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A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity

(Image: Just World Books)

Any discussion of Israel’s political and military actions is likely to evoke emotional reactions among Jews that can split friendships and families. It’s a core issue that drills down deep into tribal and religious identity, the invocation of the Holocaust, ongoing bloodshed between Arabs and Jews, and a fear of re-emergent anti-Semitism. Rabbi Brant Rosen, a congregational rabbi in Evanston, Illinois and co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, takes on these volatile issues of Jewish faith, values and the traditional homeland narrative of Israel in a new book: “Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity.”

Rosen’s personal journey raises questions about Israel’s current path that go to the heart of the incendiary debate about Israel’s future as a Jewish state: whether it can change course and adopt values toward the Palestinians that reflect Jewish religious and cultural tradition, as well as whether a Jewish state can survive as a democracy without becoming a quasi-apartheid government. You can obtain “Wrestling in the Daylight” directly from Just World Books.

If you are Jewish, upon reading “Wrestling in the Daylight,” you will feel that you have found a kindred spirit in Rabbi Rosen, or you will become angry. But hopefully, you will begin a dialogue, a conversation in the daylight about the future of Israel, one that Rosen hopes is conducted with respect and civility. (Full disclosure: Mark Karlin is a member of Rabbi Rosen’s congregation.)

Mark Karlin: I recall reading your blog, Shalom Rav, during the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) siege of Gaza at the end of 2008. I found your profound condemnation of the massive attack that included countless civilian deaths to be riveting. Operation Cast Lead, as it was called, seemed to be a turning point for you. Why did that particular Israeli military action appear to cause a “coming out,” so to speak, the beginning of a breakaway from sacrosanct liberal Zionism?

Brant Rosen: Looking back, I think my strong reaction to Cast Lead was the final straw of a process that I had been experiencing for some time – dating all the way back to Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In the past, whenever Israel behaved in ways I felt were morally questionable, my concerns would be tempered by a defensive voice in the back of my head telling me: “Calm down. Don’t overreact. It’s complicated.” I’m pretty sure I’m not the only liberal Zionist who’s heard this voice. We’re very good at rationalizing or dismissing actions by Israel that we would never dare to condone if it were any other country.

But in the case of Cast Lead, I just didn’t hear the voice any more. I had already been openly expressing my opposition to Israel’s crushing blockade of Gaza, and when I heard the first news of Israel’s initial military onslaught – reports of Apache helicopters dropping literally tons of bombs on 1.5 million people living in a tiny strip of land with nowhere to run – I just couldn’t rationalize it anymore. I knew in my heart that Israel’s actions had nothing to do with security – this was oppression, pure and simple. This wasn’t about Hamas shooting crude missiles into Southern Israel – this was about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. And I finally came to accept that it had always been this way.

So in a way, you could say that Cast Lead was the end of one process for me and the beginning of another. Once I publicly broke ranks with liberal Zionism on this score, I felt emboldened to share my feelings about a variety of Zionism’s sacred cows: I wrote openly about the ethnic cleansing that accompanied Israel’s birth and was still continuing, the troubling undercurrents of a system that institutionally privileged one ethnic group over another, the brutal crushing of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. Once I spoke out publicly on Cast Lead, you might say I felt liberated to bring my deepest, darkest concerns out into the light of day.

Mark Karlin: One of your most significant accusations, borne out in many ways by your experience in the West Bank, is that Israel is in the process of becoming an apartheid state – and that this may be the price of remaining a Jewish state. The tragic irony, of course, is that treating Palestinians as a whole as second-class people violates the Jewish tradition and values of embracing diversity and its understanding of the human condition. In essence, is there a risk of Israel only existing as a Jewish state at the price of losing its religious and secular values – its soul, so to speak?

Brant Rosen: It’s not just a potential risk; I think we’re witnessing the cost of this apartheid process every day. Even so, most Zionists are unable or unwilling to admit that this is what inevitably comes of fusing Judaism and political nationalism. But if you really consider it, how could it be otherwise? At the end of the day, how can you have a Jewish state that does not somehow treat non-Jews as “other”? That does not discriminate between Jews and non-Jews? That does not, on some level, create a system of institutional racism that privileges Jews over non-Jews?

So yes, I have personally come to the very painful realization that Jewish nation-statism comes at a very real cost to our Jewish soul – compromising sacred values that teach us that all human beings are created in the image of God, that one law must be extended to all who live on the land, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves.

