When doves cry

Michael Lerner and Cornel West have teamed up to combat the pro-Israel lobby. But so far Ariel Sharon isn't losing sleep over it.


Anthony York
April 12, 2002 12:00PM (UTC)

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tries to combat Palestinian suicide bombers with a massive military assault on the West Bank and Gaza, the voices of American Jewish doves are harder than ever to hear. So Berkeley, Calif., Rabbi Michael Lerner and Harvard professor Cornel West have teamed up to form a new movement, the Tikkun Community, to speak on behalf of what they say is a silent majority of American Jews who oppose Sharon's military moves.

But Thursday's Tikkun Community rally outside the State Department showed just how far Lerner and West have to go. Even after taking out a full-page ad in the Washington Post this week, they turned out only about 300 protesters. And in what seemed like a symbolic mistake as well as a logistical one, they forgot to bring a microphone. Their mostly baby boomer audience had to strain to listen, while Lerner and West cupped their hands around their mouths, so folks in the back could hear, as they spoke of the need for "a new planetary consciousness" and the power of "redemption and love."

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Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups are making plans for a Monday rally on the steps of the Capitol, to support Israel's self-defense. That rally, led by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of the nation's largest Jewish groups, is expected to bring thousands of people to the nation's capital, including the hawk many think will be Israel's next leader, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. You can count on one thing: They won't forget their microphones.

Lerner, West and their supporters are of course up against one of the best-funded, best-organized forces in American politics, the pro-Israel lobby. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group on the Hill, has an annual budget of nearly $20 million, and according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics, spends more than $1 million on lobbying politicians annually. Although AIPAC does not give money as a political action committee, its supporters do: Writing in the American Prospect, Michael Massing conducted an analysis of campaign contributions that showed that from 1997 to 2001, members of AIPAC's 46-member board gave more that $3 million in political contributions.

And the group is proud of its clout. "AIPAC is considered by Fortune Magazine as one of the top five lobbying groups, representing more than 50,000 pro-Israel activists," said AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Needler, "and it continues to advocate and support a strong relationship between the United States and Israel." AIPAC also has an extensive grass-roots organization among its 60,000 rank and file members. That strong grass-roots support is part of the reason turnout for Monday's demonstration will be so high.

But Lerner insists that while AIPAC may have the ear of most American politicians, the group by no means speaks for the majority of American Jews. Lerner refers to his organization as "the progressive, pro-Israel alternative to AIPAC and the voices of Jewish conservatism and conformism" -- voices Lerner claims are an impediment to the United States playing a constructive role in the Mideast peace process.

"That is ridiculous," said Needler. "AIPAC's record stands for itself. We have worked for years with Congress and various administrations in support of finding peace."

While polls show American support for Israel remains high, there are growing signs of opposition to the Sharon government on the American left. This week, demonstrations broke out on college campuses around the country. At the University of California at Berkeley Tuesday, police arrested 79 pro-Palestinian protesters who stormed into a classroom building, following a day in which several hundred protesters took to the streets. Some campus activists are trying to cast Israel as a 21st century South Africa, a land of apartheid that must be isolated by the rest of the world, which was a major thrust of the U.N. Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa last September.

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But Lerner is pitching his message to American Jews, not the secular left, and he'll have an uphill battle. Already, mainstream pro-Israel groups are fighting back.

"I think they are a fringe of a fringe," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, when asked about the Tikkun Community. "They represent no significant constituency as an organization. I do not think of it as a productive contribution." Hoenlein criticized Lerner and West's call for a comprehensive peace treaty while Israeli civilians are being attacked. "Right now there are no political issues on the table, the issue is Israel's security. Those other issues can be addressed, and they will. We're not a monolithic community. But right now the issue is Israel's future, Israel's security. It's under assault. The issue now is ending the killing of Jews."

The Berkeley rabbi and Harvard professor may be American politics' oddest couple. As they strode toward the demonstration together, West was decked out in a three-piece suit and a black scarf, tugging at his trademark goatee. Lerner, wearing a yarmulke, clutched an Indiana Jones hat in his right hand, while a copy of "Radical Spirit: Spiritual Writings from the Voices of Tomorrow" bulged out of his front jacket pocket.

