Identity, Israel, Justice, Peoplehood, Politics, Religion

Chicago’s Rebel Rabbi: An Interview with Brant Rosen

If you’ve heard of Rabbi Brant Rosen, chances are that you know about his vocal and principled stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rosen has been on a personal journey ever since Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, the brutality of which compelled him to question his beliefs about the State of Israel and Zionism. Much of this journey unfolded in public as Rosen courageously wrote about his evolving views on Israel/Palestine in his well-read blog, Shalom Rav. These blog posts and some of the responses to them formed the basis for his 2012 book “Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path To Palestinian Solidarity.”Rosen is the founder of the Jewish Voice For Peace Rabbinical Council and for 17 years he was the Rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. He stepped down from this pulpit in September and took a position as the Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee. On July 5th, he announced the founding of a new community called Tzedek Chicago. I contacted Rabbi Rosen earlier this week to learn more about his politics, identity, and new community.

When did unquestioning support for the State of Israel become a centerpiece of Jewish identity in the United States? Why did this happen?
Israel became a centerpiece of Jewish identity following the trauma of the Holocaust – an identity which became more or less solidified following Israel’s military victory in the Six Day War. In retrospect, it is staggering to contemplate how quickly and thoroughly this new narrative has taken hold of the Jewish community. In a nutshell, it is a narrative that teaches that the traumas of the past will inevitably become our future unless the Jewish people embrace the ways of empire, nationalism and militarism. I do believe that this narrative is in many ways a betrayal of a central narrative that has sustained the Jewish people for centuries: the story of a people born out of the ashes of a Temple destroyed by the world’s mightiest empire – who responded by creating a tradition rooted in an allegiance to a Power yet greater than any human power.
We have integrated this new narrative so thoroughly that we rarely stop to consider its implications. There are so many examples I could point to; to cite but one simple instance: virtually every synagogue in America has a US and Israeli flag on either side of the Aron Kodesh [the cabinet in a Synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept].In other words, in our most sacred Jewish spaces, we are literally bowing down to physical symbols of national power. This is a powerful demonstration of how completely this new narrative has taken hold of post-Holocaust Jewish identity. To my my mind, it is nothing short of idolatry – and our inability to recognize it as such shows just how deeply we have bought into a religious mindset that radically values physical/military power over spiritual power.
What does solidarity with the Palestinian people mean to you?
By standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people, I believe I am fulfilling one of the central spiritual directives of my religious tradition – namely that we must stand with the oppressed and call out the oppressor. It’s really that simple. Now of course, I’m not so naïve as to deny the enormous complexities that are raised when Jews stand in solidarity with Palestinians. I know full well that in the eyes of many in my community, standing in solidarity with Palestinians is a profoundly transgressive act.
Since so many frame this issue as a binary conflict between “us and them,” to stand in solidarity with Palestinians must mean that I am choosing not to stand with my own people. I reject this binary meme in no uncertain terms. I believe to my core that standing with the Palestinians is one of the most Jewish things I can do. In the end, my solidarity is not with Palestinians alone but with all who have suffered from prejudice, oppression and structural racism. Needless to say, this has historically included Jews as well. So in the end, I view solidarity as an act that defies “zero sum attitudes.” It is ultimately an act of love that will ensure a future of dignity and security for all.
How do you respond to people who claim that the BDS Movement is antisemitic?
I defy anyone to read the 2005 Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and explain to me how it is rooted in anything other than values of equality and international human rights – and it is certainly not anti-Semitic to hold Israel to these standards. There is nothing anti-Semitic in the three essential goals of BDS: namely, an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and a recognition of the Palestinian right of return. And there is certainly nothing anti-Semitic about the time honored nonviolent means by which the BDS movement seeks these ends.
