Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year

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Addressing the NIAC Chicago Nowruz Celebration, March 16, 2014 (photo: Roxane Assaf)

Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum.  Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”

As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”

I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.

For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.

As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”

When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.

Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”


My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman

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This past Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor to participate in a open conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman in “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit,” a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Los Angeles. As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.

As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.

Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.

Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.

Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.

I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.

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Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.

I’m still feeling so happy and proud to have been able to share the stage with Rabbi Beerman. Heartfelt thanks to Estee Chandler, the head of JVP – LA for her masterful stewardship of this wonderful event. Thanks also to Eliyahu and Pennie Ungar-Sargon for filming the program – I’ll post the finished video of our talk when it is complete.

PS: After the program was over, I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Beerman’s wife, children and grandchildren, who were sitting in the front section. As we chatted I mentioned to them how wonderful it felt to get such a nice reception, adding that Leonard and I were worried there might be “troublemakers” in attendance. His daughter smiled and said, “The only troublemakers were up on the stage…”


Firebrand Rabbi Looks “Vanilla”

Vanilla-Ice-Cream-ice-cream-34732705-1528-2307Headline from a just-published feature about me and my activism from the Jewish Forward:

Brant Rosen looks every bit like a plain vanilla suburban Chicago rabbi. He doubles as a firebrand critic of Israel — and his congregation has stood by him through thick and thin.

“Plain vanilla” – my kids got a kick out of that one…
Click here to read the entire article.

On Naim Ateek and the Sabeel Institute: A Conversation Between a Rabbi and Congregant

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Rev, Naim Ateek, Sabeel Institute

I’ve posted below an email exchange between myself and a congregant regarding my participation in the upcoming Friends of Sabeel – North American conference in Chicago.  My congregant has given me permission to post it as one small but hopeful example of how the Jewish community might debate such a painful religious/political issue with respect and honesty.

Dear Brant,

As I hope you know, I am a pretty skeptical guy in general, and I do not assume that others’ reporting of their adversaries’ statements is accurate.  But this statement comes right from Sabeel’s own website.  Has Naim Ateek since disavowed it?  If not, please explain how you can allow yourself, very publicly, to be seen as supporting his work?

L’shalom (literally), XXX

Dear XXX,

Obviously this is a long and complex issue – and I’m happy talk with you directly about it if you like. But for now I’ll just say I fully understand how and why some find his rhetoric hateful. I do not. Through my own study of his work and my personal dialogue with Naim, I have come to understand that as a Christian he refracts his personal experience among other things, through the crucifixion narrative.  And as a Palestinian, it has very real relevance to his peoples’ experience in Israel/Palestine. I do not believe he invokes this narrative in order to make an accusation of deicide/blood libel against the Jews. He is using it in a genuinely faithful way, as part of a theology of liberation, to understand/frame a very real oppression against his people.

Again, I know he treads on very tender theological and political issues when he does this – but I do believe the proper way to respond is to engage him in dialogue on these tension points.  It grieves me deeply that members of the Jewish establishment only seem to want to respond by publicly tarring him as an anti-Semite and to pressure/threaten all Christians or Jews who associate with him.

I have learned a great deal from Naim – from his many books and essays and from my own personal relationship with him. I consider him to be a decent and honorable man who challenges us in important if often painful ways. As far as “disavowing” this particular statement, I don’t believe he needs to, quite frankly.  I think it is important that people read his work thoroughly and give it its due before jumping to conclusions from cherry-picked statements.

While it is not a disavowal per se, you might find this piece helpful, in which he responds to many of the accusations that have been historically leveled at him – and addresses an excerpt from statement you cited.

Again, I’m happy to talk with you further about Naim, Sabeel, and my work with them if you like.

In Shalom as well,

Brant

Dear Brant,

I just read the Huffington Post piece you sent (thanks) and thought it was well written.  (Did Jewish Voice for Peace help write it? — you don’t need to answer that question.)

One problem I have (and perhaps you are not minimizing it) is that, precisely on the assumption that Naim Ateek has something important to teach me, and other open-minded Jews like me, he will never succeed unless he changes his rhetorical approach.

