Michael Lerner

Here's how White nationalism can be uprooted in America

Holocaust Memorial commemorations around the world began May 1 but are likely to continue through this coming weekend, while Jews and our allies grieve the murder and wounding of Jews at the Poway synagogue in Southern California this past Saturday. I hear more and more young people suggest that something akin to the Holocaust might actually happen again, this time here in the United States.

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Racism and Israel's election: How did the Jewish state become an oppressive state?

Israel’s election on Tuesday came down to a battle between a prime minister who promised to annex part (or possibly all) of the West Bank and its several million Palestinians into Israel, but without giving them equal rights to Jews, and a former army general and chief of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who boasted about how many Palestinians he had killed, or had his army kill, in past invasions into Gaza.

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GOP’s Secret Weapon: How Right-Wing Churches Turn the 99 Percent Into the Tea Party

Why does the Right keep winning in American politics, sometimes through electoral victories, sometimes by having the Democrats and others on the Left adopt what were traditionally right-wing policies and perspectives? Sure, I know that progressives won some important local battles in 2014: A few towns in California, Texas, and Ohio banned fracking. A few towns in Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, and Illinois supported ballot measures to overturn Citizens United. Richmond, California, stood up to Chevron, and Berkeley stood up to “Big Soda.”

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Mourning for a Judaism Being Murdered by Israel

My heart is broken as I witness the suffering of the Palestinian people and the seeming indifference of Israelis. Tonight (August 4) and tomorrow (August 5), which mark Tisha B’av,the Jewish commemoration of disasters that happened to us through Jewish history, I’m going to be fasting and mourning also for a Judaism being murdered by Israel. No matter who gets blamed for the breakdowns in the cease-fire or for “starting” this latest iteration of a struggle that is at least 140 years old, one of the primary victims of the war between Israel and Hamas is the compassionate and love-oriented Judaism that has held together for several thousand years. Even as Israel withdraws its troops from Gaza, leaving behind immense devastation, over 1,800 dead Gazans, and over four thousand wounded, without adequate medical supplies because of Israel’s continuing blockade, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to negotiate a cease-fire. He is fearful that he would be seen as “weak” if Israel gave way to Gazans’ demand for an end to the blockade and the freedom of thousands of Palestinian prisoners kidnapped and held in Israeli jails in violation of their human rights.

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A Different Take on Disengagement

If Ariel Sharon had been willing to negotiate a genuine peace agreement with the Palestinians in which Israel withdrew to the 1967 border (with slight border modifications along the lines suggested by Yossi Beilin in the Geneva Accord of 2003), one part of that agreement could have allowed all settlers to stay in their homes in Gaza and the West Bank as long as they agreed to be law-abiding citizens of the Palestinian state that would be governing that area. If they were not willing to give up their Israeli citizenship and live in peace with their neighbors,  they could voluntarily leave their homes and return to Israel.  That is the same choice that Arabs faced once Israel was established in a land that they once governed. It should have been the choice offered to Israeli settlers as well.

There never had to be the horrible scene of people being dragged from their homes.

So why did it happen?  Because Ariel Sharon's entire plan -- as explained to the Israeli public by his assistant, Dov Weisglass -- was to sacrifice the settlers of Gaza precisely in order to have the painful images that dominated the media, so that Sharon could argue "Of course no one can ask us to do this kind of thing to the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, given the pain everyone has seen us go through in Gaza."

As Sharon's aides tried to tell the settlers, the Disengagement was intended to preserve the Occupation, not undermine it. And so, Sharon is moving ahead to finish construction of the Separation Wall and cut off from the West Bank the 150,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem (not to mention many other Palestinians living in proximity to the Wall), expropriate more and more Palestinian land, and "create facts" on the ground that will be hard to change.

There are some who celebrate this Gaza withdrawal as the first step in the process of dismantling settlements. Rabbi Lerner asks them the following: "At what point, how many years from now, while the Occupation continues of much of the West Bank, will you acknowledge that this was simply another part of the scheme that Sharon has--to hold on to close to 50 percent of the West Bank while offering Palestinians a state that will be neither economically nor politically viable, a state that, when they refuse it, or when they accept it and then ask for more, will be used as 'proof' that nothing will ever satisfy them?"  So, Rabbi Lerner argues, we should understand that all the pain was part of an elaborate ruse--and though the immediate victims are the Gaza settlers, the real victims are all the peoples of Israel and Palestine who will have to endure the ongoing suffering that the continuation of the Occupation guarantees.