Now I know there are those who claim that the “double standard” created by BDS is somehow anti-Semitic; in other words of all the odious regimes in the world, why is Israel being singled out for this treatment? This claim utterly misunderstands the nature of the BDS call – and of the nature of solidarity itself. The BDS call was a call that came from Palestinians themselves. It comes from a myriad of Palestinian civil society organizations and institutions that are asking the international community to give popular support to their cause. The BDS call was not initiated by campus organizers, Protestant church groups, or international solidarity organizations. On the contrary, these groups have made the decision, in many cases after considerable deliberation, to respond to the Palestinian call for support and solidarity. So the real question, it seems to me, is not “What about all these other horrible countries?” but rather: “In the face of international political inaction to solve this unjust situation, the Palestinians have put out a call and are asking for our support and solidarity. Do we believe their call is worth responding to or not?”
In September you announced that you would be stepping down from your pulpit at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. What precipitated this move?
I made the decision to resign from JRC because my activism on the issue of Israel-Palestine had created too much stress for my congregation – and for me as well. For the past several years, I have become a increasingly high profile Palestine solidarity activist and we had been doing our best to manage this complicated reality for many years.  To their credit, JRC’s congregational leadership consistently and courageously supported my right and responsibility to speak my conscience on this issue even when most of them did not agree with me politically. In the end, however, I think my activism was just too painful for some members of my congregation. Last year, they became more vocal and organized in expressing their upset – and the atmosphere soon became so intolerable that it became impossible for me to do my job any more. I want to stress that my decision to leave was mine and mine alone. It was not easy for me to leave a congregation to which I had been devoted and that had been home to me and my family for almost twenty years. But if I’m truly honest with myself, I don’t know that it could have ended any other way, given the circumstances.
Do you have any regrets about leaving?
I have great sadness about leaving JRC, but no regrets. Given my current path, I don’t think it would be fair to the congregation – or to me – for me to remain there. While it was a traumatic break for us, I have incredible fondness for the congregation and its members and am proud of what we were able to accomplish there. I wish them nothing but the best.
What is Tzedek Chicago?
Tzedek Chicago is an avowedly non-Zionist congregation rooted in core values of spiritual openness, anti-racism, universalism and solidarity with the oppressed. It is a conscious attempt to create a Jewish spiritual community that celebrates Judaism as a global diaspora-based spiritual peoplehood. I will be serving as its rabbi part time while continuing to work in my full time capacity at AFSC.
Most liberal congregations describe themselves with words such as “open,” “inclusive,” and “welcoming.” Although it might sound odd to say, Tzedek Chicago is really not an inclusive community. We’re an intentional community rooted in very specific values.  We’re not for everyone and we don’t pretend to be.
At this point in my career, I’m not interested in creating another liberal Jewish congregation. There are plenty of them out there and some of them do wonderful, creative, important work. However, over the years I’ve increasingly met people who seek Jewish community but are kept at bay from congregational life because Zionism and support for the State of Israel assumes such a prominent role in virtually every American synagogue. I’m meeting more and more Jews who have no interest at all in enrolling their children in a religious school that considers a personal connection with the State of Israel to be a core Jewish educational value. Quite frankly, many Jews – particularly younger generations of Jews – are asking what this over-militarized ethnic nation state has to do with their Jewish identity.
Now for those who do place a high value on Israel and Zionism, there are a myriad of synagogues to choose from. But for those who do not, there really are no choices at all to speak of. Tzedek Chicago really is an attempt to create a Jewish congregational community for those whose Judaism is not dependent upon identification with Jewish nation-statism. And by extension for those who seek a Judaism rooted in sacred values of such as nonviolence, anti-racism and universalism.

29 thoughts on “Chicago’s Rebel Rabbi: An Interview with Brant Rosen

  1. “for those who seek a Judaism rooted in sacred values of such as nonviolence, anti-racism and universalism.”
    OK, so If I am a Zionist, I can’t believe in these sacred values. I think it is possible to both at the same time. This is insulting to all Zionists , no matter what form of Zionism they believe in. I find it inacurrate and offensive.

