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LernerGate: None of this Helps Kids in Iraq, But it Sure Got Michael Lerner Airtime

by CounterPunch News Service Saturday, Feb. 15, 2003 at 11:28 PM

Michael Lerner's Ego Detracts From Worldwide Anti-War Protests.

The story begins when Michael Lerner demands 15 minutes, a larger chunk than other scheduled speakers, to speak at the January 18 antiwar march in San Francisco. The organizers, IAC-ANSWER decline to give him the extended time.

Michael Lerner put out a letter on the internet in which he wrote that the position "... the Tikkun community have put forward is that the mobilizations have been run by a group called ANSWER, itself dominated by a communist sect group which is filled with hate toward Israel and wishes to see it dismantled. It has used anti-war demonstrations to demean Israel and to picture the war in Iraq as a war for Israeli interests. "

Of course speakers at peace demonstrations have denounced the appalling conduct of the Sharon government towards Palestinians. And many have noted that Sharon and before him Netanyahu have been pressing for a US attack on Iraq, which would indeed vastly benefit Israel.

Feb. 10: Lerner's Tikkun website announced that "Rabbi Michael Lerner can not speak at the peace rally in San Francisco, February 16th. That was the response given when various groups proposed Rabbi Lerner, thinking it logical to have him speak since he is one of the most prominent peace voices in the Jewish world.

"But Rabbi Lerner was blackballed and banned by A.N.S.W.E.R., one of the four organizing committees for the S.F. demonstration expected to attract hundreds of thousands. The reason: Lerner had been critical of the way that A.N.S.W.E.R. has used the anti-war demonstrations to put forward anti-Israel propaganda...."

Feb. 10: An article appear on the Nation magazine website by its Washington correspondent David Corn, which coincided with Lerner's announcement and echoed his accusations, charging that "the peaceniks pulling together the San Francisco march and rally may have tainted their efforts by allowing the banning of Rabbi Michael Lerner as a speaker." "Lerner is the progressive Jew," Corn wrote.

David Corn earlier wrote in the Nation website a disgusting piece of red-baiting about ANSWER, as had another Nation writer, Marc Cooper.

Feb. 11: A call for a national Tikkun Conference against the war went out to Tikkun's mailing list in the morning that made no specific mention of his disagreements with the February 16th coalition, which said, in part:

"The war with Iraq and the re-election of Ariel Sharon make it imperative that we become mobilized for nonviolent peaceful activity--and to promote a more sophisticated (and not tinged with anti-Israel sentiments) critique of the war, and a balanced, progressive middle path that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine on the Middle East.

"The large anti-war coalitions are a step, but they need the kind of help that you and I can give them by bringing into public discourse and into the media the more nuanced and persuasive perspective which you and I can supply.

"To do that, we need to recognize what is legitimate in the fears of many Americans post 9/11 and what is legitimate in the fears of many Israelis about terror from some Palestinians...".

"Nuanced" essentially means, Keep Israel's name out of this.

Feb. 11: The Tikkun website announced that it had "received ...[a] letter from Marc Cooper at The Nation magazine..[who] has taken the lead in organizing a public response to the irresponsible actions of those who have sought to keep Rabbi Lerner from speaking at the anti- war demonstration in SF this weekend."

It reads, in part, that, "We, the undersigned, protest ANSWER's refusal to let Rabbi Lerner speak at this Sunday's rally. At a time when the antiwar movement needs as broad a platform and as broad an appeal as possible, ANSWER has chosen instead to put the interests of sectarianism ahead of the interests of all those who oppose this foolish and unnecessary war. We believe this is a serious mistake, and that it exemplifies ANSWER's unfitness to lead mass mobilizations against war in Iraq.'

The letter contains the signatures of many media activists, including at least a dozen who write for The Nation.

Feb 11: The letter co-authored by Cooper and Michael Berube, professor of American literature at Penn State, is posted on the Common Dreams website and on David Horowitz's Front Page website, under the heading, Peace Demonstration Bares its Anti-Semitic Teeth, by The Nation and Tikkun Magazines." On February 7, Berube participated in forum on the anti-war movement, hosted by Horowitz for his website. His fellow panelists were regular red-baiters Sean Wilentz, of Princeton, and Ron Radosh, of the Hudson Instititute

The trap is sprung by a coalition of people who have either slandered the existing peace movement (Cooper, Berube et al) and straightforward Bombardiers for Bush, like Horowitz, with whom Cooper and Berube appear to beentirely comfortable. The protest letter is signed by many people , such as the well respected Howard Zinn, who have spared themselves the convenience of raising even the mildest bleat about the oppression of Palkestinians down the decades.

Feb. 11: A four-part mailing is sent out by Tikkun that contains: "I. Banning of Lerner--background; II. Op-ed by Rabbi Lerner (that will appear two days later in the Wall Street Journal; III. Article [by Corn] from The Nation.com about Banning of Lerner; IV. Letter Being Circulated Nationally by The Nation (sic) protesting the banning of Lerner from speaking at the anti-war rally."

So now Lerner has found his podium in the the most fervent advocate of war among all US newspapers, the Wall Street Journal.

