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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Chomsky: Wealthiest 1% Rule Our Politics -- But There's Hope in the Fight Against Global Capital

To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun's free newsletter or visit us online. You can also keep up with Tikkun on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Liberals and Progressives Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity... Are We Ready to Change Directions?

Progressives have had four enormous opportunities in the past two years to change the fundamentals of American society and our relationship to the world. We’ve already blown the first and are missing the second, third, and fourth.

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Should Progressives Give Up on Obama? Chris Hedges vs. Rabbi Lerner

Editor's Note: TruthDig's Chris Hedges argues below that the illegal wars and occupations, the largest transference of wealth upward in American history and the egregious assault on civil liberties, all of which begun under George W. Bush, have largely continued under Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress, raising only a flicker of tepid protest from liberals. Published below is Tikkun's Rabbi Michael Lerner's response to Hedges.

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Middle East Violence: Neocons' Fantasy

The champions of American global empire are using the latest upsurge of violence in the Middle East to give new life to their discredited plan to extend the war in Iraq to Syria and Iran. The neo-con Weekly Standard has taken the lead in its July 24th cover issue, proclaiming that the current violence is "Iran's Proxy War" against the West.

As Standard editor William Kristol puts it, "It's our war." America's, that is.

"What's under attack," Kristol argues "is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States." The logical conclusion of this "war of civilizations" analysis is Kristol's advice to the Bush Administration: "our focus should be less on Hamas and Hezbollah, and more on their paymasters and real commanders -- Syria and Iran. And our focus should be not only on the regional war in the Middle East, but also on the global struggle against radical Islamism."

Progressives have no sympathy for radical Islamism, if that means those who have systematically denied the rights of women and gays, imprisoned those insisting on human rights and civil liberties, and sponsored campaigns of terror against civilians in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, India, Bali, Spain, England or anyplace else in the world.

But even many who might have forgotten the lesson before the Iraq war today rally around the cry to "Bring the troops home" rather than the neo-con appeal to extend the war into other nations. Most of us have come to the conclusion that violence is not the solution to our problems.

Which is why many of us have been sickened and saddened by the recent escalation of the struggle after Israel decided to use the capture of one of its soldiers by Hamas an an excuse to reenter Gaza and destroy its pathetic infrastructure. This punitive measure left one million of the world's poorest people, living in the world's most densely populated area, without electricity -- i.e., without refrigeration or water -- and can only be construed as an act of collective punishment for the deeds of a small group of people (the elected Hamas government which actually made a public plea for the release of the prisoner, though that did not prevent Israel from moving in and arresting a significant portion of the Hamas elected leadership).

Perhaps seeing the moment as one requiring solidarity, or perhaps instigated by its patrons in Syria and Iran, Hezbollah broke its previous pledge to respect the Israeli border, crossed it, killed a group of Israeli soldiers and captured two. In turn, Israel again resorted to collective punishment, holding much of the Lebanese civilian population responsible, bombing the civilian airport and many other civilian installations, and surprisingly finding that Hezbollah was able to respond with a barrage of missiles which killed and wounded Israelis in several northern cities.

It's ludicrous to try to establish "blame" in the sense of who did what first. Incidents of violence on the part of Palestinians and their allies cannot be separated from the constant violence of the Occupation, the continual kidnapping by the IDF of Palestinian civilians who are held in prison camps without charges or trial for as long as six months, often enduring torture as documented by the Israeli Human Rights Organization B'Tselem.

Nor can the violence of the Occupation be separated from the misguided policies of many Palestinians who have never been willing to unequivocally acknowledge the legitimacy and right of the Jewish people to the same kind of national self-determination in the land of Palestine that Palestinians rightly demand for themselves; nor from the equally misguided fantasy that peace and prosperity will come from violence rather than from the non-violent strategies used by Gandhi, MLK Jr., and Mandela in his later years.

In my books Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003) and The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace (North Atlantic Books, 2004) I show that both sides have a legitimate narrative that needs to be heard and recognized by the other side; that neither side will ever prevail through violence, and that each side needs to acknowledge that it has been unreasonably cruel and insensitive to the needs of the other.

Yes, of course it's clear that in the last forty years Israel's had the upper hand and has used its power in an immoral way. But these are peoples with long historical memories, and Israeli partisans are as unlikely to convince Israelis whose families escaped oppression in Arab lands that there was no Arab oppression of Jews as Palestinian partisans are to convince the Palestinians that they never really lived in the homes in Palestine from which they were expelled by the wars from 1947-1967.

