Progressive Revival

Shortly before the California Democratic primary in 2008, the San Fransisco Chronicle invited me to write a short article explaining why I, chair of the interfaithNetwork of Spiritual Progressives, was supporting Barack Obama. Like most other progressive activists, I understood that a president is limited in what s/he can accomplish in limiting the power of America’s economic and political elites and in restraining the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and health care profiteers, the oil industry’s relentless destruction of the environment, or the selfishness and materialism that had become the hallmark of Wall Street and increasingly the “common sense” that was conveyed by the media and advertising into the consciousness of many Americans.

But what a president can do is to challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware that the current system is not only destructive to the future of the planet, but also to the possibility of constructing lives that have a sense of higher meaning than accumulating money and things, or building families and friendships that are about love and not dominated by the self-interest “what’s in it for me” consciousness of the capitalist marketplace.

President Obama is now traveling the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, and seems clueless as to why it is not there. And the Democrats who followed his lead seem similarly clueless. They imagine that we, their political base, must have had unreasonable expectations that somehow a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could overcome the Republican party of “no” and the powerful institutional constraints built up over many decades. So they try to explain to us why they failed to pass the legislation that we, their political base, would have wanted.

It’s easier to believe that their liberal and progressive base is naïve than to acknowledge that we are not alienated for their failure to pass appropriate legislation, but for their failure to fight for such legislation. And our upset with Obama is not that he didn’t accomplish what he couldn’t accomplish, but that he didn’t do the one thing he could do: consistently speak the truth, tell us and the country what was really happening in the corridors of power and what the constraints are that he was facing.

It’s one thing to make compromises after you’ve struggled for something you believe in, another to make the compromises without ever trying. Liberals and progressives had already been deeply disillusioned after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition to that war. So when Obama entered the primaries and spent much of his time distinguishing himself from Sen. Clinton on precisely the grounds that he had opposed the war from the beginning, he gave his base the impression that he would be a leader who would challenge the war makers. Similarly, when he challenged the selfishness and materialism that pervaded Wall Street, we felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.

So what happened? Massive bailouts for Wall Street while almost nothing for the millions of unemployed or those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders; escalation of the war in Afghanistan and leaving 50,000 troops as “advisors” in Iraq; refusing to consider a “public option” for health care and supporting a plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance without putting any restraints on insurance companies’ continuing escalations of the amount we have to pay for health care; repression against immigrants; allowing continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf disaster, and substituting the empty promise of “cap and trade” for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions; refusal to punish those engaged in torture in the US intelligence community; and the list goes on.

The president has a bully pulpit that could have rallied the American public to an alternative worldview. Reagan did that while facing a hostile Democratic Congress; Roosevelt did that while facing a hostile Republican Congress-and that is what made them the most significant presidents of the 20th century.

Many of us will vote Democratic in November, despite all this. But don’t expect us to be able to rally others when the best we can say is that the Democrats and their national leader are better than the plausible alternatives. That is not a rallying cry likely to produce many votes or move us beyond our deep disappointments. And many others, feeling humiliated at allowing themselves to have opened to the hope Obama elicited, now find themselves either totally uninterested in politics or wishing to strike back at the Democrats for making fools of those who trusted. Obama and the Democrats remain clueless.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and author of 11 books, most recently a national best-seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right ( Harper, 2006).

by Keely Brewster

It was disappointing that Lindsey Graham changed his mind, values, and opinions surrounding climate legislation. Lindsey Graham was right when he discussed the need to decrease our dependence on foreign oil for reasons of national security, economic security, and job loss. Lindsey Graham was right when he suggested the current Senate should not take a “kick the can down the road approach” and wait for the next Senate to deal with climate change.  Lindsey Graham was a true leader on the Republican side advocating a slam-dunk in climate legislation without partisan politics. Both Graham and Kerry joined together to discuss the process of making a clean energy bill as an “honest give-and-take and genuine bipartisanship” that was needed in order to succeed.

