The defense: Tikkun supports free speech and the right to disagree

Ever since I critiqued Alan Dershowitz for succeeding in freeing O.J. Simpson from the murder charges he faced, Dershowitz has had a personal vendetta against me. Dershowitz had no trouble twisting the truth in order to defend that murderer, and no moral conscience about doing so — and I think that he is at it again in an opinion piece full of distortions about me and the magazine I edit, Tikkun.

Every day I get letters from lefties in the United States denouncing me because I will not support a general program of disinvestment against Israel unless they include disinvestment from the much greater human rights violators in the world — Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United States in Iraq. They are outraged when I call selective prosecution of Israel an act of anti-Semitism.

I also get letters from right-wingers telling me that my criticisms of Israeli policies make me a self-hating Jew or an ally of the enemy. I don’t think so. I critique U.S. policy and yet I love America, and I critique Israeli policy precisely because I hate the way Israel is undermining its own future.

So here comes Alan Dershowitz with more lashon hara, evil and destructive language, telling many people that I am “in bed with Hezbollah.” And for what? Did I support their attack this summer? No. Did I tell people we ought to “understand them?” No. They are our enemies, and my stand is always: Negotiate with your enemies.

My sin was that I sent out an email that had many different articles in it, one by a guy who has gotten famous writing about the many lies of Alan Dershowitz.

Dershowitz called me an “anti-Semitic rabbi” in one of his books, and he now claims that I’m anti-Israel. Yet Dershowitz’ latest book, “What Israel Means to Me,” contains an essay he solicited by, guess who, yes me, this allegedly anti-Semitic rabbi. Probably because someplace deep in his heart, when he gets over his nastiness, he realizes that I am an honest person who loves Israel but disagrees with him on how best to keep it strong.

But maybe not. Maybe he genuinely believes what he now says about me, and maybe he’d say, “Well, I included Rabbi Lerner because I thought people should hear different perspectives from my own.”

That would be a refreshing change for a writer who was once a champion of civil liberties but who has become one of the most detested figures in liberal American circles today because of his Bush-year writings that sought to justify torture. I’m happy to report that most of us, including most American Jewish rabbis, reject his arguments for torture and find them to be antithetical to the teachings of our tradition. So there in his recent book he wanted to show that he was coming back to liberal roots, now that the Democrats may be taking back the government, by printing someone with whom he disagreed.

But lacking any spirit of generosity, he couldn’t imagine that I would have the same reasoning in sending out an article with which I disagreed. And just as he did not label my article as one with which he disagreed, so neither did I label the articles by Finkelstein that way. Tikkun, unlike many other Jewish magazines and newspapers, is genuinely liberal. We print people and circulate ideas from people with whom we disagree as a matter of course.

Which is why, when I first heard Dershowitz was upset about this issue, I sent him a letter inviting him to write in Tikkun as well.

Now perhaps you are thinking, “How could Dershowitz know that Lerner wasn’t endorsing the articles he sent out? Why does Lerner say Dershowitz is being dishonest?”

Because in that very email in which I sent the article by Finkelstein among many other articles, I said very explicitly that I was sending out articles even though we at Tikkun do not necessarily agree with them. But if Dershowitz had told you that, he wouldn’t be able to be screaming about how bad I am. He’d have to argue that I, or Tikkun, should not publish a wide variety of views.

We also publish articles directly critical of religion, critical of my own theology, and critical of the spiritual politics I advocate — even though I strongly disagree with those articles and sometimes find them offensive. And in every issue we have a column, “the contrarian,” and the author usually argues against my editorials.

That’s what it means to believe in free speech. The more people engage in respectful exchange of ideas, the better quality of the thinking. That’s why I have sent the Jerusalem Post articles to print, but for at least 10 years they have all been rejected.

The big lie that Dershowitz wants to advance is that I and Tikkun support the enemies of Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth. For 20 years we at Tikkun have been warning Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank, we’ve been telling Israel that its treatment of Palestinians is playing a role in making it easier for anti-Semites to build resentment against all Jews (a resentment that is illegitimate as is every form of racism), and we’ve been supporting the voices like Yossi Beilin and others in Israel who, like us, want Israel to be strong and who recognize that the occupation weakens rather than strengthens Israel.

Similarly, we warned against the recent war in Lebanon, and now, very few Israelis believe this war was a wise one. This doesn’t make us enemies of Israel, but advisors committed to pikuach nefesh, saving lives.

Every day I pray that our eyes may see the return of God to Zion in rachmonis, compassion. That is the path for Jewish survival: the path of love, generosity of spirit and caring for the other. When that becomes the essence of Israeli policy, both in the way it treats its own poor and in the way it treats Palestinians and others, it will become invulnerable. I urge you to read the details of my strategy for building a strong Israel, in “Healing Israel/Palestine.”

And my views are consistent. I am a critic of Israeli policy, but also of American policy, Chinese policy, Russian policy, French policy, Iranian policy, North Korean policy, Syrian policy, Saudi Arabian policy and anyone else that relies on force and violence rather than commits to a path of rachomnis.

Let me say one last word. In the name of attacking my alleged lashon hara, Dershowitz lies about who I am and what Tikkun stands for. Still, I suspect that this article comes from a hurt that I may have unintentionally inflicted on him.

I think that in the past my criticisms of his defending torture and defending the African-American murderer who was a famous football star may have felt personal to him, and I think I may have gone over the line and hurt him. For that reason, as I said in a private letter I sent to him weeks ago during Aseret Yemey Teshuva when I asked him to forgive me, I’d like to ask publicly for forgiveness. And I’d like to ask Alan to agree with me that we stop attacking each other in public and, if we have criticisms about each other’s ideas, that we critique only the ideas, and not the intentions or decency of the other or impugn how loyal they are to Judaism, Israel, the Jewish people or American ideals of decency.

Disagreement about ideas is fine; impugning the motives, decency or loyalty to the Jewish people of the other is not fine.

I’m ready to stop all this stuff and get back to the more important task of defending the Jewish people and providing leadership for a path back to the highest values of love, generosity, social justice, peace and respect for each other. That is the kind of step toward tikkun olam that we need in so many areas of our public life.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley is editor of Tikkun magazine and national chair of Tikkun Community. His latest book is “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.”