Threats Dehumanize Jews Who Question Israel

Michael Lerner was interviewed about these death threats two days ago on KPFA's Flashpoints program, which has been covering the Israel/Palestine crisis almost every day lately, frequently speaking with Palestinians live from the West Bank. Flashpoints audio is archived online at the following URL:
The Michael Lerner interview was the first segment on Wednesday's show:

Commentary, The Los Angeles Times, 5/18/2001

When I received a flurry of death threats in the past few weeks in response to my stance advocating an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, I remembered a lesson we had learned in the 1960s: If your people are involved in brutality on the outside, the cruelty and hatred is certain to reverberate on the inside of your community as well.

"You subhuman leftist animals should all be exterminated" ran one threat that was titled "Die Die." Another began, "Someone will come to kill you--you should rot in hell."

Well, this is par for the course when you are critiquing Israeli policy, but what changed my attitude was when a Web site went up last week that identified me as one of the three major self-hating American Jews (others were linguist Noam Chomsky and director Woody Allen), went on to call me a "traitor" to the Jewish people and then published my home address plus the driving instructions on how to get there. At that point, the Anti-Defamation League called the FBI.

The climate of hostility toward dissenters in the Jewish world has risen to new levels of verbal abuse. Tikkun is the only nationally distributed Jewish magazine to challenge the assumptions of the occupation, to urge dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank and to insist that Israel must acknowledge some (not total) responsibility for Palestinian refugees. Just as we in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s saw our opposition as flowing from the highest values of American democracy, so we in the Jewish peace movement insist that it is Jewish values that lead us to insist that every human being is created in the image of God and that the brutality done to the Palestinian people is as much a tragedy as the brutality being done by Palestinian terrorists to Israelis.

It is this kind of moral equivalence that infuriates some Jews, who insist that "no suffering is like our suffering" and that past suffering warrants present insensitivity to the Palestinian people. Many Jews are unwilling to acknowledge that Israel is the only side in this struggle that has an army, that Palestinians have had 10 times as many deaths as Israelis and that this time it is the Palestinians who are closed in to small areas and prevented from getting food, education and medical care. It seems so much easier to blame the victims and become furious at the messengers who are raising serious moral objections to Israeli behavior.

And the same dehumanization used against Palestinians now begins to emerge against peace-oriented Jews. Never mind that my son served in the Israeli army, that I am a strong supporter of Israel or that I lead a Jewish renewal synagogue in San Francisco. For these right-wing extremists, I am nothing but "a self-hating Jew."

In the months before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, there were similar charges against him. In Israel it is now against the law to make that kind of charge, because people have come to realize how easy it is for hateful language to become violent action. But even when it doesn't go to violence, this kind of language scares many people and makes them feel reluctant to speak out. Our magazine has lost subscribers and donors as people feel scared to identify with an outspoken voice on these questions.

When people ask me what to do in response to all this, I have two answers: First, the best way to fight hate is to put out more love into the world. Even the haters are people who are severely wounded, and those wounds can best be dealt with by compassion rather than by hating back. Second, speak out yourself on these questions. Many non-Jews have feared expressing legitimate criticisms of Israel, thinking that they would be interpreted as anti-Semitism. Last week visiting Syria, the pope stood silently when President Bashar Assad uttered standard anti-Semitic tropes. Only a Christian world that aggressively challenges all remnants of anti-Semitism can have the legitimacy to critique Israel. What the Jewish people need is for Christians to denounce anti-Semitism, but nevertheless to join with progressive Jews in criticizing immoral and self-destructive policies of the Israeli government.

