Kelly Hayes talks with Rabbi Brant Rosen about anti-Semitic violence, Israeli apartheid and what it means to say Never Again in the age of Trump.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity.
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Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.
In the past week, we’ve witnessed what some have called a watershed moment as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg have all confirmed that they will not be attending the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Sanders went so far as to state that he was not attending the conference because AIPAC provides a platform for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. Meanwhile, the right-wing leadership of Israel continues to perpetrate crimes against the Palestinian people, while our own right-wing government continues to cultivate a climate of hatred that imperils Jewish people in the United States. Last week, we also saw political pundit Chris Matthews apologize amid public outcry about comments Mathews made comparing Sanders’s victory in Nevada to the Nazi invasion of France.
Accusations of anti-Semitism have often been weaponized to defend Israeli government against critics who have condemned Israel’s war crimes against the Palestinian people and the country’s illegal occupation of the West Bank. Debates about what constitutes anti-Semitism are nothing new. But in the era of Trump, spelling out these distinctions and figuring out what solidarity with Jewish people really looks like is imperative.
Anti-Semitic violence made headlines toward the end of 2019, with multiple high profile attacks garnering headlines, including a machete attack at a rabbi’s home during Hanukkah. While those attacks put anti-Semitic violence front and center in the media, anti-Semitic incidents have become increasingly common in the United States. Between 2014 and 2018, the US saw a 40 percent jump in reported anti-Semitic attacks. Given that those numbers only reflect cases that were reported to the FBI, the actual increase could be much higher.
As bigoted violence against Jewish people escalates, we have also seen the rise of Jewish solidarity efforts to stop Trump’s internment of migrants as well as the BDS movement. Today’s interview is a discussion I had with Rabbi Brant Rosen in the wake of December’s deadly attacks. Brant is an author, activist and Truthout contributor who has been an active and vocal defender of the rights of migrants and of the Palestinian people. This is a complicated subject, and I hope you’ll find Brant’s insights as helpful and hopeful as I do.
I most recently talked with Brant when we were both sitting shiva at the family home of Truthout’s editor-in-chief Maya Schenwar. Brant had just led a memorial service for Maya’s sister Keeley, who passed away last month at the age of 29. Maya is one of my dearest friends, and I’ll have more to say about Keeley’s passing soon, but for now, I just want to send my love to Maya, her family and all of Keeley’s friends. Overdoses are an epidemic, and to fight that epidemic, we are going to have to destroy the carceral system that reinforces it. For now, I just want to say that this episode is dedicated to Keeley Schenwar, her family, friends and loved ones. We are with you, and we will fight for a world where this tragedy is unthinkable.
Our guest today is a long-time activist and author of the book Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity. He’s also a Truthout contributor and someone I’m proud to call a friend. Brant Rosen, welcome to the show.
Brant Rosen: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Kelly.
KH: I’m so thrilled to have you here because it’s easy for people to simplify what’s happening in the U.S. in terms of anti-Semitism and that over-simplification can be dangerous. What have you seen in terms of how this violence is being discussed?
BR: Well, it’s being discussed on a variety of levels, and, to my mind, most of them unhelpful. I think we’re hearing on the far-right level, of course — the alt-right, white supremacists, neo-Nazi, whatever you want to call them, the movement that has been emboldened and encouraged by Donald Trump, of course — we’re seeing great satisfaction at this upsurge of anti-Semitism. And, really, I think the key to understanding it from my point of view is that this is a resurgence of white supremacy that we’re seeing. I think it’s very important to understand anti-Semitism within a white supremacist framework, within a structural framework.
And I think what we’re seeing with the recent violence in New York, which has largely been perpetrated by African-Americans. We’re seeing now in quarters that I believe should know better, even many liberal or left-leaning quarters. We’re seeing reconsideration of the structural analysis, people reconsidering whether or not there is this separate thing called Black anti-Semitism that we need to be aware of or concerned about alongside white supremacy. And that I find very dangerous and kind of insidious. I think it’s very, very important to understand that anti-Semitism as we know it today is something that has been generated by and propagated by, structurally, a racist white supremacist movement in the United States and in the world. And anything that gets in the way of us understanding that I think will put us all in danger, whether we’re Jews or people of color or any disenfranchised people, frankly.
