Features » June 1, 2016
Meet the Rabbi Who Renounced Zionism and Embraced Palestinian Liberation
When Brant Rosen spoke out against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, he lost his Jewish spiritual community, but quickly found another.
"Operation Cast Lead was where I finally said, 'I can’t do this anymore.'”
In 2014, Rabbi Brant Rosen resigned his post at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., after serving for over 15 years. His Palestinian solidarity work had become a divisive issue within the community. Rosen was not always an advocate for Palestinian human rights—he started a blog in 2006, Shalom Rav, in which he chronicled his growing disillusionment with much of the Jewish community’s blind support for the state of Israel. His painful and public reckoning with Zionism unfolded in the midst of the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, code-named Operation Cast Lead.
In July 2015, Rabbi Rosen founded Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist and social justice-focused synagogue, where he serves as rabbi. (Full disclosure: I’m a congregant.) He also serves as the Midwest regional director for the American Friends Service Committee.
In These Times sat down with Rosen to discuss Tzedek Chicago, Israel and Palestine.
What led you to become an advocate for Palestinian rights?
It was gradual. Israel had always been a part of my life, and I identified—if I had to put a label on it—as a liberal Zionist. I, like many Jews, identified with the Zionist narrative. It’s a very powerful, intoxicating, redemptive story: These people who have been hounded for centuries around the world finally find a way to make it back to their ancestral homeland and liberate themselves. But there were also, along the way, nagging voices. I did a good job of keeping those voices locked away and never really following them to their conclusion. I always wondered about this business of creating a Jewish state when there are so many people who are not Jewish in this land—and how to create a state that was predicated on the identity of one people in a place that historically has been multi-ethnic, multi-religious.
And the whole issue of demographics: Liberal Zionists talk a great deal about what’s called the “demographic problem”: In order to create a Jewish state, you need a demographic majority of Jews. Back in the day, I used words like “demographic threat” [in reference to the growth in Israel’s Arab population] to advocate for the importance of a two-state solution. When the two-state solution was still a very edgy thing to be advocating for, it was very, very liberal to talk about it in those terms. But every once in a while I’d think, “They’re a demographic threat, because they’re not Jewish?” As an American, if I called another people a “demographic threat” to the national integrity of my country, that would just be racist. Those were the kinds of things I would entertain for a while but never completely unpack.
Was there a moment when you “wiped the slumber from your eyes,” so to speak?
It was a gradual process. I can trace important milestones. The first important one was the 1982 Lebanon War and Sabra and Shatila massacre. I remember thinking, “This is Israel’s My Lai.” That was the first time that my romantic Zionist ideals developed cracks. The Second Intifada and the collapse of the Oslo peace process and seeing what happened in the wake of Oslo—and the creation of the separation wall, the blockade on Gaza—was when it started to crumble.
Then the final breaking point was in 2008 and 2009 with Operation Cast Lead. By this point, I had been a congregational rabbi for a little over 10 years, so it became very complicated for me to break with this Zionist narrative, which is so cherished still in liberal Jewish circles. Operation Cast Lead was where I finally said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Why do you think that so many Jews who are otherwise progressive ignore Israel’s violations of human rights?
In the circles I travel, it’s called the “PEP phenomenon.”
Progressive Except Palestine.
Yes. That phenomenon is where the struggle for the soul of the Jewish community is taking place right now. I know that because I’ve been living in that nexus point almost my entire life. For liberal Jews, largely, it goes back to the Zionist narrative, which is a sacred narrative, even for Jews who don’t consider themselves religious. It’s a redemptive story. It emerges out of the ashes of not only one of the worst catastrophes in Jewish history, but in human history. The legacy of the Holocaust still looms large in the psyches of even young Jews today. The trauma still lingers, and in many ways, it’s exploited by the Jewish community. A lot of it boils down to fear.
For liberal Zionists, it is an attachment to a certain Zionist narrative. It’s not only about the “land without a people for people without a land.” There is a strong current of liberal assumptions that are embedded in Zionism—liberal European notions that are reminiscent of colonialism. But these notions have been understood by liberal Zionists to be the opposite of colonialism.
It’s sort of a mind-fuck, if you pardon the expression, that I have heard Zionism referred to by liberal Zionists as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. They have taken what is essentially a colonial movement and flipped it on its head. People from Europe who were colonizing a land to create an ethnic-national state saw this as their national liberation struggle when, traditionally, national liberation struggles are waged by indigenous people against those who are coming in to take their land away from them. That hypocrisy runs very deep in the psyches of liberal Jews.
On Dec. 28, 2008, during Operation Cast Lead, you posted on your blog, “We good liberal Jews are ready to protest oppression and human-rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all too willing to give Israel a pass. It’s a fascinating double standard, and … I’ve been just as responsible as anyone else for perpetrating it. So no more rationalizations.” You then add: “There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?” Seven years later, do you have an answer for yourself?
At the time that question was misunderstood by many people. I wrote this on my blog and there were many comments from people saying, “Oh, there’s lots of things you can do. You can march in our rally, you can sign this petition.” They were giving me practical advice, when I was asking an existential question.
