By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A SKIRMISH OVER THE SOUL of the peace movement — and not the looming war against Iraq — briefly took center stage just before the start of this weekend’s massive coast-to-coast peace rallies.
The salvo came from San Francisco, when progressive listservs reported that Rabbi Michael Lerner, a peace activist, had been “banned” from speaking at this Sunday’s rally in San Francisco because he is “pro-Israel.” Pro-Israel, in this sense, means that Lerner supports Israel’s right to exist. Lerner, in fact, is such a noted critic of Israel’s right wing — and so approving of Palestinian statehood — that he is unwelcome in some Jewish circles.
The ban was purportedly the work of International ANSWER, an anti-war group whose intensity and organizational skills have made it a major player in the peace movement. Critics from the right and the left assail the group as extremist — and thus unfit and unable to lead an anti-war movement that, to be successful, must appeal to the suburban mainstream.
But the story that raged around the Internet was not precisely what happened.
The first version of events apparently came from Lerner and his Tikkun organization, which asserted that he’d been “blackballed and banned” by ANSWER.
The Nation’s David Corn quickly took up the cause, pummeling ANSWER and telling online readers that Lerner was “the” progressive Jew. Marc Cooper, another member of The Nation’s brain trust as well as an L.A. Weekly senior editor, said in an e-mail: “It should also be noted that Lerner was one of the original signers of the Not in Our Name manifesto, but apparently that ain’t good enough for the commisars at ANSWER.”
Cooper and Penn State professor Michael Berube circulated an online petition declaring that “We, the undersigned, protest ANSWER’s refusal to let Rabbi Lerner speak at this Sunday’s rally. At a time when the anti-war movement needs as broad a platform and as broad an appeal as possible, ANSWER has chosen instead to put the interests of sectarianism ahead of the interests of all those who oppose this foolish and unnecessary war. We believe this is a serious mistake, and that it exemplifies ANSWER’s unfitness to lead mass mobilizations against war in Iraq.” An impressive list of left luminaries signed on.
Corn reminded readers that ANSWER’s leadership has included “socialists who call for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, who support Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong II, who oppose U.N. 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.” He also referenced a January 28 appearance by an ANSWER media coordinator who reportedly said, “I know that the ANSWER coalition would not have a pro-Israel speaker on its platform.” Corn added that ANSWER would not return his call.
When the Weekly called ANSWER, which stands for Act Now To Stop War & End Racism, a foot soldier handed the phone directly to Richard Becker, an event organizer who talked at length.
Becker insisted that there was no Israel litmus test for speakers, and noted that the rally would include elected officials, labor leaders, Native Americans and veterans from recent American wars — culminating in an ecumenical service made up of Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist voices “at the very least.”
He said that 250 people had requested to speak and that time limitations compelled organizers to limit the list to 50.
Lerner, he added, had not requested to speak.
Lerner acknowledged as much in an interview with the Weekly. Of course, that does not entirely absolve ANSWER, but it means that petitioners had taken on the quixotic mission of restoring a speaker who’d never asked to speak in the first place and who, as it happens, has a speaking engagement in Los Angeles this weekend.
As Lerner understands it, representatives of another group had suggested him as a speaker and that the suggestion had been spurned. And this may indeed be the case.
The four coalitions organizing the rally claimed in a release that “None of the coalitions would propose rally speakers who had publicly attacked or worked to discredit one of the coalition groups.” ANSWER’s Becker said Lerner’s name never even came up in the late planning meeting that he attended.
But apparently Lerner’s name was indeed mentioned in an earlier meeting, and ANSWER vetoed him, said Mitchell Plitnick, spokesman for the Oakland-based A Jewish Voice for Peace. Plitnick participated in a number of planning meetings. He added that, at a later meeting, on February 4, the entire matter was discussed with Lerner’s representative, who raised no objection: “Tikkun’s representative was repeatedly asked whether or not this is an issue: ‘Do you want to discuss this further?’ The representative said it was not a problem. The opportunity to deal with this was there.”
Another event organizer, Bert Knorr of Not in Our Name, said one doable compromise would have been to have a speaker from Tikkun other than Lerner. As it is, two rabbis who support Israel’s right to exist are on the speakers list, said organizers.