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Michael Lerner: The most controversial Jew in America

He is relentlessly critical of Israel. He eulogizes Rachel Corrie. And he's done more for peace than any conservative we know.
by Judd Handler

   One of the most controversial Jews in America will be speaking in San Diego on September 10. Rabbi Michael Lerner is author of Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and editor-in-chief of Tikkun magazine. He is best known - and often ridiculed, or worse - for his passionate opposition to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He will be one of several noted Jewish and Arab authors speaking this month at Current Affairs Bookstore in North Park about the Middle East.

   A long-time liberal and veteran of the '60s protest movement, Lerner is stuck between AIPAC and a hard place. Conservatives condemn him. Says Dennis Prager, the conservative Jewish radio personality, "[Lerner] offers those who wish to destroy Israel a face of a rabbi instead of Arafat. He will have a lot of forgiveness to ask of his creator."

   But Lerner isn't exactly liberal-friendly either, as many leftists equate Zionism with racism and deny Jews the right to a state. He was blackballed from an anti-war rally in San Francisco in February because of his supposedly "pro-Israel" views. But some do appreciate his voice: Hillary Clinton called him "my guru" in the mid-'90s and the late Abba Eban, Israel's former foreign minister, said, "Lerner's courage to critique Israeli policy towards Palestinians is motivated by the deepest love and caring for the survival of the Jewish people."

   I recently spoke with Lerner on the phone from his Berkley office. When I suggest to Lerner that there was no Arab Palestinian identity (no language or culture or history) until 1948 and especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Lerner threatens to end the interview. I plead with him to finish listening to the research I've accumulated from the Internet. I tell him that in an interview with a Dutch newspaper (Trau) in 1977, a PLO executive committee member (Zahir Muhsein) said, "The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity… There is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence a Palestinian people."

   At this point, the embattled rabbi tells me, "I refuse to do an interview like this. If you want to approach the interview from this angle, it's over."

   Why would a rabbi be so upset over these statements? After all, don't these statements empower Israel's right to exist?

   "That kind of thinking solves nothing," he says. "It does no good to say, that we're right and the other side is wrong, or it's a battle of good versus evil… What good does it do to say that Jerusalem was never important to the Arabs before Israel controlled it after 1967? The fact is the Palestinians exist and it's in everybody's best interest to achieve a realistic solution."

   Lerner is no fan of the Road Map. In response, he and other well-known intellectual thinkers drafted their own alternative Road Map and met with representatives from more than 200 congressmen. According to Lerner, Bush's Road Map "disempowers moderates" and "empowers extremists." Because the first condition of the Road Map is cessation of violence, all the extremists have to do to derail it is continue the violence. Hence, claims Lerner, the Road Map gives extremists on both sides all the power. Lerner also criticizes the Road Map for putting the cart before the horse: it asks for sacrifices from both sides before one of the most essential issues, the Palestinian demand for a right of return, is solved.

Lerner is clear that the Palestinians need to denounce the right of return for there to be any hope of peace. While the majority of Palestinians continue to demand a right of return as a precondition to peace, Lerner points to a recent poll of 4,000 Palestinians that showed only 10 percent of Palestinians would exercise the right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel. This poll, which could be the linchpin of a peace settlement, has so far been barely acknowledged by Sharon or Mahmoud Abbas.

   Another problem with the Road Map, according to Lerner, is the hypocrisy of Sharon's settlement policy. Sharon angered his right wing constituents by using the word "occupation" and telling the Knesset that it's in Israel's best interest to end its presence in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, Lerner says that Sharon "assures settlers that their grandkids will still be living on the settlements in the future."

   "Sharon believes that a Palestinian state can be created on 42 percent of the West Bank, leaving the settlements in place while Israel retains control of 58 percent of the West Bank," he says. "There will be no peace until Israel returns to the pre-'67 borders."

   Lerner asserts that Jews have a G-d-given right to Israel, although he repudiates the common right-wing claim that Jews have a Biblical right to all of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

   But Tikkun's Road Map has little chance of adoption, not when AIPAC is around. Although Lerner says that congressional staffers called Tikkun's version of the Road Map "very practical and making the most sense," they said their bosses couldn't cross AIPAC, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

   In addition to lobbying members of Congress, Lerner is organizing a Tikkun Campus movement. "Many Jewish students on campus are caught between two camps," he says. "Those who claim that the only way to be pro-Israel is to support the current policies of Ariel Sharon, and those who claim that the only way to be pro-Palestinian is to demean Zionism.

   "We are creating a progressive middle path called the Tikkun Campus Network, and we are both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine." The organization, according to Lerner, will still be Zionist in nature, but he says, "we also reject the occupation and believe that Israel's best security needs would be addressed by a reconciliation of the heart with the Palestinian people."

   It's this kind of statement that drives conservative thinkers nuts. They peg Lerner in the same category as anti-war protestors who wanted to hand the Taliban flowers and love them instead of dropping bombs. While Lerner is a spiritual idealist, at least he is trying to construct a viable alternative to hatred and continued violence in the Middle East. That's more than most conservatives have done.

Rabbi Michael Lerner: Healing Israel/Palestine
When: Wednesday, September 10, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Current Affairs Bookstore, 2536 University Ave., North Park
Free. For more information, call (619) 795-9899.

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