Mark Karlin: Stereotyping any group of people is dangerous. In polls during peaceful periods, most Palestinians and Israelis appear to support peace. A lot of what Netanyahu appears to do is stir up the pot so that there will never be a long enough period to negotiate a peace. That’s not to excuse those in Hamas and Hezbollah who have their own motives in heating up the conflict now and then, along with other parties who have vested interests in stalling peace. When you talk of your Palestinian solidarity, some critics accuse you of abandoning Jewish solidarity and not sufficiently condemning those Arab extremists who are in the “destroy Israel” industry as much as Netanyahu is in the suppression-of-Palestinian-rights industry. How do you respond?

Brant Rosen: At the end of my book I addressed this issue directly:

As a Jew, I will also say without hesitation that I reject the view that I must choose between standing with Jews or standing with Palestinians. This is a zero-sum outlook that only serves to promote division, enmity and fear.

For me, the bottom line is this: 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.

In other words, I believe my Jewish liberation to be intrinsically bound up with Palestinian liberation. It’s really that simple.

I’ve come to believe that solidarity should ultimately be driven by values, not tribal allegiances. It should be motivated by the prophetic vision that demands that we stand with the powerless and call out the powerful. Of course, in the case of Israel, this form of solidarity presents a very painful challenge to many Jews. I understand that. But at the very least, shouldn’t we be talking about this challenge and what it represents for us?

Does my solidarity mean that I agree with everything that is done by Palestinians in furtherance of their liberation? Of course not. When you stand in solidarity with a people, it is inevitable that you will find yourself standing next to some people whose actions and beliefs you will find odious. That comes with the territory when you choose to take a stand. And I might add that this is the case for liberal Zionists who stand in solidarity with Israel as well.

Mark Karlin: You state in your book that there is a perspective in which one can frame the founding of the State of Israel in its Middle East location as an injustice, but that being said, were it realistically achievable (and that certainly appears like a long shot at the current moment), do you support a two-state solution?

Brant Rosen: Before I answer, I feel compelled to say I firmly believe the two-state solution – at least as currently defined by the powers that be – is not “realistically achievable,” if it ever was. Israel has been pursuing a West Bank settlement policy – constructing more and more settlements while evicting and resettling more and more Palestinians – with utter impunity. Anyone witnessing the actual facts on the ground has to know that Israel’s actions are making an utter mockery of the notion of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. I think it’s clear that what Israel calls a “Palestinian state” bears no resemblance to anything you or I would recognize as an actual state. I think “cantons” or “Bantustans” would be more accurate.

Hypothetically speaking, I would support a two-state solution if it afforded equal civil and human rights under the law for all who live on the land. But this discussion is fairly moot at the moment. Under current circumstances, it seems increasingly likely that it’s going to come down to a choice between two one-state solutions – that is, a choice between a Jewish apartheid state or a state of all its citizens. On this score, I would support the latter over the former without hesitation – and I would challenge anyone who purports to cherish liberal values to say they feel otherwise.

Mark Karlin: There is a new book out entitled, “Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs.” It uses recently uncovered research to detail how ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers were generally aware of the mass killing of Jews and were either enthusiastic about it, or, at best, indifferent. What is your response to those who argue that there is no safety for the Jews in the world as long as there is not a Jewish state? This is a position that one of your synagogue’s members, Boris Furman, made in a discussion you both had on WBEZ (NPR) in Chicago.

Brant Rosen: According to classical Zionist ideology, the maintenance of a Jewish state is the only way to safeguard the well-being of the Jewish people. Since the establishment of Israel, however, we’ve witnessed the exact opposite happening: the Jewish state is now the only place in the world where Jewish people feel collectively endangered. Given Theodor Herzl’s original vision, it’s tragic to consider that the Jewish state has become a kind of Jewish ghetto of its own making – an over-militarized garrison state that is literally building higher and higher walls between itself and the outside world.

I don’t discount the threats posed by global anti-Semitism for a second – but when you look at the general well-being of Jewish communities in the Diaspora, it’s hard to deny that we currently live in one of safest times for Jews in Jewish history. Nevertheless, rather than celebrate these newfound freedoms, we’re opting to remain prisoners of our own collective trauma.

While I understand this psychologically, I have to say I’m fairly disgusted by those in Israel or in the American Jewish establishment who regularly invoke the specter of “another Holocaust” at every turn. I believe these kinds of claims are historically inaccurate, politically cynical and frankly, downright dangerous.

Mark Karlin: Can you expand upon your viewpoint toward the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) in relation to Israel? For so many Jews, this is akin to crossing the line into making Israel into a pariah.

Brant Rosen: I realize that boycotts conjure up hot-button memories for Jews, but once we accept that Israel is the overwhelmingly powerful party in the equation, I think we can see the BDS movement for what it is and what it isn’t. BDS is not a weapon of the powerful against the powerless, a la the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in 1930s Germany. The Palestinian BDS call is more accurately akin to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the American civil rights movement or the divestment movement against South African apartheid. It is a form of nonviolent direct action directed by an oppressed people who seek popular support for their liberation.