This was not a move toward reconciliation and open-heartedness between two peoples, but a unilateral move by a pro-occupation government, aided by an international media that systematically tells the story from the standpoint of the Israeli government. When was the last time the media gave this kind of attention to the systematic uprooting from their homes of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation, though the number of those who have been uprooted far exceeds those of Israelis uprooted? When was the last time the media raised the issue of how many Israelis today are living in homes that belonged to Palestinians before 1948? 

We raise these issues not to challenge the right of Israel to exist or to flourish, but precisely for the opposite reason--because we believe that only when Israel opens its heart to the fate of the Palestinians and seeks a reconciliation based on justice and kindness and a spirit of generosity (not a unilateral decision by Ariel Sharon imposed on the Palestinian people) can Israel be truly secure.

This is the key lesson of a spiritual politics: that security comes not through power and domination, but through love and generosity. The forced withdrawal of settlers from their homes this past week did not generate a higher level of love or generosity of spirit from any of the different groups in the Middle East. Even the Palestinians in Gaza, relieved that they no longer will have to go through IDF checkpoints, couldn't feel that the withdrawal was a part of a new spirit of generosity by Israel. Why have it imposed rather than negotiated as part of a peace agreement?, they asked. And how generous was it when Israel decided to destroy the houses of settlers lest Palestinians occupying those houses be seen by right-wing Israelis as a "provocation" that might lead to new acts of violence? And how generous was it when Israel still insisted that it would control the borders of Gaza, including from the sea and by air, thus making Gaza an enclave without freedom of access to others in the world except through continued Israeli consent.

Is this what you'd call freedom? And if in this circumstance, Hamas would be able to say that it was not Israeli generosity but Israeli desire to avoid more conflict that had forced them to leave, and thus Hamas -- rather than Palestinian non-violence under Prime Mininster Abbas -- that deserved the credit for the withdrawal, would this really surprise Sharon, or rather be exactly what he wants -- a further 'proof' that abandoning territory to Palestinians would only lead to the extremists taking over, so certainly no one could ask for that in the West Bank? Thus, on every level, this had not been a move of spiritual wisdom, but a move calculated to increase Israel's ability to dominate the West Bank.

We don't pretend that in the contemporary world it is easy to get people mobilized around a spiritual politics when they've been so indoctrinated with the message that domination is the only common sense approach, that one can never trust the other, that the world is filled with fear and anger, and that one's only protection is to dominate the other before they dominate us. But at the very least, lets recognize how completely at variance with the deepest message of Judaism and of the other spiritual visions of the world is this "common sense" that guides American policy, Israeli policy, and the policies of most other countries in the world today. We can't condemn Israel without simultaneously acknowledging that the same condemnation is appropriate for every state on the planet, almost.  But we can lament how far Israel has strayed from the highest teachings of Judaism. For as God taught the prophets, "Not by might, and not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts."

The Neverending Story

We know that our individual efforts to send money, sacred and important though they are, cannot come close to reaching the level of the tens of billions of dollars that will be needed to help the millions of people who have lost homes, work, and everything they own or with which they could make a living due to the tsunami. Only a full-scale governmental effort on the part of all the countries of the world, and most particularly the wealthy countries, could make much of an impact at this level of financial need.

So it is particularly distressing to find once again that those of us who live in the U.S. have to witness our own country giving a pathetically small amount of money (even after responding to pressure to increase its initial pledge tenfold, the U.S. is giving a tiny, tiny percentage of what is needed). The hundreds of billions of dollars being sunk into a war against Sunnis in Iraq is monies that could have been spent on providing the kind of advanced warning systems, and solid construction of buildings, that might have dramatically limited the damage and deaths caused by this terrible storm. Once again, the unequal distribution of wealth on the planet translates into the poorest and most defenseless being hardest hit.

Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year! The difference between the almost nonexistent coverage of this ongoing human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.

