A former 1960s Berkeley radical, Michael Lerner is the founder of Tikkun magazine, a publication whose philosophy is an admixture of Old Testament teachings, medieval cabala mysticism, and Sixties-style campus Marxism. Lerner identifies himself as a duly ordained rabbi. But in fact he was given a controversial private rabbinic ordination by “Jewish Renewal” rabbis, whose ordinations are recognized only by those within the Jewish Renewal community and Reconstructionist Judaism. Orthodox Judaism, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly all consider such ordinations invalid.
Born in 1943, Lerner earned his B.A. from Columbia University in 1964. That same year, he began his graduate studies at UC Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1972.
At Berkeley, Lerner served as Chair of both the Free Student Union and the Berkeley chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. He also was active in the so-called Free Speech Movement, a 1964 eruption that culminated in the occupation of the university administration building and the arrest of 800 student trespassers. It was the first “takeover” of a campus building in the history of American higher education and set the stage for political actions on college campuses for the next generation. The Free Speech Movement was specifically about the right of the political left to agitate and to recruit students for its political activities on the campus itself.
After graduating, Lerner taught Philosophy of Law at San Francisco State University. He then took a job as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington. In a February 22, 1970 interview in the Seattle Times, Lerner predicted that he would be fired from his academic post because "I dig Marx."
Professing (“I dig Marx”) to revere the author of The Communist Manifesto, Lerner saw Marxism as a worldview that offered the promise of a psychic liberation akin to the unfettered ecstasy made possible by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. “You have to take LSD,” he said in the early 1970s. “Until you’ve dropped acid, you don’t know what socialism is.”
Also in the early Seventies, Lerner created an organization called the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF), which participated in numerous anti-war protests and at least one riot. During this period, SLF, the Black Student Union (BSU), and the violent terrorist group Weatherman (led by such luminaries as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn) collaborated to carry out a number of direct actions on university campuses. One day, SLF and BSU members -- bearing pipes and clubs while shouting “Power to the people!” and “Smash the state!” -- rampaged through several university buildings and, in some cases, roughed up innocent onlookers. Washington state attorney Slade Gorton, who later went on to become a U.S. Senator, described the tactics of Lerner’s SLF as “totally indistinguishable from fascism and Nazism.”
SLF's most famous action was a February 17, 1970 demonstration at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle, which escalated into a riot in which twenty individuals were injured. Lerner himself was one of the so-called “Seattle Seven,” charged in a federal trial with “conspiracy to incite a riot.” He spent several months in prison before the main charges against him eventually were dropped and he was released.
Lerner then reurned to Berkeley and married a teenage girl named Theirrie Cook in October 1971. At the couple's reception, the wedding cake was inscribed with the words, “Smash Monogamy,” a slogan popularized by Weatherman. During the marriage ceremony itself, Lerner and his bride exchanged rings fashioned out of metal that had been extracted from a downed U.S. military aircraft.
Shortly after the birth of the Lerners’ son, the couple separated -- the mother and son going to live in Boston, and Mr. Lerner opting to reside in Berkeley. When asked why he had chosen to be so far from his young boy, he answered without hesitation, “You don’t understand. I have to be here. Berkeley is the center of the world-historical spirit.
In the early 1970s, Lerner performed some work at the Cambridge Policy Studies Institute, a branch from the Institute for Policy Studies.
At Berkeley, Lerner completed a second Ph.D. in Social/Clinical Psychology at the Wright Institute.
In 1986 Lerner and his then-wife Nan Fink (whom he would divorce in 1991) created the magazine Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. Tikkun professes to blend Jewish spirituality with “the peace movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the movement for economic justice, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the labor movement, struggles for civil liberties, and the disability rights movement.”
Lerner and Fink met each other through the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, a labor-movement psychological facility which Lerner founded in 1976. Though they were both committed leftists, the two shared a distaste for the Left’s secularism, which they believed had failed to satisfy human spiritual needs. To address these needs, Lerner and Fink set out to create a magazine that would provide a "voice of Jewish liberals and progressives" but would also “insist on the importance of speaking to the psychological, ethical and spiritual dimension of human needs.” This message would later come to define the “politics of meaning,” a political theory developed by Lerner and expounded upon in his 1996 book bearing that title. The “politics of meaning” momentarily influenced Hillary Clinton, who popularized the phrase in a speech on healthcare delivered in the early 1990s. For a period during the Bill Clinton administration, Lerner was known as the “guru” of the President and the First Lady.
