Preaching Tikkun - Page 2

Rabbi Michael Lerner still courts controversy as he celebrates his magazine's silver anniversary

Judge Richard Goldstone (left) and Rabbi Michael Lerner at Tikkun's silver anniversary celebration
Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said the police have "no leads or identified suspects." She went on to say that the latest incident may be classified as a hate crime.

"When people start coming to attack your house, you don't feel safe," Lerner said. "You don't know what these crazy people will do next." But he insists he does not want to make a big deal out of the threats, saying extremists have never altered his actions or politics.

Lerner has always tried to challenge the American Jewish establishment, a term for organizations with an array of religious, cultural, and political concerns but a common hawkish stance on Israel and American foreign policy.

"Israel has been turned into God," he explains. "You can walk into any synagogue in America and you can tell them 'I don't believe in God, I don't like the Torah, and I'm not following the Ten Commandments' and be welcomed. But if you go into that same synagogue and say, 'I don't support Israel,' you are kicked out. People are worshiping Israel and God has been abandoned."

But Lerner notes shifting public opinion, especially among younger Jews. Many are experiencing ethical dissonance between the righteous and heroic Israel commonly portrayed in the Jewish community and the increasingly visible reality of Israel's military occupation of Palestinian lands, human rights abuses, and violations of international law.

While criticism of Israel coming from non-Jews is often dismissed as anti-Semitism, Jews who express dissent often get called "self-hating." But Lerner said the illogical conclusion that Israel is the same thing as the Jewish people, and that if you criticize Israel you hate yourself has become less effective in silencing dissent. "It simply isn't true that people are angry at Israel because of some internal psychological deformation," Lerner said. "[Increasingly] people are saying 'If being ethical is the same as being a self-hating Jew, then I choose to be ethical.' "

But Lerner comes under fierce criticism from Jewish hardliners for his views. Attorney Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken supporter of Israel's government, famously wrote a 2006 commentary in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California detailing Lerner's "offense against decency and the Jewish people," concluding that Lerner is a "rabbi for Hamas." According to Dershowitz, "Tikkun is quickly becoming the most virulently anti-Israel screed ever published under Jewish auspices."

But Lerner isn't really on the radical edge in criticizing Israel. Although Tikkun courted controversy in 1988 by denouncing Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, the magazine today doesn't support the movement that is pushing a policy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel initiated by Palestinian activists in 2005 as a nonviolent tactic to pressure Israel to change its policies. But Lerner still seeks to foster debate on the topic, as he did in the July/August 2010 issue, which featured Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace arguing for at least a partial support of the tactic.

Lerner's ire has always been directed at powerful institutions, from the military to the white Southern power structure. As a college student, Lerner directly engaged in the nonviolent protests of the 1960s. While working toward his first PhD (philosophy) at UC Berkeley, Lerner was president of Students for a Democratic Society. Later, while working on his second PhD (psychology) in Seattle, Lerner was arrested and found guilty of instigating a riot during a protest against the Vietnam War. The conviction was later overturned, but his reputation as a dangerous radical was solidified in the minds of Hoover and other establishment figures.

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