I made a point of seeing Rabbi Lerner twice in his recent sojourn to New York. Last Sunday evening, he was part of a panel discussion of religious leaders and academics at Riverside Church, called “Occupy the Mind: Progressive Moral Agenda for the 21st Century.” It was organized by James Vrettos, a professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, who began the discussion with an impassioned recitation of progressive concerns.

Dr. Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West contributed his usual brilliant oratory: witty, entertaining and challenging. In a mutual exchange, he pointed out that fellow panelist Dr. Serene Jones, president of the nearby Union Theological Seminary, will be his “boss” when he moves from Princeton to Union Theological in July, where he began his academic career in the late 1970s. He mentioned that he’s returning to New York to enjoy the cultural richness and social vitality of the Big Apple and especially to be near Harlem, to again experience its energy and its music.

Michael Lerner connected well with the audience, getting us to stand and stretch, after sitting over an hour listening to speeches, and to sing with him a couple of Biblically-inspired songs for peace. His talk was about promoting a politics of love, hope and generosity versus right-wing themes of fear and “power over.” To this end, he touched upon the Global Marshall Plan initiative, and the Environmental & Social Responsibility Amendment. He pointed out that the latter would overturn “Citizens United” by ending the corporate funding of elections and would subject large corporations of over $100 million in gross income to having to prove their environmental and social responsibility every five years to be recertified with a public charter. I don’t know how “practical” these ideas are in every detail and in their implementation, but hopefully they will promote constructive public discourse on what we are about as a society and as citizens of the world. Moreover, Michael urges us not to be “practical.” This runs somewhat counter to my nature, but I have enough experience in this world to know that we can undermine ourselves as individuals and collectively when we too readily define things as impossible or impractical.

I also caught him the next evening at Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation in my neighborhood in Manhattan, where he discussed his ideas with Rabbi David Ingber on “Embracing Israel/Palestine” [I stand corrected by Rabbi Lerner for confusing this with "Healing Israel/Palestine"] and “The Left Hand of God.” In my blog posts and articles, I try to tread a parallel track on Israel and Palestine. I like Michael’s image of the conflict as being between two peoples who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and that it is essential to empathize with the experience and struggles of both. Palestinian Arabs have been displaced or otherwise dominated by Jews, who themselves had experienced centuries of oppression at the hands of non-Jewish majorities in other lands. Even during the pre-Israel decades of the early 20th century, Palestinian Arabs mistakenly saw the Jewish immigrants as European colonizers with the same imperialist designs as the European powers who colonized the Third World. Instead, Jews were fleeing discrimination and oppression to find freedom in a new land.

Even in stating these as facts as I do, one can anticipate sharp disagreement. I tend to see both sides “at fault” at various times, but there is a desperate need to get away from the blame game. I know that pro-Palestinian thinkers and activists like to cite the unequal power balance between Israel and the Palestinians (a point brought up that evening). In this connection, it’s useful to observe that this was not true at the outset of the conflict. Israel’s survival in the 1947-’48 war of independence was a near-thing; Israel was the underdog in this war and its triumph had more to do with the disunity and ineffectiveness of Arab forces than Israel’s burgeoning military prowess. The Palestinians understandably remember this war as the “Nakba,” the “catastrophe,” with the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians; still, this resulted from losing a war which their side began in order to prevent Israel’s creation–despite its conformity with a vote of the UN General Assembly.

Because the fundamental claims against Israel are based on this “original sin,” I have trouble getting away from historical details. Yet we have to find our way past them or there will be no peaceful resolution. Israel’s superior power is also a fact that cannot be denied. This means that the Palestinians cannot take back what their ancestors lost, even if they see this as unjust. But their loss has to be recognized and compensated for in some way, even while the need for Israel to defend itself–then and now–is also recognized.

Richard Wolff & ‘Occupy’ Economics

To conclude, I’d like to return to the panel at Riverside Church. The talk I found most informative that evening was an analysis of the current economic crisis by Richard D. Wolff, an emeritus professor of economics at U. Mass. who now also teaches at The New School in New York. In observing that this is the second great crisis of capitalism in the past 75 years, he noted that Franklin D. Roosevelt was pushed to remedy the Great Depression of the 1930s with the introduction of a social safety net–in the form of Social Security, unemployment insurance, and regulating the banks and financial markets–and an expansion of government to employ many of the unemployed (something which has become anathema today in the ill-advised and ill-timed obsession with deficits). There were strong social movements pressuring FDR, who might otherwise not have moved so boldly and effectively to meet the needs of the people.

Wolff credits the labor movement, especially its militant vanguard of the time, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.), plus the Socialist and Communist Parties. Yet he bemoans the fact that they all came to support Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. I think they had no choice but to support Roosevelt, but perhaps the labor movement should have played “hard to get” in ensuing decades.

Still, neither the Socialists nor the Communists were ever likely to be a viable alternative to the Democrats. The Socialists were fatally weakened by two factors–government repression due to their anti-war stance during World War I and the split with the Communist Party following the Bolshevik Revolution. The Communists were fatally flawed from the very beginning by their allegiance to the Soviet Union; this became morally indefensible during Stalin’s murderous reign in the 1930s and following the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939.

Nevertheless, the contrast Prof. Wolff drew between the New Deal era and our time is instructive. Unlike the powerful social movements in the 1930s, progressive forces today were mostly quiescent until the Occupy movement launched during the summer. Thanks to Occupy, the public discourse now focuses on the excesses of capitalism (or “corporatism”)–the gross income inequities and the market abuses which have caused the current economic crisis. Wolff mentioned how wages have basically stagnated since the mid-1970s, while labor productivity has increased precipitously, mostly due to technological improvements. He pointed out that it’s the owners–the corporate directors, managers and major shareholders (the “one percent”)–who have profited from this increased labor productivity. Here’s a link to a powerful video of a more recent talk by Prof. Wolff, bitingly intense and perhaps even frightening in tone: “The Costs of Capitalism’s Crisis: Who Will Pay?


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