Imagine if every single day there were headlines in every newspaper in the world and every television show saying: "29,000 children died yesterday from preventable diseases and malnutrition" and then the rest of the stories alternated between detailed personal accounts of families where this devastation was taking place, and sidebar features detailing what was happening in advanced industrial countries, like this: "all this suffering was happening while the wealthiest people in the world enjoyed excesses of food, worried about how to lose weight because they eat too much, spent money trying to convince farmers not to grow too much food for fear that doing so would drive down prices, and were cutting the taxes of their wealthiest rather than seeking to redistribute their excess millions of dollars of personal income." If the story were told that way every day, the goodness of human beings would rebel quickly against these social systems that made all this suffering possible, suffering far, far, far in excess of all the suffering caused by tsunamis and other natural disasters.

If we were being told this true story every day, we'd quickly find that the progressive forces seeking a new global reality would come to power in democratic elections, and that proposals, like Tikkun's Global Marshall Plan (which would have the U.S. lead the advanced industrial societies in a global consortium dedicating 5 percent of their combined GNP each year to alleviating hunger, homelessness, poverty, inadequate education and inadequate health care), would no longer seem "unrealistic" to most people on the planet, but immediate survival necessities.

One important reason that this doesn't happen, whereas the suffering from the tsunami does get the coverage, is that the tsunami can be seen as "natural" and therefore no one is being blamed, no one has to feel guilty about consuming a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, and no one is mobilized to challenge the existing systems of power which fund and control the mass media. However devastating, the tsunami's story line is safe and predictable and unlikely to challenge the current global distribution of wealth or power.

Most reporters and news editors have internalized their sense of what the top-management in their industry considers "newsworthy" and thus they didn't give much attention to the U.N. story and its dramatic and tragic dimensions. If you pressed them, they would probably say something like this: these stories about global poverty don't really interest anyone, because most people know that nothing can be done about it, given that everyone they know is more interested in getting their own material needs satisfied than in worrying about global redistribution of wealth – so there is no point in pursuing that story, because the kinds of changes needed to deal with it will never happen anyway.

Perhaps the reason that social change seems so unrealistic is because not only these news people but almost everyone else has been taught that others are only motivated by narrow material self-interest. Yet when we watch the response of the people of the world to this tragedy we see just the opposite – a huge outpouring of generosity. Millions of people are making contributions, and billions are showing signs of caring. And it is this way whenever we face a situation in which the official media lets down its normal "cynical realism" and tells us that it's OK to show our caring side.

Those who despair are mistaken – the goodness of humanity is always just a few inches from the surface, on the verge of being released. One reason why right-wing Christian churches have been so successful is that they give people a spiritual context within which to let out their caring sides without worrying that they will face cynical put-downs from others around them. One task for progressives interested in social change is to find the best way to facilitate that process in a progressive context, but that will require a new sensitivity to a spiritual framework that validates and supports that spirit of generosity within most people.

Yet in the rest of our lives, few of us are ever encouraged to show caring beyond our small circles of friends and families, and if we are urged to show caring, it is only for the victims of some kind of natural disaster, but not for the kinds of problems we could actually deal with through collective restructuring of the world's economic and political arrangements – because that would threaten the interests of the powerful. They are all too glad to divert our attention to the disasters that can't be changed, and to channeling our anger into anger at God instead of anger at our social system.

The Tikkun Community is proposing a Global Marshall Plan: let the U.S. take the lead in convincing the other leading industrial countries to jointly contribute 5 percent of their GNP for each of the next 20 years to eliminating global poverty, hunger, inadequate education and inadequate healthcare and to build the economic infrastructure of the third world to dramatically improve the well-being of the worst off in every respect from earthquake and tsunami preparedness to environmentally sustainable rebuilding of their agricultural and industrial base. This should be the center of a progressive spiritual "values-based" approach to politics: a recognition of the fundamental interconnectedness of all human beings on the planet. What the tsunami shows is that the caring for others necessary to support such a politics is already there in most Americans. Our task is to let that fundamental goodness be channeled in paths that would actually work to dramatically decrease suffering in all corners of our world.

Christmas Wars

Flush from their electoral victories in November, some leaders of the Christian right have decided to make an issue of the secularization of Christmas. Objecting to the move by Macy's and some other retailers to wish their shoppers "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" instead of the traditional Merry Christmas, they have begun to accuse secularists in general, and, on some of the right-wing talk shows, Jews in particular, of undermining Christmas.

