The Conversion of 'Rabbi' Roseanne Barr: From Angry Israel Antagonist to Fierce Advocate

The comedian who once called Israel a 'Nazi state' speaks to Haaretz about her fervent support of the country ahead of a speech at a pro-Israel fundraising event in California and visit to the Holy Land in March.

Roseanne Barr onstage at The "COMEDY CENTRAL Roast of Roseanne" at the Hollywood Palladium on AUGUST 4, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
Vince Bucci/PictureGroup

No one is quite sure what happened to Roseanne Barr when it comes to Israel. In 2013, the outspoken, outrageous and very political comedian made an utter about-face, morphing from a fierce critic who called Israel a “Nazi state” into a die-hard supporter, attacking those who criticize the Jewish State with the same angry obscenities she once hurled at the country itself.

The conversion occurred seemingly overnight.

But she has promised to explain it all publicly in the coming days. Barr will address the shift in her activism on February 27 at a reception held by the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, California, where she will be in conversation with Israel advocate Lenny Kristal.

Then she heads to the Holy Land in March to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim with her fellow Kabbalah scholars, and her mother.

“I am speaking to Kabbalists about the meaning of Purim and the book of Esther, which I teach people about and have for about 10-20 years or so,” she told Haaretz, adding that she also plans to “talk with diverse citizens of Israel.”

She has some very festive holiday plans as well. “I will be dressing as Queen Esther and my mom will be Vashti - we plan to drink until we cannot tell the difference between the hero and the villain, as commanded.”

The comedy legend, who created and starred in the breakthrough comedy series “Roseanne,” currently serves as a celebrity judge on NBC’s “Last Comedian Standing.” Her home base is a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii. She hosts a quirky web series, is a budding marijuana mogul with a pot dispensary opening soon in California, and is a famously fiery presence on social media, particularly on Twitter.

Her 288,000 Twitter followers know she tracks Middle East events almost obsessively, retweeting and commenting constantly, often in wild and grammatically creative rants that are quite at odds with the relatively articulate and grounded persona she displays in her frequent television appearances. She regularly intersperses these fierce opinions with photos of her grandchildren and life on the nut farm.

In an extended Twitter direct messaging exchange, Barr spoke with Haaretz about her upcoming speeches and her relationship with her Jewishness and Israel (Her tweets have been edited, with her abbreviations expanded.)

When asked about her dramatic political switch from attacking Israel to defending the country, Roseanne attributed it, as she has in the past, to the controversial Goldstone report on the 2008-9 Gaza war, which accused Israel of intentionally killing civilians, and which was partially repudiated by Richard Goldstone, the committee's chairman.

Barr also said she was influenced by the anti-Semitism she witnessed when campaigning for U.S. president in 2012 on the “Peace and Freedom” ticket (she came in sixth).

“Goldstone was withdrawn and so, all of the assumptions of leftists were proven wrong," she told Haaretz. "Running for [president] and seeing the vast anti-Semitism in the left – constant repetition of debunked Goldstone had a lot to do with [the change in views] too.”

Long before her interest in Israeli politics, right or left, she became a well-known Kabbalah enthusiast. In her 2011 book "Roseannarchy," she wrote extensively about her Jewish family and her strong sense of ethnic and religious identity, as well as one of her visits to Israel.

When asked about that trip, and whether there had been other visits to Israel, she tweeted that she had been to Israel several times, mainly “under the radar."

She said she had been to "every mikveh in Israel," visited "every tomb of my teachers there," opened the first Kabbalah center in Jerusalem, spoke in Tel Aviv and lived in Safed to study with kabbalists. "I slept at Masada and swam in the Dead Sea. I visited Palestinians, Druze, Ethiopian and other Jews of color while there – I met with leaders of government & wrapped Rachel's Tomb in red string, praying there for six hours.”

In recounting a story of visiting the Western Wall excavations, she referred to her group of 10 male rabbis and "one other female rabbi. "When asked whether that meant she considers herself a rabbi, she replied: “Yes I am a 'teacher' of meditation.”

After that Tweet, she pivoted to classic Roseannesque humor, adding, “I practice teleportation like Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai)! See this." She then sent the following photo.

Classic Roseannesque humor.
Roseanne Barr

Roseanne also noted that, as she saw it, her views on Israel hadn't utterly changed. 

“I don't consider it a switch, but I helped to expose the dark forces around the neo-con creation of a political bubble in Israel.” What bubble? she was asked.

“Capitalism depends on creating 'bubbles' that later explode/deflate. I'm for a synthesis of capitalism and socialism which I call 'peopleism' - and 'green markets.'"

It was then pointed out to her that it seemed inconsistent for a warrior against capitalism to also be a defender of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is nothing if not a die-hard capitalist.  She was reminded of a pro-Netanyahu tweet on the eve of last year's elections.

“I'm thrilled to hear that Bibi is helping to create/aid Arab 'Palestinian' economy," she replied. "I supported that years ago.”

Though she presumably supported Netanyahu in 2015, she was challenging him during her 2012 presidential campaign, when she chose the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan – who has a record of hostility to Israeli government policies – as her running mate.

Barr's candidacy was treated as a joke and a publicity stunt in most quarters, though she repeatedly stated she was “totally serious.” In retrospect, her angry, anti-establishment message was prescient, and perhaps one election cycle ahead of its time.

She weighs in frequently, and colorfully, on the current race, deriding Hillary Clinton and offering some praise for the candidates with populist appeal, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Yet when asked which of the two would be better for Israel, she didn't hold back.

Jewish Journal

In characteristically blunt Roseanne style, she tweeted: “Both suck.”

Attendees of the StandWithUs event can likely expect such unfiltered opinions, which the Bay Area Jewish community is all too familiar with.

The Oakland event will occur a year after a similar talk in Berkeley, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, was cancelled after Barr sent out a blistering message to her Twitter followers in response to an anti-Semitic incident at the nearby University of California at Davis, which had also recently passed an Israel divestment resolution. “I hope all the Jews leave UC Davis & it then it gets nuked!” she wrote.

Just as Roseanne’s political about-face has made her the darling of rightist Israel advocates like StandWithUs, it has enraged her former allies on the Israel-critical left. The announcement of the Oakland StandWithUs event unleashed the wrath of blogger Richard Silverstein, who pointed an accusing finger at both the advocacy group and the synagogue hosting the event, for their “exploitation of a deeply damaged Hollywood celebrity for political gain,” referring to Barr as "a car wreck."

Temple Beth Abraham president Mark Fickes responded: “Roseanne Barr has a long history of voicing whatever thought comes to her mind," he wrote. "We hope and trust that most people know what they are getting into when they decide to see her speak.”