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Truthdigger of the Week: Rabbi Michael Lerner

Posted on Mar 8, 2015

By Natasha Hakimi

    Rabbi Michael Lerner is the founding editor of Tikkun and leader of the San Francisco synagogue Beyt Tikkun. (B Hartford J Strong /CC BY 2.0)

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

As Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear-mongering speech echoed through the chambers of Congress, an American Jewish voice could be heard directly opposing the Israeli prime minister’s bellicose machinations—that of Rabbi Michael Lerner.

Rabbi Lerner, a political activist and longtime advocate of spiritual progressivity, in the 1980s co-founded the journal Tikkun, a journal of politics, culture and society. The quarterly, whose title comes from the Hebrew tikkun olam, meaning “healing or restoring the world,” focuses on providing an alternative to Jewish conservatism. Such an alternative has perhaps never been as important as it is today, a time when, to use Lerner’s words, “the fantasies that the right-wing discourse advances” increasingly dominate the politics of both the United States and Israel.

Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday was arranged by House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, without the agreement or cooperation of the White House. The day before the speech, Rabbi Lerner and Tikkun ran a full-page ad in The New York Times and, then, on Tuesday, repeated the ad in The Hill newspaper. It was topped with a simple, bold headline: “No, Mr. Netanyahu—you do not speak for American Jews. And … The American People Do Not Want a War with Iran!”

The ad, which used powerful evidence and arguments against the harmful ideas that the Israeli prime minister is spreading about both Iran and the Jewish-American diaspora, included more than 2,000 signatures from people who supported Tikkun’s protest. Rabbi Lerner spoke out in other ways, too. He had articles Tuesday on the Salon and Huffington Post websites in which he disassembled Netanyahu’s motives and arguments.

Although Netanyahu resorted to a language of hate and fear, Rabbi Lerner chose to propagate a positive message of dissidence and strength, and, most important and perhaps most courageously, an achievable plan for peace. In each ad and article, Lerner pointed toward an alternative to what the Israeli leader is so forcefully proposing. Netanyahu’s insistence on further escalating sanctions against Iran will lead to “two predictable consequences,” the rabbi argued, the first of which is that it would inspire the Iranian people to redirect their anger away from the mullahs’ regime and toward Israel and the U.S. Secondly, Lerner wrote, Iran currently requires nuclear power “to replace quickly depleting and earth-polluting energy supplies for [its] rapidly growing ... population” but the nation “would move quickly to escalate its nuclear capacities and turn them toward military use” if it felt threatened by Israel and the U.S.

Lerner, in his Salon article, then offered an in-depth analysis of the motives behind Netanyahu’s belligerent plan:

Now Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in both parties of the U.S. Congress are no dummies. They can see this same plausible outcome. So why would they be advocating it? Sadly, the answer is that they actually want another war, this time with Iran. For some Israelis, a war led by the U.S. against Iran would be a perfect way to get rid of a state that has been funding Islamic groups closer to Israel like Hezbollah (though Iran has actually been attacking supporters of ISIS—the self proclaimed Islamic State whose barbarism rightly frightens most civilized people). For some American capitalists, the securing of Iranian oil reserves will give Big Oil several more decades of flourishing. For some right-wing Christians, fighting a war to rid the Middle East of Israel’s most significant competitor for regional influence is a way of alleviating their guilt from past failures to save the Jews. And for still other right-wing Christians, a war that decimated Iran would be a major step toward the Apocalypse that they hope will yield a return of their messiah to earth. We’ve already seen what this kind of a war looks like—we just barely are ending the Iraq war, which cost us a trillion dollars and led to the emergence of the ISIL/Islamic state.

Instead, Lerner wrote, the U.S. needs to move toward a “dramatic break” from the conflictive policies that have led it into several wars in the Middle East and, beyond that, move toward a breakthrough outlined by Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives in their “Global Marshall Plan,” the main ideas of which were given in Lerner’s Salon article:

Have the U.S. lead the other advanced industrial countries in each dedicating 1-2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end both domestic and international poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care and repair the global environment;

Overturn all the trade agreements (and stop the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] currently being negotiated in secret by the Obama administration) that have favored the interests of Western globalized capitalist firms while undermining local economies and impoverishing tens of millions of small farmers in the global south and east who are then forced off their lands and into the big cities where they live in slums and become attracted to a politics of resentment;

Create local community-based economies outside the control of national governments or large corporations to make sure that this doesn’t turn out to be another pointless give-away program but instead becomes a program of genuine empowerment of local communities around the world.

Approach the peoples of the world with a spirit of humility and a genuine desire to learn from their cultures and experiences. That does not mean suspending our ethical values (we need not tolerate abuse of women or children under the guise of multiculturalism). But it does mean ridding ourselves of the false notion that having more material things and being richer than other societies is somehow a sign of being better or wiser. In fact, we need to open ourselves to the wisdom of those who may be poorer in things but richer in their cultural resources and in building communities in which people care for each other.

While the Global Marshall Plan can indeed be considered audacious, it is refreshing to witness a community leader using audacity for a peaceful cause, one that departs from the cycle of violence that the West has relied on for far too long in the face of threats. We’ve heard what Netanyahu has to say about Iran, Jews and the Middle East many times, and, as President Barack Obama pointed out in his response to Tuesday’s speech, “there [is] nothing new” in what the Israeli official has to offer. Rather it is the same emotional blackmail and misinformation that helped lead the U.S. into wars in the Middle East. It contains the same vitriol that was in Netanyahu’s 2002 contention, “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”

There is in Rabbi Lerner and Tikkun’s proposal an innovative and detailed approach toward a tired problem. After all, the trillion dollars that we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been used to help fight homelessness and hunger across the globe, as the rabbi has pointed out. For taking out daring ads against Netanyahu, for his role in designing the Global Marshall Plan and for his commitment to a peaceful future for the nations of the earth, Rabbi Lerner is our Truthdigger of the Week.

 

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