In the past, I have called for Palestinians to renounce violence and follow the path of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi. It's time to ask the same of Jews--not only toward the Palestinians, but toward their fellow Jews as well. - - -

Rabbi Michael Lerner Is Editor of Tikkun Magazine and Author of "Jewish Renewal: a Path to Healing and Transformation" (Harpercollins, 1995 ) E-mail:


HA'ARETZ Week's End

Friday, May 18, 2001

Nothing Personal - Jewish wolves on the Web
Read a letter to Rabbi Lerner from an AJDS member
By Thomas O'Dwyer

Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, and one of the best known
and outspoken intellectuals in the American Jewish community, is used to hate
mail; it's a trade hazard. But this week, for the first time, Lerner was
scared, and his wife, Debora, was frightened. For the first time, he went to
the police over mail threats.

This e-mail arrived recently on his computer from an otherwise anonymous
"," the subject line said "die f..., die," and the text
(if it could be so called) said: "you are selfhating little kike. one bright
day, someone will come and kill you. wish you to rot in hell, pig

Puerile drivel indeed, but what is different about this and other recent
hate-mails is that they have resulted from a tirade of hatred against Lerner
and other Jewish figures being posted, not on a neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic Web
site - but on a Jewish one. Not only does the site suggest that Lerner is a
dangerous enemy of the Jewish people - it printed his full home address, with
detailed instructions on how to get there, and suggested some of its
foaming-at-the-mouth readers "pay him a visit."

"One of the reasons a crazy person will act on a Web site like this is that
when he reads it, he believes everybody agrees with that Web site - everyone
agrees Lerner is a traitor," Lerner told Ha'aretz in a phone conversation from
California yesterday. "People like that act when they think they are being the
courageous ones chosen to take action on the views widely shared by their

Typical examples of "righteous acting on received convictions" have been the
terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh and the assassin Yigal Amir.

Lerner was not sure exactly what has sparked the hate campaign against him, but
suspects it has been his criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as unfit for
office. In a recent Tikkun editorial he wrote that Labor had joined the
national unity government only because it considered Sharon so dangerous.

"They joined precisely because Sharon was such a grave danger; they joined,
Labor said, to prevent Sharon from escalating the struggle," he wrote. "In
reality, they find themselves defending Sharon's immoral sieges of Palestinian
cities, sieges that have caused mass hunger, denial of medical care, and other
outrageous denials of human rights."

On the Web site, Lerner is named and abused as one of the five
most dangerous Jewish enemies of the Jewish people - the others on the
arbitrary list are MK Dedi Zucker, former Hebrew University professor and
Holocaust survivor, Israel Shahak, Noam Chomsky, and Woody Allen. Calling
Lerner "America's baddest little JewBoy" and "that despicable self-hating
Jewish worm," Masada2000 adds: "If you're ever in the San Francisco area, drop
in on him at his home at [full address and detailed driving instructions
given]. One more thing ... be sure to mention our Web site."

After Lerner complained to police and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who
said they would call the FBI, the Web site suddenly added this yesterday:
"Note - The 'Rabbi' has been bombarded with 'unpleasant' e-mails from some of
the visitors to this Web page. It looks as if he can make life miserable for
Israel's Jews but he doesn't like it when he too feels the need to look over
his shoulder. However, since we at Masada2000 have more compassion than he does
for our fellow Jews (even traitors like Lerner), we ask that you please DO NOT
threaten his life. God will deal with the likes of him soon enough."

"Any time I get hate mail, I always respond by saying first 'I want to bless
you for your love of the Jewish people and Israel, and pray that some day you
can see people who disagree about the best strategy for Israel may also be
committed to Israel's best interests,'" Lerner told Ha'aretz.

"My aim here is to try to touch a sense of decency that we all have. However,
the only protection we have apart from trying to put more love out in the world
is to put out as much information as possible that this is going on."

When it came to putting out information, Lerner was less than impressed with
the response of the ultimate defender of the Jews - the ADL: "We reported this
campaign to the police, the Israeli consulate, and to the ADL. The ADL said it
wasn't a 'hate crime' defined as one directed against someone because of their
religion, ethnic, or racial group."