KH: Can you say a bit more about the ways that Black anti-Semitism is being framed right now?
BR: Well, one thing that I think is very unhelpful is that there is this conflation with so-called “left anti-Semitism,” anti-Semitism on the left, with anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic acts that are being propagated by individual African-Americans. And that’s something that, I think, the right is very gleeful about, because they are using this as kind of a cudgel against those on the left who have been trying to help create an awareness that anti-Semitism is really part and parcel of white supremacy. I think it’s also important to factor in the Israel lobby and Israel advocates and the government of Israel who are trying very, very hard to create this narrative that the most important anti-Semitism that we need to be aware of is anti-Zionism and the BDS movement specifically. The government of Israel and the professional Israel lobby are spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars to promote this narrative that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic, and of course, we’re seeing criminalization of BDS on local and state and national levels.
KH: I think it makes complete sense and I think it’s imperative that we are unflinchingly critical about what’s being thrown at us by politicians in the media right now, because nothing that we are hearing from the right is bound by logic or reason or even reality. And we’re also faced with an administration that is fueling anti-Semitism by stoking white nationalist violence in general while also waging war on immigrants in this country. Stephen Miller, who is Jewish himself, has played a key role in those attacks. Can you speak to some of the contradictions that are at work on this messy political terrain?
BR: Yes, I’m kind of ashamed to say that Steven Miller actually grew up in the synagogue that I grew up in, in Los Angeles, and I can only say that, speaking Jewishly and speaking for many Jews around the world, he’s a huge disappointment to us. (laughs) So it’s, I think, with the rise of Trumpism and with the Trump administration, and his encouragement of white nationalists, and really not only encouraging, but really using the white nationalist sector as an important part of his base, his political base from which he gets an important political support, we are seeing anti-Semitism, and violent anti-Semitism, unleashed in ways that we haven’t seen — I mean, I personally haven’t seen in my lifetime. You know, when a gunman goes into a synagogue, with semi-automatic machine guns and guns down Jewish worshipers and kills 11 people in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue — I mean, that was something I’m still, frankly, trying to wrap myself around and recover from.
I never- and maybe it’s naive on my part, I never thought I would live to see that level of anti-Semitism by a gunman who was an avowed, white nationalist and for whom Trump was not going far enough. And we’ve seen other similar deadly attacks as well.
And it’s clear to me that- well, a few things are clear to me. One is that, because he needs this sector as part of his political base, that has given rise to this form of anti-Semitism. But I think another part of his base is the Israel lobby and the evangelical Christian Zionist lobby, or Zionist movement, that put Israel and Zionism at the center of their political identity, and their political raison d’etre. So, you know, that brings in many Jews. Many Jews who, when I say people like Stephen Miller are a great disappointment, that’s a sort of a cynical way of saying that, for these Jews, for whom Zionism and support of the state of Israel, the colonial settler state of Israel, at all costs, are really, I believe, part and parcel of aiding and abetting this unleashing of this new anti-Semitism. And of course, it’s not only anti-Semitism, it’s racism across the board. And you know, mentioning what’s going on at the border and Stephen Miller, in addition to being a die hard, far-right Zionist, is also the architect of Trump’s policy at the border, which is founded similarly in racism and nativist ideas.
And I think all of these things are connected, which leads me to conclude, as I try to say almost every time I write about this or post about this, that the true answer to what we’re seeing is solidarity. Solidarity among, of the affected parties, including Jews, including white Jews. That we need to understand that this is a threat to all of us and the only way we’re going to truly be able address it and combat it properly is if we stand together.
