War looms. Troops are moving into place. Administration officials refuse to discuss alternatives. And everyday George W. Bush has some new rhetorical device to turn up the heat. The game is over. The game is really over. I mean it: the game is really, really over. Americans opposed to (or skeptical about) this war are desperately trying to mount preemptive protests, as conquest–bombing, invasion and occupation–nears. Antiwar actions have been organized for the weekend of February 15 and 16, to coincide with protests around the world. In the United States, the main events will be demonstrations held in New York and San Francisco. This could be the last chance the antiwar warriors have before the cruise missiles fly. Yet 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. He edits Tikkun, a magazine mostly written by lefty Jews. (Its name is Hebrew for “to mend, repair and transform the world.”) He can be counted on to sign on to most liberal causes. He is a signatory to the Not In Our Name antiwar pledge. His Tikkun Community is a member of the United for Peace & Justice coalition that opposes a U.S. war against Iraq. (Other members include the American Friends Service Committee, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, TransAfrica, Working Assets.) He has been a leading Jewish voice against the hawks of Israel and a supporter of Palestinian rights, while calling himself a Zionist.
So it was natural that his name was floated as a speaker for the protest. Not In Our Name and United for Peace & Justice were two of the four coalitions behind the event. (According to Lerner, he did not ask to address the San Francisco rally. “You can’t say much in three minutes,” he notes.) But International ANSWER, another of the organizers, said no.
Lerner’s crime: he had dared to criticize ANSWER, an outfit run by members of the Workers World Party, for using antiwar demonstrations to put forward what he considers to be anti-Israel propaganda. That ANSWER objected to Lerner is not surprising. The WWPers in control of ANSWER are socialists who call for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, who support Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, who oppose UN inspections in Iraq (claiming they are part of the planning for an invasion aimed at gaining control of Iraq’s oil fields), and who urge smashing Zionism. Last month, referring to an upcoming ANSWER demonstration, Lerner wrote, “In my view, the organizers of this demonstration have allowed far too many speakers who believe that this war is being done because Israel wants the war, far too few who share my view that this war is not in the best interests of either Israel or of the United States.” Yet Lerner didn’t let his differences with ANSWER trump his opposition to the war; he encouraged people to attend the rally. After that protest, he told The New York Times, “There are good reasons to oppose the war and Saddam. Still, it feels that we are being manipulated when subjected to mindless speeches and slogans whose knee-jerk anti-imperialism rarely articulates the deep reasons we should oppose corporate globalization.”
ANSWER’s nyet doesn’t irk Lerner as much as the fact that Not In Our Name and United for Peace & Justice didn’t oppose it. Before Lerner had been suggested as a speaker, the coalitions engineering the San Francisco event had agreed that any individual who had publicly disparaged one of the organizing groups could be vetoed as a speaker by that group. ANSWER used this right to banish Lerner. (The rabbi maintains he had no intention of using his podium time to slam ANSWER: “Why waste my three minutes on ANSWER?”) Other organizers of the San Francisco event argued against ANSWER’s thumbs-down but ended up abiding by the agreement. (ANSWER has not been involved in the organizing of the coming New York City protest.)
ANSWER could cite Lerner’s criticism of ANSWER as a reason for blocking him. But its objection to Lerner also jibes with the group’s political agenda. On January 28, Tony Murphy, the media coordinator for ANSWER, appeared on a radio show in New York and said, “I know that the ANSWER coalition would not have a pro-Israel speaker on its platform.” (Lerner is pro-Israel in that he supports the existence of the Jewish state.) ANSWER’s anti-Israel stance has also been reflected in its relationship with at least one troubling anti-Zionist. At its January march in Washington, ANSWER handed a microphone to Abdul Malim Musa, a Muslim cleric. On October 31, 2001, Musa had appeared at a news conference at the National Press Club with other Muslim activists and members of the New Black Panther Party, where speakers asserted that Israel had launched the 9/11 attacks and that thousands of Jews had been warned that day not to go to work at the World Trade Center. At that press conference, Musa blasted the “Zionists in Hollywood, the Zionists in New York, and the Zionists in D.C.” who “all collaborate” to put down blacks and Muslims. ANSWER has room in its antiwar coalition for Musa, but not Lerner.
On Monday, Lerner disseminated an email reporting he had been banned. And Beyt Tikkun synagogue, where Lerner serves as a rabbi, released a statement saying, “we do not believe that had ANSWER been criticized by a major feminist or gay leader and then vetoed that leader to speak at a demonstration that the other coalition partners would go along with that. So why should criticism of anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing be treated differently?….So why should our voice of critique of ANSWER’s anti-Israel policy serve as justification for excluding our rabbi from speaking?”
ANSWER did not return my call seeking comment. Which isn’t a shock. I’ve written critically about their role in the antiwar movement, and their folks, in return, have assailed me. I also tried reaching Andrea Buffa, the San Francisco-based co-chair of United for Peace & Justice, and didn’t hear back. Bert Knorr, an organizer in the San Francisco office of Not In Our Name, says, “We’re concerned with what happened and hope it can be amicably resolved.” On Monday evening, organizers of the rally tried to “resolve” the matter, according to one source. But Lerner was not offered a speaker’s slot. Instead, he says, he has been asked by the organizers to talk about all this after the event. In the meantime, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio have interviewed Lerner about ANSWER’s rejection of him and the other organizers’ acceptance of that. And over 150 progressive writers and activists have signed a letter decrying the Lerner ban. (Click here to read the petition.)
“This is about the suppressing of dissent among the dissenters,” Lerner asserts. “My progressive Jewish allies said, ‘Don’t raise this issue, it’s more important to stick to the struggle against the war.’ But in my view, we should be able to critique the war and this section of the antiwar movement, just as did the women who fought against sexism in the antiwar movement in the 1960s. I don’t accept an either/or.”
Some peace activists in San Francisco were dismayed that Lerner took the dispute public. “What Michael did doesn’t help,” one says. But Lerner was more of a mensch than the people of ANSWER. Even after being blackballed, he has been advising people to attend the protest. “I don’t want to boycott the demonstration,” he says. “It’s extremely important for progressive Jews to be standing up and critiquing the war, particularly when so many in the Jewish world are supporting it. We’ll be part of the event, no matter what they do to me.”
Perhaps he should have stayed silent for the good of the cause. Who needs such tsuris right before an important protest? But Lerner was not the source of the problem; ANSWER was. This distracting episode shows what can happen when sincere do-gooders enter into deals with the ANSWER gang. If the reasonable and responsible foes of war are fortunate enough to have further opportunity to rally opposition to the conflict before it occurs, they ought to reconsider their alliance with the censors of ANSWER.