    1. Are there conceptions of Zionism that can accommodate these principles? Sure. One can point to the Brit Shalom folks and the Cultural Zionists. Have these versions of Zionism been relevant since the 1940’s? Not even a little bit. Zionism today is very narrowly defined as support for the existence of a Jewish ethnocracy that has a brutal record of dispossession, occupation, and oppression. This is clearly incompatible with the principles of nonviolence anti-racism and universalism. So unless you are the reincarnation of Ahad Ha’am, your Zionism probably doesn’t work with these values. If you are the reincarnation of Ahad Ha’am, my sincerest apologies-let’s get coffee!

    2. No, your Zionism is born out of the gun and out of violence and maintained by violence, so you can’t have both at the same time – unless you deceive yourself.

    3. Blah blah, semantics. You know what kind of Zionist he’s talking about, don’t be a pedant. If you’re an Israel-in-its-current-form-supporting-Zionist, then yes, it’s incompatible with those values.

    4. it is a correct description, not an insult. as a zionist you must believe in ethnocratic hegemony in the land you´ve chosen to call home. to achieve that you have to ethnically cleanse the population living there. that´s why the values mentioned above and zionism don´t rhyme and never will.

    5. I and many others will finally have a non-hostile community without a “my country wrong or right” approach when it comes down to it, and one that doesn’t hold up any form of nationalism as a litmus test for Jewishness. No, I don’t think you can have both at the same time and it’s perfectly fine with me that you are offended. I don’t care. You’ve got plenty of options where you can practically pray to the Israeli flag while helpless civilians are slaughtered in its name – in your name while you’re silent. This isn’t for you.

      1. No, I haven’t been silent. I don’t approve of the current government in Israel. I don’t support the settlements or the treatment of Palestinians and I have said so. I also have a problem with the current Labor Party position. That doesn’t mean that I can’t support Israel’s existence.

    6. The palestinian Authority have punished at least 94 people including five teenagers, accusing them of violations during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a rights group monitoring the Palestinian conflict said on Thursday.
      The people were flogged, hung up by their arms or put in metal cages by Religious police in incidents documented since the start of Ramadan last month, the Palestinian Observatory for Human Rights said….
      All victims survived the punishments which were carried out in Jenin,Ramallah and Hebron, the Britain-based Observatory said, citing its network of contacts on the ground.
      The five teenagers were aged 13 to 16. One was put in a metal cage and the other four were hung up crucifixion-style, the Observatory’s founder Rami Abdulrahman said.
      The opposition Shaam News portal posted a picture on its Facebook page last week showing a boy hanging by his arms with a sign around his neck saying “Broke fast without justifiable excuse under sharia.”

    7. Israel is violent to Palestinians both Christian and Muslim, racist against Arabs esp. Palestinians, and the demand for a Jewish State with its “Jewish only” attitude – all three are conduct that contradicts the belief in nonviolence, anti-racism and universalism. So, yes, if one is a Zionist then one’s conduct defies said beliefs. Palestine was stolen by bribery at the UN and in the USA, and by military force on the land. Israel was founded on land-theft, murder and dispossession of the natives. Its existence continues on the same basis.

  2. The first question is loaded with so many assumptions it’s hard to know where to begin. “When did unquestioning support for the State of Israel become a centerpiece of Jewish identity in the United States?”
    I wonder if you’d call yourself an unquestioning supporter of the United States of America even if you didn’t agree with everything your government did in action. I believe most synagogues outside of Israel have national flags on the bima as well – would you call that idolatry, too?
    Also, you know who “frames this issue as a binary conflict between “us and them”???”
    Palestinians, that’s who.
    Lucky you’re not actually in Israel, because they’d happily bomb you, too, along with anyone else there who gets in the way of complete and total Arab rule of that particular piece of land. When our “peace partners” do not love and desire peace the way we do, simple solutions are only conceivable from an ocean away.

