Pearce to talk at Sundays anti-war rally, but Lerner blackballed

Rabbi Michael Lerner is off the podium at Sunday's anti-war rally, but Rabbi Stephen Pearce is on.

The senior rabbi of the largest congregation in Northern California is among the Jewish voices who will speak out against a U.S. invasion of Iraq at the San Francisco rally, which is expected to draw well over 100,000 people.

"I think it's important that someone from the mainstream Jewish community be represented [at the rally] even if I don't agree with all the organizations sponsoring it," said the spiritual leader of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

"If the Jewish community doesn't make itself heard on this, it will subject itself to anti-Semitism. We need to show we have a voice in this community by not being absent."

The anti-war rally here is one of many taking place throughout the country, with another major event scheduled in New York.

Other Jewish leaders speaking here will include David Cooper, spiritual leader of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, and Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community, both of whom will speak at a prayer service at the Civic Center.

Pearce will address the main rally, as will representatives from A Jewish Voice for Peace and Courage to Refuse, the group of Israeli reservists who have refused to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

The "blackballing" of Lerner, the outspoken editor of Tikkun magazine who lives in Berkeley, has received national attention, with his widely-circulated e-mail appearing in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, and a petition in support of him being circulated by The Nation.

While highly critical of Lerner, Ernest H. Weiner, executive director of the local chapter of American Jewish Committee, declined to comment on Pearce's appearance at the rally. But he did say that Jews choosing to march should be aware of with whom they are associating.

Weiner's gripe is with International ANSWER, (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), a socialist group aligned with the Workers World Party, which is one of the rally's primary sponsors.

Calling it a Marxist, anti-American and often anti-Semitic group, Weiner said attending an ANSWER-sponsored rally only advances its agenda.

"This is not simply a protest against war in the eyes of the organizers," Weiner warned. "If you look at the speakers, it's a cross-section of the most militant, most determined anti-American people in the Marxist contingents."

Jason Mark, spokesperson for Global Exchange, which is part of rally co-sponser United Peace and Justice Coalition, emphasized that Lerner was rejected as a speaker because of his criticism of ANSWER, not because of his pro-Israel views.

"If a speaker wants to get on stage and say that an attack on Iraq will undermine the security of Israel, that's a valid point to make," said Mark.

Pearce said the Jewish state would only figure into his remarks if he followed a speaker critical of Israel, adding that in his view, the Israeli-Palestinian issue had no place in the dialogue about a war in Iraq.

But Cooper said he will definitely talk about Israel, and he was up-front with organizers, telling them he will do so from the perspective of a pro-Israel Jew. "I will be speaking as a person who loves Israel and fears for Israel's security," he said. "I feel so strongly that this war is something that will be hurting this country, Israel and the whole world."

Lerner was initially suggested as a speaker by United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of which Lerner's Tikkun Community is a part. But as veto power was given to each co-sponsor, Lerner was voted down by ANSWER on the grounds that he had criticized the group in the past.

ANSWER's San Francisco office declined to comment, but The Nation reported that ANSWER's media coordinator said on a WNYC radio show in January, "I know that the ANSWER coalition would not have a pro-Israel speaker on its platform."

In a widely circulated e-mail, part of which was printed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Lerner wrote: "It is offensive and outrageous that those of us who wish to protest against what we see as a fundamentally unjust war must be subjected to a barrage of slogans and speeches that are one-sidedly hostile to Israel, as though our opposition to war had suddenly made us champions of Palestinian groups which use terror and violence against Israeli civilians.

"There is a huge difference between [being] critical of Ariel Sharon's repressive treatment of the Palestinian people and not accepting the fundamental legitimacy of Israel's existence."

However, in a statement from the International Action Center, organizers of Sunday's rally said Lerner's "charges are untrue," and he had not been "banned" from the rally but simply not invited to speak. The statement also said that other Jewish spiritual leaders with viewpoints similar to Lerner's would be on the podium, including Cooper and Baugh.

Lerner has not attended recent anti-war rallies, but only because they have fallen on a Saturday, and he is Sabbath-observant. And though he will not be at Sunday's march, he is encouraging members of the Tikkun Community, as well as congregants of Beyt Tikkun, his San Francisco synagogue, to participate. They will be handing out leaflets condemning the anti-Semitism in the anti-war movement, and urging people to sign the petition in support of Lerner.

The petition, which is mentioned in The Nation's online edition, was signed by thousands in a few days' time. "I'm surprised and pleased that people are taking anti-Semitism in the left seriously and are challenging it," Lerner said.

The organized Jewish community has more or less stayed out of the fray — although Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the whole episode proves the "intolerance and radicalism" among the organizers, which makes many Jews uncomfortable.

Of Lerner, though, Kahn said, "As much as I have disagreed with many of his views on Israel, I think he is an important voice in taking on the virulently anti-Israel stance among the prime organizers of the anti-war movement."

Pearce made the case that voicing opposition against the war was his first priority. "Should I exempt the Jewish community from this because of political infighting or because it's perceived that we're supporting the agenda of these organizations?" he asked. "The people flipping on the news won't know anything about these organizations."

Meanwhile, although it is not endorsing Sunday's demonstration, the JCRC has become a "matchmaker" for those Jews who want to assert a voice at the rally that is both anti-war and pro-Israel. They will be meeting at 10:30 a.m. by the fountain in Justin Herman Plaza at Market Street and the Embarcadero.

"We have spoken to a number of people in our community who have attended anti-war rallies and have felt alienated," said Kahn. "I think members of our community who attend this Sunday's rally will feel well-represented by the presence of Rabbi Pearce."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."