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Public Theology: A Progressive Middle Position on the Iraq War
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A Progressive Middle Position on the Iraq War
Tikkun Magazine editor Michael Lerner shares a very thoughtful organizing proposal.

I have just received an email from Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine. Lerner is proposing to the "Tikkun Community" that it organize a credible movement against the Iraq war. The proposal is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, with roots in the Jewish tradition Tikkun is very critical of the Sharon policies against the Palestinians, but does not share the anti-Israel of some of those in the traditional peace movement. Second, Lerner does not share the anti-American rhetoric found in the traditional peace movement. It is well worth reading Rabbi Lerner's comments below. If you know of groups within the Christian community who share this type of perspective please let me know.


Warm greetings!

People sometimes want to know the inner thought processes that are going on in developing strategies for building social change movements. Yes, of course I know that you have a very busy life, and that it would be better if I could summarize this all in two paragraphs. But I am trying to do something that you rarely experience--letting you into the process before final decisions are made, and really wanting to hear feedback. (I imagine that it's hard for you to imagine the reality--that this is not a computer talking to you, but a real person, me, who really is trying to figure out some hard questions, and with our national Advisory Board trying to make some decisions, and actualy really wants to hear your ideas if you feel you are in this with us and really into building this with us. I know that people who send money or membership can't imagine this either-- that I read every note sent, that I look to see who is joining and who is not, that I really care, that this isn't just a computer but there's a real person here who really wants your help). I want to tell you a little about the discussions that have been going on recently around The Tikkun Community and, if you have any interest in helping provide leadership for our community, I'd like to invite you to respond to the issues I'm raising below so that I can get to know you better by hearing what you think we as a community should be doing. The issues are about Iraq, the New McCarthyism on Campus about Israel/Palestine, and tactics for building an effective movement.


In the November/December 2002 issue of TIKKUN we present arguments against the war in Iraq (though our publisher disagrees and writes an argument for the war). I recently participated in a meeting at the House of Representatives in D.C. with a group of clergy from the Methodist, Episcopalian, Quaker, U.C.C. and Catholic world. I was the only rabbi there (the day before the Bnai Brith unequivocally endorsed Bush's proposals for war, and the formerly liberal American Jewish Congress even scolded other groups for not enthusiastically backing the President). The pro- Sharon groups are following his enthusiastic support for a war, believing that Israel's security will be enhanced with the full defeat of Iraq. Even groups who have had a proud record of moral courage in the past, like the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center, have been unwilling to join in opposition to the war. Groups like Americans for Peace Now or other "single issue" Jewish peace and justice groups don't see Iraq as part of their mandate.

That makes The TIKKUN Community the appropriate venue to speak out and educate around this issue--because our vision is for a world of love and kindness, and as I explain in the Nov/Dec. issue of TIKKUN, even if this war is "won" quickly by Bush, the long- term impact will be to discredit the path of gentleness and recredit the path of hate and violence.

But there are several difficult issues that taking on the Iraq war raises for the Tikkun Community:

A. Loss of Focus.

We are planning a major "teach-in" to Congress in the Spring of 2003. Our goal was to bring

people from every Congressional district (including, hopefully, YOU and your friends) to educate Congress about the need for a change in US policy to actively support an end to the Occupation, reparations for Palestinian refugees (and Jews who fled Arab lands), a Palestinian state and withdrawal of Israel to the pre-67 borders (with minor border adjustments) and mutual security pact with Israel to protect it from hostile neighbors. Some people in our community believe that if we take on the issue of Iraq, that will dillute the impact of our Middle East peace educating. On the other hand, others argue that the Iraq war will inevitably drown out attention to the Middle East, and by becoming involved in that struggle we will have a better chance to keep the issue of Israel/Palestine in the public eye (particularly since we fear that Ariel Sharon is intending to use the Iraq war as a cover for drastic expulsions or escalated murder and repression of the Palestinian people). Moreover, the war in Iraq is intrinsically linked to the Israel/Palestine issue, both because some of its major cheerleaders are the pro-Sharon forces and because Saddam so frequently uses Israel as a scapegoat when articulating his anti-Western anger.

