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Surprise, surprise -- Rabbi Michael Lerner is at the center of a controversy again.
The week has seen a distracting media stink about how Rabbi Lerner, editor of San Francisco-based Tikkun Magazine, was "banned" by the national anti-war mobilization group, International Answer, from speaking at the San Francisco peace rally this Sunday due to his criticism of Answer's criticism of Israel.
The real story, of course, is not quite that simple.
Anyone who has been involved in progressive efforts over the past 20 years knows the book on Lerner: He's a brilliant writer and theorist who attracts the broad support of liberal intellectuals. He's also a hyperactive self-promoter reportedly very difficult to work with. So any storm with Lerner at its center deserves close scrutiny.
Many may remember when, during the Clinton administration, Hillary Clinton became enamored of Lerner's writing and the ideas in his book, " The Politics of Meaning." But after the press got its teeth into the story, Lerner became radioactive to the Clintons and was soon persona non grata in the White House.
The truth depends on your perspective, but according to the antiwar groups involved, Lerner wasn't so much banned from speaking at the SF rally as he was simply never considered. The four groups co-sponsoring the SF march had agreed not to invite speakers who were critical of any of the groups.
This may not be the most principled decision -- and probably represents Answer's agenda since they have been the most criticized -- but it's understandable. These groups are trying to stop a war. They make compromises to be able to work together and get on with things.
Mitchell Plitnick of Jewish Voice for Peace, part of the United for Peace Coalition, says the whole affair has been blown out of proportion. He says the Tikkun community were part of a discussion about the speaker situation at a Feb. 4 meeting and were fine with it since other speakers would cover Lerner's concerns. "Then Lerner sent out an email press communication saying he was blackballed, never contacting anyone at United for Peace."
According to the statement posted on the United for Peace and Justice website, it was Michael Lerner's public attacks against one of the anti-war coalitions that, "resulted in his not being formally proposed as a speaker on Feb. 16; his views on Israel and Palestine had nothing to do with it. Within the anti-war movement, there is a wide spectrum of diverse and opposing views regarding Israel and Palestine, and those views will be heard on Feb. 16. On that day, two rabbis, David Cooper and Pam Frydman-Baugh, both of whose views are similar to those of Michael Lerner, will be speaking."
So Lerner's name was never considered. "We didn't hear anything else about it until Lerner made it an issue," Andrea Buffa, a longtime organizer and a key leader of United for Peace and Justice, told the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 12.
But there is a much larger debate going on here, provoked by anger at the role being played in the peace movement by International Answer (and its forerunner, International Action Center, founded by Ramsey Clark, who among other things is a member of the International Committee to defend Slobodan Milosevic). Some of the sectarian organizations have very marginal positions on Saddam Hussein and other atrocious international leaders. At least four respected journalists -- David Corn in The Nation, Geov Parrish of Seattle Weekly, Michelle Goldberg in Salon and Marc Cooper in the LA Weekly -- have written extensively about the ugly nature of some of the relationships of International Answer and Not in Our Name, an antiwar group associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist group that supports Peru's violent Shining Path.
I don't mean to dismiss this examination as unimportant. These sectarian groups generally give me the creeps, too. (The meaning of sectarian is sometimes slippery, but usually refers to groups with Marxist/Leninist or Maoist tendencies and names like Workers World Party or Revolutionary Communist Party. They often have a highly visible male leader who has been in charge for decades.) Yet, sectarian groups have always played provocative and often ongoing roles in social change movements, including the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. And they are frequently staffed by full-time political junkies who have the organizational skills to do things like organize marches.
Many people aligned with these groups lead normal lives but have beliefs very far out of the mainstream. While International Answer is prominent on the demo scene, as the movement has grown they have been transcended by broader forces and more progressive issue advocacy membership groups such as Peace Action, the Win Without War coalition, Labor Against the War, Moveon.org and others.
Maybe it's too pragmatic, but the goal of the marches is to bring hundreds of thousands of people together who are energized and motivated by a common cause: stopping the war. That's really the message, far more than the speeches coming out of the loudspeakers, which many people don't even pay attention to (sometimes I have to cover my ears to block out the tired rhetoric).
But it's a messy process organizing protests, and very easy to criticize from the outside. As Buffa says: "We really need to keep the focus on what the Bush administration is doing instead of these internal political issues."
For his part, Rabbi Michael Lerner says he's encouraging members of his synogague to participate in this weekend's protests.
Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org.