KH: Stephen Miller is a big fan of The Camp of the Saints, in which governments are ridiculed for their unwillingness to perform acts of genocide to stem the flow of immigration. Steve Bannon is also, unsurprisingly, a big fan of that book. Have you read Camp of the Saints by any chance?
BR: I haven’t, no, unfortunately. I know a little bit about it, but…
KH: Well. Good for you that you haven’t read it.
KH: I spend a lot of time diving into this kind of content, researching fascism and white supremacist violence as a native person, as a queer person, as a journalist and an activist. I spent a lot of time feeling concerned for my communities and how we can stay safe. And I think one of the areas where we have fallen short is understanding who we’re up against because I think there’s this general call that’s kind of out there that, “we just need to call them all white supremacists. We need to lump them all together.” And morally, I certainly agree, but strategically, I think we have not taken the time to understand the many faces and the many functions of these groups and these people and what their agendas are.
I think there’s also this issue that comes up about explicit versus implicit racism, and that’s something I’ve come across a lot in my work. It’s kind of hard for us as marginalized people to grasp the difference as it’s happening because it just feels like, okay, well, it’s always been a bigoted country. We’ve always experienced these things, and when people try to single out recent events that have happened, they have to get pretty bad before people are willing to acknowledge that yes, things are getting worse. And sometimes I feel like we don’t want to insult the people who have endured so much in the past.
We don’t want to minimize what we have seen and experienced. We don’t want to be ahistorical in trying to make something seem unprecedented, but at the same time to do temp check on where we are in a fight, not just for liberation, but for our survival. We need to look at the difference between dog whistles and more explicit racism.
Right now, I think we’re seeing those ideologies play out very successfully on their own terms without enough ideological interruption from people who are bothering to parse the differences or the complexities of it all. But circling back to resistance efforts, I remember that last year you were one of a few dozen clergy who were arrested at the Southern border just after Hanukkah in 2018 and I remember being moved at the time by the comparison you made between what you saw of the militarism at the border and what you had experienced in solidarity with folks in Palestine. Could you say a bit about that to our listeners?
BR: Sure. So first of all, I want to say I completely agree with what you’re saying. and I think there’s a real danger in exceptionalizing the most recent violence. It’s coming out of the Trump moment, you know, and seeing it as somehow aberrant and not understanding how this is emerging from something that’s very foundational to this country and to many other colonial societies as well. And making that connection, I totally agree, is not only important strategically or from an analysis point of view, but from a moral point of view. And we need to drive that home over and over.
In terms of my own participation in the Palestine solidarity movement — for a number of years now, I’ve been involved with this movement and in various ways, both here and connecting with allies and groups in Palestine as well. I’ve had experience in Palestine and participating in direct actions where we came into contact with the Israeli military very directly.
One specific one, I think the one you’re referring to, was in Hebron, which we were participating with youth against the settlements in Hebron among other groups. And it was scary, as these actions often are. It was the first time I had ever been involved in an action where I was literally going up against actual soldiers — although I think the difference these days between militarized police departments and actual soldier, soldiers of a government, is getting, you know, that the difference is getting rather negligible, I suppose — but at the time it was very scary.
I was also aware though, that I had a certain amount of privilege as a Jewish person, as a white Jewish person. It was very clear to me that the people most at risk in that action were the Palestinians first, and then the Israelis second, and that we, it was very clear to us that we were not being treated as harshly, scary as it was.
But coming up against that level of militarism was, and is, very sobering. And it was unlike anything I had experienced in similar actions here in the United States — until that action on the Tijuana border. And, again, it’s not easy for me to confess when my own naivete — but going into that action, which was organized through a variety of different groups, I was there both representing Jewish Voice for Peace, which is an organization I’ve been involved with for a long time, and also American Friends Service Committee, which is a primary organizer of the action who has a program at the Tijuana border. And at the time, I was a staff person for American Friends Service. So I was there in both of those capacities. We went through our training as is customary when you’re doing a direct action, civil disobedience, and there were hundreds of us and we felt a certain amount of strength in numbers. And I was somewhat familiar with what this was all about.