But now Graham has changed his mind and is no longer advocating for effective climate legislation. Instead, he’s supporting measures that he himself called “half assed.”  Sen. Graham has allowed partisan politics to compromise his principles.    America stands at a historic moment where we have a real chance to finally pass comprehensive climate legislation and move our country in the direction of energy independence for our own sake, and that of our children.  Rather than seizing this moment, Sen. Graham is making self-fulfilling prophesies, saying Washington is too partisan to get this done.  Washington is only as partisan as Sens. such as Graham make it.  As an elected representative, Graham should be considering his electorate and staying true to his own beliefs, not just performing as a puppet for the Republican Party. The American Values Network has created a video that hopefully remind Lindsey Graham of this responsibility.

Progressives have been blessed in the past two years with three
significant opportunities to change the fundamentals of American
society. We’ve already blown the first and are missing the second and

The first, of course, was the economic meltdown. What a moment that
could have been for progressives in Congress or the White House to
challenge the ideology of “leave it to the marketplace” or “leave it to
the states” to work things out. Imagine if President Obama had told
Wall Street and the Republicans, “OK, lets test your theories right now
— lets just let the marketplace work its wonders as the banks fail.”
And had they pleaded for relief, it should have been given on condition
that they enthusiastically and simultaneously back and help implement a
single payer health care plan, the creation of a national bank to fund
no-interest loans to people on the verge of losing their homes from
deceptive mortgage loan offers and to fund socially useful and
environmentally sound new projects to offset unemployment, the funding
of a massive new WPA-style full employment program to make sure that
everyone who wants to work can and can use their talents in ways that
are societally useful, and to encourage small businesses, and the
creation of a whole new set of laws restricting banking and investment
company operations to make them respond to the needs of the society and
not just to the profit motivations of their investors. Well, that
chance was blown.

The second opportunity is now being blown by the Obama
Administration: the Gulf Oil spill. Here is a moment in which the logic
of capitalist exploitation of the planet is exposed for everyone to see.

The President should be calling this a national emergency as serious
as that of 9/11, and should declare a war on those who are destroying
the environment. He should call for a special session of Congress and
ask for emergency powers to suspend any corporate activity here or
abroad that threatens the planet Earth, under his war powers and as a
manifestation of his sworn obligation to protect and defend the United

Obama should explain to the American people that we are literally
living through what environmentalist Paul Wapner calls “the end of
nature” unless we change the fundamentals of how we organize our global
economy and our relationship to the planet. Instead of seeing Earth as a
resource for human exploitation, we need to think of Earth as our very
bodies, and the damage we do to it similarly to what we might be doing
if we were cutting off limbs from our bodies. We need to cultivate in
ourselves and each other the capacity to respond to the universe with
awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of All
That Is.

That conception should be matched by environmental policies aimed at
cutting carbon emissions to 350 in the next ten years, scrapping
“pollute and trade” for a powerful carbon tax, the creation of a
national environmental board which must verify that every product made
or sold in the US is produced, marketed, and sold in an environmentally
sound way with an ES (environmentally sound sticker), the elimination
of all trade agreements that favor the US at the expense of local
farmers around the world, the use of the armies of the US as part of a
UN Force with the mandate to prevent the destruction of rain forest and
other environmentally vital parts of the globe, and the implementation
of a Global Marshall Plan to eliminate the extremes of poverty and
hunger that contribute to some of the poor being willing to destroy the
planet just so that they can (quite reasonably) feed their own

The third opportunity remains: the decision of the Supreme Court in
its Citizens United ruling to overturn constraints on corporate
donations to candidates for office. The right wing majority on the court
boldly proclaimed that corporations are persons, persons’ speech is
protected by the first Amendment, and spending money is a form of

Over 80% of US voters oppose that decision and understand that its
implementation is likely to end the last vestiges of democratic openness
in American society and replace it with corporate advertising
manipulation of our consciousness.

