Friday, September 05, 2014

Israel Can't Be the Third Rail

Rabbi Brant Rosen, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Evanston, Illinois, took me to task in January 2013 for writing a blog post supporting SodaStream, the Israeli company that produces home water carbonation machines. This was a week before the 2013 Super Bowl in which SodaStream created a lot of buzz with their expensive "Set the Bubbles Free" commercial during the game (this was a year before SodaStream's big hype Scarlett Johansson Super Bowl commercial). Rosen closed his blog post stating that "those concerned with human rights should know that freedom for real, living breathing human beings is what is truly at stake here."

Well, if Rabbi Rosen understood my argument correctly he would have understood that SodaStream employs over 500 West Bank Palestinians in addition to about the same number of Arabs from eastern Jerusalem and paying them a fair wage. Rosen's call to boycott SodaStream would actually end up hurting the very goal of Palestinian rights that he's trying to achieve.

Why am I bringing up Rabbi Brant Rosen and his misinformed blog post almost two years later? It is because Rosen recently resigned his position at his pulpit after his anti-Israel views caused too much dissent within his congregation. His very public resignation (he says he was not forced out by the board) has led to much discussion among rabbis (of all denominations) as to whether voicing opinions on Israel has become the third rail of the North American rabbinate.

Rabbi Brant Rosen on Israel and Palestine

Has it become more challenging for rabbis to speak publicly about Israel? In many cases, I think it has because there is more variance within the Jewish community with regard to political leanings on Israel affairs. In most cases, I have noticed that rabbis continue to publicly support Israel from the pulpit, but are finding that there are small pockets of their congregation who have left leaning political viewpoints on Israel and the Palestinian situation. I first found this to be the case about eight years ago when I encouraged my congregation to write letters to President George W. Bush thanking him for supporting Israel. It seemed like a call to action that shouldn't have been challenged due to political sentiment because both Republicans and Democrats who are pro-Israel could write a letter of appreciation to the sitting president thanking him for supporting Israel. A few years earlier (certainly a generation earlier) and a recommendation like that would not have been challenged within a synagogue community.

Brant Rosen's resignation was reported on yesterday in the Chicago Tribune and I think it will open up the discussion of how congregations deal with disparate viewpoints concerning Israel from within. Rosen had served as the rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation for 17 years and was not always as vocal about his solidarity with the Palestinian cause as he had been in recent years. He said his resignation came about when "his outspoken views produced a divide he no longer felt he could bridge."

Rosen has long spoken out on the conflict, and his blog,, contains many posts critical of Israeli policy, most recently about the fighting in Gaza. The latest entry rewrites the first chapter of the biblical Book of Lamentations to denounce Israel's actions in the contested strip of land:
The blog has provoked strong responses from commenters who say Rosen excuses Palestinian acts of terrorism and gives cover to anti-Semites. Congregation member Lisa Pildes said Rosen's very public stances gave the false impression that everyone at the synagogue agreed with him and crimped what should have been a more vigorous conversation.

I certainly do not see eye to eye with Rosen when it comes to Israel and I understand how his congregants were uneasy with what could be considered public opinion that was not in concert with the Jewish community's pro-Israel sentiment. The problem that Rosen's resignation underscores, however, is that the way the Jewish community in North America talks about Israel has vastly changed in this century. Those who attend synagogue regularly were once thought of as AIPAC Jews, but now there are those who find themselves more aligned with much more liberal organizations like J-Street or even Jewish Voices for Peace.

There's a part of me that wishes that Rabbi Rosen would have stayed in his congregation and allowed his congregants to challenge his opinions (the same way rabbis try to challenge the opinions of congregants). But there's also the part of me that understands why he made the right decision by resigning his position. Israel needs the support of Diaspora Jewry and if our religious leaders are going to publicly denounce Israel's right to defend itself, I am concerned about the future.

1 comment:

Stuart Wiston said...

I think the bigger issue may be the 17 years he led his congregation. When he started, he and his congregation were, to some extent anyway, in synch. But during such a long time period, new people join and old ones move away. Some marry in and some die out. The congregation changes considerably over that time.
In the Orthodox world, the rabbi is right. In the world of Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform, he/she is certainly not. It must be hard to stay close enough to the center over time, certainly on many important issues such as Israel and the Comminity's relationship to it.
In our community, the third rail became the unwillingness to innovate. In others it has been acceptance of GLBT families. In this one it seems to have been Israel.
That's not to say it's not an important issue and one that is easy to become empassioned about. But it is saying that there are other issues as well.
Communities have communal attitudes. It seems like over time, Rabbi Rosens attidues became strongly out of synch with his congregations. If they will not follow, he cannot lead.