Talking JRC and AFSC on WBEZ: My Interview with “The Morning Shift”

MicI had the pleasure this morning of being interviewed by Chicago Public Radio’s Jason Marck for the “The Morning Shift” program on WBEZ.

Here’s their description of our conversation:

After 17 years as the rabbi and spiritual leader at JRC-The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston–Rabbi Brant Rosen conducted his last service on December 19th. His views, work, and words on the Israel/Palestine issue caused deep rifts among the members at JRC, and Rosen ultimately believed it was best for himself and the community that he resign. Rosen joins us to talk about the decision, the controversies, and his new job with the American Friends Service Committee.

Click here to give a listen.


Thoughts on the Passing of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, of Blessed Memory

With Rabbi Leonard Beerman, left, Los Angeles, 2/2014

With Rabbi Leonard Beerman, left, Los Angeles, 2/2014

I am devastated to learn of the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l, who died early this morning at the age of 93. His death comes as a profound shock to those of us who knew and loved him. Despite his advanced age, Leonard maintained his extraordinary vigor and energy until very recent days.

Readers of this blog may recall my post on our joint speaking presentation in Los Angeles last February. It was such a tremendous honor for me hold this open conversation with him, in which we mutually explored the subject of “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit.”

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

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.

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.

Little did I know, as I wrote these words, that I would be posting them again in less than a year’s time, as a tribute to his memory. And little did I know last February, as I openly shared my open admiration for Leonard as a congregational rabbinical role model, that in only a few months I would be find myself unable to continue combining radical political activism with a congregational rabbinate. I am all the more in awe of what Leonard was able to achieve, serving as the rabbi for Leo Baeck Temple for 37 years as he bravely spoke out on important and controversial issues of his day. We will not soon see the likes of him again.

I encourage you to read this wonderful LA Times profile of Rabbi Beerman that was published just last month. You can see our presentation in its entirety below.

May his memory be a blessing forever.


From JRC to AFSC: On Painful Transitions and Exciting New Beginnings

logo_1_1As many readers of this blog already know, I resigned from Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation last August and have recently started a wonderful new gig as Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee. I’m still sorting through a variety of emotions. The circumstances of my leaving JRC were complex and painful – and things were complicated yet further by a spate of (largely inaccurate) media articles about my resignation. I wrote about this subject at length in my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon; of all the reports, probably the most thorough and accurate was this piece in the Chicago Jewish News.

afsc-logo-gifI will undoubtedly share some thoughts about my experience in future posts. In the meantime, however, I am looking forward to the future with genuine excitement and am thrilled to be working for the AFSC, an organization I’ve known well for many years and whose peace and justice mission is so near and dear to my heart. I look forward to posting on this blog about my ongoing work with AFSC in much the same way that I did with my former job. My disclaimer, however, still holds: the positions and opinions I express here are fully my own and not reflective of my employer or any other organization with which I am affiliated.

For starters here is a recent “Introduction to the new Midwest Regional Director” that was recently posted on the AFSC website. I hope it conveys how blessed I feel to be continuing my rabbinate in this new and exciting way:

Please tell us something about yourself.

I’m a native of Los Angeles but have lived in Evanston since 1998, where until recently I’ve served as the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. My wife Hallie and I have been married since 1987 and we have two sons, Gabe (21) and Jonah (18). Before coming to the Chicago area we lived in Philadelphia for five years (where I attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) and in Denver for five years, where I served my first congregation.

While I suppose many might describe my demeanor as laid back, I tend to get very passionate and driven, whether it is books or movies that I love, relationships that are important to me, or causes that I believe in. When I think about the most important influences in my life, I’d say that my family and my upbringing bequeathed to me my deep connection to Jewish identity as well as my strong devotion to activism and social justice. For better or worse, unfairness and injustice tend to keep me up nights – and getting involved in progressive movements for social change has always felt pretty much unavoidable for me.

What has drawn you to work for AFSC?

During the course of my activist work, I’ve invariably found myself working with and marching alongside AFSC folks and progressive Quakers in general. AFSC has really been a fairly ubiquitous and natural presence in the circles in which I’ve traveled. As I’ve become increasingly involved with Palestinian solidarity work in particular, I’ve found wonderful colleagues and friends among the staff people in AFSC’s Middle East program, both here in Chicago and around the country.

