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.

Eli Massey

‘Our future is predicated on finding common cause with all people, particularly those who are oppressed.’ (Courtesy of Jordan Elgrably / Levantine Cultural Center)

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.

"Operation Cast Lead was where I finally said, 'I can’t do this anymore.'”

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.”

Or sol­i­dar­i­ty.”

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.

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
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