Rabbi Michael Lerner: Polemics and Distortions Are Anti-Peace

Extreme polemics are anti-peace and they further a cycle of violence. Rabbi Lerner's San Francisco home was defaced by political posters permanently glued on by whom he suspects to be right wing Zionists critical of him and Richard Goldstone, who led a 2009 fact finding mission and authored a U.N. report detailing humanitarian law violations during the Gaza war. Rabbi Lerner is the spiritual head of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue of San Francisco and the editor of Tikkun, a Jewish and interfaith magazine in Berkeley, California. Rabbi Lerner planned to honor Goldstone with the Tikkun Magazine's Ethics Award.

Police continue their investigation into the vandalism that, according to Rabbi Lerner, may have been sparked by distortion and lies contained in a column written by Alan Dershowitz on April 28. Lerner was among 39 rabbis who urged South African Zionists to allow Richard Goldstone to attend his grandson's bar mitzvah in South Africa, from which they had previously sought to bar him. Lerner had personally invited Goldstone to celebrate his grandson's bar mitzvah in San Francisco.

By phone today, Rabbi Lerner said that two days before this attack on Lerner's house, Dershowitz wrote a column that ran in The Huffington Post and in the Jerusalem Post in which Dershowitz described the 39 rabbis as "Rabbis for Hamas." Rabbi Lerner actually despises Hamas. As he put it, "It's a terrorist organization that I have consistently denounced for their violence. I am for a non-violent approach in resolution of conflict, and oppose the violence of Israel toward Palestinian civilians and the violence of Palestinians toward Israeli civilians.

"I don't think Alan Dershowitz intended to have my house attacked, but the language he used is incendiary and incites people to actions that he would not take towards me or to anyone who takes strong ethical stands that don't correspond to his.

"Dershowitz has a long history of defending the Israeli tactics of targeted assassinations against the suspected terrorists who have never been proved in any kind of court to be terrorists.

"You put that together with characterizing me as a rabbi associated with terrorists. That leads others to take steps that he might not have explicitly intended."

Rabbi Lerner talked about the vandalism to his home and what it represented.

"It was the shock of having them come to my personal place. Those of us who have been critical of Israel's policy have been denounced as anti-Semitic or self-hating Jews. I've had many death threats over the phone rather than writing. I'm not surprised to be facing anger as many others who have stood up for the deepest Jewish values of love, and compassion and generosity also get denounced."

"But to have them come to your house, paste offensive material suggesting that I'm a supporter of terrorism or an' Islamo-fascist,' that seems like a dangerous escalation. And I've seen this process happen in Israel. At first there's the demeaning, then the incitement and then the violence.

"I'm not concerned so much for myself but for this dynamic, which has already reached an intense level of demeaning those American Jews who are critical of Israeli policy by right wing Zionist extremists. I'm concerned it might lead to a level of violence in our community in the U.S., not only among Jews but also attacks on non-Jewish Americans who support President Obama in his attempts to pressure Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank."

What is Rabbi Lerner's future vision of Israel and how does he see that that vision attained?

"What I see are two states living in peace, economic cooperation, and harmony, but that's not achievable until the Jewish people are able to overcome the legacy of the Holocaust and recognize that we are no longer the persecuted minority, but in Israel, we are the powerful majority.

"We are no longer at risk of extinction unless we ourselves anger people around the world through arrogance and insensitivity to others. I think the appropriate strategy is openhearted reconciliation with the Palestinian people.

"I don't believe Jews or Israel is responsible for the mess in the Middle East. We have to talk about the responsibility of 2,000 years of oppression by Christian society and to a lesser extent, but nevertheless to a real extent, In Muslim societies.

"Then we have to talk about Western colonialism and its consciousness in the Arab world. We have to recognize that in the last 100 years in Israel and Palestine, its not about one side being good and the other evil. Both sides have contributed to a climate of distrust and violence. Both sides need to do repentance.

"We jumped from the burning buildings of Europe and North Africa, and we landed on the backs of the Palestinians, unintentionally hurting them in the process. We were so traumatized by our own suffering that we could not allow ourselves to understand that we landed on the backs of Palestinians and hurt them, and need to do something to repair the damage we had done by that leap. Instead, we simply said, 'Our pain is so much worse than yours that you have no business complaining.'

"And then when Palestinians resisted our coming and violently sought to stop us from coming to make Palestine our place of international refuge, we uprooted many from their homes, then later occupied their lands, kept thousands of them in prison without formal charges or trial by jury, and then we are outraged when they fight back. So we Jews in Diaspora have a lot to repent for to the extent that we've given Israel a blank check for unlimited political and economic support. And I believe that if we approached the Palestinian people with humility and genuine repentance, that that could begin the breakdown of hostilities coming from them, many of them as emotionally wounded, angry and hate-oriented toward the Jewish people as many Jews are toward them at the moment.

"I do not think Israel is solely to blame in the Middle East, but Israel today has superior power, and correspondingly, greater responsibility to take acts of generosity and repentance. To begin the process of reconciliation that's what is needed. It's not just about political resettlement, there needs to be a spiritual transformation (in both peoples) and the Jewish people need to take the first steps in that direction, not because we are more to blame than Palestinians, but because having more power gives us the greater opportunity to be more generous and to end the cycles of violence.

"In my view the path to security is not of domination but of generosity."

For Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Lerner offered these thoughts.

"What Dershowitz writes about me and other Jewish peace advocates is filled with distortions and lies. Most of us detest violence of any sort and from any source. I assume that he and the people who attacked my home are motivated by a genuine caring for our people - but they are unable to see that those of us who critique Israeli policies and insist on the humanity of the Palestinian people and care not only about Jews but about non-Jews as well as not abandoning, much less, God forbid, hating Israel or the Jewish people, but only that we have a different strategy about how to secure the well-being of the Jewish people and of the world.

"It's hard for me to understand why he and they don't get this, or why they see hatred in us when we call attention to human rights violations in Israel just as we call attention to those human rights violations in Palestine, in the Arab world, in Iran, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Syria, in Tibet by the Chinese and in Chechnya by the Russians, in Darfur and wherever there is injustice.

"I pray Dershowitz's soul gets more love and more tranquility, and that he doesn't feel the need to distort other people's views and turn people wiith whom he disagrees into devils. But I refuse to engage in polemics against him or sink to the level of what he's done to me. It's not what our Jewish tradition calls for and it's not my way to serve God, humanity or the Jewish people."

At the end of our talk, Rabbi Lerner invited anyone to contact him directly: RabbiLerner@tikkun.org