I’ve been especially mindful and appreciative of AFSC’s deep engagement in Israel/Palestine justice work. Too often, I think, we in the Jewish community have maintained something of a proprietary relationship to that particular piece of land – and it has been important to me to learn that there are many other important “stake holders” in Israel/Palestine, including AFSC, which has been deeply invested there since well before the state of Israel was founded.

Having said this, I’m also struck that AFSC programs tend to focus on virtually all the issues I’ve been concerned about and involved in over the years: i.e. anti-militarism, immigrant and labor justice, mass incarceration, and issues of structural racism in general. Closer to home, I’ve also cultivated a nice relationship with Evanston Friends Meeting; I’ve spoken there on more than one occasion and have worked with some of its members in local Evanston peace actions.

Now that I’m officially a “Quaker Rabbi,” I’m eager to learn more about Quaker history, ideology and spirituality. From what I’ve learned already, I can clearly see important parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish spiritual values. (I’m going to write more about this for AFSC’s blog “Acting in Faith,” so stay tuned….)

What’s your vision of peace and justice work in AFSC’s Midwest Region?

First and foremost, I share AFSC’s profound vision of “a world in which lasting peace with justice is achieved through nonviolence and the transforming power of love.” I don’t know how to say it any better actually and I’m grateful to AFSC for articulating this vision so simply and powerfully (and, I hasten to add, for implementing this vision around the world in transformative ways for almost a century).

In a more immediate sense, I’m eager to learn how AFSC’s social justice mission has been realized in the unique context of the Midwest Region. While the imperative to create “lasting peace with justice” is obviously a universal one, I’m also well aware that our programs in the Midwest have a history and culture all their own – and I’m excited to learn how this vision has been translated and realized in regional terms. I’m especially looking forward to meeting and getting to know our staff, Executive Committee members and volunteers to learn from them where we’ve succeeded, where we’ve encountered obstacles, and to envision together how to implement our shared vision in an impactful and sustainable way.

Having been involved extensively in programmatic work from my experience in congregational life, I’ve come to believe strongly that the best way to build successful programs is from the ground up, i.e., meeting our constituents where they are and not where we think they “should be.” Simply put, that means we need to be an integral part of the communities we serve, to build real relationships with those whose lives are most directly impacted by the issues we address.

I also believe that while we might separate issues from one another for good tactical reasons, we would do well to understand their intersectionality. To cite but one recent example: I was so struck – and in fact moved – when I read tweets this past summer from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri that explained how to concoct homemade remedies for tear gas inhalation. These simple gestures of solidarity were for me a reminder of the manner in which American militarism impacts lives both here and abroad – and why the proper response must ultimately be one that consciously connects these dots.

How do you take care of yourself in doing this challenging work? 

Any form of caregiving work – whether pastoral or political – necessitates giving fully of our authentic selves. However, I’ve come to learn, from hard experience, that we will easily run dry if we don’t take real responsibility for refilling the emotional/spiritual wells which keep us going. I think many of us mistakenly assume that giving of ourselves is its own reward. And while this kind of work is undeniably gratifying, it is also by its very nature exhausting and depleting, unless we regularly take the time to replenish ourselves and our souls.

And so if we’re truly in this for the long haul, I believe we must constantly ask ourselves, “What replenishes my soul?” “How will I refill the well?” That answer will obliviously differ from person to person. For many of us, of course, it means cultivating a genuine and meaningful spiritual life – but even then, the specific answers to these questions will invariably change and evolve throughout our lives. But no matter what the answers might be, I do strongly believe that we must find the wherewithal to incorporate self–care into our lives if we want to make a difference in the lives of others and the world around us.

So, have you changed your allegiance from the Dodgers to the Cubs since your move to Chicago? 

Oh yeah, I’m a fickle fan. But don’t tell anyone…


How Will We Memorialize the Dead in Jerusalem?

