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Michael Lerner: Profile

By Stand4Facts.org


Don’t let Rabbi Michael Lerner confuse you when he comes to your campus. Unlike anti-Israel activists, he defends Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state-but he also seems to repeat every anti-Israel accusation they hurl. A former 1960’s radical, Lerner became a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement (sometimes referred to as New Age Judaism[1] ) and founded the liberal-Jewish Tikkun Magazine and the “Tikkun Community” which combine spirituality, Judaism and left wing politics. He speaks and publishes widely, and the media regard him as a spokesperson on politics and Jewish ethics.

Lerner can be appealing especially to college students with his mix of politically correct causes and spirituality and his authority as a Rabbi. Many may be drawn to his calls for a “politics of meaning,” and for us all to “maximize our capacities to be loving and caring, ethically/spiritually/ecologically sensitive, and capable of transcending a narrow utilitarian attitude toward other human beings and toward the universe so that we can respond to them with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of Creation.”[2]

But Lerner’s positions about Israel are confusing. He seems to say the right things. A leader in the movement against the war in Iraq, he nonetheless condemned other anti-war groups that are virulently anti-Israel, such as Al-Awda and A.N.S.W.E.R, for their Israel bashing and their anti-Semitism.[3] He supports Israel’s existence as Jewish state, opposes the right of return, is “outraged” by suicide bombing, opposes singling Israel out for divestment and wants a two-state solution.[4] The confusion is caused by the fact Lerner also supports every accusation and twisted fact made by anti-Israel propagandists, warmly embraces those who demonize Israel such as the late Edward Said, and believes the Palestinians are blameless for the current conflict, which may be why he reports that he has been called a “self-hating Jew.”[5] Consider some of his positions:

+“Both sides have created this mess and…any discourse which seeks to stigmatize one side more than the other is deeply mistaken.”[6]

+“Israeli treatment of Palestinians has been immoral and outrageous” since 1948.[7]

+“Arafat was forced to deal with an Israel which repeatedly broke its agreements…”[8] (2004)

+“For thirty-seven years Israeli governments have used [terrorism] to justify their own occupation of the West Bank and Gaza-[but] it is the occupation that causes the terror and not vice versa.”[9]

+"I believe that the Israeli people will never be safe until the Occupation ends and a new spirit of repentance and generosity spreads through the Jewish people, and we are able to atone for the pain we have inflicted on the Palestinian people in thirty five years of brutal occupation..”

+“Let us be clear that Israel is using its power today to preserve the Occupation, not to preserve its safety.” (April 3 2002)[10]

+Israel“kept the hundreds of thousands of Gazans in a state of penury and malnutrition that could only be rectified by U.N. aid.”[11]

+“Israel's occupation has gone from obnoxious to criminal, and the people involved will be remembered in Jewish history as betrayers of the Jewish people and its highest moral and spiritual traditions. Jews did not climb out of the gas chambers of Europe to be oppressors of another people.” [12]

+“Rachel Corrie was one of these witnesses-a young woman from the state of Washington who took her values so seriously she was willing to risk her life in defense of the powerless.”[13]


[1] ALEPH, “Frequently Asked Questions,” at http://www.aleph.org/faq.html

[2] Michael Lerner, “Jewish Renewal,” Tikkun at http://www.tikkun.org/renewal/index.cfm

[3] Michael Lerner, “The Antiwar Anti-Semites,” Feb 12 2003, WSJ.com Opinion Journal at http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110003061

[4] Michael Lerner, “The Antiwar Anti-Semites,” Feb 12 2003, WSJ.com Opinion Journal at http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110003061

[5] Michael Lerner, “The Antiwar Anti-Semites,” Feb 12 2003, WSJ.com Opinion Journal at http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110003061

[6] Lerner, “It’s Time to Put Our Bodies on the Line,” http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0403-03.htm

[7] Lerner, “Jews for Justice,” The Nation, May 2 2002

[8] Lerner, “Why Arafat Failed,” (obituary) at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/155/story_15596_1.html

[9] Lerner, “The Sharon-Bush Axis of Occupation,” The Nation, April 13 2004 at www.acj.org/Daily%20News/2004/April/Apr_14.htm

[10] Lerner, “It’s Time to Put Our Bodies on the Line,” http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0403-03.htm

[11] Lerner, “The Sharon-Bush Axis of Occupation,” The Nation, April 13 2004 at www.acj.org/Daily%20News/2004/April/Apr_14.htm

[12] Lerner, “It’s Time to Put Our Bodies on the Line,” http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0403-03.htm

[13] Lerner, “Editorial,” Tikkun, May-June 2003 at http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/tikkun/issue/tik0305/article/030503b.html


Brief Biography

Lerner attended Berkeley in the 1960’s where he got a PhD in Philosophy. He went on to get a second PhD in Clinical Psychology[1] and founded the Institute for Labor and Mental Health where he practiced psychotherapy for many years. There he discovered that working class people were "moving to the right because the liberals didn't seem to understand or address the alienation and meaninglessness fostered by the me-firstism of the market economy."[2] He subsequently became involved in the Jewish Renewal Movement and a rabbi within it, and committed to the idea that liberals needed a “politics of meaning.” He founded his magazine, Tikkun, in 1986 and dedicated it to creating a community of people committed to radical social causes, to spirituality, and to the Jewish concept of tikkun or “repairing the world.”

