The progressive prophet: Michael Lerner reflects on 25 years of Tikkun magazine

Though he does not compare himself to Isaiah or Jeremiah, Rabbi Michael Lerner can relate to the prophets of old.

He sees them as “people willing to challenge the Jewish establishment of their day and got a lot of crap for it, and nevertheless are honored prophets.”

In recent years, few American rabbis have challenged the Jewish establishment or drawn as much fire as Lerner. Yet 25 years after founding the left-leaning Tikkun magazine, he’s still standing, shouting jeremiads from the village square.

He will take a break from those lamentations to mark the 25th anniversary of Tikkun at a March 14 celebration at U.C. Berkeley’s Pauley Ballroom. During the event Lerner will present the Tikkun Award to several people, among them Richard Goldstone, author of the controversial Goldstone Report on the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

It’s just like Lerner to honor Goldstone, a man who came under harsh criticism from many in the Jewish community for authoring a document they consider unfairly biased against Israel.

In the pages of Tikkun and in other forums, Lerner has long railed against what he views as Israel’s heavy hand when it comes to treatment of the Palestinians. While Tikkun has featured many views and voices, the predominant one has been critical of Israel.

Rabbi Michael Lerner in the Tikkun office in the early years of the magazine.

Lerner sees his magazine as having impacted the political, social and spiritual conversation within the Jewish community and beyond.

“It speaks volumes about the hunger among American Jews for a [progressive] voice,” he says of Tikkun. “We faced a lot of negativity and distortion, [but] at the same time we managed to get the message out to a lot of Jews that the dominant voice in the Jewish community wasn’t the only voice. We created a safe space to say things they were thinking privately.”

The quarterly magazine has admirers from across the political spectrum. David Biale, who teaches Jewish history at U.C. Davis, says Tikkun has been at the forefront of progressive Jewish politics, and was “particularly courageous in promoting a two-state solution with the Palestinians long before it became the consensus position of the American Jewish community and the public policy of Israel.”

Over the years, Tikkun has published articles written by more than 2,000 writers, among them Woody Allen, Amos Oz, Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg, Rabbi Eric Yoffie and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

But as editor and columnist, Lerner has been the most visible exponent of the Tikkun philosophy.

He takes pride in having run pro-feminist, pro-LGBT and pro-science articles early on. But it was Tikkun’s strong criticism of Israel that drew both the attention and ire of other segments of the Jewish community.

“When we started, we criticized some Israeli policies,” he recalls, “and there was an immediate response of ‘you’re anti-Semitic’ or ‘you’re self-hating Jews.’ At that time, we organized a demonstration against the pope, who had recently met with former Nazi [and Austrian President] Kurt Waldheim. That was a great moment because we showed we definitely cared about the well-being of Jews.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Lerner, a one-time member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society during his college days at U.C. Berkeley, says he is especially proud of a 1989 Tikkun article by Israeli historian Benny Morris. In that piece, Morris argued that Israel engaged in much more extensive forced exile of Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence than is commonly acknowledged.

“We were in the forefront of presenting Israeli historians who had discovered the Zionist story about the creation of Israel was a distortion, that it didn’t acknowledge what actually happened,” Lerner says. “The historical archives show that the [Israeli] army forcibly ejected at least 100,000 people. It was a revelation that started a big debate.”

There also were articles he regrets. One, by essayist Daphne Merkin, turned out to be a lurid critique of lesbian sex, a piece Lerner says he found “disgusting.”

Another regret is personally attacking in print attorney and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz back in the mid-1990s. That, Lerner says, was a violation of longstanding Tikkun policy to avoid ad hominem attacks.

“I critiqued Dershowitz for defending O.J. Simpson,” Lerner recalls. “I pointed out that [Simpson] is a murderer, and everyone knew he was. I said it reflected poorly on Dershowitz. That was a violation of my policy. I don’t believe we should ever personally attack anyone.”

Others have not held back in their attacks on Lerner, including Dershowitz. In an October 2006 op-ed, Dershowitz blasted Lerner, whom he called “an Israel-basher who has climbed into bed with Hezbollah supporters, advocates divestment from Israel,” and called Tikkun “the most virulently anti-Israel screed ever published under Jewish auspices.”

His anger was triggered when Lerner, according to Dershowitz, circulated via e-mail an article by the anti-Israel Jewish historian Norman Finkelstein that claimed Dershowitz “sanctioned mass murder” and called him a “moral pervert.”

The attacks have gone beyond name-calling. Lerner has received death threats over the years. Several years ago, a bomb was discovered in his former New York offices, and last year, vandals struck his home in Berkeley with obliquely threatening graffiti.

Lerner says one way he copes with that kind of stress is turning to his Jewish faith, which “has given me a great deal of inner strength to deal with negativity. I’m rooted in my connection to God and tradition.”

Which leads him back to the prophets, who railed against their fellow Jews.

Says Lerner of his distress over Israel, “When you see your people [driving] toward the side of a cliff and you yell at them, and they don’t hear, you find yourself, like me, jumping on top of the car knocking on the windshield saying stop.”

He is quick to add that he loves Israel, has lived there, and that his son is a veteran of an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper unit. “Because I love Israel, I have to fight for its well-being,” he adds.

Meanwhile, he still has his hand on the tiller at Tikkun, and an eye on the headlines. Ever the progressive, he viewed last fall’s election and the ascendant conservative movement as setbacks, but he doesn’t lose any sleep over it.

“Don’t be realistic,” he says, repeating his oft-cited credo. “To believe in God is to believe there is a force in the universe that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be. Reality does not define the contours of what is possible.”

Tikkun magazine’s 25th anniversary celebration takes place at 6:30 p.m. March 14 at Pauley Ballroom, U.C. Berkeley. To register, or for more information, go to www.tikkun.org/celebrate.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.