And then we came up against the border police at the border, and there were those of us who actually were on the front line and had agreed to take arrest. It completely — I immediately flashed back to my experience in Hebron. I mean, the ferocity of their presence, holding their submachine guns in front of them, they had tear gas canisters that I was very familiar with that are manufactured in Pennsylvania and are used in Palestine as well as increasingly on the border and in many urban areas around the country.
And I immediately flashed on my experience in Hebron and for me, in addition to it being– and I will say it was the roughest I’d ever been treated in an action, even when we were going up against the military in Hebron, I was shocked at how manhandled we were, how violently we were treated. And again, I want to, with the caveat that we went in there with a fair amount of privilege, which is why we are trying to leverage that on the front line of this action. But in addition to the fearfulness of that moment, it really was a clarifying moment to me, seeing those border policeman standing in line in front of us, we were going up against the same structural system that I had experienced in Palestine, and that I am sure exists, that I know exists around the world. And that was something I felt, if I had to write about anything from that experience, it was that connection.
KH: Well, thank you for that. That brings up a number of things for me. But first, I’m not sure if all our listeners would yet be familiar with the term direct action. Do you think you could quickly describe what those words mean to you in your experience?
BR: Sure. Although, you know, I’m sure you could do a much better job than I, Kelly, you have much more experience at this, but I can base it on my own experience. I’m speaking as someone who’s been involved in these actions, has been trained in these actions, but I’m not a teacher and a direct action teacher- trainer. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the word, trainer, such as yourself. So I can speak to my own experience, and I’m sure you could say much, much more about it. Direct action involves nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience that is used strategically to leverage people power to go up against structural power, if you will.
KH: And what did that look like for you as you were preparing for that action along the border?
BR: Well, so, we engaged in two days of preparation, and this was a call- and this was also unusual, it was really a call from around the country, almost around the world, really, for those of us who were participating. So it was a very extensive training, and it involved learning from the affected population in border communities, who are living in militarized border communities, about what their reality is, so that we could truly understand the impact of militarization on these communities.
So it’s quite complex. and the reason behind that is really that we want to be effective and we don’t want to do more damage to what’s already a very fraught situation. In this case, in the case of the border, it was plan, probably F. I mean, I don’t think any of us expected that level of violence against the demonstrators and so there was, in fact, it had to be some improvising done on behalf of some of the organizers. And the lead, one of the lead organizers was actually targeted by the border police, and was the most violently treated and was actually incarcerated overnight and was at the risk of being charged with a federal felony, for a period of time. So the ferocity of their response, but something that we knew could happen, but I think it was not something that we expected to happen.
KH: Well, thank you for that. I think that’s very helpful explanation for our listeners. And as someone who does the work of facilitating direct action workshops and has organized a lot of protests over the years, I can say with certainty that almost none of them go down like plan A and the vast majority of them go down something like plan F. I think it’s always good for people to hear about that tactical preparation that goes into protests.
But since this was an action carried out by clergy, y’all had some amount of spiritual preparation as well, didn’t you?
BR: So a number of the clergy were on the front line, and actually, prayer was an integral part of the action. So we, when we approached the border fence, which is, there’s sort of a, buffer zone that we weren’t able to get right to the fence. But, there was razor wire along the beach that was the closest we could get. And we, had prepared an interfaith service, in which we said prayers on behalf of the community and those who had been, those who are being detained, those who have been deported and their families. And when we spoke to the border police, we said that we are here to engage in a prayerful action, that this is a religious ceremony, and that what we are doing was rooted in a spiritual intention. So we went through with the ceremony as we had planned, although it was fairly rushed because they clearly were not going to allow us the time or the space to do it as we had prepared it.
As a Jew and as a rabbi, I’m a member of the clergy. This was a defining part of the action because it was an interfaith call. The rooting of civil disobedience as a religious act, as a religious imperative, is something that’s very motivating to me, and many of my colleagues.
