Furor in Frisco

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.

There’s no doubt that Lerner is among numerous critics of ANSWER. “The emotional climate at these demonstrations,” said Lerner, “has been one that most Jews I have encountered find somewhere between uncomfortable and overtly anti-Semitic. So it seems to me incredibly self-destructive for an anti-war movement — that at the moment does not have the allegiance of the majority of Americans to be pushing away one of the most progressive sectors of American society, the liberal and progressive voices of Jews. That is exactly what has been happening, and that is why it is important for those of us who oppose the war to critique that kind of behavior in the anti-war movement.”

Still, the Lerner brouhaha was less hot-buttoned than advertised, given that Lerner had never asked to speak.

ANSWER’s Becker also contended that Lerner could have been on the program at the previous San Francisco mega-rally, on January 18, but that Lerner’s staff insisted on a 15-minute allowance — because the rabbi’s views are “complex,” recounted Becker. ANSWER said no, insisting that he stick to the same time limit as everyone else: two to three minutes. (The one exception, said Becker, was made for Congresswoman Barbara Lee [D-Oakland], a movement celebrity, who was offered five minutes and spoke for about seven.)

Lerner said he wanted 15 minutes to assemble a program of speakers. “I said three minutes is not enough to counter a barrage of Israel bashing and anti-Semitic garbage. I have been very dubious about speaking at these things because of the three-minute rules. It guarantees that all that comes out is rhetorical excess and not analysis. I think there should be a few longer, serious analyses of the situation and a few alternative views of what the strategies should be.”

But what about ANSWER itself? Does it want to “smash Zionism”?

For the anti-war cause, ANSWER has assembled a relatively broad coalition under its own banner and is working with even broader coalitions. The organization, at least in this conversation, downplayed extremist views. Becker noted that ANSWER’s coalition includes Jews. And he maintained, “We take no position on Israel. International ANSWER came into being since September 11. It has not tried to take a position on all global issues. What has united us is opposing the Bush program’s drive to war, and its racist attacks on civil rights and civil liberties. We do support the right of self-determination, and that includes the Palestinians.”

Plitnick, of Jewish Voice, stresses the importance of working with ANSWER. “Lerner raised some important points, and they can be dealt with in the spirit of keeping us working together in our common cause,” he said. “There’s considerable work to be done with ANSWER, and our approach is to engage them.”

But what if ANSWER’s soft sell is just spin control — especially given the anti-Israel rhetoric of some speakers at its rallies? Critics, including Marc Cooper, assert that ANSWER and its founders have a long history of anti-Semitism and it would be naive to overlook that. Such critics also worry that the right wing will increasingly exploit ANSWER’s reputation to demonize and deflate the entire peace movement. So the critics feel compelled to demonize their own fringe as a preventive remedy. The risk is that these attempts to shove ANSWER to the sidelines also could provide the right wing with another round of ammunition.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is the featured speaker, Sunday, February 16, 6:30 p.m., at Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 552-2007.


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