- Interview by
- Benjamin Balthaser
When Rabbi Brant Rosen helped to found congregation Tzedek-Chicago in 2015, it was the country’s first explicitly “non-Zionist” temple, outside of the ultraorthodox community. In just a few short years, Tzedek, Hebrew for “justice,” seems to have galvanized a movement: there are now over a dozen temples and havurot that have at least opened their doors to critics of Zionism — even if Tzedek-Chicago remains the only one with an explicitly non-Zionist charter.
Tzedek-Chicago describes itself as an “intentional” community, aligning its spiritual and communal practice around “core values” which include a rejection of borders, an emphasis on solidarity as a foundational Jewish practice, and perhaps most controversially, a rejection of the “the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism” and an open acknowledgment “that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people.” Tzedek-Chicago flatly rejects “any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land.”
That Zionism should come to define American Jewish life was not historically inevitable. Up to a generation ago, that any temple would need to declare itself non-Zionist would be superfluous, to say nothing of the marginality of Zionism in American life before Israel’s founding. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), the largest Reform Judaism organization in the United States, continued to reject a Jewish state in historic Palestine up through the 1960s, and many on the secular Jewish left at the time, from Jewish members of Students for a Democratic Society to the socialist Jewish fraternal order, the Workman’s Circle, rejected Zionism or at most, saw it as peripheral to American Jewish life. The Six Day War and American realignment toward Israel changed all that: Zionism has become firmly entrenched in American Jewish culture from the bimah to the seder plate, and nearly every major Jewish institution regards Zionism as central to its cultural and political mission.
Yet as the arrival of Tzedek-Chicago suggests, the Jewish consensus on Israel is beginning to unravel, with younger Jews in particular identifying less and less with Zionism. As a New York Times op-ed argued, American Jews and Israel are headed to a “messy breakup,” exemplified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of Donald Trump, a president nearly three-quarters of America’s Jews voted against. The rise of organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an anti-Zionist Jewish organization with over 15,000 members, and #IfNotNow, which has helped organize direct action against AIPAC, are openly challenging the Jewish institutional consensus around Zionism. Members of the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were instrumental in helping to pass a boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israeli human rights violations at the DSA’s 2016 convention. As Rafi Peretz, the Israeli justice minister, just said, “most American Jews are dead to me.” The feeling is increasingly mutual.
For now at least, however, most major Jewish organizations, religious and secular, continue to support Israel, backing legislation that would ban BDS and branding as antisemitic politicians such as Ilhan Omar who are critical of Israel’s ongoing violation of Palestinian human rights. The non-Zionist Jewish left remains small, however much it is growing and in the process of building new institutions — some religious such as Tzedek, and others political and secular, such as JVP. Like many institutions in US life, there is a crisis of legitimacy between members and establishment; the Jewish community seems to be little different.
To explore the contours of the shifting terrain of US Jewish life and what the significance of the first contemporary non-Zionist temple might be, I sat down with Rabbi Brant Rosen last month for a long chat, during which we discussed everything from the history of Jewish messianism to the prospect of an emergent non-Zionist Jewish culture. Given our conversation went for over an hour, this is a short excerpt.
We began our conversation with your story of how you became a rabbi. You told me how you rediscovered your Jewish identity, at least in part, through a Zionist narrative — that Jews have been othered by history, and Zionism is a secular, national liberation project. When did that narrative start to fall apart for you?
I became a congregational rabbi and Israel activism was always a very primary part of my rabbinate —
As in pro-Israel?
Well, I would say I defined myself as a “progressive Zionist.” It was a long process. but I always entertained real doubts, not only about the State of Israel but about Zionism itself. As I mulled these things over that I was studying and learning about and experiencing in Israel, I would ask questions like, what does it mean to have a Jewish state, a state that’s uniquely Jewish, in a land that has so many non-Jews? Isn’t that just a recipe for conflict? Is this a national liberation movement (as Zionists like to claim) or is it really a colonial movement? … I also remember being in Israel and experiencing the normalization of militarism. Every once in a while, I would be on a bus in Jerusalem, and I would be next to a soldier with their M-16 slapping against my leg, standing right next to me, and I’d think, “what the f—?” I fancied myself antiwar, anti-militarism, pro-peace, and somehow I’m supporting the normalizing of the most intensely militarized country in the world — as something not only normal, but as something to be desired?