While Lerner’s admirers praise him as a leading intellectual and Hillary Clinton briefly turned him into what was dubbed the “White House Guru,” Lerner’s detractors are scathing in their criticism. . “The "politics of meaning" was nothing more nor less than the advocacy of the left's political agenda mixed with a shtikele of Hillarycare, superficially dressed up in religious slogans and symbols,” wrote Steven Plaut.[3] They also question his credentials as a Rabbi since he was ‘ordained’ by Renewal rabbis and had never studied in a seminary or formally studied central Jewish texts such as the Talmud.[4]

Lerner has a colorful track record as a radical activist. He became involved in the 1960’s Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and carried on his radical politics when he got his first teaching job at the University of Washington in Seattle. There he formed the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) whose actions included attacking and beating up fourteen instructors and students who did not heed an SLF strike order to protest an athletic competition with Brigham Young University. The SLF condemned Brigham Young because it did not admit blacks into the priesthood.[5] Lerner was not granted tenure and State Senator James Anderson said that taxpayers were “fed up to their ears with paying Lerner to teach violence.”[6] Lerner also became involved in the drug subculture. David Horowitz recalled that "Lerner also made me understand that drugs were central to the consciousness of the Movement. On discovering that I had never taken LSD, he was incredulous: ’You have to take LSD. Until you've dropped acid, you don't know what socialism is.’"[7]

Lerner’s early radical politics also included attacks on the Jewish establishment. In a dramatic article in 1970, he charged that “The Jewish community is racist, internally corrupt, and an apologist for the worst aspects of American capitalism and imperialism.”[8]

When Lerner reincarnated himself as a Rabbi and founded Tikkun, he incorporated much of this early radicalism, and seemed to become a Jewish spokesman for the Palestinian cause. “The zeal with which Tikkun argued the Palestinian cause within the Jewish community soon made Lerner a favorite display Jew of the news media: a kipah-wearing, rotund beard-plucker of vaguely ‘rabbinic’ appearance who could always be relied on to blame Israel and not the Arabs for the absence of peace, and to liken Israeli defense against Palestinian Arab violence to ‘medieval Christian mobs…organizing pogroms against the whole Jewish community,’” wrote Professor Edward Alexander.[9]

Since the 2nd Intifada and the US war in Iraq, Lerner’s prominence has grown. He can be difficult to challenge, however, because he seems to be a moderate. He supports the existence of a Jewish state and the Jews’ right to self-determination, and he has adamantly denounced the Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism of pro-Palestinian anti-war groups. When organizers banned him from speaking at a February 2003 anti-war rally because he objected to the anti-Israel propaganda that often is a prominent part of such rallies, he wrote an editorial defending his position.[10]

On the other hand, Lerner has also been so critical of Israel that it is hard to distinguish him from the most vehement anti-Israel spokespeople. He has organized ad campaigns and conferences demanding Israel “end the occupation.” In 1991, he called upon activists to “bring the war home” by “disrupting the daily operation of Israeli society” and called upon Israelis to refuse to serve in the IDF.[11] He worked closely with Edward Said. He praises ISM and Rachel Corrie. He appeared in a recent blatantly anti-Israel film, "Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," that even the New York Times reviewer accused of being “a relentless case against what it sees as bigoted, brutal Israeli soldiers…” and that included anti-Israel stalwarts like Noam Chomsky.[12]

In addition, Lerner blames only Israel and its “brutal occupation” for the ongoing conflict, condemns all Israel’s counter-terrorism measures, constantly downplays or dismisses the terrorist threats to Israel, accepts the “new historians” version of the history of the conflict and the refugees, and contends that Israel’s policies are causing the upsurge in anti-Semitism. While he expresses “outrage” over suicide bombing, he nonetheless seems to excuse it because of the “brutality of the occupation.” He offers no such sympathy or understanding for Israel’s counterterrorism measures. (Perhaps he simply cannot understand terrorism from his comfortable and safe perch in the Berkeley hills.)

Lerner has been the author of several books and of multiple articles. His articles have appeared in The Nation and Counterpunch, two left wing magazines, as well as in the op ed pages of major newspapers. His most well-known books are:

The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism1997

Spirit Matters2002

Healing Israel/Palestine2003

Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America(with Cornell West)


[1] Andrew Cohen, “An Interview with Michael Lerner,” What is Enlightenment Magazine http://www.wie.org/j19/lerner.asp

[2] http://www.spiritualityatwork.org/Lerner.htm

[3] Steven Plaut, “Rabbi Moonbeam,” Frontpagemag, April 24, 2002

[4] Steven Plaut, “Rabbi Moonbeam,” Frontpagemag, April 24, 2002

[5] Edward Alexander, The Jewish Wars, 1996, pp. 143-144

[6] Cited in Edward Alexander, The Jewish Wars, 1996, pp. 143

[7] David Horowitz, Notes of a Radical Son,

[8] Michael Lerner, “Jewish New Leftism at Berkeley,” Judaism Magazine, Fall, 1969, pp. 474-476.

[9] Edward Alexander, The Jewish Wars, 1996, p 145

[10] Lerner, “Anti-War Anti-Semites,” Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal, February 12 2003 at http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110003061

[11] Jerusalem Post, July 13, 1991, and Los Angeles Times, July 30 1991

[12] Ned Martel, Film Review, “Eager to Place the Blame for a Never-Ending Conflict,” New York Times, January 28 2005

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