1022111_Candlelight_Vigil_1_AC

Here, below, is the Shabbat e-mail I sent to my congregation today in response to the recent violence in Jerusalem. Click here to read a letter I co-wrote with Rabbi Alissa Wise for Jewish Voice for Peace, addressing the political context of these tragic events.

Dear Haverim,

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, Rebecca experiences great pain as her twins struggle in her womb. After inquiring of God, she is told that her two sons represent two warring peoples, one of whom will be mightier than the other. As she experiences her prenatal pain, Rebecca says, “If so, why do I exist?”

There are many ways to understand Rebecca’s comment; one interpretation views her exclamation as the endlessly desperate response of humanity to the seemingly unfixed and eternal nature of war and bloodshed between people and nations.

Such grief stricken exclamations have surely been issuing from the city of Jerusalem this past week – a city that has seen its share of bloodshed over the centuries. There is no denying that there is a political context to this recent violence – and like many, I have my own opinions about this context and what must be done to avoid violence in the future. Regardless of where we fall on this issue, I do believe that if we are honor the dead – of Jew and Palestinian alike – we must redouble our efforts toward pursuing a just peace in this land.

The question remains, however, how do we, as Jews, grieve amidst such such a context? How do we find a measure of comfort when violence occurs in a time that more often than not feels so endlessly, painfully hopeless? I’d like to offer you two Jewish responses that personally offered me a measure of comfort this past week.

The first is this message to the Jewish community that was recently released from the widows and families of the four Jewish victims who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue this past Tuesday:

A request from the grieving widows and families:

From the depth of our broken hearts and with tears over the murder of the holy victims, the heads of our families, we turn to our brothers and sisters, every Jew, wherever you are, and request that we all join together as one, to bring heavenly mercy upon us. Therefore, let us accept upon ourselves to increase our love and brotherhood with each other, between each of us, between different groups, and between different communities.

We request that each person endeavors this Friday afternoon before Shabbat Parshat Toldot to sanctify this Shabbat (Erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev) as a day of causeless love, a day on which we all refrain from talking about our differences and grievances against others, and refrain from any slander or evil gossip.

Through this may there be a great merit for the souls of the fathers of our families who were slaughtered for the sanctity of God.

May God look down from above, and see our grief, and wipe away our tears, and proclaim ‘enough with the suffering!’, and may we merit to see the arrival of the Messiah, may it happen speedily in our days, Amen.

Chaya Levin, and family
Brayna Goldberg, and family
Yakova Kupinsky, and family
Basha Twersky, and family

I also encourage you to read this post from Lew Weissman, a traditional orthodox Jewish blogger whose writings I’ve followed for many years and whose teachings I have found to be profoundly wise and compassionate.

Here is an excerpt:

When I see the picture of a man in tallit and tefillin (like me every morning) shot dead in a pool of blood in synagogue (where I too customarily go every day) I am overcome with a wave of nausea followed by a surge of anger. I don’t have words for the fury and the fear at the thought of a person charging into our place of worship and hacking a fellow Jew, who, like me, appears before God in tallit and tefillin, to death. If he weren’t just like me would I feel the same? I don’t know. I look at the black pants, the white shirt, the build of the man, the black striped tallis that I wear and this is deeply personal. This brutal monster has killed one of US and I am furious.

In that, I am just the same as the person who taunts me.

Where I differ is that while I get that I am going to feel more intensely when I have an affinity for another human being as a fellow Jew, I also strive to see all human beings as “in the image of God” (so to speak, trust me on this my Muslim friends, this really is NOT a blasphemous notion- its metaphorical). Each human being is a reflection of the Divine majesty and precious to their Creator. Where is that well of outrage when every single day human beings are being hacked, torn, shot for every possible excuse? Where are my tears for the innocent of every color, race, language, and faith?

…Where I differ is that as much as I sometimes want to, I don’t believe that I have permission to give up. I feel compelled by the example of Abraham, who pleaded to God for the murderous idolaters of Sodom. My struggle, like his, is to strive to uplift humanity in any way that I can, not to wish for its destruction, not even the destruction of the worst of us. Abraham believed that even a few righteous people could turn around an entire world gone crazy. So I reach out to the righteous, encourage the good where I can because it’s the only plan I have got.

May the memory of all the dead be for a blessing.