I could never square that circle. But I did pretty good job of quelling those voices. Over the years it became harder and harder, especially as Olso, the peace process, started to fall apart in the mid-1990s and the notion of a two-state solution was becoming more and more remote. I was involved with an organization called “Brit Tzedek v’Shalom” that was an earlier incarnation of J Street. I remember going on a delegation with other Jewish leaders that was sponsored by Brit Tzedek and Meretz, which is a left-wing party in Israel —
So-called left wing.
Yes, so-called. So, they wanted to bring us to the West Bank to see the Occupation close up so that we could go back home and really advocate for the peace process. But it backfired with me. We went to Hebron, we went to refugee camps, we met with Palestinians in their homes, with Israel activists such as Machsom Watch and Breaking the Silence, and what I took away from that experience was “What peace process? This is a joke. It’s over.” And so little by little I moved from a progressive Zionist approach, to a Palestine solidarity approach. I moved from seeing this as a conflict, to seeing this as oppression. From a conflict analysis to an oppression analysis. And then the final straw was 2008. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was where all the voices finally came pouring out, the little structures that I had built for myself to rationalize Zionism that were flimsier and flimsier came all crashing down.
We’ve talked a little about internal conflict you faced confronting the realities of Zionism. What were some of the external pressures on you to not speak out?
The pressures of the communal Jewish world. Israel is the third rail, it’s the line you don’t cross. It’s the holy of holies (laughs). There’s a joke that says you can eat pork on Yom Kippur but if you disavow Zionism you are out of the tribe.
How did this come about? That Israel became the center of institutional Jewish life.
As a student of Zionism, I knew it was a movement of modernity among many … the Holocaust changed the calculus intensely, but even after World War II it was not considered outside the pale to be a non-Zionist. It wasn’t until 1967 that the conversation really changed. Up to that point there were many what I call “grudging Zionists,” like Martin Buber, who felt that once the state was established, one had to accept it, but who in their hearts still believed in binationalism. And of course, many still remained non- or anti-Zionist.
But 1967 realigned everything. It was the year of the Six Day War, the height of anti –Vietnam War protests, the Black Power movement, and the SNCC’s Palestine Solidarity statement, which was experienced by the Jewish community as a real betrayal. After that, Israel became the functional center of Jewish life. In its way, it replaced Judaism. It was after this time that the Israeli flag was placed right next to aron kodesh in the synagogue, so American Jews were praying to the flag along with the Torah. There could be no better metaphor than that.
In the last fifty years, the adoption of Zionism by mainstream Jewish institutions in the United States has produced an enormous, tectonic shift in Jewish culture, away from diasporism to toward nationalism, as you say. I wonder if could you tease out some of the theological implications of that?
Zionism was very consciously a movement that sought to completely subvert centuries of Jewish life, on almost every level. It rejected the diaspora, which had been the birthplace and crucible of Jewish life for ages. Many classical Zionists saw the diaspora as toxic and spoke of diaspora Jews in a hateful, antisemitic sort of way. It gave up on the messianic dream, and replaced it with this new, false messianism. I see it as the Sabbataneanism of our time. Throughout Jewish history there have always been false messiahs — in other words, people who claimed to be the messiah or claimed to be able to hasten the arrival of the messianic age. Sabbatai Zevi was an example of this in his day in the early modern period, who claimed that he was going to be the one to bring all the Jews to the land of Israel, and gather them together, and reestablish the Jewish commonwealth. And when that didn’t happen, it created horrible upheaval and cataclysm in Jewish life throughout Europe.