Feb. 11: The February 16th organizing coalition (Bay Area United Against

War, Not in Our Name Project, International A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, and United for Peace & Justice) issued a statement refuting Lerner's allegations, explaining that it was not Lerner's politics but his prior public criticism of A.N.S.W.E.R. that led to him not being asked to speak. According to the statement:

"One of the first agreements that was made between the groups organizing the Feb. 16 anti-war protest was that none of the coalitions would propose rally speakers who had publicly attacked or worked to discredit one of the coalition groups. When members of the Tikkun Community, who have actively participated in the organizing meetings for Feb. 16, suggested to Bay Area United for Peace and Justice that it propose Michael Lerner as a speaker, it was explained by members of UPJ that since he had publicly attacked A.N.S.W.E.R. in both the New York Times and Tikkun community email newsletters, his inclusion in the program would violate the agreement among the Feb. 16 organizing groups. At that time, Tikkun representatives expressed that it would not be a problem if Michael Lerner was not proposed as a speaker."

The gullible organizers failed to see the trap being baited, right before their very eyes.

Feb. 11 Lerner is interviewed on Pacifica stations KPFK and KPFA.

Feb. 12 An article appears on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, with the headline, "A Mideast rift in peace coalition; S.F. rabbi highlights speaker controversy. It reads, in part:

"A controversy over efforts to have a Bay Area Jewish leader address Sunday's anti-war rally in San Francisco is raising a politically radioactive issue that a coalition of groups putting on the event had hoped to avoid -- the peace movement's attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians."

Feb. 12 Liat Weingart from A Jewish Voice for Peace in Berkeley writes:

"Rabbi Lerner was not banned at all from speaking. A Jewish Voice for Peace is having a speaker at the same demonstration, and two other rabbis from

San Francisco are also speaking. Marisa Handler, a representative from Tikkun, was present at the meeting of United for Peace where it was decided that Michael would not speak. She was asked three times if she was comfortable having someone else speak, and she said that she was, again and again. A week passed after this meeting, without incident, and then Michael decided to send a press release, stating that he was banned because of his views. This is patently false and has been tremendously destructive. We have been overloaded with trying to right this wrong, and it has distracted us from our work of organizing for this Sunday's demonstration. I urge you to please set the record straight."

Feb 12: Michael Lerner sends out a response to emails he has received criticizing his position, accusing the left of anti-Semitism. He writes, in part that:

"The progressive world has never seriously considered how anti-Semitism functions in their thinking. That's why it comes as a shock to many morally decent people on the Left to hear that many Jews hear their criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic. So they defend themselves by insisting that criticism of Israeli is not anti-Semitic. And they are partly right.

"But context is everything. It's not the fact of criticizing Israel, but the one-sidedness and the selecting out of Israel for special focus. We in the TIKKUN Community have been outspoken critics of Israeli repression of Palestinian rights. But we've also been outspoken in our criticism of acts of terror against Israeli civilians. We've called for Palestinians to reject all forms of violence and follow the lead of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, whose struggles against oppression were successful in part because they conveyed to the oppressor that the oppressed still recognized their humanity and hence would not take acts of cruel revenge the moment they could. It was that same spirit that made possible the transformation of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Acts of terror, on the other hand, drive the Israeli population into the hands of the most right-wing forces in Israeli society. So if one attends a rally in which Israel is being critiqued without this larger context, the feeling of bashing Israel becomes predominant.

"And then, if Israel's human rights abuses are selected out as the major focus, only reserving more abuse for the U.S. government, then we have to ask: Why is there such silence at these demonstrations about the far greater human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein? Or of China in Tibet? or of Russian in Chechnya? or of the regimes in Saudia Arabia and Syria and Egypt and dozens of other states?

"The selective focus on Israel, coupled with the unfair way that the situation is portrayed (e.g. "Israeli apartheid" --apparently with no awareness that Arabs living within the pre-67 borders of Israel have their own political parties and representatives in the Knesset, are not legally restricted from being on the same beaches and same movie theatres as Jews, and face discrimination that is far less intense than, say, the discrimination that Jews face in Saudi Arabia)."

So far as CounterPunch is aware, Russia, China and Arab nations are not pressing the US into attacking Iraq.

Feb. 12: Lerner's op-ed article, now titled The Anti-War Anti-Semites is published in the Wall Street Journal.

Feb 13: The Jewish Voice for Peace newsletter responds to the situation.

It reads, in part:

"A frenzy has been whipped up around the issue of whether or not Rabbi Michael Lerner will speak at the upcoming demonstration in San Francisco, taking place on Sunday, February 16. The accusation that the anti-war movement does not incorporate Jewish voices is a serious one, one that deserves a serious response.

"At A Jewish Voice for Peace, we have found close and staunch allies in the anti-war coalition. We have found that our opinion is sought time and time again and that our stance in support for a truly just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and respect for Israeli human rights as well as Palestinians' has been respected and represented in the speakers that have been chosen. At the upcoming demonstration, Mitchell Plitnick, Director of Administration and Communication for JVP, will speak, along with Israeli refusenik Ofer Shorr, and Kate Raphael from San Francisco Women in Black, Rabbi Steven Pierce, Rabbi Pam Frydman-Baugh, and Rabbi David Cooper. This represents a broad spectrum of Jewish anti-war views.

"Rabbi Lerner's views are welcomed in the coalition. He is an important spokesperson for the movement for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. It was because he criticized one of the coalition partners, ANSWER, in the New York Times and over TikkunMail, that the coalition, including the Tikkun representative present at the meeting, decided that we were capable of finding another speaker with views similar to his who did not openly attack a coalition partner. Therefore the question of Rabbi Lerner speaking was never even brought before the coalition's program committee. The proviso that anyone who had taken such action would not be welcomed to speak can be debated, but it was agreed to well in advance by all members of this coalition.

Feb. 13: KRON-TV in San Francisco gives Lerner a five minute segment to criticize International A.N.S.W.E.R. without any rebuttal.

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