Remember Tomas Young: No More Boots in Iraq!

Like many I’m sure, when I heard about the death of courageous Iraq war veteran/anti-war activist, Tomas Young last week, I felt deep sadness at the loss of one more precious voice for peace and justice in the world. At the same time, given the grievous chronic pain he endured as a result of his war injuries, I found some comfort in the knowledge that he was finally free from his suffering.

And, yes, I also felt a sense of rising anger that while I read the obituary that described his legacy of sacred witness, I was all too aware of the reports that our government was gearing up to send combat troops back into Iraq.

I first learned about Tomas Young from the 2007 documentary, “Body of War” a profound and at times unbearably painful testimony to the human cost of war. Upon hearing of his death, I re-watched the film and re-read Young’s searing 2013 essay, “A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a Dying Veteran,” which he wrote after deciding to enter hospice care and refuse nutrition through a feeding tube. (He later changed his mind, citing the love and support of his second wife Claudia). “Message” is, quite simply, one of the most important anti-war documents of our time:

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

“Body of War” is both an intimate document of Young’s painful post-war odyssey and a damning exposé of political hypocrisy. The film is framed by the Congressional debates on whether or not to grant President Bush the authority to invade Iraq; as we witness Young pay the costs of this misbegotten war, we watch as one by one, Democrats and Republicans alike line up to parrot the Bush administration lies that led us into Iraq in 2003.

(photo via Nation of Change)

(photo via Nation of Change)

And now we learn that our nation’s military adventures in Iraq are not over by a long shot.  Just days after Young’s death, in fact, Congress has begun gearing up for a debate on whether or not to grant President Obama the authority to wage war in Iraq and Syria. While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said he might recommend sending combat units back into Iraq, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has declared that any authorization of force that ruled out the use of US ground troops in Iraq would be “dead on arrival.”

Please don’t let Tomas Young’s suffering and death be in vain. Watch “Body of War.” (The full movie is available on YouTube) Read “Message From a Dying Veteran.”  Read this moving description of his final days by Chris Hedges. Then sign this petition that rightly declares:

Forgotten in the rush to war is the fact that we have been at this abyss before. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 preceded the growth of Al Qaeda there. ISIS became its malignant offshoot in Sunni regions repressed by our client state in Baghdad. Is this not a case where the military medicine worsens the disease? The last Iraq War led to long-terms costs in thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars wasted which should have been spent on the environment, education and jobs. We simply cannot afford to repeat the past…

We call for a full debate on whether to authorize the widening new war in Iraq and Syria. A congressional vote will allow citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable now and in 2016. Since President Obama already says there is no military solution and the war will last at least three years, we urge a No vote. If the new war is authorized, the following conditions must be debated and voted on:

1. A narrow definition of “the enemy” – the Islamic State – no loophole to a wider war as occurred in the war-on-terrorism, where an open-ended mandate led to wars and quagmires in many countries

2. Keep the presidential pledge that there will be no American ground troops; already that promise has changed to no “combat” troops;

3. A sunset provision ending the war authorization in one year, thus requiring another Congressional approval before 2016;

4. An independent reporting mechanism for all casualties, civilian casualties, direct and indirect taxpayer costs, and measurements of progress;

5. A primary emphasis on diplomacy aimed at power-sharing among disenfranchised communities and a prohibition against funding sectarian war.

Wars are easy for politicians to approve. But history shows that lives and resources are needlessly lost, and careers ruined, when they become quagmires.


Israel in Gaza: Investigating the Ethics of a War of Choice

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In Michael Mitchell’s recent piece for Forward Thinking “Israel’s Moral Army?” (July 18, 2014), Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” (or to use an title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”)

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He thus concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous indeed for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. Indeed, while Israeli and American politicians – and Israel-supporters the world over – have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as Forward Editor-in-Chief JJ Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket …and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.” By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.

This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers – even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility.  It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction – using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.

As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:

In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.

In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell’s effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis a vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.

If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the sacred imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.

If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement – a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.

Moreover, when Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Instead, they opted for yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 370 Palestinians, including 228 civilians, 77 children and 56 women, as well as 18 Israelis.