Lerner has long been a polarizing figure among Jews and among leftists. Defenders praise his brainchild, Tikkun magazine, as well as his efforts to marry politics and spirituality, and his attempts to build support for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel; detractors criticize him for self-promotion and his New Age-y approach to both religion and politics. He's probably best known for his short-lived association with Hillary Clinton, who was reportedly taken with his "politics of meaning." West, too, is both adored and scorned for many of the same reasons. He is likewise known for attempts to popularize his lefty approach to spirituality, and has had to fend off criticism that he's abandoned serious scholarship for self-promotion.

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In January, the two mavericks joined forces to form the Tikkun Community, which Lerner says was born out of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Sept. 11, number one, provided a smoke screen for Sharon to intensify his assault on the Palestinian people, and on the other hand, it undermined the discourse for social justice for the Palestinian people in this country, and focused us on the external enemy."

When asked why he chose the State Department as the site for his demonstration, Lerner said the goal was to back Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to Jerusalem. "You can say that in some ways we are here supporting him," Lerner said. "Yesterday [Wednesday], we took out a full page ad in the Washington Post that said, 'Yes, Mr. Bush.' I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be taking out an ad in the paper that said that, but Mr. Bush has taken an important first step. But it's not that significant unless he takes the next step" -- forging a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

While Lerner riffed on the new planetary consciousness, West, a professor of the philosophy of religion at Harvard, cited the need for religious harmony between Jews, Muslims and Christians, at one point referring to Jesus as "just a Jewish brother who started a different movement."

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Their offbeat approach to politics stands in sharp contrast to the high-level professional operations run by AIPAC and the Conference. New York's leading Jewish newspaper, the Forward, recently called Hoenlein "the most influential private citizen in American foreign policy-making."

Hoenlein said he did not put much stake in reports suggesting President Bush is losing patience with Sharon. "I think it's a lot less dramatic than what's reported. I spoke to many people in the White House and others and they've said it's a mischaracterization. I'm not worried about momentary tensions because it's clear that President Bush and the Congress understand that Israel has the right to defend itself."

In Congress, much to the delight of Hoenlein and AIPAC leaders, Israel supporters have turned up the heat on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, not on Sharon. In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that if Powell was unsuccessful in making progress in his meeting with Arafat this week, she will reintroduce legislation making the Arafat's Palestinian Authority a terrorist organization.

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Feinstein and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced similar legislation last October, but withdrew it at Powell's request, said Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman. But if Powell is unsuccessful this week, McConnell and Feinstein will reintroduce that legislation on the Senate floor.

"I believe there is a hidden agenda and that is to drive out the Jewish people and create a Palestinian state which includes Israel," Feinstein said. "This has been the Palestinians' quest. Many of us hoped that through the Oslo process, this quest could be changed. But I am increasingly beginning to believe it has not changed."

Lerner chastised Feinstein as invoking "the worst parts of Jewish reactionary consciousness. To Dianne Feinstein -- shame on you. This is not the way to bring peace." Of the Feinstein-McConnell bill, Lerner said, "This is basically a resolution that says 'Please reelect me and please get me AIPAC money.'"

But whatever the cause, groups like AIPAC have been successful in keeping congressional support for Israel strong, even as questions mount within the administration about Sharon's strategy. On Thursday James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, told USA Today that 80 members of Congress "are sympathetic to the concerns of pro-Arab groups but refuse to speak publicly." Remarkably, the paper added, Zogby "did not name one." In fact, Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell -- whose district is heavily Muslim and Arab-American -- has been a regular critic of Israel. And a few others in Congress have begun to speak out as well. This week the normally pro-Israel Sen. Patrick Leahy criticized the "unrelenting military power that has caused widespread suffering among innocent Palestinians."

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But Hoenlein says he isn't worrying; he's busy preparing for Monday's pro-Israel rally. "We wanted to have an opportunity to show support and solidarity with Israel at a very critical time in its history, and to support the war against terrorism," he said. "This is not a parade. This is a serious demonstration of concern and solidarity with Israel. The people of Israel need it to know they are not alone, and people here feel the need to express solidarity, especially when so much coverage is given to negative demonstrations."

In fact, Lerner's small demonstration got very little coverage. A handful of reporters attended, crowding up front so they could hear the speakers without a microphone. The Associated Press didn't file a dispatch. Lerner promises a Friday rally in New York will expand his movement's reach, but it's hard to be confident about that.

Lerner, however, is nothing if not confident, and he is convinced that most Jews share his views. "I want to give an opportunity for people to come out of the closet, to say what they believe, what is in their hearts," he said. He might also want to give them a microphone, because right now the voices of Jewish doves are certainly being drowned out by the clamor of the well-organized hawks.


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Middle East Washington, D.c.

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