B. Vulgarity and Anti-Semitism of Sections of the Peace Forces

Many people who attended the new anti-war demonstrations have reported a one-dimensional stupidity to the talks, and some have reported anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings being tolerated in the crowd. The stupidity is that the speeches often sound like a tired re-run of anti-American and anti-imperialist rhetoric which fails to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. If we are to get involved in an anti-war movement, we'd quickly find ourselves being associated with a discourse which rarely acknowledges that Saddam is a pathological murderer who has terrorized his own people, repressed all dissent, and attempted genocide against the Kurds--in short, someone who should be standing trial for crimes against humanity. The anti-war forces seem to deny the legitimate fears of the American public that such a person might get hold of weapons of mass destruction--and instead reduce the whole thing to nothing but a power grab by Bush and the oil companies (which it is ALSO, but NOT ONLY). Moreover, at anti-war rallies we've heard reliable reports that some people are selling classical anti-Semitic texts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that some people have been talking about Israel as though it were the main problem in the world, and some people have been allowed to have signs that equate Israel and Fascism. Many liberal and progressive Tikkunish Jews report that there is a tone of disrespect toward Israel and Jews that makes them feel uncomfortable--because even though many of the criticisms being made of Israel are similar to those being made in The Tikkun Community, they are made in a way that lacks the sense of respect and caring for the Jewish people that we insist be the framework within whch the criticism gets articulated. So, TIKKKUN being identified with such an anti-war movement would weaken our credibility as a "progressive middle path" on the Middle East.

On the other hand, the other plausible root is for us to convene a "progressive middle path" on the Iraq war--one that opposes the war, but also opposes Saddam Hussein, one that talks about Americans' legitimate fears about weapons of mass destruction but also focuses on the ways that America continues to foster a world of lawlessness and is inconsistent and hypocrtiical in many of its criticisms. Yet creating that kind of a movement would be a major energy expenditure--and might still be drowned out by the more one-dimensional knee-jerk anti-American rhetoric which in any event the media will tend to give prominence. Do we have people inside our community who would, in the name of The Tikkun Community, want to take the leadership in creating this kind of "progressive middle path"? And if we do, would their energies be lost to the larger issue of Israel/Palestine reconciliation which is likely to remain the major issue long after Saddam is no longer a factor? Although The Tikkun Community is very small (just a few thousand members so far), we are still probably one of the largest progressive membership organizations in the U.S.--so we could play a role in convening and leading a coalition on Iraq that shared a "progressive middle" Tikkunish perspective, but would this be wise for a fledgling organization? And would you want to play some role--say in organizing a local Tikkun chapter that would address both Israel/Palestine and Iraq, or does this lead you too far afield or feel too much beyond your own current agenda and responsibilities?

So if you are someone who is open to playing a leadership role in our communnity, what do you think we should do? And what role will you play to help us make something happen?

II. ISRAEL/PALESTINE and the New McCarthyism

One of the ironies of this period is that as the raw aggression and destructiveness of the Occupation has increased, so too has the propaganda offensive by Israel which attempts to portray itself as innocent victim. Aided by the disgusting acts of terror like the recent bombing of a bus filled with Israeli civilians, the Israeli P.R. offensive is able to obliterate from public discourse the daily realities of Occupation in which innocent children and families are wiped out every day. There is no "moral equivalence" here, because the whole notion of moral equivalence is a disgrace. Lives cannot be equated in the way that numbers can--every unnecessary and violent death or maiming is a tragedy and a desecration of the sanctity of God's image in human beings. There is never any sufficent excuse for the murder that goes on--not the few acts of terror that are often acts of revenge for the brutality of the Occupation, and not the systematic destruction of homes, the vengeful acts of destruction of property, the killing of children and civilians that is a regular reality of the Occuaption, and the IDF protection of settlers who rampage against Palestinian villagers. Yet the American media has told the story in a one-sided way that makes it seem as if only Israel is the victim of terror, when in fact the Palestinians are equally and in some respects even more broadly suffering from Israeli terror.

