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Tikkun Conferees Seek a Voice to Counter Jewish Mainstream

When 1,500 Jewish progressives gathered here this week for a three-day conference, no votes were taken and no leaders were elected.

Nevertheless, the Tikkun conference, sponsored by the liberal, Oakland-based Jewish magazine, took on the air of a political convention.

Wild applause saluted stump speeches by such stars of the Jewish and political left as Irving Howe, Abba Eban, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Todd Gitlin.

Back-slapping delegates boasted of party unity, while others bemoaned irreconcilable differences.

And special interest groups jostled for attention on a crowded agenda: students, feminists, animal rights activists, gays and lesbians.

Most telling of all, there was a "platform." Its first main plank was contempt for what speakers called the conservatism of the organized American Jewish community.

The second plank was a belief that Israel’s administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the words of Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, "is irrational, destructive, immoral and must be terminated."

But this was no political convention, and participants wondered again and again if the energy of the conference could be channeled into an organization to rival establishment voices, such as those within the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

HOPES FOR UNITY ON THE LEFT

"I feel that the mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States and the main thrust of the organized Jewish community in Baton Rouge don’t represent my views," said Steven Weintraub, 37, a professor of mathematics at Louisiana State University.

Weintraub’s complaint was typical of that of many participants, and so was his prescription. "It’s necessary to find a counterweight to the mainstream, and I have hopes of a movement," he said.

Hopes for unity on the Jewish left were discussed at a plenary session Monday. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. Magazine, quoted Eban when she said, "We need a conference of presidents of minor Jewish organizations."

She described some of the institutional initiatives that were being discussed at the conference. They included the Committee for Judaism and Social Justice, which Tikkun is promoting as an alternative voice on Jewish public policy, and J-PAC, a Jewish lobby to counter the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Lerner spoke of organizing a national campaign for "negotiations now," to urge Israeli leaders to sit down for talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But other speakers counseled prudence in forming a new organization.

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said he shared many of the participants’ criticisms of the "status quo" in Israel. But he wondered if the formation of a new organization was more than just a bid for publicity.

David Gordis, former executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said there must be guidelines followed in criticizing Israel.

"The tone of our criticism cannot partake of Israel-bashing," he said. "We have to avoid seeming to agree with those whose objectives are to undermine Israel."

In a remark that drew hisses and boos, Gordis warned participants of being "branded as illegitimate because of the fellowship in which they find themselves."

INTELLECTUALS VS. ACTIVISTS

Gordis was hinting at the kinds of criticism of the left, including charges of anti-Israel bias, that led many former Jewish liberals to run into the arms of neo-conservatism.

However, said Lerner, an observant Jew who wears a chest-length beard and a pie-sized yarmulke, "This is not an assemblage of self-hating Jews or people alienated from Judaism."

Basing their criticism of Israeli policy on "a profound insistence of our love for the people of Israel," he said, "many of us will no longer accept organized Jewry’s criteria for how we have to talk or what tone to take. We are not the periphery."

There were other dilemmas for participants. In public sessions and private discussions, there seemed to be tension between intellectuals who preferred esoteric dissection of political philosophies and those who favored activism over abstractions.

When a group discussion on anti-Semitism became a debate on the ideas of the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, one participant, an elementary school teacher from Olympia, Wash., cried "Whoa!"

She suggested that members of the group instead introduce themselves. Those responding included students of both Judaic and Arabic studies, one Jewish and two non-Jewish college professors, two printers, a woman rabbi, a young woman contemplating conversion to Judaism and artist Judy Chicago.

Kenneth Marvet, 25, a newly religious rabbinical student at an Orthodox yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., had his own dilemma in attending the conference.

RECONCILING DIVERGENT STRAINS

"I agree with many of the policy conclusions people have come to, for reasons based on Jewish law and ethics," said Marvet. "But it is hypocritical for Tikkun to say it grounds its philosophy in Jewish ethics, while it ignores Jewish religious behavior, like prayer, kashrut, family purity."

For example, Marvet said, he "couldn’t take part officially in any movement that accepts homosexuality as a valid moral choice."

Whether Tikkun can reconcile these and many other divergent strains remains to be seen. Other groups have tried, and a network already exists of a number of left-wing, mostly New York-based organizations, including Americans for Progressive Israel, American Friends of Peace Now, the New Jewish Agenda and the American Committee for International Peace in the Middle East.

Arich Lebowitz, editor of the socialist Zionist journal Israel Horizons, said Lerner and Tikkun have achieved prominence among Jewish and non-Jewish readers, and have financial backing that editors of smaller, older journals envy.

However, he said, "right now it is very much a Michael Lerner production. It is still a question of whether it can reach beyond him."

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