A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity!
Sonja Karkar of Australians for Palestine writes:
Below is an excerpt from Rabbi Brant Rosen’s new book. It is a record of his journey from liberal Zionist to Palestinian solidarity activist. Along the way he has grappled with issues that have elicited heated debate from his congregants and his readers – something he is glad about because he says “we simply must find a way to widen the limits of public discourse on Israel/Palestine, no matter how painful the prospect.”
In it you will find discussions about the growing campaign for BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – and whether it is anti-Semitic; Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and whether it constitutes apartheid; and whether the founding of Israel is based on an injustice. His own growing realisation of the terrible injustice that has been done and continues to be done to the Palestinians is something that he covered up with the usual plea for “peace and coexistence” until Israel’s ferocious attack on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, left him in no doubt that “this is not about security at all – this is about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. Once I admitted this to myself, I realized how utterly tired I had become. Tired of trying to excuse the inexcusable. Tired of using torturous, exhausting rationalizations to explain away what I really knew in my heart was sheer and simple oppression.”
If a rabbi can come to this conclusion beyond any shadow of doubt, then our political and religious leaders really need to search their own consciences and stop talking about the conflict as if it is between two equal protagonists – it is most definitely not and never has been – and move on from the long compromised “peace process” based on a two state solution that was doomed from the moment the Oslo accords were signed. We may not be able to make good the cumulative injustices suffered by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have died in exile and under occupation, but we must begin to make reparations to the generations who bear still festering wounds and new ones of this monumental human catastrophe.
Wrestling in the daylight -
A rabbi’s path to Palestinian solidarity
by Brant Rosen
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
— Genesis 32:25
This well-known Biblical episode leaves behind tantalizing questions. Who is the mysterious “man” with whom Jacob wrestles? What is his identity, and where did he come from? One popular interpretation suggests that the night stranger with whom Jacob struggles at this critical moment is none other than Jacob himself—perhaps his alter ego or his shadow self.
But why must the wrestling match necessarily take place at night? Why does the night stranger say so desperately to Jacob in the next verse, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking?” Perhaps this detail is teaching us that our deepest struggles invariably occur in the most private of places. After all, whenever we publicly wrestle with our deepest dilemmas, doubts, or fears, we take a very real risk. That’s why we tend to engage in our most challenging struggles internally—“in the dead of night.” This book is, among other things, a record of the moment I personally began to wrestle in the daylight. It documents a two-year period during which I publicly struggled, as a congregational rabbi, with one of the most difficult and painfully divisive issues facing the American Jewish community.
* * *
I’ve identified deeply with Israel for most of my life. I first visited at a very young age and have been back to visit more times than I can even count.
In my early twenties, I spent two years there studying, working, and living on kibbutzim. I have family members and many dear friends who live in Israel. My Jewish identity has been profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. The redemptive nature of this narrative has at times assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older.
Politically speaking, I’ve identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I’ve long been inspired by Israel’s Labor Zionist origins, and I’ve generally aligned myself with positions advocated by the Israeli left and the Israeli peace movement. When it came to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, I’d invariably intone a familiar refrain of liberal Zionists: “It’s complicated.”
If I found myself occasionally troubled by ill-advised or even unjust Israeli policies, I tended to view them as “blemishes” on an otherwise stable democracy and a noble national project. At the end of the day, I understood the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land. In the end, the only viable, equitable solution would be its division into two states for two peoples.
Over the years, however, I confess, I struggled with nagging, gnawing doubts over the tenets of this liberal Zionist narrative. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay—for the most part—I was never able to successfully silence them. I experienced the earliest of these doubting voices when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, unleashing a shocking degree of military firepower that shook my naive “David vs. Goliath” assumptions to their core.
Several years later, the voices grew even louder as I witnessed the brutality with which Israel put down the nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations of the First Intifada. And they grew more insistent still when I began to witness firsthand the darker truths of Israel’s oppressive occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Truth be told, however, if I was troubled by these things, it was less out of concern for the well-being or safety of Palestinians per se than it was the tribal notion that the occupation was “corrupting Israel’s soul” and endangering Israel’s future existence as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
Like many liberal Zionists, I dealt with such concerns by retreating to the safety of political pedagogy: These troubling realities simply proved to us all the more that we needed to redouble our efforts toward the peace process and an eventual two-state solution.