Now this victim story is being used in the U.S. with an amazing twist. Jewish students whose support for Ariel Sharon has been vigorously challenged on campus are claiming that they are facing violence and fear. Yet when we investigate many of these stories we find that what Jewish students are facing is not violence but anger at Israeli policy--and then that anger is sometimes expressed in unacceptable anti-Semtiic or demeaning of Israel language. We don't have any tolerance for intimidation. But we also have to note that the most frequent subjects of violence and intimidation on campus have been Palestinian and Islamic students. Yet a recent statement by college presidents about ending the atmosphere of intimidation focused only on Jews and didn't mention the plight of those who have criticized Israeli policy, or those who are Islamic or Palestinian. Instead, the Jews who defend Israel's victimization of the Palestinians are now being presented as the primary victims!! To add to this bizarre twist, a new Campus Watch website has been set up which encourages students to report on their professors who have made statements which can be construed as anti-Israel. This extends to us as well--to those of us who have been creating a "progressive middle path," because our critiques are viewed by the pro-Sharon lobby as "anti-Israel."

So, the question is: what can we do to counter these developments? On the one hand, last weekend we created a new branch of the Tikkun Community: The TIKKUN CAMPUS NETWORK (TCN). About two hundred students and faculty from about 40 campuses around the U.S. gathered in NYC, heard talks from Israelis, Palestinians, and American theorists and activists--and then proceeded to form a national organization which will provide a voice for those who are neither pro-Sharon nor anti-Israel: the many Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists who want an end to the violence, an end to the Occupation, but also want to see Israel remain a Jewish state living in peace with a flourishng and economically strong (and rebuilt) Palestine. If you are either a faculty person or a student, or know someone who is and who might be willing to join the TCN, pleae email Marisa@

Some people have suggested that we take another step: create our own place on the TIKKUN web-site where students and faculty who are facing harrassment or loss of promotions, speaking opportunities, etc. because of their support for a balanced perspective could share their stories, and could also give us alternative reports on what is really happening on campuses. Our web-site is something you should be checking out every few days anyway--we have lots of useful information and discussions going on.

But some people have objected to creation of this kind of place on our web--arguing that we'd be doing the same kind of McCarthyism in reverse if we used the technique used by the Right. Others counter that there is nothing illegitimate about what the Right is doing--they are simply collecting information to bolster their world- view, that we should do the same on our website by asking students and faculty to send us similar kinds of information, and that the only assymmetry that makes their behavior McCarthyism and ours not is that they have the power of the state and the universities on their side, and hence the ability to create a climate in which students and academics will fear for their future should they make criticisms of Israel--a power we neither have nor seek.

What do you think we should do about this website idea? What other steps might we take to counter the pro-Sharon propaganda offensive?

One thing we've been trying to do is to create a Media Critique group in Tikkun--people who would regularly critique the media and call media people and editors to complain about the bias in coverage (something that is done daily by the pro-Sharon forces who believe that the media is slanted against Israel!!!). But we have had the following problems with our media critique group:

a. It is hard to get people to write balanced critiques. When the media stories are so unbalanced in favor of the assumptions behind the Israeli occupation and the war in Iraq, it is often easy to get so angry that one conveys a critique filled with that anger and that tends to unbalance the response. It is a rare person who can think deeply enough about the issues to both utter strong critique and still affirm a "progressive middle perspective" that demeans neither Palestinians nor Israelis, that is strongly anti-Sharon but doesn't fall into anti-Israel rhetoric. So, we need to find a small group of very sharp people who really agree with the Tikkun perspective and who are good writers and smart articulators, who could read and write short critiques of media every day. Part of this would also be the task of editing material already being submitted by members of our media task force--material that sometimes requires the trained hand of an editor or the sophisticated hand of an intellectual who can take the piece of writing and quickly reshape it in ways that are both smart and consistent with our balanced perspective. This task might, at times, also require being able to work with the original writer to teach her/him about the most effective way to express the nuances of our position and critique. Obviously, this should be the job of a paid fulltime person-- only we have no money for such a person, so we need an editorial committee who can work with our media coordinator (Samantha Tretheway) to provide guidance and to provide daily hands-on help (best time is early morning, in order to get a finished product ready so that others could then read your critique and then call the media and share the critique. Are you a person who could do this? Would you volunteer your time to do this? If so, let me know.

b. Hard as it is to get sophisticated media critiques, its even harder to get people to actually call and speak to the journalists, editors, assignment editors, etc. Many people seem to get intimidated by the task of actually calling. I can't fully explain this, because the Jewish right-wing is filled with people (often many of them retired, but still others who are working as full time lawyers, doctors, educators, etc.). who daily call the media and critique them ("Why are you reporting on Palesitninian deaths-- they are all terrorists?" "Why are you quoting Michael Lerner and Tikkun--they don't represent anybody?" "Why are you equating the suffering of Israelis with the suffering of Palestinians--there is no moral equivalence."). These calls have a cumulative impact on journalists and editors, even when they hear nothing but a recorded message on their phone machines. Yet many of our people don't seem to realize how very very very important this work could be.