But that idea of in-gathering and giving up on the diaspora and focusing on land-centric Judaism never really went away. Christian Zionism emerged at the same time as Sabbataneanism and later when the modern Zionist movement was formed, they became political bedfellows. It was very Faustian bargain. Lord Balfour was a Christian Zionist. In a sense, you can draw a direct line from Balfour to Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo. So I think of Zionism as false messianism. We know from history that false messiahs lead to dark places and we’re seeing that happening now. Political Zionism contained this radical cast of characters who succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, but the success of Zionism really has subverted almost everything we know has been central to Jewish life. That we are waiting for the Messiah, that we are seeking to perfect the world in order to bring the messiah. But we don’t hasten that coming or put our faith in militarism or in military powers. We seek to perfect the world as it is in anticipation of that world we are struggling for. But Zionism came to say no, the return starts now.
2008, Operation Cast Lead started a process for you that eventually ends with a rupture with your temple, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston. How long did it before you felt you had to resign?
It wasn’t immediate. In 2008, I began to get involved in JVP —
Was that difficult? To join JVP?
No, in fact, it was a life-saver. I was undergoing a huge crisis at the time. I really felt like I was breaking with everything I had known to be Jewish. I didn’t know if I could be a rabbi anymore, I didn’t know if I could be Jewish anymore. I really didn’t know where I belonged. JVP gave me a new Jewish home. This was the really nascent beginnings of what is now the Jewish-Palestinian solidarity community. And so I blogged openly about these issues. For instance, as early as 2009, I wrote about BDS, saying that we need to take this call seriously, that this a cry for solidarity, this is not antisemitic. Increasingly I became more and more publicly involved in Palestine solidarity work.
And at the same time, the leadership of my congregation courageously stood by my right and my responsibility to speak my conscience even if not all of them agreed with me — and many of them didn’t really. We worked very hard within the congregation to have civil discourse. But looking back, I think there was always a small minority of people who were never pacified by our efforts. And I understand that. If Zionism for them was everything they loved about Judaism, and here their rabbi was publicly shitting all over it, of course it caused them pain. I totally get that. And even though we had an agreement that whenever I spoke about or wrote Israel and Palestine, I would always give a disclaimer that I am not speaking for my congregation and this my own personal view, it was still their rabbi saying these things, so they felt implicated in everything I was saying and doing. I think I probably gave more disclaimers than any rabbi in the history of the Jewish people (laughs). Someone once commented to me that rabbis who are involved in AIPAC never disclaim. They never take pains to say, oh by the way, I don’t represent the views of my congregation.
But in the end for all that work, this minority was never fully satisfied. So, in 2014 it all fell apart. A small group of members wrote a public letter to the board asking the board to rein me in and organized to get others to sign on to it. And later that summer, there was another Israeli invasion of Gaza, and I just couldn’t be reined in. Things became so intolerable that in fall 2014, I decided to resign from my congregation. There were probably board members who sighed a sigh of relief, but I was never asked to leave.
But it was a minority? Why do think this minority was able to have an outsize discursive power?
As Margaret Meade said, never doubt that a small group of committed citizens (laughs). Yes, I know it’s hugely problematic. Every new poll that we see shows a shrinking constituency for the support of Israel in the American Jewish community, and yet we have a small number of organizations that most American Jews don’t even know exist. They are not membership organizations, they are professional organizations, many of which work in tandem with the State of Israel, and so they don’t speak for us. But they exert great power. I think the heavy-handedness, the increasingly grotesque way the Jewish communal establishment flexes its muscles, is a sign of its desperation, because it knows its time is limited. We know a dying beast can do a great deal of damage. Some, maybe much, of which is irreparable.
So, in 2014, you left JRC? How did this lead to the foundation of congregation Tzedek-Chicago?
Yes, I came here to work for the American Friends Service Committee and it’s been a great fit. At the same time, some people who left JRC when I did, and some other members of the community formed an informal havurah. This became the nucleus of what eventually Tzedek-Chicago. When we decided to found a congregation, my first thought was well, if we’re going to do this, I don’t want to just recreate another liberal synagogue. There’s a glut of them, the world doesn’t need another — and anyway it’s not exactly a growth industry (laughs). So if we were going to do it, I was interested in doing something different. We agreed that the first thing we would do was to be an intentional community and we wrote up a list of core values. And we made the decision very early on that, among those values, we would not endorse Zionism. The way we put it was that we did not celebrate the fusion of political nationalism with Jewish spiritual tradition. And thus we explicitly stated we were not Zionist.