The process of undermining democracy and control of elections by the
corporation and elites of wealth and power was already quite advanced
before this recent Supreme Court decision, so if we confine our
attention to overthrowing Citizens United we will not thereby restore
real democracy in the U.S.

Unfortunately, most progressive and liberal groups are following this
mistaken path. Correctly understanding that any legislation on the
issue of democracy for ordinary people and not for corporations is
likely to be overturned by the right-wing court we have at the moment.
But then they propose narrowly framed amendments to the constitution
that would do little more than return us to the status quo ante.

For that reason, we at Tikkun and our educational arm The Network of
Spiritual Progressives will be putting forward a new approach. We are
inviting secular progressives and liberals to join with spiritual or
religious liberals and progressives at a Strategy Conference in
Washington, D.C. June 11-13 to develop a coherent strategy for the Obama
years ahead. And a central part of that strategy is a campaign for the
ESRA: Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S.

The first Article, the Pro-Democracy Clause, of the ESRA proclaims
that protection of freedom of speech only applies to human beings nor
shall money be considered a form of speech. It then goes on to regulate
the expenditure of money in elections and to fund national elections,
prohibit anyone from buying time or space in the media during the three
months before the election but mandates major media to provide equal and
free time to major candidates, and other steps to ensure that
differentials in money will no longer be a factor in determining how
much of a candidate’s message is communicated to voters.

The second Article is the Corporate Environmental and Social
Responsibility Clause.

This would require corporations with incomes of over $100 million per
year (not smaller companies or “mom and pop” stores) must get a new
corporate charter every five years which will only be granted to those
that can demonstrate a satisfactory history of environmental and social
responsibility (toward its workers and toward the communities in which
it functions) to a jury of ordinary citizens chosen at random (because
we already know that regulatory agencies become dominated by
representatives of the very corporations that are supposed to be
regulating). Along with corporate management, employee groups and
stakeholder groups from wherever that corporation or its products reach
would present their information about the level of corporate
environmental and social responsibility.

A “Positive Requirement to enhance human community and environmental
sustainability constitutes Article three. Most notable in this Article
is that it requires of any school that receives federal support that
they teach the skills and capacities necessary to develop a caring
society manifesting love, generosity,kindness, joy celebration,
thanksgiving, forgiveness, non-violence, rational and scientific
thinking, awe and wonder at the universe, and the recognition that our
well-being depends on the well-being of everyone on the planet and the
well-being of the Earth itself. It further mandates the teaching of all
knowledge and skills required to assure that all students can contribute
to the implementation of policies that enhance the long-term
sustainability of Earth.

It will take just as long to get the shorter more narrowly framed
attempts to overthrow Citizens United as it will this broader ESRA
version. Yet in the actual struggle for change, the ESRA goes far deeper
and is far more likely to stir the enthusiasm of the American people
and the activists necessary to carry a campaign for Constitutional
reform to every corner of the country. What Obama should have learned
during the fight for health care reform — that the full weight of
corporate power gets mobilized just as heavily for moderate reform as it
would for a more appealing broader and deeper reform. And the broader
reform, precisely because it spells out what we are seeking, is much
more likely to generate popular support and to educate people along the
way to a vision of a different, more democratic and more environmentally
responsible, society.

The media once again has failed to cover attacks on the Left from the Right. This time it came in the form of an assault on the home of Tikkun Magazine’s editor Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lerner had announced that Tikkun would give the prestigious Tikkun Award for Human Rights at Tikkun’s 25th anniversary celebration in the Spring of 2011 to  Judge Richard Goldstone, whose report on Israeli (and Hamas) violations of human rights and alleged war crimes during Israel’s war in Gaza in 2009 has been rejected by Israel and the US government though it had also criticized Hamas. Judge Goldstone was also the person who did similar investigations for the U.N. of human rights violations in Rwanda and then in Bosnia. Rabbi Lerner received death threats on the phone and he and Tikkun received much hate mail. But attacking his home crossed a new line–attacking the individual. So, Tikkun magazine issued the following statement about what people could do in this situation:

 Don’t feel powerless, there are real steps you could take to bring something valuable out of this assault on Rabbi Lerner’s home.