KH: Obviously. I want to circle back to something you’ve emphasized about solidarity, and solidarity being the only way forward, the only way that we can all hope to keep our communities safe. So, in addition to the kind of protests and these large acts we can take publicly in order to declare that we’re in solidarity, in order to sort of build that united front in that united energy, what can everyday people be doing in our day-to-day lives? What do we need to be doing to be good allies to Jewish folks who are being targeted right now by anti-Semitic attacks?
BR: That kind of solidarity happens, I guess, on a number of different levels. The first thing that I would say is, if you have Jewish friends, or colleagues or acquaintances of any kind and something like this happens, reaching out to them personally is enormously important. And letting them know that you are with them and that you stand with them and grieve with them. I think to the extent that folks are able to make those gestures publicly as well, is enormously important. And it’s really almost a discipline. I mean, these kinds of attacks, for instance, on the Muslim communities have been happening and happening for quite awhile. And, you know, God forbid when these things happen and they do happen. I’ve always made a point of literally calling up on the phone all of my Muslim friends, after there’s been a shooting at a mosque or some, some heinous act toward the community, and letting them know that I’m thinking of them, that I stand with them.
And that kind of thing is just enormously heartening and very, very important. Just on the interpersonal level of solidarity, I think can’t be overstated. I think it’s also solidarity in addition to the interpersonal level. I think there is a level of education and acquiring analysis, that’s important as well, and understanding what are the root causes of this kind of violence and what it is and what it’s not. And not jumping to conclusions about what the media might be reporting or what more odious folks out there might be saying about what the causes of this violence are or what we need to do to be able to combat it.
So, I think that’s an enormous part of what solidarity means in general is internal education and finding ways to learn together what are the causes of this kind of oppression and what we need to do together to be able to address it and to dismantle it ultimately.
KH: I want to talk a bit about the Jewish activism that we have seen in the face of detention and family separation.
There’s been a lot of great work from groups like If Not Now, forming barricades outside of ICE detention centers. Can you say a bit about what the effect has been on overall organizing, these bonds that are being formed, these historical connections that are being drawn, in order to do the work of direct action, do you think that’s building something that’s going to be helpful to us in the long term?
BR: Oh, absolutely. And it’s enormously encouraging. From a Jewish point of view, this new movement that you’re referring to — and it’s largely being directed by young folks, young Jews, who aren’t buying the same narrative that the Jewish community has been promoting for the last several decades. It just doesn’t work anymore. It’s increasingly not working.
And this is a narrative I was raised with myself. I mean, you know, and it’s a post-Holocaust narrative. It’s a narrative that, this genocide against the Jews was something that was unique in history and there is this unique, insidious form of hatred that affects Jews alone, and that the only way that we can address it is, we can only depend on ourselves. And that when we use the words “never again,” it means we are never again going to allow this to happen to us. We’re never going to go like sheep to the slaughter, which is the unfortunate term that’s often used.
And so that siloing and that cocooning is something that — I mean, I’m very aware of its dynamics in the Jewish community because it’s rooted in trauma and it’s rooted in very real historical experience. And I know it because I was raised with it myself, you know, I listened to — my parents grew up during the Holocaust and I grew up hearing – they were children, but they were well aware it was going on. And they experienced a great deal of anti-Semitism as children in this country growing up in the forties. And so I inherited that. I sort of imbibed to that and many Jews of my generation did as well. And we projected that narrative onto Israel. Israel is this militarized nation, Jewish nation state is what’s going to keep Jews safe.
So I’m sure every community has its own story to tell about the ways in which there are forces that promote siloing, and shutting off, from the kind of solidarity we were talking about before. If there’s a lesson that we need to learn from the Holocaust, if there’s any one primary lesson, “never again” means “never again for anyone.”
Now, of course, comparing what Israel is doing to the Nazis is a fraught thing to do, and there are many definitions of anti-Semitism that will say that what I just said was actually anti-Semitic. And again, what I would say is, I think , there are differences and there are commonalities, and those commonalities are real. When you use state violence to oppress another people and when those people are dehumanized and are seen as a problem to be dealt with militarily, I think that’s a very important commonality between what Israel is doing and what Germany was doing in the 1930s.
