Rabbi Brant Rosen leads a congregation in Evanston, Illinois and is co-chair of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace. He is the author of the new book, Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity and blogs at Shalom Rav. He stresses that the views, both in his book and in this interview, are his own and do not represent his congregation. We spoke on Monday December 4 in Washington, DC where he was promoting his book. An abridged version of this interview was published by Inter Press Service.
How has your personal view of Israel changed in the past four years?
I think I’ve shifted from a liberal Zionist approach—viewing the conflict as two peoples who have two legitimate claims to the land and the only way out of the morass is two states for two people. I believed in the importance of a Jewish state and identified with Israel as a Jew; that was my narrative growing up. I have deep familial relationships in Israel, visited there many times, considered moving there…it was a gradual thing, but the breaking point was Operation Cast Lead in 2008 (Cast Lead was the code name given to Israel’s 2008-09 assault on Gaza). I came to realize this was not a conflict between two equal parties but an essential injustice that began with the birth of the state of Israel and continued since that time. It is a case of one very powerful party bending the other to its will.
Once I spoke out about Israel’s outrages in Cast Lead, the dominoes really started to fall for me. At first I didn’t know where that brought me, and wasn’t sure where I stood. As a congregational rabbi I was in a difficult place and people looked to me for guidance. About a year after that, I really reassessed my relationship as a Jew to Israel, to the entire issue, not just Gaza, about Zionism in general. In the blog pieces I wrote for the book I wrote very extensively about my thoughts and my activity during this time. Brian Walt and I started Jewish Fast for Gaza, and we found a number of rabbis who stood with us to launch the initiative to end the blockade of the Strip and search for a just peace. I become more involved in Palestine Solidarity work, reaching out to Palestinians, some of whom were friends and others who were activists in this area, moving beyond my fear of them as “other.” So many of them reached out to me when I spoke out on Gaza, and I wanted to learn from them what their experience of this issue was.
On Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) I wrote a blog post called “Why I’m not celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut,” basically saying I’m going to observe it as a day of soul-searching, not celebrate it. For Jews around the world it’s a sort of civic holiday. What does it mean that our day of community gathering is the day of tragedy for Palestinians? What does it mean that this country was born out of injustice which is continuing, the Nakba? On that day I invited Jews and Palestinians into my home, read about towns and villages that were destroyed or dispossessed and we mourned the loss of them.
That’s where I landed. Today, I know where I stand: very much a rabbi in the Jewish community, still serving my congregation still seeing myself motivated by Jewish values, but also as someone who stands in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for human rights, equal rights and dignity in land they either live in or seek to return to. I see my Jewish liberation as inextricably bound up with Palestinian liberation. I see Palestine solidarity as the fulfillment of Jewish heritage to stand with the oppressed.
Jewish Voice for Peace is one of the leading groups involved in targeted divestment from Israel’s occupation, a part of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement that seeks to bring public economic and political pressure on Israel. How do you see the future of this movement?
I think the movement is growing by leaps and bounds, attracting more and more people, Jewish and not. When the UNGA vote on Palestinian non-member status hit, it drowned out another story I thought was more important—Stevie Wonder backing out of a concert benefit for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. He joins a long list of artists who have cancelled appearances in Israel including Dustin Hoffman, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Elvis Costello, Annie Lennox and many others.
To create political power, leveraging people power is the best method, and historically, this has been shown to be the case. The fact that Israel is reacting so harshly against it shows its potential. When Hillary Clinton says 3000 new settlements are “not helpful,” that doesn’t get Israel’s attention. But when JVP, SJP and church groups move to get corporations and holding companies to divest from Israel, that’s front page news in Israel. That is a sign that this has a great impact, when used in a smart and concerted way.
BDS is not anti-Semitic, and I think the argument that it unfairly singles out Israel from other human rights abusers is disingenuous. The issue is not about what these other horrible regimes do. The issue is that Palestinian civil society has put out this call (in 2005, a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society groups put out a call for boycotts, divestment campaigns and international sanctions against Israel) and the question is do we support them or not. If we think the occupation is intolerable and this call is a smart and ethical response to leverage power to get Israel to cease, then we must support it. The whole idea of “delegitimization” is absurd, as if every state has some special right to legitimacy. The question is not whether Israel is legitimate; it exists and is part of the international community. But if Israel acts in an illegitimate way, citizens around the world have the right and responsibility to leverage what power they can to get it to cease.
You co-chair the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace. Can you explain the difference between JVP and other Jewish peace groups like J Street and why you prefer JVP?
Organizations like J Street are Jewish institutions that seek to create the necessary leverage toward a peace process in the DC political arena. I don’t think that is an effective way to exert the necessary leverage. JVP is different, not made up largely of staff and a Board of Directors; it’s a membership organization that is doing grassroots organizing, which is a minor part of J Street. I think the only way to build a constituency for peace is through grassroots organizing. It’s about coming together with other groups and forming solutions, coming together to say that whatever political solution we come to needs to be based on equal rights, democracy and human rights for all. And because a two state solution is looking more and more unlikely if not impossible, we need to have an open mind to all kinds of solutions. I think J Street, AIPAC and others are hemmed in by a narrow focus on one political solution.
Do you think the recent call by 15 mainstream Protestant leaders of many different denominations for an inquiry into whether US aid to Israel is in compliance with existing US law is a significant new development?
Yes. It was signed by 15 prominent and important church leaders who managed to agree on a significant faith-based statement. I think it’s significant because if so many prominent Jewish leaders react as they did, it has to be taken seriously. But most important, the leaders are standing firm and are not backing down despite being excoriated and being called everything up to and including anti-Semites. That is important because up until now covenant on religious relations has been that you can talk about anything BUT Israel. This time they’ve broken with that. They had been bullied by the Jewish establishment, but this can usher in a new relationship where we can talk about anything, not only these issues but the things we have in common.
I’m proud that JVP stood behind the statement. Jewish leaders said they would walk out of planned interfaith summit, and then demanded a separate summit to discuss these issues. I thought this was very damaging, this is not dialogue. The Church leaders have issued a second statement saying they would be happy to meet with Jewish leaders in response, saying we are not going back on what we said, but we’re happy to talk. This is very healthy; this is real dialogue, which occurs when you focus on the painful issues you don’t agree on instead of just celebrating the things you have in common. There is a public letter at obamaletter.org has over 10,000 signatures supporting the church leaders’ letter. It’s very important that Christians see that many Jews do stand with them. The Jewish establishment does not represent the Jewish community. It is much larger and more complex than these unaccountable representatives whose names most Jews don’t even know.