I was in a lot anguish when I wrote that. I wasn’t sure if I could still be a rabbi and say these things. I wasn’t sure I could still be employed at my congregation. I wasn’t sure if I could be a Jew. I was just saying, “Who am I?” I got the answer to that question pretty quickly. It didn’t take seven years, although I’m still realizing the answer to that question.
Almost immediately, many people reached out to me. People in the Palestine solidarity movement, but also people in an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace, some of whom were members of my congregation and were patiently waiting for me to come around on this issue. They really gave me a Jewish community where I realized I could engage in Palestine solidarity work and be a truly progressive Jew on all issues and still have a Jewish institutional, spiritual home. Jewish Voice for Peace since then has grown by leaps and bounds.
Soon after that a rabbi friend of mine, Brian Walt, and I created an initiative that was called Jewish Fast for Gaza and that was the nascent beginnings of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. We started to gather around other rabbis who shared our values. So very quickly, the “what do I do now?” question was answered, which is: create an alternative Jewish community that cherishes these values unabashedly and bears witness to them in the world and stands as part of a larger Palestine solidarity movement.
In a post from Nov. 29, 2010, you stated, “The cornerstone value of my religious tradition commands me to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed. It would thus be a profound betrayal of my own Jewish heritage if I consciously choose not to stand with the Palestinian people.” That “Jewish liberation” is “intrinsically bound up with Palestinian liberation. It’s really that simple.” You then say “there is nothing simple or uncomplicated about it.” As a Jew, how do you negotiate this tension?
At the time that I wrote that, I was the congregational rabbi in a liberal congregation where there were many people who either didn’t agree with me politically or who were deeply pained when they heard me say or write words like that. I tried to negotiate those complications for a long time. I came to my congregation in Evanston in ’98—I wrote those words in 2009—and I ended up leaving the congregation in 2014 mainly because I wasn’t able to bridge those complications. It became impossible.
The job of clergy is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It’s a very delicate balance. The bottom line: I came to realize, to be a liberal rabbi today, in most liberal congregations, means serving a pretty comfortable population.
Describe what Tzedek Chicago is and how it came to be.
I left my congregation because of the circumstance that I’ve described. I didn’t have any intention of starting a new congregation when I left. Shortly after that, I started my full-time job with the American Friends Service Committee. But it became clear to my wife and I that we didn’t have a Jewish spiritual community. A number of us—including some who left the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation when I left because of the pain of the breakup, and others I knew who, because of this issue, didn’t have a congregation where they could feel completely at home—would get together in a havurah, an informal participatory group, mostly for Shabbat dinners. A group of them approached me with the idea of starting a new congregation that was predicated on values of justice and values of human rights and universal democracy, and not predicated on nationalism and Zionism and such. I became very excited about creating a new kind of Jewish congregation that was predicated on the social justice values that are deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition and are not attested to in most Jewish congregations.
What has the response been from the wider Jewish community?
The response to Tzedek Chicago exceeded what even I was hoping for. When we had our High Holiday services in September 2015, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, but we ended up averaging about 300 people for all of the services. It was clear there is a deep thirst for a community like this.
Israel is at the heart of Jewish communal life for many people. If we shift the focus of Judaism away from Israel or take Israel out of the equation entirely, what fills this space?
A venerable, centuries-long spiritual tradition that looks at the entire world as our home, the entire diaspora as our home. One that is predicated on values of justice and decency and morality, and being able to find God wherever we live, and seeing all people as created in the divine image, as the Torah teaches us. One of the things Zionism did was to colonize the Jewish religion itself. It eclipsed that incredibly beautiful and profound Jewish notion which saw the world as our home.
God isn’t geographically specific to Israel or Jerusalem or the temple. We bear witness to an ancient truth that is still very relevant in the world today— more than relevant, essential. Universalism is central to our core values and our congregation. And that is a problem for many Jews, too. There’s a strand of Judaism that is very parochial and tribal. It looks at the outside world with suspicion and looks at the Jewish community as the be-all and end-all. Our future is predicated on finding common cause with all people, particularly those who are oppressed.
Anything else you’d like to add?
There’s a word you hear bandied about a great deal these days: Intersectionality. The Jewish establishment community has finally discovered that word too. It’s a new term for something that’s very old, which is “common cause.”
Solidarity, yeah. That’s a better word. The Civil Rights movement was all about intersectionality in this country, and it wouldn’t have succeeded without it. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was incredibly intersectional. But that’s how movements of solidarity are created.
It’s really important to understand the sacred importance of solidarity and intersectionality. That police brutality in Chicago is absolutely inseparable from militarism in Israel/Palestine, the militarism of our prisons, the militarization of our immigration system. It’s all part of a much larger issue that in many ways neoliberalism has given rise to and corporate influence, in the rise of militarization around the world.
When we’re talking about building this movement of common cause, we need to be mindful that there’s no separation between the local and the global. And that’s ultimately how we’re going to find our way out.
This interview has been expanded from the print version.
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Eli Massey is an independent journalist, editor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Current Affairs, Jacobin, Mondoweiss, and elsewhere. He previously was an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies where he worked on Middle East politics and an editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him at @EliJMassey