The Rabbi Who Would Save the World

Michael Lerner has won many followers with his ideas for world peace. But if all he is preaching is the Golden Rule, why is he so controversial?

"Michael revels in radicalism," says Stephen S. Pearce, the senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. "He is in your face, he's the odd man out, he's created a cult of the personality around himself, his opinions push to the margin, he is extraordinarily well educated, he deserves to be a rabbi, he is a thoughtful, lovely man. Many people feel, however, that his approach to peace is misguided, that it does not provide sufficient protection for Israel against the Palestinians."

Lerner has long condemned Israel's policy of seizing Palestinian land through settlement and punishing innocent Palestinians for the sins of suicide bombers. ("Israel has become Pharaoh," says Lerner.) And he has frequently expressed empathy for the Palestinian cause.

"There is legitimate opposition around the world to Zionism," Lerner recently told a roomful of people at a Jewish recreation center. "We jumped out of the burning charnel houses of Europe and landed on the backs of the Palestinians. We must teach both sides to tell the story of the other side."

According to Lerner's peace plan:

- Israel must end its military occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and withdraw to the borders that preceded the Six-Day War in 1967.

- Israel should evacuate most of its settlements inside Palestinian territory.

- The Palestinian state will have no offensive weapons; it will remain demilitarized for 50 years; Israel may occupy a military buffer zone to enforce demilitarization.

- Jerusalem will be the shared capital of both states.

As a psychologist, Lerner attributes the cause of violence begetting violence to people's "pathological" compulsion to endlessly recycle childhood anger rooted in the fear of parental abandonment. He believes the Israelis will not be the first to break away from the region's cycle of murder, since they are much stronger ("Thanks to decades of military support from the United States") than the Palestinians.

"Palestinians have to be the first to practice nonviolence," Lerner says. "That means no rock-throwing, too. Even if the Israelis attack Palestinians that are practicing nonviolence, the Palestinians must win the hearts of the Israeli public by not fighting back."

Lerner says that if U.S.-based activists convince our government to boycott Israel until it withdraws to pre-1967 borders, peace will flood the Middle East.

The spectacle of a rabbi criticizing Israel and sympathizing with the Palestinians has made Lerner an object of contempt among many Jews. He has been targeted with e-mails from extremists expressing sentiments such as "You subhuman leftist animals. You should all be exterminated" and "I will do everything in my power to STOP your attempt at spreading Judaephobia and Anti-Zionism."

At the suggestion of police detectives, Lerner installed an alarm system in his house high in the Berkeley hills. He also asked for the help of the Anti-Defamation League, which investigates hate crimes against Jews. The ADL not only refused, it wrote letters published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times complaining that, "while [Lerner] purports to endorse 'nonviolence,' his [writing] is a thinly veiled attack on Israel and its governments (past and present)."

Lerner's iconoclastic views were on full display last month at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, where about 70 well-heeled people had come to hear him talk about his new book, Spirit Matters. One sensed that many in the audience attended out of pure curiosity.

After a rousing sing-along session, Lerner, who had just turned 59, took the microphone. The rabbi is a round and energetic man with a shock of unruly brown hair. He favors rumpled, dark suits and seems an unimposing figure until he begins to talk. He speaks in a passionate tenor with the practiced air of a popular entertainer, unsullied by hesitation or second thought as he empties his cornucopia of ideas.

Lerner began by describing his parents as Zionists; that is, supporters of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. His father was a judge, his mother an aide to a U.S. senator from New Jersey. Famous Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban broke bread at the Lerner table, alongside politicians such as Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.

"My parents thought it was a waste of time to be a rabbi," he told the attentive audience. "They wanted me to be a politician."

He solved this defining dilemma by becoming ... both.

"The anthrax scare showed us that there is no protection in today's world, even for those with huge armies," Lerner continued. "I myself get death threats from Jews; if they hate you they will find a way. The only solution is to build a world in which there is no motivation for people to hate us."

Lerner wants to redistribute the world's wealth. This is justified, he says, because 3 billion people make only a dollar or two a day and live in misery.

"On 9/11, 3,000 Americans died, but 30,000 Third World children also died on 9/11 from diseases related to malnutrition. We should use our $1.4 trillion tax cut to rebuild the infrastructure of the Third World. The U.S. blocks the treaty to end global scorching. We must champion ecological sanity. We must become known as embodying the ethos of generosity and compassion, not materialism."

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