It was on December 28, 2008, soon after Israel launched its punishing military campaign in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, that Rabbi Brant Rosen hit the “send” key for a… blog post… that he believed could well pitch him out of his pulpit.
“We good liberal Jews are ready to protest oppression and human-rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all too willing to give Israel a pass,” Rosen had typed out as Israel’s bombs were falling on Gaza — part of a massive response, with numerous civilian casualties, to rockets fired into Southern Israel by the Palestinian faction Hamas, which controls the territory.
“What Israel has been doing to the people of Gaza,” Rosen, 50, wrote on his blog, Shalom Rav, “is an outrage.”
The young rabbi, then a decade into his tenure as spiritual leader of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, a 520-household synagogue in Evanston, Ill., concluded his 221-word post with these sentences: “There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?”
That rhetorical question came from a writer whom Newsweek had named earlier that year to its list of the top 25 pulpit rabbis in the United States.
Today, Rosen, 50, heads the rabbinical council of a group called Jewish Voice for Peace, which makes him a high-profile official with an organization on a much different kind of list: the Anti-Defamation League’s… “Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in the U.S.”… for 2013.
JVP, which is No. 6 on the list, does not just criticize Israel’s fundamental policies toward the Palestinians and Iran, while claiming its position as a matter of Jewish values. The group contains a range of Israel critics, from self-described left-wing Zionists who favor some form of binational state to outright anti-Zionists. And it supports boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against targets it views as involved in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. As an organization, it is determinedly agnostic on whether Israel should be governed as an explicitly Jewish state.
An October 2013 report from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs underlines how unusual Rosen’s profile is. Of 552 rabbis from varied points on the political spectrum that the council polled, nearly 40% said they sometimes or often avoided expressing their true feelings about Israel.
“[Rabbis] frequently find themselves fearful of, or caught in the maelstrom of, tension regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their personal views about it,” the JCPA report said.
Rosen said the report’s findings were consistent with his own observations regarding his colleagues. “Most rabbis just don’t engage in Israel at all. They don’t fit in the AIPAC route,” he said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful mainstream pro-Israel lobby. “But they’re also afraid to speak their truth on this issue”¦. I confess I was like that for a long time.”
Rosen’s credo for his own congregational leadership is a famous journalistic motto: to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If he had not become a rabbi, Rosen said, his longtime dream had been to become a newspaper columnist.