In other words, before we seek to unpack the ethical question of whether or not the IDF can claim the title of “the most moral army in the world,” it might well behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not these useless, tragic wars need to be fought in the first place.

God of Scarcity, God of Plenitude: My Address to the IPMN

IMG_0458

This past Monday it was my honor to give the keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The event took place in Detroit during the Presbyterian General Assembly and was attended by longtime Christian peace activists, many of whom have become become my dear friends and colleagues in the growing interfaith movement for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. 

Here is a text of my remarks:

I am humbled and honored to have been asked to speak to you tonight – and I’m particularly moved to look around the room and see so many people who have become my friends and colleagues in this amazing and growing movement that means so much to us all. I’d particularly like to thank  (Reverend) Katherine Cunningham (moderator of the IPMN) for being such a gracious host and guide to me during my stay here in Detroit.

I’d like to start by sharing a little bit of my journey and to try to explain how it is that I have come to stand before you today.

In most ways, you might describe me as a pretty average American Jew: I went to a Jewish Community Center pre-school, I grew up in a synagogue, had a Bar Mitzvah and belonged to my Temple Youth group. And like many American Jews, my Jewishness has been indelibly tied up with Israel for my entire life. 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. It is, at its heart, a redemptive narrative – and it has 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 Israeli peace movement. I’ve always been very willing to openly criticize the actions of the Israeli government that I believed were counter to the cause of peace. At the same time, however, I generally viewed these kinds of actions 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.

Over the years, however, I confess, I struggled with gnawing doubts over the tenets of my 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. As an outspoken critic of American militarism, for instance, I would occasionally ask myself why I wasn’t equally as outspoken about Israeli militarism – why I habitually would give a pass to what was, after all, the one of the most militarized countries in the world.

I would also entertain nagging questions about the ethnic nationalism at the heart of Zionism. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state was bound up with its maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. Like many liberal Zionists, I’d often base my arguments for a two state solution by pointing to the population growth of Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the national character of the Jewish state. As an American, I’d never dare describe an ethnic minority in the US as somehow posing a “demographic threat” to our national American character. Why, then, was I so willing to invoke this concept about so freely when it pertained to the Jewish state?

And in the darkest, wee hours of the night, I’d even question the very concept of a Jewish nation-state-ism itself. I’d ask myself, what does it mean to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in a land that has historically been multi-ethnic and multi-religious for centuries? Was it even possible to create a Jewish state that was truly democratic? How could a state define itself as “Jewish” and not view its non-Jewish population, in one way or another, as a problem to be dealt with?

When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my personal political views. Given the ideological centrality of Zionism in the American Jewish community, my questions now carried very real consequences. As I’m sure you know, 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. So you might say I put those inner questions in a lock box and made a safe and comfortable home in liberal Zionism for the first decade of my rabbinate.

As Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians became more patently oppressive and widespread however, it became increasingly difficult for me to ignore my questions. The breaking point for me occurred in December of 2008, as it did for many American Jews. This was, of course, Israel’s military assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.

I remember reading the news out of Gaza with utter anguish. Like many rabbis, my e-mail inbox filled with official Jewish communal talking points about how to respond to the events in Gaza: “This was about Israel’s security pure and simple.” “Like every nation, Israel had a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.” “If Hamas hadn’t launched rockets into Israel, they wouldn’t have had to resort to such drastic military measures.”

In the past, I might have dutifully taken these talking points to heart, along with the obligatory apology: “of course we regret the deaths of innocent civilians.” But this time, I responded differently. In spite of my anguish, or perhaps because of it, I finally felt as if I was approaching this issue with something approaching clarity. The magnitude of Israel’s military onslaught was so disproportionate, so outrageous. By the end of Operation Cast Lead, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, 300 of them children. Whole neighborhoods had been reduced to rubble, Gaza’s infrastructure was left in ruins. By contrast, on the Israeli side, 13 people had been killed. Of these, 10 were soldiers, four of whom by friendly fire.

As I read the increasingly tragic news coming out of Gaza, I came to realize this was not about Israel’s security at all. This was about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. If Israel was truly seeking its security, it was clear to me that it was the kind of security that came from wiping out the other side with the overwhelming strength of its military might. But of course this approach had never and would never bring peace and security to either Israelis or Palestinians.