Nor are we likely to get to peace by trying to discount the fears of Israelis and Jews who face a stream of violence -- from terrorist attacks to Hamas-launched Qassam rockets to physical assaults on random Jewish people from Paris to Moscow -- than we are to convince Palestinians that Israel is merely being sensibly defensive and exercising its right to protect itself. These kinds of triumphalist narratives must be abandoned.

But they won't be as long as Bush and his advisors in the neo-con camp see in the current violence yet another opportunity to reframe the Middle East struggle as one that will provide ex post facto justification for the war in Iraq and enticement for new militarist adventures to destabilize or overthrow oppressive regimes in Iran and Syria.

Instead progressives need to begin with a new discourse, one that demands from both Israelis and Palestinians -- and their Arab supporters -- that they reject violence and crimes against humanity on all sides (e.g. Hezbollah's current bombing of civilians in Haifa and Tsfat as well as Israel's punishment of whole nations), and realize that their only path to peace is one that starts from a place of atonement for their own sins, and a new spirit of open-hearted generosity toward the other side, recognizing it as the only way that either side will achieve what they want in terms of social justice, peace and security.

But since there are no signs of this happening, in the short run we should be asking the international community to step in, impose a settlement on all sides that includes a return of Israel to its pre-67 borders with minor border changes (as defined in the Geneva Accord of 2003), reparations for Palestinian refugees and for Jews who fled Arab lands from 1948-1967, iron-clad security arrangements enforced by an armed international force on the restored borders, and a Truth and Reconciliation commission that is empowered to expose all acts of human rights violations on both sides -- and to impose punishment accordingly.

While partisans on all sides of this struggle must abandon their fantasy of ultimate justification of their claims, a clear first step is to dismiss the neo-con fantasy of a global war of civilizations, with its accompanying notion that this is the best way to reframe the globalization of capital and American corporate domination of the world as a path to expand democracy and human rights. That fantasy is dead -- the Iraq invasion and subsequent tragedy has removed it from any level of plausibility. Let's not let the neo-cons use the violence between Israel, Palestine and Lebanon as an excuse to try to revive that which ought to be put to eternal rest.

Excerpt: The Left Hand of God

Editor's Note:The following is excerpted from The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right, by Michael Lerner (HarperSanFrancisco, Feb, 2006).

The unholy alliance of the political Right and Religious Right threatens to destroy the America we love. It also threatens to generate a popular revulsion against God and religion by identifying them with militarism, ecological irresponsibility, fundamentalist antagonism to science and rational thought, and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the powerless.

By addressing the real spiritual and moral crisis in the daily lives of most Americans, a movement with a progressive spiritual vision would provide an alternate solution to both the intolerant and militarist politics of the Right and the current misguided, visionless, and often spiritually empty politics of the Left.

People feel a near-desperate desire to reconnect to the sacred, to find some way to unite their lives with a higher meaning and purpose and in particular to that aspect of the sacred that is built upon the loving, kind, and generous energy in the universe that I describe as the "Left Hand of God."

By contrast, the "Right Hand of God," sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces. In this view God is the avenger, the big man in heaven who can be invoked to use violence to overcome those evil forces, either right now or in some future ultimate reckoning. Seen through the frame of the Right Hand of God, the world is filled with constant dangers and the rational way to live is to dominate and control others before they dominate and control us.

It is the search for meaning in a despiritualized world that leads many people to right-wing religious communities because these groups seem to be in touch with the sacred dimension of life. Many secularists imagine that people drawn to the Right are there solely because of some ethical or psychological malfunction. What they miss is that there are many very decent Americans who get attracted to the Religious Right because it is the only voice that they encounter that is willing to challenge the despiritualization of daily life, to call for a life that is driven by higher purpose than money, and to provide actual experiences of supportive community for those whose daily life is suffused with alienation and spiritual loneliness.

Many Americans have a powerful desire for loving connection, kindness, generosity, awe and wonder, and joyous celebration of the universe. These desires are frustrated by the way we organize our society today. A progessive movement or a Democratic Party that speaks to these desires in a genuine and spiritually deep way could win the popular support it needs to create a world of peace, social justice, ecological sanity, and human rights.

As I watch the likely Democratic Party candidates for president in 2008 scramble to position themselves as mainstream, I am all too aware that taking this kind of spiritual politics seriously is going to require a huge leap for many of us. Some Democrats think that they don't need these changes to win power, and they may be right in the short run. The current implosion of the Bush administration as it wallows in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a failing war in Iraq, and scandal and indictments at the highest levels of government, may be enough to provide Democrats with election victories in 2006 and 2008 (though Republican redistricting is likely to dampen the chance for a Democratic landslide in 2006, and electoral fraud has increasingly characterized American national elections where so much is at stake).

