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Tikkun Editor Launches Movement to Address Social and Political Issues

January 23, 2002
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Amid sing-alongs to “We Shall Overcome,” “Imagine,” and Jewish peace songs, Rabbi Michael Lerner launched a new movement here this week aimed at promoting ecological and social responsibility and ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas.

Long involved in trying to organize Jews who combine spirituality and left-wing politics, Lerner said he has decided to launch his own organization because of “the absence of any critical voice after 9/11.”

Lerner said his Tikkun movement, short for tikkun olam — repair of the world — is a Zionist group that defies and transcends a liberal categorization.

The group, which carries the same name as the magazine he founded 15 years ago, hopes to become “one of the mainstream organizations for progressive Jews.”

The central lesson of Sept. 11, he said, is not to protect one’s own interest– whether that be on American or Israeli soil — at the expense of the rest of the world.

The philosophy of living in “rich Manhattan” while dropping “poisons in the Third World” is one that, quite literally, “exploded in our faces,” said Lerner.

Applying the same logic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said Israel’s security will be achieved after the Jewish state tends to the security and welfare of the Palestinians.

But that’s a tall order and puts the cart before the horse for many in the Jewish world, who have become increasingly skeptical about the chances for peace in the wake of almost-daily terror attacks in Israel.

Even Americans for Peace Now, which calls for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians based on the pre-1967 borders, has not called for the unilateral withdrawal that Lerner is proposing.

The voices of the U.S. Jewish organized world echo that of the Israeli government, which demands an end to Palestinian violence before bearing any concessions, not vice versa, as Lerner sees the cycle.

For him, the latest rounds of violence against Israel only strengthen his conviction that Israel must get out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Asking for Palestinians to stop the violence first, he said, would have been like asking blacks to stop crime before granting them equal rights in the 1960s.

Although he condemned Palestinian terrorism, he said conditioning the treatment of all based on the misbehavior of some is racist.

Indeed, Lerner says his outspoken views have earned him a large number of death threats in the last year.

His magazine, Tikkun, has been published for 15 years, often drawing condemnation from liberal and mainstream Jews of its radical content and of Lerner himself, as its mouthpiece.

Still, today the magazine reaches 15,000 subscribers and the one-month old Tikkun community already boasts 2,500 members, Lerner said.

Tsvi Blanchard, an Orthodox rabbi at CLAL: National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a progressive Jewish think tank, believes the new Tikkun community is strengthening its present niche — the long-standing devotees of Lerner’s magazine and his synagogue in San Francisco — by appealing to a group of people who, in the wake of Sept. 11, are concerned about “justice, solidarity, fairness and love rather than profit and competition.”

The proof, he said, was in the large number of young people at the New York conference that Lerner organized over the weekend.

But Blanchard, who spoke at the conference, said Sept. 11 offers both a benefit and a challenge to the Tikkun community.

“Right now the United States understands solidarity,” he said and people are no longer “trying to get ahead of each other when we’re at our best.”

At the same time, he said, defensiveness about the Middle East has made people “nervous” to criticize Israel.

Though Lerner admits it’s a “difficult time to do politics,” he maintains there are many who are “intimidated and scared,” who have greeted him with an “outpouring” of support.

And while he was told he would be lucky to have 70 attendants at the Manhattan conference, more than 700 registrants paid to attend a gathering that was “explicitly billed as in support of ending the occupation.”

And they came, young and old, ready to revive nostalgic days of protest or begin them for the first time.

And unlike many on the Israeli political left who have become increasingly disillusioned with Yasser Arafat and the chances for peace, the conference attendees were adamant about Israel’s need to end the occupation.

Zoe Fraade, a 21-year-old student at Johns Hopkins University, hopped on a train last week when she heard about the conference.

The experience made her feel a bit like a “hippie,” she said, but she said she found the conference refreshing.

When Fraade visited Tikkun’s Web site, she said she did a “double take” after reading a headline called “The Arrogance of Occupation.”

“What occupation?” she asked herself, because she’d never before heard Jews speak out against Israel. Uncomfortable expressing such an opinion herself for fear of being seen as a “bad Jew,” she said, at the conference she would have been “surprised if anyone would disagree.”

Another participant, Shira Birnbaum, a mother of two, said the question of whether the Palestinians are a partner for peace is irrelevant.

Nobody disagrees, she said, that “Israel is surrounded by people who want to annihilate it and have hijacked the Palestinian’s just and legitimate cause to wage a proxy war against the Jews.

“But those facts,” she said, still do not justify the occupation.”

Finding meaning in community and a sense of belonging is another mission of the movement.

“Isn’t sex over the Internet still just typing?” asked one of the speakers, referring to a friend’s comment that illuminated the emptiness of the modern era.

It’s something Lerner called being “enmeshed in a network of love and caring and social justice.”

One of Lerner’s concrete strategies to encourage such a network is his proposal of a “social responsibility amendment” to the U.S. constitution.

Like an ecological impact report that requires corporations to prove environmental care, Lerner would like to see an “ethical impact report” in which corporations that earn more than $20 million would have to reapply for their charter every 20 years after proving, among other things, that they are caring for their employees, the environment and promoting caring values over competitive ones.

He predicted that lobbying for such a move at the local and federal level would take 20 years, and like the Equal Rights Amendment for women may never pass, but will have a “tremendous impact.”

At the close of the conference Monday evening, Lerner, weary from dancing, singing and cheering, called the few days “fantastic,” “energizing” and “wildly beyond my dreams of what was possible.”

Despite this “dreadful hour” of the Jewish people, reeling from the loss of Israelis in terror attacks, Lerner said he was proud of the roomful of participants who had the “courage to stand up and say that Israel’s security will best be achieved by ending the occupation.”

And they are only the “tip of the iceberg,” he said.

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