If you are up to doing this calling, please identify yourself by emailing us

Or if you have other ideas about how to counter this New McCarthyism, let us know (but it's always less interesting to hear comments in the form of "YOU should do X" then in the form "I am interested in doing Y ." III. TACTICS FOR BUILDING A NEW Pro-Peace Concensus

One reason why The Tikkun Community has not adopted divestment as a strategy is that it shifts the discussion from our strong point (what's wrong with the Occupation and why it's important to provide reparations to Palestinian refugees) to a discussion about whether the State of Israel as a whole should be weakened at a time when it has real external enemies. When the divestment strategy was used against South African apartheid, everyone in the US already agreed that apartheid was wrong, and so the debate on strategy didn't weaken the anti-apartheid movement. But in our case, most Americans do not yet accept the notion that the Occupation is morally wrong and that Palestinian refugees should be given reparations and Israel should withdraw to the pre-67 borders with minor border changes. In this case, our task is to argue that underlying idea, whereas the divestment strategy shifts the argument to where we are on much weaker ground (namely, whether this tactic has unintended destructive consequences). So, that is one important reason why we don't endorse divestment (another being that if the US is to engage in divestment against human rights violators, it would seem appropriate to target China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya and several other human-rights violations that are worse than Israel's, and to have Israel be one of many rather than singled out for special attack that is not being directed against even worse violators). By the way, none of this argument applies when a specific divestment campaign is narrowly framed against a specific Occupation-related firm. So we are joining the divestment campaign against Caterpillar because we have seen convincing evidence that they are building tractors for the Israeli army whose only use is to bulldoze homes. That is the kind of focused tactic that makes sense when you can boycott a firm that is specifically involved in the Occupation-- but doesn't make sense when you are using divestment for all firms doing business of any sort in Israel. We support a scapel, but not a sledgehammer approach. But the divestment movement doesn't work for us precisely because it doesn't have this scapel but uses the sledgehammer, and as a result plays into the hands of those who want to get the discussion to be about the validity of singling out Israel rather than about what is so bd about the Occupation.

So, our task is to get the substantive issue of ending the Occupation and providing reparations to refugees on the public consciousness--but this is no easy thing to do. We need appropriate tactics.

Here are some tactics that we've been considering--and I'd like to know if any of them appeal to you personally, so that you might be willing to get involved with them:

1. A house (or apartment) party with friends, neighbors, co-workers and others. You invite people to your home for an evening (or Sunday afternoon) discussion about the Middle East (and Iraq, at this point it's hard to escape that one too). We would be happy to send you some talking points. We have a tape of me presenting our perspective (either the ten minute version or the one hour version) which we would be happy to send you if you'd be willing to show it to people. We will have a new book by me that will be free for Tikkun Community members and $15 for others and it tells the story of Israel/Palestine in a balanced way that shows how both sides are right and both sides are simultaneously deeply screwed up--called Healiing Israel/Palestine--which you can read if you are saying "I don't know enough to lead this discussion." The poin tof the discussion is to allow people to air their views, and be exposed to our perspective. If it really works well, there might be five-ten people who'd be willing to form a local TIKKUN Community , and we'd be happy to give you advice on how to make that happen (though agreeing to host a house party does NOT make you committed to being a leader of a TIKKUN Community locally. Would you be interested in putting this together? If so, email for more information, guidelines, supporting materials, etc.

2. Approaching a local civic organization, church, union, or your professional organization (ABA, AMA, APA, ANA, AFT, AMFT, or whatever..) and seeking their endorsement of a resolution (we have a draft version on our website">"> calling for an end to the Occupation, security for Israel, etc.

3. Becoming the local contact person in your city or section of the city in charge of recruiting people to come to Washington DC for the Teach-In to Congress this Spring.

4. Being the coordinator of the media critique campaign in your area.

5. Helping create a local TIKKUN Community. We have a set of guidelines and we will help by getting you names of people in your area who might want to be involved.

