Book review: Outspoken rabbi urges American Jews to “look oppression in the face”

If Adam Shatz was still collecting material for his valuable work Prophets Outcast: A Century of Dissident Jewish Writing about Zionism and Israel (2004), he would probably want to consider including an excerpt from the recently published Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity by Brant Rosen.

Many of the contributors selected in Shatz’s work were Jews who opposed political Zionism from its inception, with some offering an alternative vision of cultural Zionism in which Jews and Arabs would share a common homeland under a neutral state guaranteeing equal rights for all.

Unlike these writers, Rosen initially embraced a “liberal” form of political Zionism but then embarked on a political journey that led him to question and ultimately break with it, the turning point coming with Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s murderous assault on the people of Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Rosen is the rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois, the co-founder with Rabbi Brian Walt of the Jewish Fast for Gaza, and the co-chairman of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. The bulk of this book is drawn from Rosen’s Shalom Rav blog (Hebrew for “abundant peace”), dating from entries written between December 2008 and December 2010 and including the comments which readers left on the blog site.

“Nothing complicated”

It’s fascinating to watch Rosen’s continuing journey even in these writings, as the entries from late 2008 often take the tone of someone who is still questioning Zionism; while those from 2009 and beyond convey remarkable clarity.

On his blog, Rosen engages largely with a religious US Jewish readership, and as a result, much of the questioning tone appears to be meant to encourage dialogue without bludgeoning defenders of Zionism over the head.

Still, he pulls no punches. Writing a year after Operation Cast Lead, Rosen states, “at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution … oppression is oppression.”

Unlike liberal Zionists, Rosen unequivocally condemns the Nakba, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. “By any other name,” he writes, “this would be called ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and I have no trouble saying so.”

In response to a reader, he says, “If Zionism means ethnic cleansing, inequity, and transfer of indigenous peoples without some form of justice or repatriation, then no, I do not consider it to be legitimate.” He asks how is it possible for Jews to have a “right of return” while denying the right to the indigenous Palestinian people.

Rosen questions the idea of a Jewish state and uses the terms “ethnocracy” and “ethnic nationalism” to describe it. “Although I don’t think anyone can legitimately deny the Jewish claim to Israel as its ancestral homeland, it simply doesn’t follow that this religious/cultural connection ipso facto gives us the right of sovereign political control over it.”

Instead, Rosen poses what he believes is the real question: “How can we find a way to extend civil rights, human rights, equality, and security for all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine?”

“Time-honored tactic”

In opposition to most liberal Zionists, Rosen endorses the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, describing it as “a time-honored nonviolent tactic used by disempowered peoples to leverage public support for social change.” In one of the more cogent responses to the charge that BDS is anti-Semitic because it singles out Israel among all the nations in the world that violate human rights, he argues that ignoring the call for BDS would be to ignore the Palestinian people themselves and their struggle for liberation.

Several blog entries tackle the so-called peace process, which Rosen views as unbalanced due to Israel’s overwhelming power and its “special relationship” with the US government. He writes that there will never be a genuine peace process until Israel approaches negotiations from the standpoint of “restorative justice” — that is, accepting responsibility for the Nakba and the ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians.

“End our complicity”

Rosen writes that “somehow, some way, Israelis will have to find a way to reckon with the inherent injustice that has become a part of the fabric of their society.” As for American Jews, “those of us who care deeply about Israel will have to find a way to look this oppression in the face and call it out for what it really and truly is.” American Jews, he adds, need to ask how far they “are willing to go to end our complicity in this oppression.”

In the epilogue, Rosen concludes: “For me, the bottom line is this: The cornerstone value of my religious tradition commands me to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed. It would thus be a profound betrayal of my own Jewish heritage if I consciously chose not to stand with the Palestinian people.

“In other words, I believe my Jewish liberation to be intrinsically bound up with Palestinian liberation. It’s really that simple.”

Voices like Rosen’s are heard with increasing frequency in the US Palestine solidarity movement, even though the American Jewish establishment goes to great lengths to suppress these voices. It has even been suggested that given the size of the Palestinian-American community, a major challenge to the political influence of the Israel lobby could emerge from progressive Jewish forces that reject the warmongering and racist politics of organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

That would be a welcome development indeed for several reasons. For one, it would help defeat the ideological effort to equate Judaism with Zionism. For another, it would expose how — despite the considerable influence of the Israel lobby — the real reason for the US government’s support of Israel is its usefulness as a regional hegemon willing to align itself with US imperial interests in the Middle East.

And finally, it would show that the US Jewish community, like all communities with an ethnic identify, ultimately divides along class lines.

Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.




I am delighted that Wrestling in the Daylight is being publicised more widely. I have had the privilege of reading it already and I also gave it a glowing endorsement via a review on Amazon. It really does deserve to be read as it contains some very sincere and public thinking on some very difficult issues. Yes, as this review points out by quoting from the book, oppression is oppression. But there are so many conflicting voices in the world and even within communities it can be easy to get lost. It is equally easy simply to focus on those voices that are familiar or say the things we like to hear. For me it is the way this book gives voice to those with different opinions that makes it special. Brant Rosen does not suppress the views of those who disagree with him but rather debates them in a constructive and cordial manner. It is a brilliant book and I absolutely agree with this review. I would say this is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Israel/Palestine issue.


A rabbi who takes the Biblical call to justice seriously.


Why can't Israel be like the United States. We don't separate different ethnicity to be forced to live in certain areas. If Israel is forcing Palestinians into what seems to me Indian Reservations then how could we sincerely be sorry about our own history and the genocide of the Native Americans. Then again at times I think maybe we show no compassion because that's our true nature. It seems like the self proclaimed Christian nation doesn't even practice what the bible preaches.