“Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel...”
Every once in a long while a book comes along that by the manner in which it focuses upon a compelling theme or issue, truly makes a difference in the lives of people. This book by Michael Lerner may well be such a one.
Its chief merit lies in at least two central propositions that define its logic and its argument throughout.
First, Lerner undertakes an historical narrative in terms that are comparable to psychoanalysis. A dark reality has been hidden from the world as a result of the neurotic, mentally sick assumptions of two patients in the Middle East—Israel and Arab Palestine—a reality that must here be revealed for the healing to occur. Both patients suffer from the same malady, the same inner compulsion that drives them on intrinsically destructive paths. Both have a cultural inheritance that plays a role in the circumstances that drive them to war. They can neither fulfill the expectations of this parent/ godfather, nor can they jettison this baggage for the sake of a new reality that is everywhere taking shape around them. The long agonizing process of condemnation, terror and counter-terror goes on, punctuate by lies and the posturing of leaders who have renounced their own humanity for the sake of their obsession.
Yet Lerner’s prose does much more than merely cut through to this forbidding reality. His purpose remains a deeply spiritual one; without it such truth on a stage so spotted with blood would be too terrible to contemplate for anyone having a stake in the results. Lerner’s spiritual mission—firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition at its best—is nothing less than to encourage all readers and the very players in this drama, to view this history and this reality as it unfolds through a lens no longer distorted by the crazed assumptions of what Lerner aptly refers to as a “cynical realism.” It is this cynical realism that informs us that states and economies can only be constructed through war, and that blood must be recompensed with blood.
Thus, at the center of this book is a counterpoint between history and religion. History is invoked to change our sense of reality; then religion is invoked to alter our sense of what can and should be done with it. Lerner is perfectly suited to this task. He is today one of America’s most distinguished and outspoken Jewish liberals, the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, having grown up in a Zionist household the son of a national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America. Steeped in the politics and culture that resulted in the establishment of Israel in 1948, Lerner acknowledges that while coming of age, his family’s home was frequently visited by such prominent Israeli leaders as David Ben Gurion, Abba Eban, Golda Meir, and Abba Hillel Silver. These credentials for the consideration of Israel’s plight are the best that can be had.
But Lerner’s book would not be nearly so effective were it not for the fact that as an American Jew, he manages to consistently rise above a mere partisanship to Israel, and therefore achieves a degree of objectivity that is essential to his mission. The truth of this assertion is given in the book’s many revelations of wrong doing that were in effect, built in to the foundation of the Zionist state. The Jews who poured into Israel, especially from Central and Eastern Europe were, according to Lerner, so traumatized by the pain of their persecution in Europe that they were blind to the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. Early Zionist visions drew upon a Judaic religious heritage that reflected the experience of a people in perpetual exile from their biblical origins, and so frequently assaulted, victimized and made subject to terror and proscriptions in almost every part of Europe that the Jewish mind became, in effect, hostile and defensive even as it clung to the lofty and principled idealism of the Judaic inheritance.
Aware of the long history of European colonial adventures in the Middle East, Zionist leaders from the 1880s on were more often secular, atheistic, or socialist in their outlook than otherwise, according to Lerner. In disregard for the destructive impact upon the native peoples of Palestine, they chose to attach their hopes to British and French colonial interests at work within the region, which served to discredit Zionism within the eyes of Palestinian peoples even as anti-Semitism increased to the level of the Holocaust under the influence of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Hostile to Zionism from the beginning, Arab Palestine viewed the Jews from the standpoint of an Islamic civilization that could accept Jews only as second class citizens. As these circumstances changed in the twentieth century, they clung to the past while asserting a nationalism that after 1948, increasingly defined itself through hatred of Israel and the assertion of property claims that were less viable with the passage of time.
But Lerner’s scathing treatment of the long history of crime perpetuated against Arab Palestine points to a larger fact about the relationship between the United States and Israel. Here the role played by the Americans seems no better than in French Indochina, where the U.S. stepped into the shoes of a colonial regime even as its people looked to America as an inspiration for its future. The darkest irony of America’s postwar conduct is profoundly reflected in this book—a reality that every American today should contemplate with all the insight that Lerner brings to bear in this volume. For in our relationship to Israel we see the impact of the repudiation our nation’s anti-colonial beginnings in pursuit of our own economic and national self- interest. Failing to hold Israel to the United Nation’s mandate that sought to protect the territorial claims of Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the U.S. fostered Israeli militarism as an ally in the Cold War against Soviet Russia. Error was compounded upon error, and the Palestinian people became one of history’s tragic victims.
A sad and violated people driven at gun point from their property, victimized through repeated episodes of state sponsored Israeli terrorism, with as many as a million Arab Palestinians crowded into refugee camps that dotted Israel’s ever expanding frontier—the result has been the perversion of what for the Jews of Europe had been a Zionist vision of hope, healing and spiritual transformation. Lerner’s book suggests that what grew in Palestine was somehow a mirror image of the Holocaust itself. As Jews, fighting desperately for their survival force-marched the Palestinian people into exile, it was as if the DP camps of postwar Europe lived on in Palestine, while the world looked on with apparent indifference at this spectacle, and the suffering of an outraged people found no outlet save terrorism in response to brutality.
But Lerner’s sense of disillusionment and outrage is judiciously tempered not only with understanding of all that Jews have experienced, but also with determination to maintain the spiritual mission that resides at the heart of Judaic religion and has done much to shape Israeli nationalism. For every naïve and misunderstanding American who has felt the stirring chords of Exodus, or the heart’s longing that there should be some answer for the suffering of wounded peoples, Lerner’s book is dedicated to that proposition that there is a way out of the agonizing dilemma that has come to define the plight of Palestine today.
An ardent supporter of Israel’s Peace Now, along with the diverse array of other peace organizations in Israel and in this country, Lerner’s conviction is that a change in consciousness is essential to the process of reconciliation that must occur in this region. Israelis and Palestinians, beset with the same malady of bigotry, arrogance and cynicism, must find within themselves the human and spiritual resources necessary to finally accept one another as people. Recognizing each other at last as human beings, Israel will find the courage and international support necessary to address the injustices of the past with territorial concessions and recognition of a Palestinian state. To facilitate this transformation, Lerner and his supporters have created a popular vehicle, which they call Tikkun Community—a society of liberal and spiritual reform truly international in scope that is inclusive of most of the world’s religions today.
Through Lerner’s book, Tikkun Community demands that Americans finally listen and recognize that the plight of Palestine is intrinsically linked to the destiny of Israel, just as it is linked to America’s ability to live in peace and fulfill its role in world affairs.
A work that is at times shocking for the murder and hypocrisy it lays bare, Healing Israel/ Palestine is a fresh and authentic approach to one of the world’s most crucial problems. As concise and to the point as it is insightful, it is a book profoundly informed by scholarship and religious training—yet written without undue indulgence either of sentiment, literary inclination or of argument for its own sake. It is a short practical book for those in search of answers, one which offers real solutions and a program for peace that can, if brought to bear by political leaders, establish the foundation for a sane and viable future for the diverse people of the Middle East.
John L. Godwin is the author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000).
From The People’s Civic Record
Vol. 3, No 10, October 2003