So many people have written to Rabbi Lerner to ask what they could do to help that we decided to develop a coherent answer.

In our view, the only protection one has from hateful people is to publicize and critique their demeaning of others, their incitement, and/or their violent acts. As right-wing Zionists proved by assassinating peace-oriented Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who sought to end the Occupation, there is no way to protect anyone in this world from fanatics bent on hurting others.

In the specific case of the vandalizing of Rabbi Lerner’s home, the lasting physical damage was slight,  and the hate messages were not different from the dozens of emails he and we at Tikkun have been getting weekly for twenty-four years. Even the death threats he received by phone were not unusual. Rather, it was the fact that these things now intruded into his own home that was a new level. Understandably his wife and his family are very concerned about their safety should the people with hate messages seek to escalate from assaults on his house to assaults on him or his family, and whether they can continue to live where they do with any sense of security.

So what can you do? You can help us demand of the media that they publicize this incident and, equally importantly, the meaning of the incident for Americans and for American Jews. .

      And you can demand of the Jewish world that they stop encouraging incitement by allowing people or groups to be labeled as anti-Semitic or “self-hating Jews” when the only evidence for those charges is disagreeing with the policies of the State of Israel or  supporting strategies like boycott, divestment or sanctions against the State of Israel or against products produced by settlers in the Occupied Territories, or calling for an end to US military aid to Israel, publicizing the human rights violations taking place in Israel. or taking other non-violent but confrontational  approaches to changing Israeli policy.

      While Rabbi Lerner has written a book called  The Socialism of Fools–anti-Semitism on the Left and is well aware that this phenomenon is real and needs to be struggled against,  his book takes pain to distinguish legitimate criticism or non-violent action against Israeli policies that are done in a spirit of respect for the humanity of the Jewish people. on the one hand,  and actions and criticisms that reflect a double standard toward Jews or a determination to demean Jews or Israel that is not applied to other human rights violating states, on the other hand.  So, yes, there is anti-Semitism among some on the Left and some who criticize Israel, but, NO, the criticisms of Israel’s policies or the advocacy of non-violent tactics of the sort mentioned above are not in and of themselves either anti-Semitic or prima facie evidence that  Jews who support these activites are “self-hating Jews.”

     This labeling  as “anti-Semitic” or  “self-hating Jews” of those who seek to challenge Israeli policy is increasingly emptying those words of serious negative meaning, which is a big mistake.  If everyone who challenges Israeli policy is anti-Semitic (which would include a majority of American Jews but not a majority of those one encounters in most synagogues or official Jewish institutions) then it may (mistakenly) appear to people that it’s no big thing to be anti-Semitic. And that is very dangerous for the Jewish people. Please read Anthony Klug’s article
on how this mistaken approach helps sustain or even generate anti-Semitism in the May/June 2010 issue of Tikkun magazine.

      To take a classic case of this rhetoric that can incite people to violence, consider Alan Dershowitz’s op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post  on April 29th in which he labeled as “Rabbis for Hamas” all the 39 rabbis who had signed a statement urging South African Jews to allow Judge Goldstone to attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah. He went on to say: “And Michael Lerner is the worst of them (and that’s saying a lot).”  Everyone knows that Hamas is a violent terrorist group, and that Dershowitz has publicly championed the notion that the US and Israel have the right to take preemptive strikes to kill through “targeted assassinations” those who they “suspect”  of being terrorists. So here, two days before the vandalism at Rabbi Lerner’s home, Dershowitz associates Lerner and the others with Hamas and terrorism.  We don’t believe that Dershowitz ever explicitly intended a violent outcome and we don?t know for sure that his article directly led to the violence. We do know that it contributes to a climate of violence and that the Jewish world should be doing what they can to isolate and restrain this kind of language and demeaning of fellow Jews and of Jewish-friendly non-Jews who criticize Israeli policies or support non-violent means to change its policies.