Dear XXX,

I understand what you say. I imagine Naim feels his first priority is to respond faithfully to his experience of his people’s oppression – and not necessarily to frame his remarks to be acceptable to liberal Jews. Having said that, I do think that as a result of his increasing dialogue with Jews (ie JVP), he is becoming more sensitive in his rhetoric.

Anyhow – thank you for engaging with me so thoughtfully on this. It means a great deal to me.

Best,

Brant


Why I’m Participting in the Sabeel – North America Conference in Chicago

With Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek (Dec. 2010)

With Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek (Dec. 2010)

It is truly my honor to be included in the program of the upcoming conference, “A Wide Tent for Justice: Next Steps for Peace in Palestine/Israel,” sponsored by Friends of Sabeel – North America and the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy.  And I’m particularly honored to be participating on a panel and leading a workshop together with Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Insititute and one of the most important purveyors of Palestinian Christian liberation theology.

I can safely say my own spiritual understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict has been profoundly influenced and challenged by the work of Rev. Dr. Ateek.  I do believe religious Jews have a great deal to learn from liberation theology in general and Palestinian liberation theology in particular.  I’ve long admired Ateek for his willingness to shine a light on the theological problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology.  I believe his criticism of Zionism as a “retrogression” to a Biblically-based nationalist Jewish expression is a critical one for us to consider – painful though it may be for many in my community.

Responding to the challenge of Rev. Dr. Ateek and his colleagues, I’ve been working over the past year on developing a potential framework toward a theology of Jewish liberation that reclaims the universal vision of the Prophets and provides a progressive spiritual alternative to the fusing of religion and state power. I’ve been encouraged by the response to my initial efforts thus far – from Jews and Christians alike – and am increasingly coming to believe that there is a critical place for such ideas in the post-modern Jewish theological world.

Alas, much to my sadness and dismay, many in the Jewish establishment world continues to vilify Rev. Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Institute. While I certainly understand that many are challenged – often profoundly – by Palestinian liberation theology, it grieves me that the “official” Jewish communal response to this movement has been to publicly excoriate its leaders as anti-Semitic rather than to engage them in real and honest dialogue.

I do believe this kind of posturing has everything to do with politics and very little to do with actual interfaith dialogue.  True dialogue occurs when respective communities agree to explore the hard places – the tension points – no matter how painful. In my own dialogue with Palestinian Christians (and those in the Protestant church who stand in solidarity with them), my own sensibilities have been challenged and broadened – but I’ve also found that my participation allows me to have a similar kind of impact on my Christian partners. And while we might not agree on every issue, we ultimately emerge from our encounter strengthened by our common commitment to universal prophetic values of justice.

Back in 2010, when I visited the Sabeel Institute in Jerusalem with members of my congregation, I wrote the following:

Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.

I sincerely hope that will be the case at the upcoming conference here in Chicago (hosted by St. James Cathedral from Oct. 3 – 5).  In the past, Friends of Sabeel – North America conferences have occasioned fierce political pushback from the Jewish communal establishment. Sad to say, last year, Jewish leaders in Albuquerque pressured a local Episcopal church into canceling its sponsorship of the the Sabeel – NA conference there.  While I have every confidence that this will not occur in Chicago, I fully expect that some members of the Jewish communal establishment here will publicly tar organizers and co-sponsors of the event with the tired accusations of “anti-Semitism.”

Still, I am hoping against hope that members of my community will see fit to attend the conference in the spirit of openness and with a willingness to be challenged. I do believe this is nothing less than the most critical Jewish-Christian dialogue of our time.


UNITE HERE and Hyatt Reach an Agreement!

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Readers of this blog know I’ve long stood in solidarity with Hyatt hotel workers during their four year struggle for justice. (If you’d like a little history, you can read about it here, here, here and here, for instance.)