When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my political views—particularly when it came to Israel/Palestine. Given the ideological centrality of Zionism in the American Jewish community, my inner conflicts over Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians now carried very real professional consequences. Rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel. Congregational rabbis in particular take a very real professional risk when they criticize Israel publicly. To actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians would be tantamount to communal heresy.
Shortly after I was ordained, I began reading the newly published English translations of Israel’s “New Historians”—important scholars, such as Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Avi Shalim, and Ilan Pappe—who exposed the darker truths about the establishment of the Jewish state and the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem. These books had a powerful, even radicalizing, impact upon me. I became increasingly struck by the sheer injustice that accompanied Israel’s birth, an injustice that was not only historical but, as I was coming to believe, still very much present and ongoing.
From here, I began to entertain difficult questions about the ethnic nationalism at the heart of Zionism—and became more and more troubled that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state was entirely dependent upon the maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. In the United States, the very suggestion of a “demographic time bomb” (an oft-used term used by liberal Zionists to advocate the critical importance of a two-state solution) would be considered incorrigibly racist. In my more unguarded moments, I’d ask myself: Why, then, do we bandy this concept about so freely when it pertains to the Jewish state?
Despite the questions, I nevertheless found a safe and comfortable home in liberal Zionism for the first decade of my rabbinate, affiliating with such organizations as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and J Street. All the while, the gnawing voices continued. Although I shared the elation of many at the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, my optimism was short-lived. In due time, Israel expanded its settlement regime over the Palestinian territories, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and the Clinton-brokered peace talks at Camp David crashed and burned.
When the horrors of the Second Intifada began in the fall of 2000, I dealt with my anguish through a carefully cultivated avoidance of the Israel/Palestine issue. Whenever I addressed the subject in writings or sermons, it was usually with a vague but essentially substance-free plea for “peace and coexistence” on both sides. I would mourn the loss of life for both peoples and advocate redoubling our efforts at a peace process I increasingly feared was empty at the core.
Israel’s second military campaign in Lebanon during the summer of 2006 jolted me temporarily out of my avoidance. As I read and watched another military bombardment of Beirut—and my e-mail inbox filled up with Jewish Federation blasts exhorting me to support the Israel Emergency Campaign—I was deeply saddened that my community showed precious little concern about the sheer magnitude of the violence Israel was unleashing yet again against the people of Lebanon. Although I certainly felt compassion for—along with a certain tribal solidarity with—the citizens of Northern Israel suffering under Hezbollah rocket fire, I was unable to accept the utter destruction the IDF was inflicting upon Lebanon in the name of national security. Still, I kept my silence. The pressure to present a united Jewish communal front during a time of war still trumped my own inner struggle.
In October 2006, I started a keeping a blog I called Shalom Rav. (The title is a pun: Shalom rav, or “abundant peace,” is the name of a well-known Jewish prayer—but the Hebrew can also be taken to mean “hello, Rabbi.”) At the time, my intention was simply to hold forth on anything or everything I thought to be worthy of sharing over the blogosphere. As a congregational rabbi serving in Evanston, Illinois, I also thought it would be an effective way for my congregants to hear more regularly from their rabbi.
Because social action had always played an important role in my rabbinate, I intended to devote a significant percentage of my blog posts to current issues of social justice and human rights. As a result, a reader perusing Shalom Rav in those early years could read my thoughts on subjects as wide-ranging and diverse as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fair-trade coffee, torture at Guantánamo, poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, and human rights in Darfur. Soon, however, the focus of my blog changed dramatically.
* * *
On December 28, 2008, I read the first news report of Israel’s military assault on Gaza—a campaign that would soon be well-known as Operation Cast Lead. On the first day of operations, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Hamas security facilities in Gaza, killing more than 225 people, most of whom were new police cadets participating in a graduation ceremony. Numerous civilians, including children, were also among the dead. By the end of the day, it was clear we were only witnessing the beginning of a much longer and even more violent military campaign that would drive much farther into Gaza.