So never again for everyone is something that young people completely understand and it’s very, very — it’s getting harder and harder for Israel and Israel advocates to explain away what’s going on. And so IfNotNow, who you refer to, which is an organizing movement that’s largely generated by young people, and now we’re seeing kind of a semi-offshoot of that called Never Again Movement, which is specifically a young Jewish movement that is organizing direct action against what’s going on at the border, and against ICE and those affiliated with ICE.
Even calling it Never Again is a very, very explicit rejoinder to the siloing Jewish community of their parents and grandparents generation. And I think, you know, I think history is on our side. I think this is the direction of the Jewish community.
So I take heart in that. What I worry about, and I often say this, is that I think we have history on our side, but I wonder if we have time on our side. And that might be the subject of a whole ‘nother podcast, but, yeah. Yeah. But this transformation is very real. This is what I’m trying to say.
KH: You mentioned time, and is time on our side? And isn’t that the most horrifying question? Because we all know that it isn’t, we all know that. Time is against us when it comes to fighting environmental collapse.
We know that time is against us as fascism continues to build power here and around the world. So living in that urgency and trying to evaluate what the moment demands of us, it’s really difficult because the status quo is pushing us really hard to feel like everything can stay the same. And that’s because a system is trying to maintain itself. You know, it’s really not looking at what’s best for each of us, so much as sustaining the system itself, and that requires our cooperation. It requires us to act like everything is normal for as long as possible.
And when I think about, what are we really being called to do right now? I’m reminded of a piece that Maya Schenwar and I wrote last year about prison organizers and the level of solidarity that they have to form to carry out things like prison strikes in spite of some very heavy adversarial relationships that exist in those environments. The torturous conditions of the prison system itself have to be the focus. And if folks aren’t able to do that, then they really aren’t able to organize for change. And I feel like there’s so much that we need to learn from that, from people who are experiencing a level of surveillance that is beyond anything that we’ve experienced on people who are controlled more tightly than most of us have ever been controlled.
That’s what fascism feels like. And I think we really need to look to the people who already know what that looks and feels like and already know what it is to struggle in spite of it and who know how to put differences aside long enough to try to stay alive and maybe fight another day. And I think that as we lose more and more control of our role in a political process that wants control to rest with billionaires and politicians, we will see more of these things like the militarization of police.
We will see more heightened surveillance – like it’s already happening. The conditions to prevent us from course-correcting are being imposed right now. And I don’t think that people necessarily understand that. And I definitely don’t think that we are reacting with the ferocity that we ought to be to some of these things that are going down, but I think people are really, really afraid.
I think people are afraid of processing what the moment demands of them. I think they’re afraid that what they do won’t matter. I think they’re afraid of letting themselves imagine how things might play out. And you know, that’s difficult. And it’s a hard thing to ask anyone of in this moment to really stare down everything we’re up against and to have enough hope to act anyway.
And I was taught that hope is a discipline and you know that we have to insure it for others, that we don’t have the right to give up on other people, that we don’t have the right to stop cultivating hope. And as someone who feels very strongly about that, I just want to ask you as we wind things down here, what gives you hope?
BR: Well, first of all, I mean, I want to say I completely agree. I found what you just said, so spot on. And so, so, profound. When I worked for American Friends Service Committee, we did prison work. And we have, there’s a wonderful program in Michigan, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, that does amazing work. And most of the staff and volunteers are formerly incarcerated people.
And you know, one of the things I learned by overseeing that project and that program was that in order to do what they do, they have to go, you know, they have to go in, they have to go to the belly of the beast and confront what’s going on. And, as you say, feel that hurt. How there’s no other way but in, and some of the most important organizers on that issue are formerly incarcerated people. They’re just incredible mentors of mine, and as you were talking, I was, until you mentioned it, I was thinking, yes, global climate emergency, when we’re talking about feeling like we don’t have time on our side, and that feeling like it’s just all such a jumble and what can we do? And, where do we find hope?
