I've identified deeply with Israel all my life. I first visited at a very young age and have been back to visit more times than I can even count. In my early twenties, I spent two years there studying, working, and living on kibbutzim. I have family members and many dear friends who live in Israel. 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. The redemptive nature of this narrative has at times assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older...
So writes Rabbi Brant Rosen of the blog Shalom Rav in the introduction to his new book, Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity, recently released by Just World Books.
In that introduction Rabbi Brant writes about his longstanding liberal Zionism, about his slowly-creeping doubts about Israel's treatment of Palestinians (and his awareness that his concerns arose more out of concern that the occupation was "corrupting Israel's soul" than out of concern for Palestinians per se), about the horrors of the Second Intifada and then Israel's military campaign in Lebanon in 2006.
It was that campaign in Lebanon which began to shake the foundations of his Zionism. "Although I certainly felt compassion for -- along with a certain tribal solidarity with -- the citizens of Northern Israel suffering under Hezbollah rocket fire, I was unable to accept the utter destruction the IDF was inflicting upon Lebanon in the name of national security," he writes.
And then came Operation Cast Lead. Rabbi Brant writes:
On December 28, 2008, I read the first news report of Israel's military assault on Gaza -- a campaign that would soon be well-known as Operation Cast Lead. On the first day of operations, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Hamas security facilities in Gaza, killing more than 225 people, most of whom were new police cadets participating in a graduation ceremony. Numerous civilians, including children, were also among the dead. By the end of the day, it was clear we were only witnessing the beginning of a much longer and even more violent military campaign that would drive much farther into Gaza.
I remember reading this news with utter anguish. At the same time, oddly enough, I realized that I was finally observing this issue with something approaching true clarity: This is not about security at all -- this is about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees.
Once I admitted this to myself, I realized how utterly tired I had become. Tired of trying to excuse the inexcusable. Tired of using torturous, exhausting rationalizations to explain away what I knew in my heart was sheer and simple oppression.
Rabbi Brant notes that "rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel." This is, I think, true -- and it makes his own willingness to publicly chronicle his wrestle with these issues, these stories, and these realities all the more remarkable.
Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi's Path to Palestinian Solidarity is Rabbi Brant's self-curated compilation of his blog posts from Shalom Rav, so if you've been reading Shalom Rav, this material won't be new to you. But I'm finding, as I read, that reading the posts in this new setting and context -- curated by their author into a narrative which clearly shows the progression of his thinking over time -- is a different experience from reading the blog. And Rabbi Brant has chosen to reprint some of the comments from readers as well as responses he's offered to those comments, which gives the book a bit of the internet's Talmudic multivocality (and offers an example of how one can host difficult conversations in a thoughtful and generous way -- which can be hard to come by on the internet, especially on questions of Israel/Palestine.)
The choice to include commentary makes the book particularly interesting, I think. Some of Rabbi Brant's most frequent commentors disagree with him deeply. Over the course of the book, one can see conversations unfolding. Sometimes they are quite heated. And his responses are always thoughtful and respectful, even as he resists attempts at derailing the conversation. Having hosted some conversations about Israel at this blog over the years, I have a sense for how difficult that can be.
At the end of the book, he reprints an article from the Chicago Jewish News with the wonderful headline of Hell freezes over, Cubs win world series, Jews find way to disagree agreeably, about his congregation and its movement toward a new form of dialogue around Israel. The article notes that many of Rabbi Brant's congregants have children who have made aliyah and grandchildren who are settlers, and that his outspokenness about Israel and how he has come to see Israel is not always easy or comfortable for his community.
Here's an excerpt from that article, which closes out the book:
"I have very strong feelings about Israel and I express them pretty openly. My activism is very public," [Rabbi Brant] says. "That is my own truth as a Jew and a rabbi, and it is very important to me to be true to my private personal conscience."
But as the rabbi of JRC, "I also feel strongly that my job is to create the kind of environment where people, even those who don’t agree with me -- and there are many -- feel welcome to express those views and have those views heard. I respect the diversity of opinion at JRC," he says. "We may be (perceived as) left-leaning, but on the subject of Israel, we are more diverse than people think."
The largest group of congregants, he says, fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum, with some on both ends of the spectrum.
With these thoughts in mind, Rosen says, he and a number of congregants "decided together that rather than raise all this dust, it would be a great opportunity to use these emotions in some kind of constructive way."
Rabbi Brant and his congregants contacted the Jewish Dialogue Group, a nonprofit which works to foster constructive dialogue within Jewish communities about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other controversial issues, and together they developed a program called Sicha (conversation) which has helped his congregation enter a new paradigm in their communal conversations about Israel and Palestine. Reading this article as a congregational rabbi -- aware that within my congregation too there is a wide diversity of experience with and opinion about Israel; aware that I have congregants whose children have made aliyah and whose grandkids have served in the IDF; aware that I need to find a way to minister to my community without my own writing on these issues getting in the way of our relationship -- I'm moved and inspired.
Rabbi Brant Rosen is one of my role models in the difficult but important work of coming to terms with the clash between the classic Zionist narrative (a story which many of us want to continue believing -- I know I still yearn for it to be true) and some of the realities on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He models for me not how one would do this internal work despite his ardent Jewishness, but precisely of it; not despite being a rabbi, but precisely because his rabbinate calls him to take seriously the Jewish call to stand with those who are oppressed. And he has also taught me a great deal about how to disagree without falling into the trap of looking down on (or dehumanizing) those with whom one disagrees.
If you're interested in progressive Jewish takes on Israel and Palestine, this book is worth reading, and worth having on your bookshelf to return to again.