But Democrats have won elections, even the presidency, before--and yet the movement of intellectual and political energy keeps on sliding to the Right, and so Democrats in office often end up acting from the assumptions of the Right in order to show that they are "realistic" and "non-ideological."

Nothing has been more dispiriting than to watch years in which Congressional Democrats continued to vote for tens of billions of dollars to fund the war in Iraq even after learning that the country had been lied to and manipulated into that war. Even after conservative Democratic congressman John Murtha called for immediate withdrawal from Iraq within six months in November 2005, the Democrats were unable to firmly endorse that courageous call.

Without a larger spiritual vision, the Democrats too often develop their programs by poll data, reacting rather than leading. They may eventually oppose a specific war, but they are afraid to oppose war. They throw money to alleviate suffering from some particularly terrible social injustice, but they are afraid to envision and fight for an end to all social injustice.

Let me reassure you that the spiritual vision I present is not an attempt to recruit you to some particular religious community or spiritual trip. You do not have to become religious to embrace a spiritual politics or to learn from the wisdom of various spiritual practices.

I do not blame many secularists who resent the way that some in the Religious Right seek to shove a fundamentalist and intolerant religion down our throats. Almost every religion, like almost every political and intellectual movement, has people of that sort, and holy texts (both religious and secular) have voices that validate an oppressive, dominating, fearful way of seeing. Yet in most religions (just as in many secular social change movements and liberation ideologies) there are also voices of the Left Hand of God, voices that embrace compassion, love, generosity of spirit, kindness, peace, social justice, environmental sanity, and nonviolence.

This political Right achieved power by forging an alliance with a Religious Right that is willing to provide a sanctimonious religious veneer to the selfishness and materialism of the political Right in exchange for the political power it needs to impose parts of its religious agenda on America. Capitalizing on a very real and deep spiritual crisis engendered by living in a society that teaches "looking out for number one" as its highest value, the Religious Right has managed to mobilize tens of millions of people to vote for candidates who end up supporting the very economic arrangements and political ideas responsible for creating the spiritual crisis in the first place.

With this alliance now propelling them into control of Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary, they have launched a cultural crusade against liberals, secularists, activist judges, homosexuals, feminists, and anyone who still believes in peace and social justice. The country received its strongest alert to the nature of the assault on the American tradition of religious tolerance when, in the spring of 2005, the Right began to talk openly about impeaching from the judiciary "activist judges" who were imposing "secular values" on the country, then managed to torpedo Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court (Harriet Miers) and encouraged him to appoint Samuel Alito, a sophisticated conservative ideologue.

Although I do not share the goals of many leaders of the Religious Right--and in fact believe that they pose a huge danger to American society--I must admit some appreciation for their willingness to state their objectives clearly and honestly, a refreshing change from the diet of mush that often emerges from the Democratic Party. Paul Weyrich, one of the Right's most serious strategists, said it clearly in 1980: "We are talking about Christianizing America. We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context." I was invited that same year to debate Weyrich at the Moral Majority's annual Family Forum and found him a powerful advocate for a frightening worldview that I hoped would remain marginal in America. But twenty-five years later, having followed the advice of Jerry Falwell, who famously said, "Get them saved, get them baptized, and get them registered," the Christian Right is now carrying out its agenda.

It is perfectly legitimate to be alarmed at the growing power of those on the Right and the way they use it, to challenge their ideas forcefully, and to warn of the dangers should they succeed in their stated intentions. I will certainly do everything I can to prevent them from popularizing the notion that people have to be religious or believe in God to be moral and to challenge their particular understanding of what God wants of us.

What I will not do, and what I urge my friends in liberal and progressive movements not to do, is attribute evil motives to those on the Religious Right or to view them as cynical manipulators solely interested in power and self-aggrandizement. The Religious Right certainly has its share of power mongers and hypocrites. But the vast majority of those involved are people who are driven by principles and who want what is best for the world. We can strongly disagree with those principles, as I do, and we can argue, as I will, that they lead in a very dangerous direction, one that would actually increase the pain and suffering of humanity. But I do not doubt the sincerity or basic goodness of most of those who are involved.

So where are the Democrats, the liberals, and the progressive forces that have traditionally been able to provide a counterweight to corporate selfishness and have fought for separation of church and state?

