August 19, 2019

The Future of Pro-Israel Activism

I have just returned from the 3rd annual J Street Conference in Washington D.C. attended by 2500 pro-Israel pro-peace activists from around the country and world. I was invited to deliver a statement to the plenary on the future of pro-Israel activism, and I offer those remarks here.

“Good afternoon. My name is John Rosove and I am the Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. I am the Future of Pro-Israel activism because I believe that progressive Zionism is the best assurance that Israel will remain secure, Jewish and democratic.

Gloria Steinem was right when she said that “All politics is personal,” and so before I share a bit about how my Pro-Israel activism has shaped my life and rabbinate, I want to say a few words about my roots in Zionist and Jewish leadership.

In the late 19th century half my family left Ukraine for Canada and the United States and the other half went to Palestine. Those who made aliyah were religious Jews and arrived in Jerusalem in 1880. Along with Jeremy Ben-Ami’s great-grandparents, my family were among the original settlers of Petach Tikva when they moved there in 1882. My great-great uncle was famous as Petach Tikva’s first shomer, policeman, and as both Theodor Herzl’s and Chaim Weizmann’s body guard whenever they visited the land. Another cousin became the founding professor of the Department of Near Eastern Languages at the Hebrew University, translated the Koran and A 1001 Nights to Hebrew. Yet another helped facilitate the Camp David Accords as a Knesset attorney, and a third, Ruby Rivlin, is the sitting Speaker of the Knesset.

In Los Angeles, my uncles and aunts were top leaders of the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Federation, the American Jewish Committee, Brandeis Camp Institute, and the Jewish Centers Association in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

I was tutored in classic mid-century Jewish liberalism and claim as my childhood rabbis Leonard Beerman and Richard Levy who mentored me in civil disobedience during the civil rights and Vietnam eras.

Taken together, all roads led me to serious engagement in Jewish religious, communal and Zionist life. My passion for Israel was especially inspired in those heady years immediately after the 1967 Six Day war and reflecting the sentiment of Yehuda Halevi, though my body is here b’kitzei maarav (at the far ends of the west), libi b’mizrach (my heart lives in the east). I feel as at home there as I do here and when I am not there, I yearn for her. My adult life has been in part a struggle to join my two central worlds as a liberal American Jew and an ohev am u-m’dinat Yisrael (lover of the people and state of Israel).

It is therefore as a Progressive Reform Zionist that I have found my true and natural home. As such I take the view that Jewish nationalism must envision our people’s independence as a means of serving humanity as a whole, that we might fulfill Isaiah’s vision to be an or lagoyim, “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). I believe that social justice must be applied to all the major issues confronting Israeli society including Israeli Arab and Palestinian rights, minority rights, immigrant worker rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, poverty, education, and justice. Israel becoming a just society in every way needs to be the endgame if Israel is to live its own Declaration of Independence. It isn’t enough for us here in the west to mouth the right words. We have to be prepared to put our money where our mouths are, to visit Israel often, to support those progressive forces there working towards these good, just and decent ends, and, for some of us, to make aliyah.

Just as we expect much of the Jewish state, we Diaspora Jews have an obligation to give back to Israel not just our love and ideas, but of our time, expertise and treasure, especially when it’s hard to do so, when we feel frustrated, angry and alienated by Israel’s government policies and direction.

The organizations I support (e.g. Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tzelem, New Israel Fund, Shalom Achshav, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Israel Religious Action Center, and Hiddush) represent a vision of Israel that is Jewish, democratic, pluralistic, compassionate, and just. They and others like them need strong American Jewish support just as we American Jews need Israel to embody the values we cherish…We need Israel and Israel needs us – it’s a relationship that must be intimate and mutual. The Talmud (Pesachim 112a) makes this point when it says, Yoter ha-egel rotzeh linok, parah rotzei l’hanik – “Even more than the calf needs to suck, the mother needs to suckle.”

Though my synagogue is located at the far ends of the west, I feel grateful that by and large my community has embraced my progressive Zionist vision. Even so, I have my share of members who don’t share that vision, and who I know I have irritated over the years. The challenge for me as their rabbi is…to show them sincere respect for their vision, as different as it is from what I believe, even as I hope they respect mine as different as it is from theirs. 

Over many years I and many in my community have created and nurtured a safe and open space to talk about Israel and engage multiple perspectives and viewpoints. It’s through this kind of robust dialogue that religious and community leaders can best support Israel.

Even so, I’ve been attacked for my progressive Zionist activism. I was especially criticized when my synagogue hosted Jeremy Ben-Ami this past spring in dialogue with David Suissa, the President of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, an equally passionate, articulate and intelligent Israel advocate, who incidentally, is speaking at this conference after Jeremy invited him when they appeared together at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

I had already been tagged communally as a “J Street Rabbi” for articles I penned in support of J Street’s vision and activism, and in this role I know that I’ve been dismissed by many in the LA Jewish community as being beyond the pale of “acceptable” pro-Israel activism.

I know and you know that we are not beyond the pale. Our pro-Israel pro-peace positions represent, according to recent surveys, not only the majority in the American Jewish community but also that of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. More importantly, progressive pro-Israel activism is the future because the alternative, which represents the status quo (i.e. the brutal occupation and submission of another people), is what most endangers Israel’s integrity and existence and its future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Chazak chazak v’nitchazek. May we be strong and together strengthen each other. Amen!