      In that respect, the response of the Jewish world has been misleading. Some of the Jewish institutions have issued statements like the following that came from the  San Francisco Jewish Federation and the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): “We unequivocally condemn criminal acts perpetrated against Rabbi Lerner’s home. Political disagreements must be resolved in a civil manner, and not by resorting to violence. Our communities are especially disturbed that this crime targeted Rabbi Lerner at his home, thereby conveying to him the message that he may not be safe there. We are encouraged by the responsiveness of the Berkeley Police Department to this incident, and we urge its officers to investigate this crime as thoroughly as possible. The entire community must send a message to the perpetrators that we reject violence and criminality as a means to express our political opinions.”

This is at once a step in the right direction and yet an evasion of the central issue. We didn’t expect that they would endorse violence. What we must demand is that these Jewish organizations publicly and repeatedly make attempts to stop the incitement to violence that happens on a daily basis inside the Jewish community and towards tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews who speak out about Israeli treatment of Palestinians or who organize to try to change Israeli policies. The Jewish world needs to stop labeling those people as “self-hating” and or “anti-Semitic,”  unless they have other grounds besides their strong and/or repeated advocacy of political positions about the State of Israel that critique Israeli policies or seek non-violently to change them. If we c
an get some change in the Jewish world in this direction, we can transform this attack on Lerner into a moment of repentance and transformation that would be good for the Jews, good for Israel and the Palestinians, and good for the U.S.

Until that happens, these attacks may increase, not just again Lerner but against others who speak out, and may even spread to attacks against non-Jews who support Obama (since many of the more extremist elements in the Zionist movement believe that Obama and his Administration seek to destroy Israel or to render it powerless in the face of hostile enemies, and hence could easily start manifesting the incitement or even violence toward Obama or his supporters that they have been willing to champion against peace activists in this country or in Israel).

            Meanwhile, we should also make clear our opposition to similar kinds of incitement that we sometimes hear coming from Palestinian circles or Arabic or Muslim circles toward Jews–and we must similarly demand that the leadership of those communities take the same steps of isolating and preventing incitement in their communities just as we should be asking that of the Jewish world–for example on university campuses or in public debates about boycotts/divestment/sanctions. When, for example, Jews are told that they have the blood of innocents on their hands because of the activities of some members of the IDF (Israeli army) in Israel, thereby blaming all Jews for the activities of some, this is racism straight out, just as it was when Blacks were blamed for the criminal activities of some Blacks. The Jewish people never voted in a referendum to give the State of Israel or its army the right to speak or represent all Jews around the world, despite their desire to do so, and Jews must not be blamed for the actions of that State unless the freely join organizations or synagogues that do in fact claim to be supportive of Israel’s policies and its Occupation of the West Bank. So when liberals or progressives stand by passively while these kinds of statements are made by Palestinians or by Jews whose desire to prove themselves “true allies” to the Palestinian people leads them to extreme and distorted statements of this sort, understandably wanting to not interfere with the event happening at the moment, they actually are doing a great disservice to the cause of peace and justice for both Palestinians and Israelis–not only because these statements are racist and should on moral grounds be condemned at the time they are being made, but also because they are then used by the Jewish establishment to discredit the peace forces and to raise the level of fear in the Jewish world against anyone critical of Israeli policies.

            But at this particular moment in early May, the issue that has made itself apparent in the attack on Lerner’s home is the hate-language and permission to demean and incite that takes place in many (not all) corners of the Jewish world,  and so it is appropriate now to foucs on the changes needed to stop Jewish incitement.