    1. If you believe that all Palestinians are intent on bombing Jews and achieving total Arab rule then you don’t know any Palestinians, only the caricature of Palestinians in nationalist Israeli propaganda. Do you have any Palestinian friends, neighbors, or colleagues? If so, do you think they are bombers?
      Strictly speaking, yes, the display of any national flag is idolatry.

  3. Congratulations on establishing Tzedek Chicago! It sounds like a place for being able to be Jewish without praying for Israel or the Israeli Defense Forces. I wish I lived closer!

  4. this guy rosen is a fake. what sort of judaism does he practise. does he keep shabbat, kashrut, taharat mishpocha?
    does he believe in the torah, god given, which states that the land of israel is for the jewish people

  5. I wish Rabbi Rosen all the best with his new congregation, but can’t resist getting in a plug: although not “avowedly non-Zionist”, Chicago’s Makom Shalom is another congregation that would be comfortable for liberal Jews who don’t identify with Israeli nationalism. Also I believe that the Mitziut community would be very hospitable to non-Zionist views.

  6. No, I’m not the reincarnation of Ahad Ha’am, but I don’t need to be. It is possible to be a Zionist and to be just and humane at the same time. Just because the right wing is in charge at the moment doesn’t mean it has to be that way.
    America voted for George W. Bush twice! I’m not going to stop being American. I’m not going to stop being a Zionist, because I don’t like the current government.

  7. If that is the case, Susan, then focus not on people who are anti-zionist, but the people within your movement who believe it is okay to displace one group for another, conservative or otherwise.

  8. I appreciated what he had to say and agree with him. As a Christian, I saw the Evangelicals partner-up with the GOP in America and I did not like it (and I was an Evangelical at the time). Usually, whenever religion and the State merge, it turns both of them into things they were never meant to be – the State believes it has a divine mandate and the Religion feels that the State can enforce it’s beliefs onto the populace. In the end, both are destroyed because the State doesn’t govern with justice because it believes the Divine is on it’s side, and the Religion is destroyed because it ceases to be a light of love and peace in the world as it is seduced and becomes intoxicated by worldly-power.
    Anyway, I enjoyed hearing this voice for peace on all sides – thank you.

  9. If “Rabbi” Brant is so concerned about the plight of the Palestenians, I suggest he move his family to Gaza where he provide first hand aid and support rather than espouse his views from the leafy suburbs of Chicago. I believe our dear Rabbi needs to take a history class to see whose home land that Israel represents. Further if the Rabbi wants to be fair, I suggest he returns his current home and property to the Native Americans who most certainly occupied his land prior to his “occupation” .
    If our dear Rabbi was born 75 -80 years ago in Germany, I am sure he would have asserted that Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy. I gather he has the same views on the mullahs in Iran today, they certainly preach tolerance and peace and would welcome a visit by Rabbi and his family. While I am sure Rabbi Brant has provided good and effective service to his community over the years, in recent years his words and actions have split the community and have take a dangerous path. History as always will prove him wrong.

  10. ” as a zionist you must believe in ethnocratic hegemony in the land you´ve chosen to call home. to achieve that you have to ethnically cleanse the population living there. that´s why the values mentioned above and zionism don´t rhyme and never will.”
    No, you don’t have to ethnically cleanse the population living there. I can’t change the past and you refuse to see that both sides are at fault for the current situation. The Arabs could have accepted Israel’s existence in 1948 and most of the Arabs would have stayed.
    I also think that you find the universal in the particular. If I didn’t that was true, I would be attending a Unitarian Universalist Building just a 5 minute walk from my apartment. I go a synagogue where most of prayers are chanted in Hebrew.

  11. The Palestinians Arabs should not have had to “accept” Israel in 1948. Why should they? They possessed the land, had been “promised” independence by the “Powers that Be”, primarily Britain after the collapse of the Ottoman’s, but that promise was betrayed. The “Jews” had no right to Palestine. The Palestinians were not responsible for Hitler’s conduct.

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