still holds the presidency and still governs the West Bank. The net result of the election in their parliamentary system was that there was never a unitary government.This reminds me how I feel about the Bush Administration--I never voted for them, I never would, and I was right. As an American, I am responsible for what they have done in our name, but there is a part of me that thinks that responsibility is not 100 percent, and insofar as I have opposed their kettle of fish, I am a resister to their policies. Ergo: there are such Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. And I would guess that some great number of them would not have turned back a cease fire. Ditto a certain number of Israelis.

Some thoughts about Gaza/Israel --When the Israelis bomb schools where Hamas arms are cached, does the principle of proportionality apply? Is it morally defensible to kill those Gazan children while desttoying Gazan arrms? If not, what would be an alternative defense of the Israeli! childre threatened by those arms ?(I'm rdminded of an old saying: if men will fight, men will fight.)i have read that civilian casualties in WW I were about 7% of the total casualites, but now in the world's new sorts of war (incursions, ethnic cleansings, whatever -- we really do need some new terms!) the civilian casualties have reached 43%. (I tried to find a verification for those nnun but couldn't. ) The term "decimate" goes back to Roman times when extremely bad military losses were said to be a " decimation".How much progress have we made?

Oops--My point is that to "decimate" was to lose only one in ten Roman soldiers Now four times that many non-combatants are lost.

"Ringing truedepends upon with whom? Whats the difference between Cardinal George analogizing the abortion situation to slavery and Jeremiah Wrights use of the term ethnic cleansing? "Cathleen, Thank you for the link to the John Allen article, which I hadn't seen before.I don't see a lot of obvious parallels between the two. I'd note that, for purposes of this discussion, the former succeeds in providing moral clarity, whereas the the latter obfuscates.Ringing true to whom? There would be two levels of truth, right? - a statement may be true in itself (but who gets to decide?); and a statement may be accepted as true based on the listener's perceptions and experiences. Did that statement of Rev. Wright ring true to those who heard him speak?