I remember reading this news with utter anguish. At the same, oddly enough, I realized that I was finally observing this issue with something approaching true clarity: This is not about security at all—this is about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. Once I admitted this to myself, I realized how utterly tired I had become. Tired of trying to excuse the inexcusable. Tired of using torturous, exhausting rationalizations to explain away what I really knew in my heart was sheer and simple oppression.
After staring at my screen for what seemed like an eternity, I logged on to my blog and typed out a post entitled “Outrage in Gaza: No More Apologies.” I ended with a declaration—and a question: What Israel has been doing to the people of Gaza is an outrage. It has brought neither safety nor security to the people of Israel and it has wrought nothing but misery and tragedy upon the people of Gaza. There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?
Although it was a simple and not particularly eloquent post, I knew full well what it would mean when I clicked “publish.” It represented a very conscious and public break from the liberal Zionist fold that had been my spiritual and political home for almost my entire life. But although I was finally very clear about what I was leaving behind, I was not at all sure about where I now belonged. Hence the final line of my post: Now what do I do?
Although I expected my words to make waves, I was still astonished by what happened next: The post immediately went viral, eliciting 125 comments in less than a month—far more than I have ever received before or since.
Although some of the initial commenters were congregants, I ultimately received responses from all over the world. Predictably, some lashed out against my post, but as the comments continued to roll in, I was surprised to read the words of many more—congregants, Jews, and non-Jews alike—expressing their immense thanks for what I had written. The comment thread was peppered with a palpable sense of gratitude and relief that a Jewish leader—a rabbi, no less—had finally crossed a significant line so publicly.
My post was not, as many assumed at the time, a temporary burst of emotion on my part. As Israel intensified its military assault on Gaza throughout January 2009, my anguish only deepened. I read news reports of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a besieged 140-square-mile patch of land. I learned about the bombing of schools and homes in which entire families were destroyed, about men, women, and children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorus. Throughout it all, I continued to blog openly about the outrages I believed Israel was committing in Gaza—and about my increasing sense of solidarity with Gazan civilians.
Over the months following Cast Lead, I broadened my scope, writing numerous posts addressing my changing relationship to Israel. As the months went by, I brought all my nagging, gnawing doubts out into the bright light of day. It soon became clear to me that Cast Lead was simply the final tipping point of a domino line I’d been setting up steadily over the years. I became increasingly involved in Palestinian solidarity work, founding, with my colleague Rabbi Brian Walt, an initiative called Jewish Fast for Gaza and taking on a leadership role in the rapidly growing national organization Jewish Voice for Peace. Along the way, I recorded and commented upon my newfound activism in Shalom Rav.
Although I knew I was taking a risk on many levels by publishing my initial post, the conversation that has resulted fills me with hope. I am immensely proud of the relatively high and eloquent level of the debate on my blog, and I am regularly awed by the willingness of so many of my commenters to be fundamentally challenged over such a difficult issue. Over the years, I’ve been humbled and excited to convene this lively, almost Talmudic discussion between members of my congregation along with countless others: Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and citizens of various ethnicities and nations, many of whom I have never actually met—and most likely never will.
* * *
Today, I continue to serve my congregation in Evanston. I continue to “wrestle in the daylight,” and I continue to advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. I’m often asked where I stand now—that is, now that I’ve officially broken ranks with liberal Zionism. Although it’s not a simple answer, I do know this: My primary religious motivation comes from my inherited Jewish tradition, in which God commands me to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor. I know that the American Jewish community is my spiritual home and that I stand with the Palestinian people in their struggle against oppression. And I know that I fervently desire a just and peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians.
I also know that my constituency is not as narrow as some might think. Through my work, I have come to discover increasing numbers of Jews—particularly young Jews—who genuinely seek a home in the Jewish community but cannot countenance the Jewish establishment’s orthodoxy on Israel. I have also met many non-Jews—including Palestinians, interfaith colleagues, and fellow political activists—who constitute a new, exciting, ever-growing community of conscience.
Along the way, I’ve come to believe that too many of us have been wrestling in the dark on this issue for far too long. I believe we simply must find a way to widen the limits of public discourse on Israel/Palestine, no matter how painful the prospect. It is my fervent hope that the conversations presented here might represent, in their small way, a step toward the light of day.