Vis a vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent decades, Lerner has consistently aligned himself with the Palestinian side. He characterizes Israel as a nation whose “repressive” and “fascistic” leadership uses “disproportionate force to repress an essentially unarmed population.” He exhorts Jews everywhere to “allow themselves to hear the cries of pain of the Palestinian people” -- as a first step toward atonement for their own transgressions. When asked about a barbaric October 2000 lynching of two Israeli reservists by Palestinian police in Ramallah, he replied that he understood “how Israel’s occupation can lead to such violence.”
“I believe,” says Lerner, “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” He urges Jews “to atone for the pain we have inflicted on the Palestinian people in [many] years of brutal occupation, and in forcing so many Palestinians out of their home and not allowing them to return in 1948-49.” “Israel needs an atonement for what it has done,” he elaborates, “for the way it has failed to recognize the humanity, the sanctity of life, of Palestinians.” He lists, among Israel’s transgressions, its responsibility “for expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians during the War of Independence in 1948”; “for not having fulfilled the terms of the Oslo Accord, which envisioned granting Palestinians an independent state several years ago”; “for not being able to recognize themselves as the superior force with the greater responsibility to compromise and respect the needs of the less powerful”; and for “the deep racism in their society.”
Lerner has written that Jews have repeatedly: (a) “rejected reasonable offers for peace”; (b) sought to “crush the Palestinian national movement”; and (c) “hurt, tortured, falsely imprisoned, killed, or wounded” helpless Palestinians. Ultimately, Lerner and Tikkun support a “two-state solution” whereby Israel would return to its pre-1967 borders.
Steven Plaut, professor at the Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Haifa, wrote the following in 2002:
"While insisting that all he wants is peace and justice in the Middle East, Lerner’s prescription for achieving such is essentially the same as Yasser Arafat’s. He demands that Israel return to its 1949 borders and forego all forms of self-defense. Even though the bulk of Palestinians have not lived under Israeli 'occupation' for many years, such occupation is still the justification in his eyes of Palestinians perpetrating atrocities. The only permissible response by Israelis to being butchered by Palestinian terrorists is to offer them endless appeasements and make sure that Israeli soldiers refuse to serve their country. Lerner has never seen an act of Arab terrorism that he does not rationalize, nor an act of Jewish self-defense he is willing to justify."
"Lerner has organized support for and raised money for Israeli Marxists and fellow travelers organizing mutiny, insubordination and refusal to serve within the Israeli military, and has regularly granted them space in his magazine."
According to Lee Kaplan, writing for the Israel National News, Lerner’s publication Tikkun frequently repeats Arab libels against Israel. It claims, for instance, that European Jews landed in the Mideast to steal the land of the Palestinians. The Tikkun website also solicits donations to rebuild demolished “Palestinian homes,” which in actuality were terrorist hideouts razed by the Israeli Defense Force. Because Lerner’s tirades against Israel are often indistinguishable from PLO propaganda, he has drawn frequent praise from the International Solidarity Movement as a “true” Jewish voice.
Notably, Lerner does believe that the obligation to pay restitution to victims of injustice is a two-way street. Thus, while calling for Israel to provide “significant compensation for the families of Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in 1948,” he similarly advocates a “corresponding compensation from Arab lands for Jews who fled Arab oppression in 1948-1954.”
Just as Lerner views Palestinian terrorism as a response to Israeli injustice, so does he trace the roots of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the doorstep of the United States. He says:
“The narrow focus on the perpetrators allows us to avoid dealing with the underlying issues. When violence becomes so prevalent throughout the planet, it’s too easy to simply talk of ‘deranged minds.’ We need to ask ourselves, ‘What is it in the way that we are living, organizing our societies, and treating each other that makes violence seem plausible to so many people?’ And why is it that our immediate response to violence is to use violence ourselves -- thus reinforcing the cycle of violence in the world?”
