Rosove Shares His Progressive Take on Israel and Its Future

January 15, 2020

The key to understanding why Rabbi John L. Rosove wrote his latest book, “Why Israel (and Its Future) Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation” (Ben Yehuda Press), is found in a single crucial phrase that appears in the subtitle of his new book: “the millennial generation.” 

“I hope to stimulate conversation and dialogue between parents and their grown children,” he explains in the preface, “as well as in synagogue communities, chavurot, teen programming, Hillel chapters, and university classes.”

Rosove, the senior rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood and a prominent voice in the Reform movement, looks at Israel from the stance of someone who proudly calls himself a progressive and an activist. He understands that the case for Israel must be made for American Jews who embrace these values and believe the pursuit of social justice is a core value of Judaism. For Rosove, as for the State of Israel and the Zionist world, the problem to be solved is the gap between Israel and the Diaspora, and millennials are the ones who must close the gap.

“Here we’ve been called to see our own face in the face of the stranger, to honor the rights of others, to value social justice and compassion,” Rosove insists. “The distance between here and there — the Israel that is and that ought to be, and the America that is and ought to be — is vast, and you and your generation will be the ones to carry that vision into the future.”

“Why Israel Matters” is a sequel to “Why Judaism Matters,” which was reviewed in the Journal in 2017. Rosove adopts the same approach in both books — he makes his arguments in letters addressed to his grown sons, David and Daniel, that are signed, “Love, Dad,” and they respond to their father’s letters in an afterword. Each chapter includes a short list of “Discussion Questions” that are meant to inspire the readers to think and speak for themselves.

“As you listen to and read the news about Israel, have you at any time felt that your liberal Jewish values are in conflict with the choices and the military of Israel have taken?” Rosove asks the reader in one such question. “If so, what specific actions have challenged you and your values?”

To his credit, Rosove does not understate or oversimplify the tensions that exist in the Jewish world. “At its best, Israel is filled with intellectual vigor, a spirit of self-criticism, and the particularly Jewish habit of constantly questioning itself,” he writes. “[T]here’s also a growing intolerance among some sectors of the population, especially from the religious right wing that is threatened by honest criticism and debate.” But he insists that “we can maintain our connection with Israel even when the Israeli government behaves in ways we find morally objectionable.”

For Rosove, as for the State of Israel and the Zionist world, the problem to be solved is the gap between Israel and the Diaspora, and millennials are the ones who must close the gap.

Rosove enlivens his arguments with recollections of his own engagement and commitment over a long and distinguished career. He was studying Hebrew in Jerusalem in advance of his first year of rabbinical studies when he heard the air raid sirens that signaled the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He volunteered to take the place of young Israelis who had been called to the fighting front by working on the night shift at a commercial bakery during the blackout hours. 

“I remember thinking for the first time in my life that from the center of the Jewish world in the holiest city in Judaism, I was participant in Jewish history,” he recalls.

Many of Rosove’s memories hark back to his own education as a Jew and a Zionist here in Southern California. The late Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple, a pacifist and a human rights activist, became “a rabbinic model and a cherished friend.” Shlomo Bardin, founder of what is now called the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, bestowed upon Rosove “a less intellectual and more visceral cultural sense of Jewish identity.” And he eventually came to think of himself as “a liberal Reform aspirational Zionist” whose “liberalism demands acceptance of the other.”

Rosove is equally vigorous and exacting when it comes to debunking the “incendiary statements tossed into conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” including what he calls “the ‘Zionism is Racism’ Argument,” “the ‘Israel is an Apartheid State’ Argument” and “the ‘Jews were never there’ Argument.” But he also insists that criticism of a specific policy of the government of Israel — “and especially with regard to the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank” — is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. Indeed, he argues that “being pro-Israel also means being pro-Palestinian,” and that “justice for the Palestinians is essential for a lasting peace.” 

Like all progressives, Rosove is an unabashed optimist. “I’m not blind to the truth that Israel, like all democracies, is imperfect,” he writes. “I don’t excuse the occupation of another people for a minute. … But all things considered, Israel is an extraordinary success story, an experiment that has inspired hopes and dreams not just of the Jewish people, but of many peoples around the world. Even Israel’s enemies esteem what it created.”

The book ends with an argument for Jewish exceptionalism. Is the Jewish state just one country among many countries, all of which assert the right to act solely in their own best interest? Or does Israel hold itself to a higher authority? His answer will come as no surprise: “It’s clear that Isaiah’s vision that the Jewish people ought to be an or lagoyim — ‘a light unto the nations’ (42:6) — is manifesting itself in a thousand rays of light.” 

One such ray of light is “Why Israel (and Its Future) Matters.” Crucially, Rosove seeks to open, rather than change, the minds of his readers, to “provoke conversation between American liberal Jews and Israelis.” But the conversation must start here in America, where Israel has become a volatile subject to bring up among Jews with different points of view. If Rosove’s challenging but also compelling book allows us to find a way to speak to one another, his optimism will be justified.

Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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