An Unorthodox Approach

Rabbi Michael Lerner
Controversial rabbi speaks about peace, Isreal, and the Palestinians

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once described Rabbi Michael Lerner as "one of America's most dangerous criminals." A Newark, New Jersey native, in the early '60s Lerner studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later became a social activist, protesting the Vietnam War and leading the Berkeley chapter of Students for Democratic Society.

With Princeton professor Cornel West and Chairperson of the Jewish Studies Department at Dartmouth University Susannah Heschel, Lerner formed a new interfaith organization, the Tikkun Community (and a related magazine) whose 5,000 members are committed to ending the occupation of the West Bank and to making reparations to Palestinian refugees and Jews who fled Arab lands. Tikkun is trying to create middle ground, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, that recognizes each side's well-being depends on meeting the other side's fundamental needs.

Through the Judaic moral philosophy of Tikkun, which means "healing" or "transformation" in Hebrew, Lerner has developed an approach to reviving the relevancy of religion in American life.

Lerner's views on Judaism, human relations, and on achieving peace in the Middle East and the world have received widespread recognition despite his critics, some of whom have called him "a self-hating Jew."

Julio Naboa: What impact did your early experience have on your thinking?

Michael Lerner: `I grew up in` a mixed neighborhood with mostly Jews, Puerto Ricans, blacks, and Italians, as well as some Polish and other Eastern Europeans. This made me aware of ethnicity as a factor and the tensions that it generates, as well as the possibilities for overcoming these tensions.

What values did you inherit from your parents?

My parents were quite liberal, and very active in the Democratic Party. Among the values they inculcated in me were these three: a caring for what's happening in the world at large; every night we would have a discussion about the news. A strong caring for the welfare of other minorities, most particularly blacks in our country who were symbolic of the oppression Jews had suffered through the centuries. A focused concern for the fate of Jews around the world.

There seems to be much discussion today about anti-Semitism. How would you define "anti-Semitism"?

The whole concept of anti-Semitism was created by non-Jews during the 19th century when concepts of race were in vogue; thus Jews were classified as a "Semitic" people. Now, in the 20th and 21st centuries, I would define anti-Semitism as a "systematic hatred of Jews because they are Jewish." This includes any action, activity, or discourse that undermines the well-being of Jews as a people.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Sunday, February 29
Chapman Auditorium
Trinity University
One Trinity Place
Why do some of your critics describe you as a "self-hating" Jew?

Unlike I do, they believe that Israel's security and strength lies in dominance and military might alone. They don't understand that I love Israel and care for our peoples' fate, as they do; but it is my belief that our enduring strength comes from our ancient traditions of justice and the teachings of the Torah. They thus mistakenly think I'm "self-hating" because unlike them, I believe that there is another, more moral and ultimately more reliable, approach we could utilize to achieve security and well-being.

Does Mel Gibson's film The Passion inflame anti-Semitism? If so, how?

The film has the potential of inflaming anti-Semitism. In fact, one primary source of Jewish repression for centuries in Europe has been the charge that Jews as a collective body killed Jesus and bear the collective responsibility for that act.

It's important to remember that Rome was the ultimate power in Judea at that time. As a Roman colony, Judea had a Jewish leadership which often served the interests of the Roman Empire, thus not representing the true will of the Jewish people.

Has the United States government been a fair and balanced broker of peace between Israel and the Palestinians?

The United States has not been a fair broker. In fact, it is more interested in maintaining its own power and thus uses Israel as a client state and its representative in the Middle East to achieve that end. I believe it's not in the interest of the Jewish people for Israel to be the lapdog of the United States in the Middle East, in exchange for which Israel has gotten a blank check to continue their occupation of Palestinians with impunity.

I am a strong supporter of Israel as a Jewish state based on the concepts of love, generosity, caring, peace, and social justice. Israel's security is not enhanced by the domination and control of others, but rather by being an exemplar for peace and morality.

Tikkun calls for all the wealthy nations of the West to contribute at least 10 percent of their GNP towards the development and rebuilding of the economic and social structures of less developed countries. This would be our best defense program, and function far more effectively at stopping terrorism than would dominance or occupation. •

More info: To read a collection of Rabbi Lerner's columns, go to


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