Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

First Religious Lefty Lambasts Obama (Lerner on Rahm Emanuel)

Well that didn’t take long.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, has the honor of being the first member of the “religious left” to lambast the new President.
Lerner is outraged at the selection of Rahm Emanuel, whom he says has a “long history of militarist ideology.” Noting that Emanuel pushed for conservative Democratic congressional candidates, Lerner predicts that Emanuel will “almost certainly be protecting Obama from all of us spiritual progressives and those of us who describe ourselves as the Religious Left.” In short, Lerner says, “we may be in for lots of disappointments.”
The full missive from Lerner here:


Election night tens of millions of us wept for joy. We sang the songs that we had sung as young men and women when we were fighting segregation in the south and then in the North, some of us being beaten, others jailed, some even killed. For the first time in three decades we could sing “Imagine” and “The Times They are a’Changing” without feeling that we were holding onto utopian fantasies that had been
buried by the cynical realists who have shaped public discourse.

How exciting to believe again in the possibility of America as the potential embodiment of our ideals for social justice, peace, and ecological sanity. We could hardly believe our own eyes-we were living through the rebirth of a nation and its attempt to heal its racist past.
So no wonder why many of us were shocked and deeply disappointed when we learned on Thursday that Congressman Rahm Emanuel was to be the Chief of Staff in the Obama White House.
Emanuel, for those who don’t recall, was the Congressman who traveled the country in 2006 finding “suitable” candidates in “swing districts” to run against Republican incumbents, and in many instances he succeeded. But his theory of how to succeed was destructive: he sought the most conservative possible candidates in each district, insisting that local Democratic Party organizations reject more liberal candidates who, he feared, might not win.
There were many among the House Democrats who deplored this tactic. The main issue on the mind of the electorate was the war in Iraq, and public opinion had moved so far in opposition to that war that the Democratic leadership in the House was pushed to proclaim that it would cut off funding for the war if Democrats won control of Congress. Well, the outcome was that Democrats did win control, but since the candidates that Emanuel picked were more conservative and militarist than the mainstream of the Party, they were not reliable allies when it came to voting against war funding. Instead of cutting fund for the war, Nancy Pelosi’s House increased the funding, explaining that they had to appear “responsible” in order to solidify their control of Congress in 2008..
Clever? Not for the people, Americans and Iraqis, killed or wounded in the meantime.
This was no mistake on Emanuel’s part. Rahm Emanuel has a long history of militarist ideology behind him. His father was a member of the ultra-right-wing terrorist organization Etzel that killed British civilians as part of their anti-British struggle in Palestine in the 1940s. Emanuel, himself a citizen of Israel as well as the United States, has been one of several Congressional leaders enforcing the “Israel Lobby” concensus on the Democrats, in the process shutting out the peace voices that believe Israel’s security would be better served by the U.S. putting pressure on Israel to end the Occupation, move the Wall to inside the pre-67 boundaries, and remove the settlers from the West Bank or tell them to live there as Palestinian citizens.
It’s not just the pro-peace and reconciliation forces that are unlikely to be given a serious hearing in a White House in which Rahm Emanuel controls who gets to talk to the President. Emanuel will almost certainly be protecting Obama from all of us spiritual progressives and those of us who describe ourselves as the Religious Left-so that our commitment to single-payer universal health care, carbon taxes for environmental protection, a Homeland Security strategy based on generosity and implemented through a Global Marshall Plan, will be unlikely to get a serious hearing in the White House.
When these issues were avoided by Obama during the campaign, most of us spiritual progressives told ourselves, “He’s just being political, but once elected he’ll reveal himself committed to the values that he whispered into our ears privately over the course of the past many years.” The Rahm Emanuel selection is an early warning that the peace and justice agenda dropped by Obama after he won the Democratic nomination may be permanently on hold, and the progressives themselves may have to settle for “access” and flowery words at an inauguration address rather than the substance of change.
For many of us, just the fact of having a brilliant young black man in the White House will be such a healing experience that we won’t care about this newly emerging reality: unless Obama creates some other path to access and to public input into his policies by those of us who helped build his electoral success, or unless we organize to do so outside the framework of his campaign organization, we may be in for lots of disappointments.

