In a March 7 advertisement in The New York Times, Rabbi Michael Lerner advocated against either Israel or the United States making a preemptive strike on Iran. The ad, which had over 100 signatories, outlined what the longtime Tikkun editor calls a “strategy of generosity.”
The approach calls for Western countries to provide for the welfare of the people of struggling states instead of exporting “militarism and world domination,” he said in a March 11 interview with NJJN from his home in the San Francisco Bay area.
It’s a strategy, he said, that also calls for a complete change in Israeli and United States policy.
Now Lerner is trying to raise the funds to place similar ads in Israeli newspapers.
He told NJJN that he has no illusions that — absent a major philosophical shift in U.S. and Israeli powers-that-be — his position has any real chance of being adopted in either place. Nonetheless, he has no plans to change course anytime soon.
Lerner, who founded Tikkun in 1986, continues to edit what is now a webzine and lead Beyt Tikkun, his Jewish renewal synagogue in Berkeley, Calif. A Newark native, he celebrated becoming bar mitzva at Temple B’nai Abraham with Rabbi Joachim Prinz, and graduated from Weequahic High School. After his parents moved to South Orange, the family joined Congregation Beth El.
On Tuesday, March 20, he will be at Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, to discuss his new book, Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East (North Atlantic Books).
In his conversation with NJJN, Lerner said his plan — his “strategy of generosity” — calls for a complete change in the approach of the United States and Israel toward its perceived and actual enemies: other Middle Eastern countries in general, Iran and the Palestinians in particular.
With regard to Israel, Lerner calls for an about-face in policy regarding the Palestinians. “Israel will have to end the occupation, recognize Palestine, and help in the spirit of open-hearted generosity to create a viable state in the West Bank and Gaza,” said Lerner. And, he added, Israel would also have to “acknowledge partial responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem of 1948 and provide recompense.” Such a plan would be only partially funded by Israel; the rest would come from the West, since “the current struggle was partially created by global colonialism, namely of Great Britain, and because the reality of the Jewish people today was created by Europe’s treatment of the Jewish people in the 20th century.”
Israel would also have to significantly change its attitude toward Iran. Rather than look to preemptive strikes, Lerner said, Israel should adopt “a spirit of global generosity toward Iran.” If Iran needs nuclear power as an alternative energy source, he suggested, “Israel will offer its expertise in creating new alternative energy sources.”
Asked if he thinks such a plan is viable, he said, “I do not have a fantasy that the Iranian government is a decent group of people at heart. But I do believe that the majority of Iranians would no longer be able to be manipulated about what is so oppressive about their own regime. That’s the strategy of generosity — to transform the Middle East.”
He acknowledged that the mainstream Jewish community and its policy makers are not ready to embrace the idea of Palestine, endorse the idea that some Palestinians were wronged in 1948, and accept the notion that amends need to be made. “Do I think this is something that will happen in the near future? That seems unlikely. On the other hand, it’s far more realistic than thinking that Israel or the United States will gain more security by engaging in wars. It’s like asking how real it is to stop [President George] Bush from engaging in a war in Iraq. Realistic? Not very. But that’s not a good reason not to say it.”
He continued, “How realistic was it in 1897 when Theodor Herzl said, ‘Let’s get a Jewish state?’ He said, ‘Im tirtzu, ein zo aggada’ — ‘If the community wills it, it is no myth.’ If he had been a realist, there would never have been a Jewish state.”
Lerner endorses and advocates for the global Marshall Plan, first conceived by former Vice President Al Gore and included in House Resolution 157, introduced by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
The plan “would eliminate once and for all global poverty, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care,” said Lerner. “It would change the way we work with the world.” The plan calls for advanced industrial countries to direct 1-2 percent of their gross domestic product toward this purpose. It would also modify trade agreements to favor Third World countries rather than American corporations. (Gore’s version of the plan also addressed climate change.)
The resolution has the support of 87 members of the House, according to Lerner, a far cry from the 230 it would need to pass.
Even if the United States and Israel were suddenly to decide to adopt his strategy, it is entirely unclear that fledgling Middle Eastern governments emerging from the Arab Spring would welcome Western aid. The theory goes that since the United States supported the dictators who preceded them for decades, none of the new governments will want to appear to receive help from the United States or Israel. But Lerner disagrees.
“You underestimate the degree to which Muslims around the world care about their fellow Muslims living in camps around the Middle East and the degree to which they identify with and feel terrible about the ways in which the military might of Israel and the U.S. is aimed at Palestinian disenfranchisement.
“Governments understand Israel as a football they can use to manipulate the people,” he said. “If you take away the football, you take away the avenue to manipulation. The governments are still not going to run to embrace Israel, but the people may feel tremendously differently.”