6. Being the coordinator of a local TCN (campus network) in a local college, professional school or even high school.

7. Attempting to get our Middle East peace perspective endorsed by your local city council or getting it placed on the ballot (through an initiative campaign) so that people could publicly discuss it.

8. Helping us with fundraising and development--either by approaching wealthy people or writing grants to foundations, or by being someone who could organize some other fundraising ventures for the national office of The Tikkun Community.

9. Organizing people to go to Israel/Palestine in the summer of 2003 to help us rebuild homes and lives destroyed by the Israeli Occupation and/or by acts of Palestinian terror against Israelis.

10. Helping us organize a week long summer institute to study the underlying ideas of The Tikkun Community, the Middle East, the war in Iraq and its aftermath, the wisdom of the spiritual traditions, and techniques for being an effective organizer. (first help we need is to find a camp or place to house a few hunded people who might wish to attend this). And how do we make it cheap enough for people with little money to attend (we have no $ for scholarships), comfortable enough so that people who are no longer into camping out in a tent could feel that their needs are beng met, vegetarian enough so that those of us who are kosher would feel comfortable, and long enough so that real learning could take place? Want to become part of a committee to help ut this together?

11. Should there be direct action or even non-violent civil disobedience? If so, what are the appropriate targets.

Well, do any of these appeal to you? If so, please let me know. Or do you have other ideas for how to get our dieas discussed and thought about inthe public arena rather than having them side- tracked by debates about divestment?

One final issue, on which I'd like advice. Wherever I speak, whenever I deal with elected officials or the media, I'm told that they have already been approached by the Jewish Right and their allies in the Evangelical Christian movements, and they've been told that that those of us who oppose the Occupation don't represent anyone in America. We then have to tell them that we DO reprsent people. Yet many of the people who agree with us haven't bothered to join The Tikkun Community (are you one of those who hasn't bothered to send in actual dues--as described at our website">"> ? You could join on line or by sending us a check to TIKKUN, 2107 Van Ness Ave, Suite 302, S.F., Ca. 94109--On the super-generous side, you could join as a Tikkun "World Transformer" for $1,000, a Foundiing Member for $500, or a Tikkun Associate and we'd bill you $25 a month for one year. Or there is the sliding fee scale: $120 for incomes above $80k/yr; $80 for incomes $35k-$80k yr.; $40 for incomes under $35k/yr--and these all include a one year subscription to Tikkun plus a copy of the book Healing Israel Palestine as soon as it is ready, probably by December).

One of the most frustrating aspects of building this movement is to find all kinds of people who agree fully with our politics but who are committed to some form of "localism" which prevents them from joining The Tikkun Community. They don't realize how much more impactful their local group would be if they affiliated with The Tikkun Community by having their members join and then publicly saying that their group is part of the nationwide Tikkun Community. Not only would that give us more clout nationally, but it works the other way as well--when we get national publicity, more people on 'the local level feel that it's less scary to be identified with your peace perspective, because they feel they are part of this larger national movement so that they are not going to be the only ones to take an unconventional stand. So even if the group keeps its own local name and identity, if it publicly identifies with The Tikkun Communit y it helps them and it helps us. Whereas when there are hundreds of local groups but they don't affiliate with a national movement, they dont' get the positive spinoff from the national and the national doesn't get the credibility that would come from local affiliates.

So, I'd love advice on how to get this message communicated without sounding as though we are imperialistically seeking to dominate every local group? And how do I get the message out that although we come from the Jewish world, The Tikkun Community is not just for Jews (half our members are not Jewish)? And how do I get the message out that although we are rooted in a spiritual tradition, that many of our members are secular humanists and that our activities do not involve some New Age flakiness? And how do I let people know that we don't want to take them over, but we want to build on each other's strengths and consolidate our efforts?

Well, if you have ideas on this, please let me know!!!

Meanwhile, many blessings and warm regards for a world of peace, justice, generosity and love.

Rabbi Michael Lerner
951 Cragmont Ave.
Berkeley, Ca. 94708

To JOIN the TIKKUN COMMUNITY and help build a world in which your highest ideals would not be so very very against the grain of the established reality, go to">">, read The Core Vision and Founding Principles in the section under The Tikkun Community, and then JOIN US.

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Date Added: 10/22/2002 Date Revised: 10/22/2002

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