I think Americans, even those who have no affiliation with the Jewish community, are increasingly aware that the consensus on Israel is unraveling, especially among liberal and left-wing Jews. I think what you are suggesting is that this is not merely a debate on policy — like you’re either for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade — but rather two radically opposed ideas of what it means to be Jewish. Do you feel we are reclaiming an older form of Judaism or inventing something new? Or both?
It’s complicated. If it was just reclaiming — we could all just join an anti-Zionist Chassidic community. So in some ways it is a reclaiming. In other words, while Zionism arose to give a black eye to the diaspora, we were actually saying no, we believe the diaspora has been an incredibly fertile, creative, amazing place of potential. We affirm the Judaism that views the world as our home and finds God anywhere in the world where we live and has been able to create a unique Jewish culture wherever Jews have lived. This rich tapestry of Jewish ethnicities and Jewish cultures is part of what gives Jewishness its power and its strength. And on a theological level I find it a much more satisfying to view the world as our home rather than to affirm that all the real action must take place on this little strip of land.
Blood and soil —
Yes. And I would argue that following the destruction of the Temple, classical Judaism emerged to consciously reject the land-centric, blood-and-soil tradition. So, in a way, I think we are reclaiming that notion and re-appreciating it. But it’s also important not to over-romanticize the diaspora. Diaspora life was not always a walk in the park for Jews, as we know, especially when it occurred under the thumb of Christian empire. I certainly think it’s also a danger to sugarcoat the diaspora and not appreciate the vulnerability that characterized diasporic Jewish life. We also need to understand that this vulnerability gave rise to an aspect of Jewish tradition that is problematic.
For instance, there’s no denying there is a strain of xenophobia in Jewish tradition. But if you understand the context in which these ideas were written it makes perfect sense. So while we need to maintain a healthy appreciation for how antisemitism has bred in the diaspora — and the impact it has had on Jewish tradition — I’d love to explore how a twenty-first-century diasporic Judaism could find power in making common cause with other oppressed people. How God can be found through solidarity, not by hunkering down behind isolationist walls. Can diasporism and solidarity exist at the same time? These are the kinds of questions we need to be exploring.
I buy Judith Butler’s point that to live in diaspora necessarily means engagement with the Other. On some level diaspora and solidarity have to go together.
That’s the kind of Judaism that really excites me. Mark Ellis has done some really amazing work proposing a Jewish theology of liberation. But sometimes I think Judaism is itself is a theology of liberation, because the Jewish spiritual tradition arose out of crisis and dislocation, asking how do we live in exile, can we find meaning in our yearning for home, how do we find God while in exile, and where do we get our strength? And now I’m really interested in how we might find God in solidarity and to ask what is a theology of solidarity might look like.
It’s almost as though we’re discussing two different traditions of Judaism — one based on an ontology of diaspora and exile, and the other based on an ontology of exodus and return.
I would argue if you look at the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible, oppression, exodus, and return forms our foundational narrative. But the first five books, what we call the Torah — which is the book that we read in shul and is considered the most sacred — ends on the verge of going into the land. We don’t actually get there. We rewind back to the beginning, we start it all over again. It’s not a linear narrative — it is a cycle. The exodus process is a cycle of constantly moving towards. And I personally think, whether it was consciously done by the rabbis who codified the liturgical schedule of readings or not, there is something very powerful in this movement —
As a literary critic, I can say intentionality is in the act —
Right, so it doesn’t really matter. And by the way, the book of Joshua and Judges, which come immediately after, are just hair-raising books. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that David Ben Gurion considered Joshua to be his favorite book in the bible and that he convened a famous gathering of archeologists, academics, and military tacticians to study the book of Joshua in his home on a regular basis. This is part of the bible that is being lifted up by Zionism. They’re claiming a very different strain, they’re finding the return itself as the redemptive part of the book as opposed to the journey, the process toward.