It's easy to dismiss these right-wingers as sore winners. They are well on their way to packing the judiciary with judges who may erode the division between church and state, make abortion more difficult or illegal, and support the pro-torture position of Bush's choice for Attorney General. Yet the 25 percent of Jews who voted for Bush in this past election may not have imagined that along with his vigorous support for Sharon and for the war in Iraq, Bush's electoral victory could spur a public assault on the legitimacy of Jewish identity in the U.S.

The assault has been led by Bill O'Reilly, the most popular cable newscaster, who told millions of viewers that there was a systematic assault on Christmas by secularists. When challenged by a Jewish caller who said he felt uncomfortable being subject to frequent attempts to convert him by Christians at his college, O'Reilly responded: "All right. Well, what I'm tellin' you, is I think you're takin' it too seriously. You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don't wanna hear about it? Come on – if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then. I mean because we live in a country founded on Judeo – and that's your guys' – Christian, that's my guys' philosophy. But overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don't wanna hear about it? Impossible. And that is an affront to the majority. You know, the majority can be insulted, too. And that's what this anti-Christmas thing is all about."

Meanwhile, Richard Viguerie, the master of right-wing direct mail campaigns, interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air on Dec. 13, repeated the charge that Christians were the victims of a systematic secularists assault against Christmas. On MSNBC last week William Donahue of the Catholic League insisted, "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It's not a secret, OK? They like to see the public square without nativity scenes."

Liberals and civil libertarians would be making a huge mistake to see this as merely the rantings of a few overt anti- Semites and anti-civil-liberties extremists. They articulate a legitimate concern that many Christians say privately: their children have learned that Christmas is about buying – and the person with the most expensive gifts wins!

There is a beautiful spiritual message underlying Christmas that has universal appeal: the hope that gets reborn in moments of despair, the light that gets re-lit in the darkest moments of the year, is beautifully symbolized by the story of a child born of a teenage homeless mother who had to give birth in a manger because no one would give her shelter, and escaping the cruelty of Roman imperial rule and its local surrogate Herod who already knew that such a child would grow up to challenge the entire imperialist system. To celebrate that vulnerable child as a symbol of hope that eventually the weak would triumph over the rule of the arrogant and powerful is a spiritual celebration with strong analogies to our Jewish Chanukah celebration which also celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful. And many other spiritual traditions around the world have similar celebrations at this time of year.

The loss of this message, its subversion into a frenetic orgy of consumption, rightly disturbs Christians and other people of faith.

Yet this transformation is not a result of Jewish parents wanting to protect their children from being forced to sing Christmas carols in public school, or secularists sending Seasons Greeting cards. It derives, instead, from the power of the capitalist marketplace, operating through television, movies and marketers, to drum into everyone's mind the notion that the only way to be a decent human being at this time of year is to buy and buy more. Thus the altruistic instinct to give, which could take the form of giving of our time, our skills, and our loving energies to people we care about, gets transformed and subverted into a competitve frenzy of consumption.

Not surprisingly, the Christian right is unwilling to challenge the capitalist marketplace – because their uncritical support for corporate power is precisely what they had to offer the right to become part of the conservative coalition. Their loyalty to conservative capitalist economics trumps for them their commitment to serving God. But for those of us who want to prevent a new surge of anti-Semitism and assaults on the first amendment, our most effective path is to acknowledge what is legitimate in the Christians' concern – and lead it into a powerful spiritual critique of the ethos of selfishness and materialism fostered by our economic arrangements. It's time for our liberal and progressive Christian leaders and neighbors to stand up against on behalf of Jews and on behalf of their own highest spiritual vision – and challenge the real Christmas thieves!

Imagine a Party Line of Awe and Wonder

For years the Democrats have been telling themselves, "It's the economy, stupid." Yet for years, millions of middle-income Americans have voted against their economic interests to support Republicans who tap a deeper set of needs.

Tens of millions of Americans feel betrayed by a society that seems to place materialism and selfishness above moral values. They know that looking out for No. 1 has become the accepted wisdom of our society, but they want a life that involves more – a framework of meaning and purpose that would transcend the grasping and narcissism that surrounds them. Many of these voters have found this "politics of meaning" in the right. In the right wing churches and synagogues, these voters are presented with a coherent world view that speaks to their needs.

