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The Rabbi Who Renounced Zionism May 26, 2016

Posted by rogerhollander in Genocide, Human Rights, Religion, Uncategorized.
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Roger’s note: personally I can do without religion, which I believe for the most part has been a violent and destructive force in human history (including today, especially including today).  Nonetheless, minorities of religious Jews, Catholics, Protestants (including even some Evangelicals), Muslims, Hindus, etc. have fought for justice and human rights and against the hypocrisy withing their own ranks.  They are to be embraced.

 

 

BY ELI MASSEY, In These Times (no date available)

In 2014, Rabbi Brant Rosen resigned his post at the Jewish Reconstructinist Congregation in Evanston.  III., after serving for over 15 years.  His Palestinian solidarity work had become a divisive issue within the community.  Rosen was not always an advocate for Palestinian human rights – he started a blog in 2006, Shalom Rav, in which he chronicled his growing disillusionment with much of the Jewish community’s blind support for the state of Israel.  His painful and public reckoning with Zionism unfolded in the midst of the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, code-named Operation Cast Lead.

In July 2015, Rabbi Rosen founded Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist and social justice-focused synagogue, where he serves as rabbi.  (Full disclosure: I’m a congregant.) He also serves as the Midwest regional director for the American Friends Service Committee.

In These Times sat down with Rosen to discuss Tzedek Chicago, Israel and Palestine.

What led you to become an advocate for Palestinian rights?

It was gradual.  Israel had always been a part of my life, and I identified-if I had to put a label on it-as a liberal Zionist.

I, like many Jews, identified with the Zionist narrative.  It’s a very powerful, intoxicating, redemptive story: These people who have been hounded for centuries around the world finally find a way to make it back to their ancestral homeland and liberate themselves.

But there were also, along the way, nagging voices.  I did a good job of keeping those voices locked away and never really following them to their conclusion.

I always wondered about this business of creating a Jewish state when there are so many people who are not Jewish in this land-and how to create a state that was predicated on the identity of one people in a place that historically has been multi-ethnic, multi-religious.

And the whole issue of demographics: Liberal Zionists talk a great deal about what’s called the “demographic problem”: In order to create a Jewish state, you need a demographic majority of Jews.  Back in the day, I used words like “demographic threat” [in reference to the growth in Israel’s Arab population] to advocate for the importance of a two-state solution.  When the two-state solution was still a very edgy thing to be advocating for, it was very, very liberal to talk about it in those terms. But every once in a while I’d think, “They’re a demographic threat, because they’re not Jewish?” As an American, if I called another people a “demographic threat” to the national integrity of my country, that would just be racist.  Those were the kinds of things I would entertain for a while but never completely unpack.

Was there a moment when you “wiped the slumber from your eyes,” so to speak?

It was a gradual process.  I can trace important milestones.  The first important one was the 1982 Lebanon War and Sabra and Shatila massacre.  I remember thinking, “This is Israel’s My Lai.” That was the first time that my romantic Zionist ideals developed cracks.  The Second Intifada and the collapse of the Oslo peace process and seeing what happened in the wake of Oslo-and the creation of the separation wall, the blockade on Gaza-was when it started to crumble.

Then the final breaking point was in 2008 and 2009 with Operation Cast Lead.  By this point, I had been a congregational rabbi for a little over 10 years, so it became very complicated for me to break with this Zionist narrative, which is so cherished still in liberal Jewish circles.  Operation Cast Lead was where I finally said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Why do you think that so many Jews who are otherwise progressive ignore Israel’s violations of human rights?

In the circles I travel, it’s called the “PEP phenomenon.”

Progressive Except Palestine.

Yes.  That phenomenon is where the struggle for the soul of the Jewish community is taking place right now.

I know that because I’ve been living in that nexus point almost my entire life. For liberal Jews, largely, it goes back to the Zionist narrative, which is a sacred narrative, for Jews who don’t consider themselves religious. It’s a redemptive story, emerges out of the ashes of one of the worst catastrophes in Jewish history, but in human history. The legacy of the Holocaust still looms large in the psyches even young Jews today. The trauma still lingers, and in many ways, it’s exploited by the Jewish community. A lot it boils down to fear.

On Dec. 28, 2008, during Operation Cast Lead, you posted on your blog, “We good liberal Jews are ready to protest oppression and human-rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all too willing to give Israel a pass. It’s a fascinating double standard, and … I’ve been just as responsible as anyone else for perpetrating it. So no more rationalizations.” You then add: “There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?” Seven years later, do you have an answer for yourself?

Almost immediately, many people reached out to me. People in the Palestine solidarity movement, but also people in an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace, some of whom were members of my congregation and were patiently waiting for me to come around on this issue. They gave me a Jewish community where I realized I could engage in Palestine solidarity work and be a truly progressive Jew on all issues and still have a Jewish institutional, spiritual home. Jewish Voice for Peace then has grown by leaps and bounds.

Describe what Tzedek Chicago is and how it came to be.

I left my congregation because of the circumstance that I’ve described. I didn’t have any intention of starting a new congregation when I left. Shortly after that, I started my full-time job with the American Friends Service Committee. But it became clear to my wife and me that we didn’t have a Jewish spiritual community. A number of us-including some who left the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation when I left because of the pain of the breakup, and others I knew who, because of this issue, didn’t have a congregation where they could feel completely at home – would get together in a havurah, an informal participatory group, mostly for Shabbat dinners. A group of them approached me with the idea of starting a new congregation that was predicated on values of justice and values of human rights and universal democracy, and not predicated on nationalism and Zionism and such. I became very excited about creating a new kind of Jewish congregation that was predicated on the social justice values that are deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition and are not attested to in most Jewish congregations.

What has the response been from the wider Jewish community?

The response to Tzedek Chicago exceeded what even I was hoping for. When we had our High Holiday services in September 2015, I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, but we ended up averaging about 300 people for all of the services. It was clear there is a deep thirst for a community like this.

Israel is at the heart of Jewish communal life for many people.

If we shift the focus of Judaism away from Israel or take Israel out of the equation entirely, what fills this space?

A venerable, centuries-long spiritual tradition that looks at the entire world as our home, the entire diaspora as our One that is predicated on values of justice and decency and morality, being able to find God wherever we live, and seeing all people as created in the divine image, as the Torah teaches us. One of the things Zionism was to colonize the Jewish religion itself. It eclipsed that incredibly beautiful and profound Jewish notion which saw the world as our home.

God isn’t geographically specific to only Israel or Jerusalem or the temple. We bear witness to an ancient truth that is still very relevant in the world today – more than relevant, essential. Universalism is central to our core values and our congregation. And that is a problem for many Jews, too. There’s a strand of Judaism that is very parochial and tribal. It looks at the outside world with suspicion and looks at the Jewish cornmunity as the be-all and end-all. Our future is predicated on finding common cause with all people, particularly those who are oppressed.

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