For much of the past thirty years the Democrats have been more interested in showing how similar they are to the Right than how different. Faced with both a corporate takeover of the media that increasingly portrays liberal and progressive ideas as some form of extremism or "class warfare" and with a Religious Right that has managed to put secular people on the defensive, the Democratic Party and much of the liberal and progressive world (which for convenience I'll call the Left)* has contented itself with mild reforms. It tinkers with narrow policy goals instead of promoting an alternative vision and alternative values to those of the Right. Fearful of political isolation, Democrats listen to the wisdom preached by the media and by a bevy of corporate-friendly professional consultants who tell them to be "realistic" by accepting the contours of politics as defined by the Right. And the more they do so, the less anyone else sees these Democrats as a viable alternative. Democratic voters lose their enthusiasm. They go to the polls grudgingly, not because they believe that the Democrats have any solutions but rather to stave off the even worse consequences of Republican dominance. Many do not even bother voting, and millions of others look for vision elsewhere--and find it in the Religious Right.

Others take the approach of the "let's-move-further-to-the-left" section of the Left, insisting that the old formulas of the really radical Left, mixed with a repackaging of identity politics and presented as economic populism, would provide the magic formula, if only those Democrats would listen! But meanwhile, they can't explain why their candidates, running in Democratic primaries or as Greens, rarely manage to get significant support from American voters. But the "let's-get-closer-to-the-middle-of-the-road" mavens of Democratic leadership face that same challenge, since they've also tried the "let's-be-softer-and-gentler-born-again Republicans" strategy, and it too has failed.

We need to look deeper.

Liberals and progressives sometimes like to make fun of the Right by pointing out that it is precisely in the Red states of the Republican majority where abortions are most prevalent, where divorce is most rampant, where the power of corporate selfishness is most unrestrained by laws, where the malls have done most to uproot small businesses, and where materialism on the whole seems to be having its greatest field day. The same is true for many of the enclaves of Red-state consciousness in Blue states, such as the gated communities and mostly white valleys of Southern California or the suburban areas of many other Blue states. But that, of course, is just the point. It is precisely because people in the Red states are suffering most from the epidemic of uncontrolled me-firstism that so many residents of those states are so desperate to find a counterforce. They are the most susceptible to the appeals of a Religious Right that has become a champion for family values, tradition, the stability that is offered by authoritarian and patriarchal norms, and the real comfort that spiritual life offers through connection to something higher than money.

The point is that there is a real spiritual crisis in American society, and the Religious Right has managed to position itself as the articulator of the pain that crisis causes and as the caring force that will provide a spiritual solution. And then it takes the credibility that it has won in this way and associates itself with a political Right that is actually championing the very institutions and social arrangements that caused this problem in the first place. And with the power that each of these has gained by their alliance, they have become ever more arrogant in trying to impose their worldview on everyone else in society. Their alliance threatens to destroy the fragile balance between secular and religious people and to move the United States toward the very kind of theocracy that people originally came to this country to escape.

So, how could this happen?

It has happened because the political Left doesn't really have a clue about the spiritual crisis in American society and is thus unable to address it in any persuasive way. Witnessing the country give electoral victories to the Right, those on the Left are totally confused about why it's happening. They earnestly study poll data and then reposition themselves in ways that will not put them too far beyond where they imagine popular opinion is moving. It never occurs to them to be the shapers of this social energy instead of merely the responders. For much of the past twenty-five years, since the early days of the Reagan administration, the Democrats have explained their electoral losses by claiming that the country is just in a "conservative period," as though the political climate had fallen mysteriously from heaven and had nothing to do with the way liberals failed to develop mass support for a progressive worldview when they held political power. In this book I will provide you with an explanation of why we got into a conservative period and how that can be changed.

After the 2004 elections many Democrats read the exit-poll data and realized that some voters were motivated by "values." Since then the Democrats have been frantically looking for a magic bullet to win back the "values voters." But mostly their discussion has been about hype, not about substance.

If we, the American people, are going to win back our country from the Religious Right, we are going to have to reshape the Democratic Party and the Greens, or create some other party, to come to grips with the depth of alienation from liberal politics among the many people who continue to vote, unenthusiastically, for the Democrats as the only way to stop the Right.

A reshaped Democratic Party, or a new party, must minimally:
  • Understand, acknowledge, and respond to the spiritual crisis in American society--and provide a progressive spiritual vision that is more attractive than the one currently offered by the Right.
  • Recognize that people hunger for a world that has meaning and love; for a sense of aliveness, energy, and authenticity; for a life embedded in a community in which they are valued
  • Reject the tendency to regard people who are not part of the liberal culture as stupid, demented, or evil.
  • Fight for ideals that are not yet popular and be willing to stand for those ideals even if that means temporarily losing some elections.
  • Unite secular people in a movement with "spiritual but not religious" people and join both of those groups with progressive religious people.
  • Reject and combat the religion phobia that dominates important sectors of liberal and progressive culture.