These are all key, critical questions. And you know, I will say, Kelly, that you’re one of my teachers on this as well. You know, the willingness to name that we, that this pain is real and we need to feel that pain, is so important, and also say the unthinkable, which is, you know, we might not make it. The odds are really, really tall against us, and we need to say that out loud. And you know, my – this last high holidays, I gave a sermon, about this very issue. It was framed around climate emergency, but it was really about how do we find hope and seeing it in such a seemingly hopeless time. And I actually ended with words of yours. Something to the extent of, you know, are you anti-fascist? Are you, you know, anti-oppression, are you fighting for justice? Then if you are, you need to know that none of these people throughout history ever had the odds on their side. And that, that to me is an important realization that we need to be honest and upfront about that, but that we need to find ways to struggle together. And the meaning, and the hope is not just in the victory because there’s no ultimate victory, really. There’s lots of victories along the way, and there’s also setbacks along the way, and that’s how it’s always been. And the meaning comes from the struggle itself.
Struggle is painful, but struggle is also joyful. It needs to be, or it’s not gonna work. And being able to find meaning in and love and joy in that struggle and being able to promote a vision of the world that sees struggle, not just as hard work and often just setback after setback, but actually, it’s a way we build community. It’s the way we build, meaning it’s a way we activate love in the world and it’s a way we generate hope. I mean, that for me is a primary place where hope is found is by the camaraderie that comes from the struggle itself.
You know, I’ll just say very briefly in my new congregation, Tzedek Chicago, which is five years old, is a justice-focused, intentional Jewish congregation. And when we first started, we, when we get together on our Sabbath on Friday night, our services tended to be exhausting cause we just talked about the struggle and we would actually use the service to organize around specific issues. And it occurred to me pretty early on that this wasn’t what people needed or what people wanted. You know, most of the people who belonged to our congregation are involved in that struggle every day. And they’re coming on the Sabbath on Shabbat to be rejuvenated, to get the hope you were asking about. And early on in building this community, one of the things I realized that the function of Shabbat needs to be is about allowing ourselves this 24-hour period to live in the world that we’re fighting for. That’s how we frame it. That we’re going to create that world for each other, which is, I would argue with Shabbat has always been, frankly. It’s in Judaism, it’s called Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. And it’s not just something that we pray for on Shabbat, It’s something we live in. And there’s all kinds of traditional laws that have been prescribed throughout history about what that means.
But the bottom line, at it’s essence means we’re going to cease the work of the last week, which is the struggle for justice and liberation. And we are going to inspire one another and live in that world just for this period of time, so that when we go back into it on Saturday night and Sunday, and when it’s over, we will be all the more replenished, and able to engage in that struggle anew.
And for me, and I suspect for you as well, that’s really where the hope comes from is, finding joy in the struggle and finding love in that struggle, no matter where it may lead us because we don’t know, you know, there are no guarantees. There’s only this work that we have before us.
KH: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more and it always makes me feel reassured when people are discussing organizing and resisting oppression as a way of living, as something that matters, regardless of how things turn out, because I think you’re very right. I think that not understanding that is one of the barriers that people have to taking action. When we talk about historical movements, I don’t think that people really understand that the work of folks who lived and died without seeing their justice realized, it’s not just valuable because later on, other people took up the cause and won the day.
I really think we need to understand the value of living in struggle of having a purposeful existence amid disastrous circumstances and the fight against chatel slavery in the United States would have been worthwhile even if slavery was never abolished. And I think that people really need to think through these historical examples and the way in which we imbue legitimacy. Just treating something like it’s worthwhile because it is morally worthwhile is not something people are used to doing in this country. It’s all contingent on victory on whether we win or we lose. And I feel pretty strongly that living this way, having a sense of purpose, choosing to pursue collective liberation in concert with other people.