This seemed to require some clarification: "You are a Jew, a rabbi, a public
figure and you have been threatened with death, called a traitor, a pig and
unprintable anti-Semitic epithets, and have a Web site personally targeting
your home and family - and the ADL doesn't think it's a hate crime?" I asked

"Quite. In my view, the ADL is deeply wrong - because my position on Israel is
a reflection of my religion. In my view, the attacks on me are about my
religion. Just ask yourself the following: If someone were to give death
threats to the head of the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish
Organizations] or the UJA-Federation crowd on the grounds of their stand on
Israel, do you think the Jewish community would say 'well, it's not a hate
crime, it's merely political?' Not a chance."

Lerner added: "My politics is different from theirs, so when my life gets
threatened, it is of little concern to them."

Having reported the threats to the ADL, Lerner expected the organization to
publicize the story. "But the attitude is 'hey, we're doing stuff, we'll call
the FBI.'"

Because of the time difference and newspaper deadline, we were unable to track
down Abraham Foxman, the director of the ADL, for a comment, but it was clear
from a visit to the ADL Web site that Lerner's story was at least as important
as some of the trivial and repetitive press releases the ADL issues.

Lerner said: "The ADL should publicize things like this so they can say
simultaneously that 'we do not support this, this is not right, Lerner is not a
traitor, he is part of the genuine dialogue of the Jewish people.' Why can't
they say that, why don't they alert the media?"

The ADL is not always so shy of bringing inter-Jewish strife to media
attention. Last February 18, David A. Lehrer, the regional director of the ADL
in Los Angeles (right on Lerner's doorstep) had a letter published in The Los
Angeles Times. Lehrer was writing in protest against an article in the
newspaper he called "a disingenuous anti-Israel diatribe that misrepresents
events in the Middle East ... a thinly veiled attack on Israel and its
governments (present and past)."

You guessed it: The ADL director was attacking an article by Rabbi Michael

This week in our newspaper, the ADL ran an ad saying it was disturbed "by the
silence of the Pope." Moving a bit closer to home - maybe it is time to be
disturbed by the selective silence of the ADL.


Dear Michael Lerner,

I can only send you my greetings and sentiments of solidarity.

I share your concerns, having been in the same situation myself some years

A number of years ago, before Oslo, I was a "premature reconciliationist".

I argued that the only conceivable basis for peace in the Middle East was
reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, Israeli and
Palestinian nationalism, in a "land of two peoples": not on an
asymmetrical "land for peace" logic but on one of full moral and political
symmetry; that is, full mutual and reciprocal recognition of the national
existence and rights of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

For doing so I got some very nasty death threats, not from outside but from
zealots within the Jewish community.

Worse than their threats at the time was the absolute indifference, and
worse, of the organized leadership of the Australian Jewish community. All
they could say was that they too had at times received threats [but theirs
were from hostile outsiders, not tolerated thugs inside the walls, a
fundamental difference that they were happy nicely to finesse!]; and that,
in stepping out of line, I had merely received what I deserved. I had got
what, and what I had to have known, was coming to me.

I was appalled by this lack of support for pluralism and mutual respect
within our Jewish community here; by this official readiness to threaten,
and to condone threats against, the lives of other Jews over transient
differences of political views held in good faith and conscience.

Those of our national Jewish leadership who took this stance betrayed, in
my view, their responsibilities in three ways: as citizens of Australia,
they had lent their support to threats of violence and so were accessories
to that crime; second, since these leaders were themselves lawyers, they
had violated their obligations as members of the legal profession and thus
as "officers of the court" under the laws of Australia to uphold the law
and to resist strenuously and publicly its violation; and third, they had
betrayed their responsibilities as leaders of the Jewish community to lead,
namely to uphold the basic principles of communal harmony, peace and
internal respect and tolerance of differences.

Those leaders, I regret to say, took a different view of the matter.

If you are interested, send me your mail address and I will send you a
photocopy of a short article I wrote at the time about this matter,
published in the "Australian Jewish Democrat".

In solidarity,

Clive Kessler
UNSW SYDNEY NSW Australia 2052