I’m thrilled to now learn that the Hyatt workers’ union, UNITE HERE has reached a national agreement with Hyatt. According to a union press release which came out yesterday, both UNITE HERE and Hyatt have hailed the agreement as “a positive step:”

The agreement will go into effect upon the settlement and ratification of union contracts by Hyatt associates in San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Chicago.  Pending associate approval, the contracts will provide retroactive wage increases and maintain quality health care and pension benefits.  The proposed new contracts would cover associates into 2018.A key provision of the agreement establishes a fair process, which includes a mechanism for employees at a number of Hyatt hotels to vote on whether they wish to be represented by UNITE HERE.  As part of the accord, upon ratification of the union contracts, UNITE HERE will end its global boycott of Hyatt.

D. Taylor, the president of UNITE HERE, said, “We look forward to a new collaborative relationship with Hyatt.  This agreement shows that when workers across the hotel industry stand together, they can move forward, even in a tough economy.  Both organizations deserve credit for working out this constructive step forward.”

“We are delighted that our associates in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Waikiki will have contracts and the pay raises that go with them,” said Doug Patrick, Senior Vice President, Human Resources for Hyatt.

The Chicago Tribune has reported that according to the agreement, about 5,000 workers would see pay and benefits packages rise an average of 4 percent a year. Regarding the issues of job safety and outsourcing (two key issues for the union), Chicago Public Radio reports “the new contracts will include no new safety language but will bring some outsourced work back to Hyatt.”

I’m delighted for the workers of Hyatt and it has been my honor to stand with them during the course of this long and difficult struggle. One important takeaway for me is the importance and effectiveness of boycotts as an essential tool of the labor movement. In particular, I hope organizations will increasingly insist upon protective language in their hotel contracts so that they can honor boycotts without penalty.

This campaign has also opened my eyes to the hard truth that labor justice is nowhere near the priority in the Jewish community that it once was. Indeed, the Hyatt boycott represented an important test to my community – and it is clear to me that there is much work left to be done. I wrote as much in the Jewish Forward last year when it was revealed that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had signed contracts with boycotted Hyatt Hotels for their conventions:

It is simply not enough to invoke the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and offer bland statements about the historic role Jews played in building the American labor movement. True solidarity means understanding that the struggle ever continues. And that there are flesh and blood “stakeholders” in our own day who call on us to support the sacred cause of worker justice.

Congratulations to UNITE HERE and to all those who stood in solidarity with the workers of Hyatt. And now the struggle continues…


“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course.  In the meantime here’s a taste:


JVP Rabbis Call Out: “Open Hillel!”

I’ve just returned from an inspiring sojourn at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting in Berkeley, CA (you can read more about the event here.) While I was there, I took the opportunity to film a few of my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council voicing their support for the Open Hillel campaign (a recent and very important student-run initiative about which I blogged not too long ago.)

Here ‘em testify!  From top to bottom, Rabbis Brian Walt, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, Margaret Holub, David Bauer and Alissa Wise:


On Open Hillel, Open Debate and Open Minds

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Last November, Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance prepared to sponsor “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation.” One week before it was set to take place at Harvard Hillel, Hillel decided to pull the plug on the program. Why? Because Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee was a co-sponsor.

In defense of its position, Harvard Hillel cited the guidelines of Hillel International that state Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.” And since the Harvard PSC promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions, this was enough for Hillel to kibosh a program sponsored by a Jewish student group.

If this sounds vaguely like deja vu to you, that’s because back in March 2011, Brandeis University Hillel refused to allow student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to affiliate under its umbrella, citing the very same guidelines. Then senior Lev Hirschorn commented at the time:

We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table, but there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable.

As open debate and discussion have been indelible aspects of Jewish culture from time immemorial these attempts at muzzling students’ voices are particularly egregious. Hillel International’s guidelines (which are not obligatory for local Hillels) essentially ensure that there will be no honest and open Jewish conversations about Israel on campuses across the country. They will most certainly exclude growing Jewish student groups such as JVP – and they will also prevent Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, since almost all Palestinian campus groups support BDS.