I think that these things can be ends in themselves. I don’t think that we should become insular or treat activism as some kind of, you know, haven we don’t want to leave, like a clubhouse where we don’t take action. We just kind of, you know, vote people off the island who don’t get it and feel good about our shared values. Obviously we don’t want to do that, but, I think that if there are folks who are being persecuted because of their immigration status, I think them looking out the window and seeing people protesting for their freedom, seeing that there are people who are demanding that their humanity be respected. I think win, lose or draw, that’s an end in itself. I think that solidarity as an expression of who we are as people and what human potential could be. I really think that we need to start seeing these things as not simply a means to an end, but a way to live in our own power and in our own values.
And you know, to not be willing to surrender any of that, to not let that be cheapened by the fact that this world does not always yield to what’s right. And honestly, I feel – I feel very deeply for people who are not involved in community work or activism of some kind folks who haven’t found that home yet among like-minded folks who are trying to really save us all from all of these things that are happening.
I would have a very hard time getting out of bed in the morning if not for the wide community of folks I know who are also making themselves get out of bed. In spite of everything that’s happening, of finding hope within themselves of finding hope and the people around them so that we’re not just sort of dangling threads. You know, people kind of lost in this scary situation. But when we weave ourselves together into a fabric, we are strong. We have the power to endure, and. I want that for people. I want that for our listeners. And that’s one of the things we’re trying to accomplish with this podcast is just bringing into people’s headphones and into their cars, some knowledge, some hope, an idea of what it could look like to build towards the things that we all want to have happen. And, in the worst case, if we can’t get there to figure out what justice looks like in our own communities, in our own spaces, in our own homes and to live in that together, and to know that come what may, that means something. I can’t think of anything more comforting than prefiguring the world I want to believe in and being surrounded by people who believe it’s possible and are committed to its possibility.
It’s such a difficult time in history and having a sense of purpose and having people to share it with, I’m forever grateful for it. And I’m so grateful for you, Brant, and I’m grateful for the role that you play in community, bringing people together around these issues, bringing your spiritual guidance, these protests that you’ve been involved in. So I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you. I know a lot of us are moving through these spaces and we don’t necessarily take the time to stop and tell each other that, you know, you think what someone’s doing is really important and amazing.
So, you know, I just want to let you know, I think what you’re doing is important and amazing and I really appreciate you being on the show with us today.
BR: Thank you, Kelly. And likewise, your work and your writing has provided a great deal of hope for me, and I know for many, many people, to be able to clarify in ways that you just said so, so beautifully, why this work is not only important, but is an essential way to live, you know? Absolutely, I mean, all I can say is amen.
KH: So, as we exit here, I just want to quickly ask is there any ask that you would like to extend to our listeners?
BR: You know, I think apropos of what we’ve just been talking about, what I will say, my ask is, and this might be the hardest ask of all, because there’s a lot of despair by otherwise well-meaning, progressive minded folks.
Just a great deal of despair that, you know, what can one person do? What can I do? Things are just so horribly, you know, fucked up. If I have one ask, it really would be what we’ve just been talking about, which is, try to use that pain as a conduit for connection to other people who are experiencing pain that aren’t, that don’t look like you.
That, that are in the same community as you. You know, people may already have, may well already, maybe already have friends in those communities, and it could happen just on the interpersonal level that I was talking about before. Just reaching out and letting people know that you’re there for them. it could happen on a larger level and learning about the different organizing initiatives that are, that are going on in cities around, in communities around the country, and finding out ways that you can become a more active part of that joyful struggle that we’ve been talking about. but the first step is, I guess if there’s an ask is for people to realize that they’re, that, that there is a pathway beyond that despair. There is hope beyond that despair. I know that sounds very Pollyanna-ish. But I think that’s really the essential first step. I think that’s an excellent step. And again, thank you for being here and for that important homework assignment, because I think it’s, I think it’s when we all ought to be doing
BR: Thanks Kelly. It’s been an honor.
KH: It’s been great talking to you Brant, and I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. Remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you on the streets.
Music: La Luna, by Son Monarcas