So here is what you can do: write and call people in the media to urge them to do a news story (no national American or European media have picked up on this yet), to interview Rabbi Lerner, and to write editorials condemning incitement. Similarly, letters should be sent to national Jewish organizations asking them to challenge the free use of the charge of anti-Semitism or self-hating Jews among Jews in their communities who are unhappy when they hear others criticizing Israeli policies or behavior.

And where would you find those addresses? Click here or go to
or paste that address in your web search and go there. We’ve listed lots of media people. Pick a few from different media and in your own words tell them why you think they should let the American people know about this assault, about the potential danger to Americans if these dynamics continue in the Jewish world and spread to American politics, ask them to contact Rabbi Lerner either at or through his assistant 510 644 1200. And ask them to raise the larger question of how to preserve freedom of conscience for people to challenge Israeli policies without being demeaned or facing this kind of vandalism of their own private homes.

And then please write to one of the Jewish organizations (you’ll find them listed also at that same location, at the very bottom of the media lists. Ask them to make a public statement that goes beyond condemning the injury to Rabbi Lerner and directly condemns the labeling as “anti-Semtiic” or “self-hating”of those who challenge Israeli policies or seek non-violent methods to change those policies.

And yes, there is another thing you can do. You could yourself join the Network of Spiritual Progressives (for non-Jews as well as Jews, for atheists as well as theists) and help support Tikkun Magazine! And you could urge everyone you know to do so. Nothing would make Rabbi Lerner feel more supported and less scared of the haters if more of the people who believe in a world of love would support the organization that has been out there seeking to put forward the notion that love and generosity are the real paths to peace and security than a significant influx of new members (who also automatically receive Tikkun as part of membership). You can do that at

Contacts: NATALIE WOLNER  or WILL PASLEY  510-644-1200   Mailing address: 2342 Shattuck Ave, Box 1200, Berkeley, Ca. 94704
Here is the first response to our call from figures in the Jewish world:

If To Whom It May Concern:

We are writing to protest the attack upon Rabbi Michael Lerner’s and his wife’s house — the pasting of threatening signs and leaflets accusing Lerner of supporting “Islamo-Fascism” — that occurred over the first weekend in May 2010 in Berkeley, California. The ostensible purpose of the vandalism was to threaten and intimidate Lerner because of his recent public statements in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

We believe that the attack on the Lerner home may be the outcome of inflammatory rhetoric by some self-identified “supporters of Israel”, who, because they disagree with Lerner’s and Tikkun magazine’s various opinions on issues related to Israel, feel it acceptable to use outrageous and violent public language denouncing Lerner and other Jews and non-Jews who share similar views.

We call upon all responsible persons, including both defenders and critics of current Israeli policy in the Middle East, to stop the use of inflammatory and violent speech once and for all. Though the investigation of this egregious act is still in process, we believe that violent speech fuels violent acts, such as this particular act of vandalism. We regard it as completely unacceptable for those who purport to be defenders of Israel to lash out at those critical of current Israeli policy by calling them such things as “anti-Semites,” “bigots,” “self-hating Jews,” and the like.

We, Jews, know all too well the strong relationship between violent words and violent actions. Likewise we know that even excessive speech by those who do not personally intend violence can nonetheless embolden others to act in a violent manner. We believe that this may have occurred in this particular case. We strongly condemn not only this action, but also the public rhetoric that may have played a part in inspiring it.


Professor Paul Birnbaum, University of San Francisco
Professor Daniel Boyarin, University of California, Berkeley
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Netivot Shalom Congregation

Rabbi Nat Ezray, Congregation Beth Jacob

Professor Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, University of San Francisco

Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, Yavneh Day School
Professor Ari Kelman, University of California, Davis
Professor Akiba Lerner, Santa Clara University
Professor Zeev Maoz, University of California, Davis
Professor Elliot Neamen, University of San Francisco
Professor Reviel Netz, Stanford University
Professor Naomi Seidman, Graduate Theological Union
Professor Esti Skloot, University of San Francisco