“If the U.S. turns its back on global agreements to preserve the environment, unilaterally cancels its treaties to not build a missile defense, accelerates the processes by which a global economy has made some people in the third world richer but many poorer, shows that it cares nothing for the fate of refugees who have been homeless for decades, and otherwise turns its back on ethical norms, it becomes far easier for the haters and the fundamentalists to recruit people who are willing to kill themselves in strikes against what they perceive to be an evil American empire represented by the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Most Americans will feel puzzled by any reference to this ‘larger picture.’ It seems baffling to imagine that somehow we are part of a world system which is slowly destroying the life support system of the planet, and quickly transferring the wealth of the world into our own pockets.”
For some time, Lerner had a warm relationship with Hillary Clinton -- and, by extension, with Bill Clinton also. Lerner’s 1997 book titled The Politics of Meaning was the source of Mrs. Clinton’s widely publicized use of that phrase. In Hell To Pay, her 1999 biography of Hillary Clinton, author Barbara Olson reported that Lerner, during his years of friendship with Mrs. Clinton, liked to frequently invoke the phrase, “Hillary and I believe” as a prelude to identifying points of agreement he shared with her. But as the Clinton presidency progressed, Lerner, a devoted far-leftist, lost interest in the Clintons when he saw that polling data and focus groups were leading the administration toward moderation on such issues as welfare reform and social-welfare spending.
Lerner is an endorser of World Can’t Wait (WCW), a direct-action movement organized by the Revolutionary Communist Party to engage in civil disobedience aimed at removing President George W. Bush from office. Other notable endorsers of WCW include: Mumia Abu Jamal; Bill Ayers; Ward Churchill; John Conyers; Jodie Evans; Jesse Jackson; Michael Ratner; Cindy Sheehan; and Lynne Stewart.
In January 2002, Lerner founded The Tikkun Community (co-chaired by Lerner and Marxist professor Cornel West), which describes itself as “an international interfaith organization dedicated to peace, justice, non-violence, generosity, caring, love and compassion.” Following Lerner's anti-Israel stance, two months after its creation the Community took out a full-page ad in The New York Times attacking the Jewish State's “oppressive occupation of the territories” and congratulating Israeli reservists who said they would not serve there. The ad, which said nothing about Palestinian terrorism, featured a cartoon drawing of a hook-nosed, disreputable-looking Jew. Israel was described as a “Pharaoh,” while Israeli troops were likened to Nazis blindly “following orders" in “a brutal occupation” that violated international law and human rights.
Each year, the Tikkun Community organizes an annual “Teach-In to Congress” which aims to convince U.S. legislators that America and Israel must both “abandon their strategy of domination and control” in the Middle East.
In 2002 Lerner joined Tom Hayden, Al Sharpton, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Carl Dix, Bernardine Dohrn, Leonard Weinglass, and Edward Said in signing the Not in Our Name “Statement of Conscience,” which condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
In 2005, Lerner founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives, which he continues to co-chair along with Cornel West and Joan Chittister.
In the mid-2000s, Lerner was an editor of the Peace Majority Report along with such notables as Medea Benjamin, Kathy Kelly, Kevin Martin, Dave Robinson, and Susan Shaer.
In April 2007, Lerner, along with leftwing evangelist Tony Campolo, drafted and published a manifesto calling for the U.S. to “repent” and “apologize” for the Iraq War. Titled “An Ethical Way to End the War in Iraq,” the statement demanded immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the payment of reparations to the Iraqi people. Supporters of the manifesto included Cornel West, Medea Benjamin, and Howard Zinn.
Lerner has authored a number of books, including: Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Everyday Life and the Psychology of Individual and Social Transformation (1986); Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (1994); Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995); The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism (1996); Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul (2000); Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation (2003); and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (2006).
In 1998 Lerner married his third wife, Rabbi Debora Kohn, a Jewish theorist of social change.
Lerner is currently the spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley and is a member of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.
The Pacifica Foundation distributes audio recordings of Lerner's talks.