It's easy to see how this hunger gets manipulated in ways that liberals find confusing and contradictory: the attempt to preserve family by denying gays the right to marry; the talk about being conservative while supporting policies that fail to conserve God's fundamental creation, the environment; the intense focus on preserving the unborn fetus without a balanced commitment to the stem cell research that could help preserve living adults; the claim to care about others and then deny them a living wage and adequate health care.

Yet liberals, trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion and tone deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue relevant to their yearnings for meaning. Rightly angry at the way that some religious groups have been mired in racism, sexism and homophobia, the liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has marginalized many people on both the left and the right who have spiritual yearnings and legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.

Imagine if John Kerry had been able to counter George Bush by insisting that a serious religious person would never turn his back on the suffering of the poor, that the Bible's injunction to love one's neighbor required us to provide health care for all, and that the New Testament's command to "turn the other cheek" should give us a predisposition against responding to violence with violence.

Imagine a Democratic Party that could talk of a New Bottom Line, so that American institutions are judged to be efficient and productive not only to the extent that they increase financial performance, but also to the extent that they increase people's capacities to be loving and caring, ethically and ecologically sensitive, and capable of responding to the universe with awe and wonder.

Imagine a Democratic Party that could call for schools to teach gratitude, generosity, caring for others and celebration of the wonders that daily surround us. If the Democrats were to foster a religious or spiritual left, they would no longer pick candidates who support pre-emptive wars or who appease corporate power. They would reject the cynical realism that led them to pretend to be born-again militarists. Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious left would understand that many Americans on the right share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies progressive politics.

Violence and Excuses in the Mideast

Many are calling for the Bush administration to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. And such intervention could help. Yet the Bush administration is making no effort to conceal that its heart lies elsewhere: in creating a coalition in the Islamic world that will support forthcoming U.S. attempts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Though little evidence links Saddam to Osama bin Ladin or al-Qaeda, the White House has used the cover of outrage at terror to legitimate a new war in Iraq that will complete what the last Bush administration left unresolved.

All the more reason to ask the United States to move beyond its narrow concerns with overthrowing Saddam and instead show the Israeli people that they have no alternative but to end the occupation. The real pro-Israel forces are those willing to push Israel to change its policies.

Bush and the Saudis would like to set up negotiations, restoring the image of calm while the United States pursues its Iraq adventure, meanwhile allowing Bush to weigh in on the side of peace and rational discourse. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will appear to be making a major concession to his Labor party allies by sitting in negotiations. Meanwhile, he will block any concessions that weaken Israel's hold over a substantial part of the West Bank. And Bush can then have his war.

This strategy faces some severe limitations. Yasir Arafat is not going to be able to quiet outrage among millions of Palestinians at the latest round of carnage. No matter what he agrees to, it's unlikely he can stop acts of revenge against Israelis. And many Palestinians will see the next round of talk as just another smoke screen to prolong the occupation.

Israel has become increasingly polarized, between a large group (now close to 46 percent) who favor ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (the polite word being used is transfer) and a growing minority (now close to 25 percent) who sympathize with the Israeli Defense Force Reservists refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. The peace forces have been betrayed by a Labor Party that remains part of Sharon's government, so Israelis who seek to restore the moral coherence and spiritual health of the Jewish people are increasingly turning to civil disobedience and direct action.

Many Americans have been intimidated into silence by the forces of Jewish-establishment political correctness. They fear they will be labeled either anti-Semitic Christians or self-hating Jews should they say aloud what they feel privately: that Israel is behaving immorally and at times even savagely.

Yet unless Jews and morally principled Christians speak these truths, it will be anti-Semites and other haters who will eventually challenge Jewish p.c. and in a very destructive way. Future generations of Jews may unfairly suffer for the silence of this generation.

We identify with those in the Jewish world who will not allow Israel to become a modern-day Pharoah to the Palestinian people. Americans of many faiths are determined to stand with them and with Jewish liberals and progressives who continue to tell the story of liberation and continue to believe in the possibility of peace and justice. Tens of thousands of Jews raised these issues at their seders this year -- turning the dinner table into mini teach-ins on Israel's current behavior. Two fundamental truths underlie our vision: that Palestinian and Israeli lives are equally precious and that the violence of both sides must stop.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine. Cornel West is a professor at Harvard University and author of "Race Matters." A version of this article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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