The Palestinian BDS movement was founded in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups motivated by Israel’s continued refusal to comply with international law in any number of instances – and the unwillingness of international political powers to hold them to account. In other words, in the absence of political pressure to change this inequitable equation, Palestinian civil society is seeking to leverage people power.

Yes, it is enormously painful for many Jews to see Israel targeted in this way. But if Israel is becoming a pariah, that’s due largely to its own actions. Defenders of Israel complain that BDS delegitimizes Israel; I’d say that, up until now, Israel has been doing a very good job of delegitimizing itself. Israel simply cannot consider itself to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” if it insists on implementing policies that put it on the road toward apartheid.

Mark Karlin: Playing devil’s advocate, I want to return to the issue of tribalism for a moment. It seems most of us have three basic core affinity groups as humans: family, tribal identity (which is often coincident with religious identity) and nationalism. Other than the United States, which is going through a ferocious political struggle right now over whether we are a white Christian nation or a democracy of many peoples, aren’t most nations built upon one tribal (and/or religious) group or another maintaining power? In some Arab states, one faction of Islam dominates the government. So, why shouldn’t there be a Jewish state as long as we still have a world built upon the nation-state model?

Brant Rosen: I’m not sure Israel can viably claim to be part of the Western family of nations while using Saudi Arabia as a role model. And frankly, I don’t think the majority of Jews throughout would have any interest in supporting a Jewish Saudi Arabia.

I think it’s a bit reductionist to say that the world is “built upon a nation-state model.” There are many peoples throughout the world who are not organized into formal sovereign states. And in the case of the Jewish people, I’d argue that the secret of our survival over the centuries was precisely because we avoided the route of nation-statism and empire. Mighty nations have come and gone, and we’re still here. Why? Because we created a unique kind of model, namely a multicultural, multi-ethnic spiritual peoplehood without borders.

The Zionist idea, however, is a conscious rejection of this Diasporist model. Zionism sought to make the Jewish people “k’chol ha’goyim” – like all the other nations. But now that we’ve seen what Zionism has wrought, I think it’s worth asking whether or not we’ve made something of a Faustian bargain by embracing political nationalism so thoroughly.

Mark Karlin: Israel is a diverse society. The largest population group is secular Jewish. Can one distinguish between the Netenyahu government and the majority of the Israeli people? To what extent is the current Israeli government the US’s Middle East neo-con partner as compared to the population as a whole, which includes Arabs who are Israeli citizens?

Brant Rosen: I think it is always important to distinguish between a nation’s government and its people. Having said this, I think it’s fair to say that Israel’s population has been growing increasingly nationalist and religious over the past two decades or so – and that we’ll be seeing this demographic shift increasingly reflected in Israel’s policies.

Mark Karlin: What you write in “Wrestling in the Daylight” is heartfelt, the product of much anguished self-inquiry, and courageously provocative. Yet, I feel in reading your book what you are most interested in, at this time, is opening a once-forbidden door to conversation and dialogue about Israel. You are, in your own evolution, giving permission to discuss, debate a heretofore unchallengeable narrative. Is this exchange of views by extending the boundary of discussion what you hope will come out of your book?

Brant Rosen: Yes, absolutely. I am a congregational rabbi and the Jewish community is my home. I certainly hope that my writing and my activism, in some small way, might help to widen the boundary on what is considered acceptable discourse in the Jewish community on this issue. Thus far, I’m actually fairly encouraged. It’s to my congregation’s credit that they are able to countenance a rabbi like me, even if there are plenty of members who disagree with my views. And based on the discussions on my blog, I’ve found that it is indeed possible to have an honest and open exchange of views on this subject, which is clearly the most emotional and potentially incendiary issue in our community today.

I’m also old enough to remember when even the mention of a two-state solution was considered heresy in the Jewish community, so I know all too well that what is considered “acceptable discourse” is constantly shifting and evolving. That’s why I’m confident there will always be a place for annoying pests like me who are nipping at the margins of the communal conversation.

Mark Karlin: It is perhaps an impossible challenge to summarize your nuanced, thoughtful journey – your exploration of Jewish humanistic and religious tradition expressed in the book – but let’s say I were given an assignment to write a one-sentence synopsis of “Wrestling in the Daylight.” Let’s return to an earlier question and paraphrase it. Would “If the price of maintaining a Jewish state is the loss of the divine spark of humanity within the Jewish soul, it is not a price worth paying” be anywhere near that one sentence?

Brant Rosen: Wow, that’s pretty lofty. I’d settle for “A rabbi shares his ideological evolution toward Palestinian solidarity – lively conversation ensues.”

Wrestling in the Daylight” is available from the publisher’s web site.

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