When I received a flurry of death threats in the past few weeks in response to my stance advocating an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, I remembered a lesson we had learned in the 1960s: If your people are involved in brutality on the outside, the cruelty and hatred is certain to reverberate on the inside of your community as well.
"You subhuman leftist animals should all be exterminated" ran one threat that was titled "Die Die." Another began, "Someone will come to kill you--you should rot in hell." Well, this is par for the course when you are critiquing Israeli policy, but what changed my attitude was when a Web site went up last week that identified me as one of the three major self-hating American Jews (others were linguist Noam Chomsky and director Woody Allen), went on to call me a "traitor" to the Jewish people and then published my home address plus the driving instructions on how to get there. At that point, the Anti-Defamation League called the FBI.
The climate of hostility toward dissenters in the Jewish world has risen to new levels of verbal abuse. Tikkun is the only nationally distributed Jewish magazine to challenge the assumptions of the occupation, to urge dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank and to insist that Israel must acknowledge some (not total) responsibility for Palestinian refugees. Just as we in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s saw our opposition as flowing from the highest values of American democracy, so we in the Jewish peace movement insist that it is Jewish values that lead us to insist that every human being is created in the image of God and that the brutality done to the Palestinian people is as much a tragedy as the brutality being done by Palestinian terrorists to Israelis.
It is this kind of moral equivalence that infuriates some Jews, who insist that "no suffering is like our suffering" and that past suffering warrants present insensitivity to the Palestinian people. Many Jews are unwilling to acknowledge that Israel is the only side in this struggle that has an army, that Palestinians have had 10 times as many deaths as Israelis and that this time it is the Palestinians who are closed in to small areas and prevented from getting food, education and medical care. It seems so much easier to blame the victims and become furious at the messengers who are raising serious moral objections to Israeli behavior.
And the same dehumanization used against Palestinians now begins to emerge against peace-oriented Jews. Never mind that my son served in the Israeli army, that I am a strong supporter of Israel or that I lead a Jewish renewal synagogue in San Francisco. For these right-wing extremists, I am nothing but "a self-hating Jew."
In the months before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, there were similar charges against him. In Israel it is now against the law to make that kind of charge, because people have come to realize how easy it is for hateful language to become violent action. But even when it doesn't go to violence, this kind of language scares many people and makes them feel reluctant to speak out. Our magazine has lost subscribers and donors as people feel scared to identify with an outspoken voice on these questions.
When people ask me what to do in response to all this, I have twoanswers: First, the best way to fight hate is to put out more love into the world. Even the haters are people who are severely wounded, and those wounds can best be dealt with by compassion rather than by hating back. Second, speak out yourself on these questions. Many non-Jews have feared expressing legitimate criticisms of Israel, thinking that they would be interpreted as anti-Semitism. Last week visiting Syria, the pope stood silently when President Bashar Assad uttered standard anti-Semitic tropes. Only a Christian world that aggressively challenges all remnants of anti-Semitism can have the legitimacy to critique Israel. What the Jewish people need is for Christians to denounce anti-Semitism, but nevertheless to join with progressive Jews in criticizing immoral and self-destructive policies of the Israeli government.
In the past, I have called for Palestinians to renounce violence and follow the path of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi. It's time to ask the same of Jews--not only toward the Palestinians, but toward their fellow Jews as well.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and author of "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation" (HarperCollins, 1995 )