Comments read comments(10)
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Charles Cosimano

posted November 7, 2008 at 11:07 am

I believe the phrase is, “Welcome to the real world.”

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posted November 7, 2008 at 11:57 am

With so much idealism among Obama supporters the reality of Washington is going to be a bitter pill. He needs capable and strong people around him, and as we can see he is making some controversial choices. With the fervor that surrounded his vote on the whole FISA matter, I could see this coming long before the election was secured. I agree with the post above, “welcome to the real world”. We will hear many voices of dissension in the coming days, I have been prepared for this all along. Washington is a tough place, it will require tough people to start us on the path of change. While Emanuel is a controversial figure, Obama (I believe)is committed to health care, environmental concerns, civil rights, and yes Homeland Security. I cannot see him allowing others to call all the shots when he has worked so hard to get where he is.

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Mark Mywurdz

posted November 7, 2008 at 1:20 pm

“Obama (I believe)is committed to health care, environmental concerns, civil rights, and yes Homeland Security.”
Don’t be naive. Obama is on a messianic mission. He is determined to fulfill his goals not yours. He will bring change to America that may surprise even you.
But only after “the rise of the oceans slow and our planet begins to heal..” right?

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posted November 7, 2008 at 1:58 pm

I think that Michael Lerner (as much as I appreciate his writings) is freaking out a bit much over this. If you check out Rahm Emanuel’s votes and stances at, the site classifies him as a “hard-core liberal”.

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Radio Head

posted November 7, 2008 at 6:08 pm

Thanks for making it easy to comment.
I, too, will be greatly disappointed is Emanuel is allowed by Obama to act as a gate-keeper. I don’t think that’s his intentin, however. I’m focused of BO’s statement that praised Emanuel as someone who gets things done, and have a mental image of Capt. Picard on the bridge of the Enterprise (sorry for the nerdy simile, but…): Picard collects the data, makes the decision, motions with his right hand and says, “Make it be so.” If Emanuel is the guy who carries out the order–which I think is more the job description than being the gatekeeper–then he’s a good choice.

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posted November 7, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Obama is smart enough to recruit those he needs to get the things he wants done. No president has ever been NOT scrutinized over what he does or who he chooses to do things. Obama will be no exception. He’ll do just fine. He has the final say…

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posted November 7, 2008 at 11:31 pm

I agree with pagansister. Obama will leverage the ability of his advisors and staff, but he himself will have the final say. He will be the most scrutinized person on the face of this planet. Judge him for the results of his assembled administration. People may be zooming in too much and not realizing how all of these choices stitch together in his administration. Let us wait for the first 100 days of his presidency.

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posted November 8, 2008 at 2:19 pm

Given the belief on the right (or by Putin) that, notwthstanding the ruthless way he ran his campaign, he is some kind of softie, Emmanuel’s appointment is mostly a sign that he has a leg-breaker on board if necessary. Robert Kennedy, whom nobody questionned his progressive credentials, functionned in the same way.

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posted November 10, 2008 at 1:52 am

If Obama picked the son of an Arab terrorist, we’d hear media howling. The son of an Israeli terrorist is applauded by the NY Times, WaPost.
What about Rahm’s ties to the banking industry? Votes to relax lending standards that led to the meltdown?
Is Emanuel a good choice for a “change” candidate? Or more like the choice of a Chicago mobster?
Thanks to Michael Lerner for speaking out. When non-Jews raise questions about Israeli brutality or its supporters, we’re called “anti-semitic.” Very important to for progressive Jews to give voice to their concerns.
Rahm’s a hot head and he doesn’t do well with Republicans (who let’s remember still hold filbuster power in the Senate). Bet he won’t last long at the White House and now at least, he’s not in line for House leadership.
Why not Tom Daschle for WH chief of staff?

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posted November 10, 2008 at 9:54 pm

James: 2 names…Dick Cheney & Karl Rove. Look how well the last 8 years have worked out.

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