From Torah to Tikkun: Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Recipe for Peace in the Middle East

Embracing Israel/Palenstine(Image: North Atlantic Books)A review of “Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East” finds author Rabbi Michael Lerner’s plea for kindness and empathy timeless and necessary, but his moral algebra suspect and his prescriptions for peace in the Middle East inadequate.

From the first pages of Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Embracing Israel/Palestine, it’s clear: Rabbi Lerner is a mensch. Unfortunately, his prescription for Middle East peace presupposes an unlikely transformation of much of humanity to that rare status he himself enjoys. His understanding of the Torah as a spiritual benchmark embodies, as he claims, “. . . a higher level of love and caring for one another than currently exists. . .” and is a worthy model, but to imagine that mass epiphany or a renaissance of lapsed Judaic principles would be enough to reverse the destructive forces behind the debacle in the Middle East is utopian. What is lacking is just secular law and government.

A state is a secular construct. It is antithetical to religious precepts, which are by nature universal. A state is a vehicle for the distribution of temporal power, and how effective it is in parceling that power equitably is a measure of whether it is truly democratic. The genius of the American Constitution lies in recognizing that religious and state power should be separate. European history shows the disastrous results when they are entwined. Yet, the American government routinely violates this precept, with much fanfare, by subsidizing that very fusion in the Jewish State. This has proven incendiary and dangerous in a Middle Eastern neighborhood where Judaism is not the dominant religion.

Rabbi Lerner himself broaches the question: Is the Jewish State one governed by the principles of Judaism as exemplified by the Torah, or is it simply a state with a majority of Jews? If it is the latter, then Israel – the Jewish State – has, by Rabbi Lerner’s own estimation, morally failed. If Israel’s domination and incarceration of Palestinians on the West Bank, its demonization of criticism at home and abroad and its discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is accepted within Israel as the legitimate status quo, then “. . . please, please, please don’t call it a Jewish state,” Lerner implores. “Call it a state with many Jews, but don’t allow Judaism to be associated with that state. Because doing so imperils the moral integrity of Judaism and the well-being of Jews around the world.”

Rabbi Lerner is naturally drawn to a bifurcated view of human nature and the deity, a view embedded in Judeo/Christian tradition of a conflicted God, one moment filled with all-consuming love, the next seized by violent rages and a temperament not above the worst forms of vengeance and brutality. For Rabbi Lerner, it is a matter of choosing which side of this schizophrenic deity one wishes to emulate. For him, this conflict is metaphorically expressed as a choice between God’s “Left Hand” – one that holds “hope, trust, and caring for others” – and the “Right Hand,” one filled with “rigid boundaries” and “. . . doing to others what we suspect they might do to us.” However, the very core of representative government and contract law in Western democracies and the reason for its success is that it is a system that neither acknowledges nor defers to any of God’s appendages: it does not evoke God at all. This is why modern jurisprudence and civic government trace their roots back to Athens and Rome, not the Vatican or Jerusalem.

For Rabbi Lerner, the reconciliation process is a “Strategy of Generosity,” one involving listening to the other’s narrative and “acknowledging what is plausible in the story of the other side.” Both sides are incapable of doing this because each clings to “the trauma that both peoples have experienced in their history,” what Lerner calls “Socio-Cultural PTSD.” Thus, both sides are incapable of objectivity, something that’s impossible in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, where the strife itself is driven and subsidized by outside forces. As long as the American government sees Israel as a vital proxy in the region, as long as huge speaking fees and funds for K Street can be generated by exploiting the memory of the Holocaust (see Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry), and as long as Israel can be used as a wedge issue by US politicians and the Christian Right, then there’s little chance that small cloisters of Israelis and Palestinians reaching out in a spirit of comity can do much to reverse it.

For Rabbi Lerner, reconciliation is impossible as long as there is blame and finger-pointing. He dedicates much of his book to a sort of blameless revisionism, dissecting moments in the region’s history from the standpoint of each side as though to absolve each of culpability. He thereby subjects each historical milestone to a sort of moral algebra whereby both sides’ participation in destructive events somehow balance and, therefore, cancel each other out. Though Lerner also correctly assesses Zionism’s early appeal to oppressed Jews in the shetls of Eastern Europe, he diminishes Zionism’s role as a Trojan horse exploited by western interests anxious to embed a sympathetic population in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean and Greater Syria), where there was oil, and the Suez Canal.

Likewise, I find his interpretation of the 1917 Balfour Declaration tendentious and his representation of its intent as simply conferring the blessings of the British government on Zionist claims to Palestine inaccurate. The Balfour Declaration was actually a masterpiece of cross-purposes, at once promising British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine while simultaneously claiming to ensure the rights of the non-Jewish population already there. One moment, Lerner faults the indigenous Arabs for not welcoming oppressed Jews, the next, he admits that many of the Zionist Ashkenzim “showed little interest in getting to know Arab culture, had little respect for local religious institutions . . . and were ignorant of local customs.”

Rabbi Lerner also bemoans the Palestinians’ rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. “And yet there is little doubt,” he opines, “. . . that the failure of the Palestinian leadership to accept partition and attempt to negotiate a peaceful transition to statehood for both Jews and Palestinians had disastrous consequences for the Palestinian people.” One look at the details, and it’s not hard to understand why they acted as they did.

With the possible exception of the Oklahoma land rush, the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine was one of the biggest land grabs in human history. Jews were understandably enthusiastic. To that point, they had only managed to acquire not quite 7 percent of the land, but were to be handed political control of a full 54 percent of Palestine. The area included the most fertile land, which Arabs – who’d worked it for generations – depended on for export income. Jews were also to be given control of the Negev, where 100,000 Bedouins produced most of the country’s barley and wheat. (Prior to the partition, there had been only 475 Jewish settlers in all of the Negev.)

Lerner’s moral algebra is suspect. Sometimes the sides don’t balance. Sometimes an act is simply and inexorably wrong and cries for justice no matter what the offending party’s motivation. Despite Rabbi Lerner’s best attempts to do the math, one is compelled to say:

• No, Jewish forces did not have the moral authority to forcibly expel a half-million Palestinians and then confiscate their homes.

• No, the migration of blacks from the South in pursuit of work in the white-dominated, northern US – a country of which they were already citizens – is not morally equivalent to Zionists plotting the confiscation of a foreign land (see: “Plan Dalet”).

• No, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is not morally equivalent to US treatment of Native Americans who, despite the US government’s despicable treatment of them and their dismal existence on reservations, have at least a modicum of sovereignty and can leave their homes without being subjected to check points, soldiers kicking in their doors or being asked for identification. Nor do they have settlers uprooting their olive trees and stealing their property in the name of God.

In the end, Rabbi Lerner’s plea for kindness and empathy is timeless and never irrelevant or unnecessary. But much of what fuels the conflict in Palestine is not as much about events there as about politics and religion here in the US. As long as the power differential between Palestinians and Israelis is so asymmetrical, nothing will change. The US and Israeli governments and the powerful Israel lobby will ensure that the Israeli government will always get the keys to the car, even after a hit-and-run.