Only a political party that can incorporate these goals at the center of its agenda can hope to win a majority, which would allow it to implement the other peace, justice, and ecological goals of the liberal and progressive agenda. For many Americans, meaning needs are the most pressing issues in their lives. This hunger for meaning, mutual recognition, and a spiritual foundation for their lives--for a sense of aliveness to counter the emotional and spiritual deadness that people experience in work and on television--is just as significant as the hunger for material well-being. Hence these are not issues that can be addressed "later," after all the peace and justice and ecological issues have been solved. These needs lie at the center of many Americans' lives, and unless we address them powerfully and convincingly, the Democrats and the Left will continue to lose power.

Read an interview with Michael Lerner here.

The Madness of Iran's President

Why would the President of Iran, Ahmadinejad, make inflammatory comments about Israel at the very moment when Ariel Sharon would have every reason to flex their muscular foreign policy? This is the question floating around foreign policy circles this week after the Iranian hard-liner took his anti-Israel exrtemism one more step, seeming to deny the severity of the Holocaust while reaffirming his notion that the Jews who live there should go back to Europe.

Ahmadinejad may not even be aware that the majority of Israelis today derive from Sephardic/Mizrachi backgrounds -- their families came as refugees fleeing oppression in Arab and Islamic countries, including Iran -- and it is they, not the Ashkenazic minority from European backgrounds who have given electoral majorities to Ariel Sharon and the right-wing parties who oppose peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinian people. Tens of thousands fled from anti-Semitism in Iran and Iraq, hundreds of thousands from other Muslim countries.

Ignorance of this history is no excuse. Ahmadinejad must be understood as a godsend for Sharon and the Israeli right who have had increasing trouble convincing anyone in the world that there is a credible threat to Israeli security. The arguments for the Wall and Occupation, the militarization of Israeli society, the denial of human rights, and the rejection of international agreements limiting nuclear weapons have all been based in part on the alleged threat to Israel's very existence by the Palestinian people backed by hostile neighbors.

Several recent trends have served to undermine this logic. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties, the Palestinians have transformed their national Covenant to eliminate any call for the destruction of Israel, and Iraq's Baathist regime was declawed and dismantled. It's been harder and harder for Israeli hawks to explain where exactly the threat would come from.

Iranian intransigence on nuclear disarmament has now provided a new source of fear for the fear-mongers, and the specific calls by the President of Iran to eliminate Israel from the map of the world and to minimize the suffering from the Holocaust will strike a nerve that Sharon and other right-wingers can easily manipulate as they enter the election period ahead.

There is some danger that Israel might make an immediate strike at Iranian nuclear facilities. Though doing so would be a violation of international law and would have little military impact, a strike might strengthen Sharon's electoral chances now that he has broken with the most hard-line elements of the Likud to form an allegedly "centrist" party to compete with a Labor Party moving leftward. Sharon is being faulted by the Right for his withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza and his promise to settle the Palestinian issue "once and for all." A military strike at Iran, either before the elections or in the coming year would provide the perfect political cover for accusations that Sharon's compromises made with Palestinians signal weakness in his policies.

Such a strike would also help President Ahmadinejad consolidate his position with Iranians. The stretch to resuscitate old-fashioned anti-Semitic tropes against the Jews as "outsiders" (the same kind of rhetoric used against minorities everywhere) did not play so well in Iran and required the intervention and backup of the highest Iranian religious authority to withstand the criticism that Ahmandinejad received.

But if this upstart young president could maneuver Israel into a unilateral military assault on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities he would be laying the groundwork for retaliation should Iran ever actually gain the military strength its new alliance with China and Russia make possible. As a victim of external attack, he would also become the beneficiary of Iranian nationalist sentiments that have at times been quite distanced from the fundamentalists who currently run the state. If secular nationalists were to rally around the Ahmadinejad government in response to an Israeli attack, this new extremist would have won a major new force that could stabilize and empower his regime for years to come.

The losers: the Israeli people (and those Jews around the world who insist on giving Israel a blank check to speak in the name of the Jewish people), who will become one level closer to being perceived by most of the world as international criminals; Americans, who will be perceived as having given Sharon covert support even as our State Dept. officially denies and tries to distance; those who seek to build a world based on law transcending short-term political interests. Ahmadinejad has been playing a dangerous game and we can only pray that his recklessness will not pay off and that Israelis will restrain the opportunism and militarism that might push Sharon to active confrontation with Iran.

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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