This is when my paradigm for understanding the Israel/Palestine “conflict” fundamentally shifted. I came to accept that this was not a conflict between two equal sides with claims to the same piece of land. This was about the oppressor and the oppressed.

Although I had always considered myself to be part of the peace camp when it came to Israel – I now came to realize just how hollow it was to invoke the notion of peace without reckoning just as seriously with the concept of justice. I was now ready to accept and to say out loud that Israel’s very founding was irrevocably tied up with a very real injustice to the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this very day. And I knew in my heart that until this injustice was fully faced openly and honestly, there would never truly be peace in this land.

There is much more I could say about my own personal trajectory since that time, but for now, I’ll only say that six years after my break from Liberal Zionism, I have gradually found a home in the growing Palestinian solidarity movement. Much to my surprise and delight, I have found I can actually do this as a Jew. For this I owe a great debt to Jewish Voice for Peace for providing a genuinely Jewish home for those Jews who believe as I do, that Jewish tradition demands that we stand with the oppressed and stand down the oppressor – yes, even when it comes to the state of Israel.

I also continue to serve my congregation in Evanston. That doesn’t mean it has been easy. Needless to say, there are many members of my congregation who do not share my views – and there are some who are deeply pained by my activism. But the fact that I can still remain employed at the congregation that I love and continue to make my home in the Jewish community gives me hope that the parameters of Jewish discourse on this issue are widening in significant ways.

I’m often asked, how can I, as a Jew, take the kind of stands that I do? To this I can only reply: it is because I am a Jew that I take this stand. I believe that standing in solidarity with Palestinians is the most Jewish thing I can do. As a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being, I am primarily motivated by the prophetic strains of Jewish tradition. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By a faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.

I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation – this is historically when religion has been at its very best. And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.

I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

Now, there are many who challenge such a religious vision as naive, as over-idealistic, as noble but unrealistic. They tell me it’s all well and good to promote justice, but in the real world “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” In the real world, we need to make hard compromises to achieve peace.

Whenever I hear these kinds of comments, I can’t help but think back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed the liberal clergy who had told him to stay away from Birmingham and not to rock to boat – and to give them the chance to negotiate with the Jim Crow authorities. I can’t help but think of those who criticized those who advocated for divestment from South African apartheid, who said that such measures would antagonize the apartheid regime and counseled “positive engagement” instead.

In all these cases and so many more, peace was viewed as synonymous with “not disturbing the status quo” and justice was seen as the enemy of the good. But of course, today we now openly venerate these struggles for justice and liberation. And these movements succeeded because they were led by people who understood, as King put it so well in his letter, that “Power is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

I’d like to end by addressing another way in which my theological understandings have been impacted by my participation in this movement. I mentioned earlier that I used to understand 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. As well meaning as such an understanding might be, the problem with this kind of idea is that it is rooted in the notion that any people or nation can actually “stake a claim” on a piece of land. Such a notion can surely be traced back to the Biblical notion of a God that apportions the land and entitles one people to it. To be sure, this is a zero-sum theological model in which there is only enough room on the land for one people – a people who is, moreover, commanded to take possession of the land by dislodging others.

But when we shift the question from “which people has a right to this land?” to “how do we extend full human and civil rights to all who live on the land?” we discover a decidedly different Biblical vision. We lift up the God who tells us that all humanity is made in the divine image – and that when push comes to shove, the land does not ultimately belong to any of us, but to God and we are all but strangers upon it.

I submit to you that our movement is deeply rooted in this theological vision – one that invokes the God of plenitude, not scarcity. After all, when we define our entitlements to a finite commodity such as land, we only doom ourselves to a future filled with endless upheaval and violence. The Bible describes our lot in this regard only too well.

However, when come to understand that our ultimate entitlement is to a boundless commodity such as human rights and human dignity, we ensure a future of true peace for ourselves and our children. This, I believe, is the Biblical vision we share and to which I know we are all so passionately and fervently committed.

It is my honor to share this vision with all of you – and to help build the movement that will one day make it a reality.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,225 other followers