A former 1960s radical, Michael Lerner is the founder of Tikkun magazine, a publication that blends the scriptures of the Old Testament with the economic and social doctrines of Karl Marx. A frequent speaker on college campuses across the United States, Lerner brings this curious mix of religion and radical politics to the student audiences he addresses. In each appearance, as a way of legitimating his anti-Israel message, Lerner is introduced as a “rabbi.” In fact, his ordination ceremony took place within the context of the “Jewish Renewal” movement -- a sort of “New Age” Judaism whose origins trace back to the counter-culture of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and whose ordinations are recognized by virtually no one outside the movement.
In his student days at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, Lerner was active in the so-called Free Speech Movement, a 1964 uprising where Berkeley students, 800 of whom were ultimately arrested, forcibly occupied the university’s administration building -- the first such hostile “takeover” of a campus building in the history of American higher education. Lerner chaired the university’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an increasingly radical organization that eventually evolved into the terrorist sect Weatherman.
Professing to revere the author of The Communist Manifesto (“I dig Marx”), Lerner saw Marxism as a worldview that offered the promise of a psychic liberation akin to the unfettered ecstasy made possible by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. “You have to take LSD,” he said in the early 1970s. “Until you’ve dropped acid, you don’t know what socialism is.”
Also in the early Seventies, Lerner, who had moved to Washington state, created an organization called the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF), which participated in numerous anti-war protests and at least one riot for which Lerner spent several months behind bars. During this period, SLF, the Black Student Union (BSU), and the terrorist group Weatherman (led by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn) collaborated to carry out a number of direct actions on university campuses. One day, SLF and BSU members -- bearing pipes and clubs while shouting “Power to the people!” and “Smash the state!” -- rampaged through several University of Washington buildings and, in some cases, roughed up innocent onlookers. Washington state attorney Slade Gorton, later a U.S. Senator, described the tactics of Lerner’s SLF as “totally indistinguishable from fascism and Nazism.”
After his foray into revolutionary chaos, Lerner returned to Berkeley and married a teenage girl named Theirrie Cook in October 1971. At the couple’s reception, the wedding cake was inscribed with the words, “Smash Monogamy,” a slogan of the time that had been popularized by Weatherman. During the marriage ceremony itself, Lerner and his bride, as a statement against the Vietnam War, exchanged rings fashioned out of metal that had been extracted from a U.S. aircraft downed by North Vietnamese gunners.
Lerner’s self-absorption was on full display after the birth of his son, when he separated from his wife and took up residence in Berkeley -- thousands of miles from Boston, where his ex-wife would raise the child. When asked why he had chosen to be so far from his boy, Lerner answered without hesitation, “You don’t understand. I have to be here. Berkeley is the center of the world-historical spirit.”
After becoming a “rabbi,” Lerner wrote about what he called “the politics of meaning,” an opaque concept blending radical politics with New Ageish human potentialism. First Lady Hillary Clinton latched onto the phrase in 1993 and invited Lerner to the White House, briefly making him her “guru” until the ridicule this caused made her retreat from the connection. (In her autobiography, Clinton strenuously avoids any mention of Lerner or Tikkun Magazine at all.)
When he counseled with Clinton at the White House, Lerner was already becoming particularly outspoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, unambiguously aligning himself with the Palestinian side, he characterizes Israel as a nation whose “repressive” and “fascistic” leadership uses “disproportionate force to repress an essentially unarmed population.” He exhorts Jews everywhere to “allow themselves to hear the cries of pain of the Palestinian people” -- as a first step toward atonement for their own transgressions. When asked to comment about Palestinian killings of Israelis, he typically explains that he can understand “how Israel’s occupation can lead to such violence.”
“I believe,” says Lerner, “that the Israeli people will never be safe until the Occupation ends and a new spirit of repentance and generosity spreads through the Jewish people.” He urges Jews “to atone for the pain we have inflicted on the Palestinian people in [many] years of brutal occupation, and in forcing so many Palestinians out of their home and not allowing them to return in 1948-49.” He elaborates: “Israel needs an atonement for what it has done; for the way it has failed to recognize the humanity, the sanctity of life, of Palestinians.” He lists, among Israel’s transgressions, its responsibility “for expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians during the War of Independence in 1948”; “for not having fulfilled the terms of the Oslo Accord, which envisioned granting Palestinians an independent state several years ago”; “for not being able to recognize themselves as the superior force with the greater responsibility to compromise and respect the needs of the less powerful”; and for “the deep racism in their society.”
Steven Plaut, a professor at the University of Haifa, wrote the following in 2002:
“While insisting that all he wants is peace and justice in the Middle East, Lerner’s prescription for achieving such is essentially the same as Yasser Arafat’s. He demands that Israel return to its 1949 borders and forego all forms of self-defense. Even though the bulk of Palestinians have not lived under Israeli ‘occupation’ for many years, such occupation is still the justification in his eyes of Palestinians perpetrating atrocities. The only permissible response by Israelis to being butchered by Palestinian terrorists is to offer them endless appeasements and make sure that Israeli soldiers refuse to serve their country. Lerner has never seen an act of Arab terrorism that he does not rationalize, nor an act of Jewish self-defense he is willing to justify.”
In the chorus of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic voices that pollute the minds of young university students from coast to coast, the voice of Michael Lerner ranks among the most strident.
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Marc H. Ellis