Inside the Jewish community, you’ve traced this conflict between different strains of Jewish life that parting ways over the question of Israel and Zionism. And yet we are witnessing — for the first time in my life at least — Israel emerge in liberal politics, nationally in the Democratic Party, as a flash point of debate, at least in part due to the Israeli government’s embrace of the far-right. Tzedek-Chicago and JVP have at this point etched out a kind of niche for themselves. How do you see such Jewish organizations intervening in this moment of crisis?
I think there’s a role for everyone to play. I have moved, as I would put it, from working the inside game to the outside game. And I admit, there is an insularity about playing the outside game. There is a kind of comfort in always being the one who’s maintaining that prophetic stance against the powers-that-be. But there actually needs to be work from within too. As impatient as I often get, I try not to judge because I was part of that world for so long. I know that hearts and minds can be changed, and while you can’t change them necessarily overnight, I think little by little, through organizing and persuasion and just the flow of historical events, people can move past those edges. For me, I feel like my place right is the outside game. And that’s historically been a good Jewish place to be.
Jews are, historically, the outside game.
Yes, and I think in some ways the fact that Israel is now being used as a wedge issue in the Democratic Party is actually a good thing. I know centrists and many liberals are worried about Israel becoming the issue that splits the party, but I think it could be great to break this wide open and finally have a real conversation about Israeli oppression out in the open.
I know this might sound like a strange question, but why? For a left readership, why ought Palestine matter? Of course, it is self-evident — oppression anywhere matters. But there is oppression all over the world. Is there something particular about Israel/Palestine that the Left should consider, or rather, perhaps give precedence to over other struggles?
I wouldn’t argue rhetorically that one oppression is more important than any other, but I do feel a personal responsibility as a Jew that since my spiritual tradition is being used to dislodge and oppress another people, I cannot sit by. I also feel — and I want to be careful how I say this — it seems to me that Palestinians just are the easiest to throw under the bus today, in ways that other oppressed people are not. I’ll give you an example. I remember in the 2016 election, at the end of the primary, during one of the debates between Clinton and Sanders, the issue of Israel-Palestine came up. I remember that Hillary Clinton didn’t even mention the words Palestine or Palestinian, while Sanders said, “We have to recognize the humanity of the Palestinians.”
It was all over the news and it was viewed as a huge breakthrough, a great victory. Shortly after, a Palestinian friend told me “this is how horrible things are for us, that just mentioning that we’re human is considered a radical victory.” This is what it means to be Palestinian. Just recently the New York Times could print an editorial that is essentially calling for the Palestinians to quote, “commit national suicide.” What other people would we say that about? What is that? It feels that even questioning the basic humanity of Palestinians has somehow become normalized.
It’s clear that the US Jewish establishment is wholly Zionist, but there can often be an unhelpful way the discussion of the larger American commitment to Zionism is read as a sign of “Jewish power.” What is the US investment in Zionism? And how do you think about the relationship between the Jewish establishment and, say, Christian Zionism?
I think the rise of Trump and the realignment going on in the Democratic Party is fraught, but it is bringing out in the open something that is long overdue. It just looks so horribly wrong to the strong majority of American Jews when we see establishment Jews making common cause with Trump, making common cause with Christians United for Israel. It’s the embodiment of the perverse Faustian bargain that was at the core of Zionism all along. So again, maybe that wedge is a good thing. Maybe it gives us the opportunity now to once and for all break open this notion that to be a good Jew means to be a Zionist. I’m encouraged that increasingly we’re hearing more not just about a criticism of Israel as being something that’s edgy, but we’re actually hearing anti-Zionism openly discussed. Not long ago, for instance, Michelle Goldberg wrote an op-ed in the New York Times openly declaring that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. The fact that this conversation is increasingly discussed in the marketplace of ideas is a promising sign.