Trust me on this: this has everything to do with the Jewish establishment’s fear of letting young Jews think for themselves on the subject of Israel. Not convinced? Just read this recent piece in the Washington Jewish Week, in which Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (chairperson of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinical Council) offered up this choice observation:

I think it is important to begin to help prepare our children for what they are going to encounter on college campuses in regard to pro-Palestinian groups, the anti-Israel groups on Israel and radical fringe groups like Jewish Voices for Peace.

These are not J Street. Our kids are relatively sheltered, and they go to college and are confronted with hostility and misinformation. I want them to be equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the historical justification for the existence of the state of Israel.

Well that certainly says it all. We need to protect our poor, vulnerable, non-critically thinking young people from Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians.  Since we can’t trust college students to think for themselves, we must “equip” them with what we deem to be the acceptable historical Jewish opinions on Israel. This profoundly patronizing, pseudo mind-controlling approach to Jewish outreach explains why the Jewish establishment is fast making itself irrelevant to young people – and why it feels compelled to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to send college students on all expenses paid Birthright junkets and free trips to the National AIPAC Convention.

Please join me in advocating for a Jewish student community that respects a plurality of Jewish student voices on Israel/Palestine. Please sign this petition by Open Hillel, a coalition of students that seek to change the “standards of partnership” in Hillel International’s guidelines and encourages local campus Hillels to adopt policies that “allow for free discourse on all subjects within the Hillel community.”

From the Open Hillel website:

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International’s mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

In addition, we believe that inter-community dialogue and free discourse, even on difficult subjects, is essential in the context of an educational institution and a democratic society. Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.

Sure doesn’t sound like the words of “sheltered,” “unequipped” young people to me…


American Rabbis to Obama: Hold Netanyahu Accountable!

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The following letter was just released by Jewish Voice for Peace and will soon be delivered to the White House:

Dear President Obama,

We are writing this letter to you as American rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students, serving a wide range of Jewish communities.   We were dismayed to learn that, immediately following the recognition by the United Nations of observer status for Palestine, the government of Israel issued permits to begin development of two large tracts of settlement housing in highly contested areas in  East Jerusalem (E-1) and the West Bank (Maaleh Adumim.)

As you well know, these expansion permits are damaging not only to prospects for Palestinian self-determination but also for peace in the region.  We urge you in the strongest terms to use your full authority to oppose these expansions, which are illegal under international law and which also make impossible any hope of creating a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank.

We represent a growing voice within American Jewry which seeks an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its stranglehold by blockade of the people of Gaza.  We believe that the aggressive expansion of settlements in the Occupied territories constitutes a deliberate strategy to obstruct a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  We believe further that the United States, as the primary global source of financial and political support for the  Israeli government, has an obligation to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for these actions, which thwart the possibility of peaceful resolution of the conflict.

It is no longer the case — if it ever was — that the Jewish community in the United States  is unified in its support of the policies of successive Israeli governments, which have sought to create “facts on the ground” that obstruct the hopes of independence and sustainability for the Palestinian people.  Absent active intervention by the United States and other nations, Israel will surely continue to implement these destructive policies.

As leaders of the American Jewish community, we join you in hope for a just peace for all the peoples of the region.  Please know that you have our strong support for demanding that the government of Israel reverse for this latest action and for all that you can do to lead the way to a fair and sustainable resolution.

Yours sincerely,

Rabbi Margaret Holub

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Rabbi Brian Walt

Rabbi Lynn Gottleib

Rabbi Joseph Berman

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

Rabbi Julie Greenberg

Rabbi Borukh Goldberg

Rabbi Eyal Levinson

Rabbi David Mivasair

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Alana Alpert

Cantor Michael Davis

Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg

Rain Zohav

Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer

Jessica Rosenberg

Ken Rosenstein

Rabbi Shai Gluskin

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert

Ari Lev Fornari

Rabbi Art Donsky

Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Rabbi Linda Holtzman

Rabbi Leonard Beerman

Rabbi Alexis Pearce

Rabbi Sarra Lev

David Basior


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