Rob Kall Interview with Lerner Michael Lerner 12-30-08
Transcribed by Carla Gilby and Jim Magee. Edited by Jay Farrington
Listen to recording here until 1-30-2009.
Kall: Tonight, I have Rabbi Michael Lerner with me to talk about what's been going on in Gaza and how we got there. So, Rabbi Lerner, could you describe a little bit about what you do and your work first?
Lerner: Well, I’m the Rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco and Berkeley California and I'm the editor of Tikkun magazine, which started some 22 years ago as the voice of liberal and progressive Jews and now it has become an interfaith magazine so it's also the voice of progressives in all of the various religious communities – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and many people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious also, right in Tikkun. I'm also a chair of a national organization of such people - spiritual but not religious, as well as progressives in the various religious communities, and it’s called the Network of Spiritual Progressives, online at www.spiritualprogressives.org
KALL: Great. So what's your take on what's happening over there?
LERNER: Well, it's a tragedy, and it is a continuation of a tragedy that's been going on a long time for both Israelis and Palestinians. What we see happening today is a continuation of a struggle that started really over a century ago, when Jews returning to their ancient homeland found themselves confronted by Palestinians who were living there at the time and who came to feel that the Jewish return to their homeland would be a threat to Palestinian existence there. And Jews, in turn, feeling that the hostilities that they were greeted with - the way in which Palestinians saw them as representatives of Western imperialism - was really just a cover for anti-Semitism and traditional hatred that Jews have faced in almost every society that we’ve lived. So there developed a huge amount of antagonism as both sides suspected the other of base intentions and desire for power and control and no sensitivity to the others and their fears turned out to be self-validating, as more and more people on each side came to believe that their own survival would depend upon elimination of the other community. That manifested finally in--after the Second World War, one in every three Jews were murdered and the Palestinian people did not accept Jews coming to Palestine as a possible place to flee to--this manifested in a huge struggle between the two peoples that led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, but, simultaneously, the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom fled for their lives on the belief that the new Israeli state would oppress them - which again was a belief that was self-fulfilling, but it was also not just created in the minds of Palestinians, but was validated tremendously by the right wing of the Zionist movement that created terrorist attacks against the Palestinians to convince them to leave.
Plus, there was the actual involvement of the emerging Israeli army, the Haganah and Palmach, that together expelled over 100,000 Palestinians from their homes in a variety of cities in the central area of what had been Palestine. Then you get the Palestinian refugee situation in which hundreds of thousands of refugees have left their homes - imagining that they might be able to return to their homes when the war is over and Israel, after the war was over, refuses to allow them to return, fearful that these people come back and be a fifth column who are working to overthrow the newly created and fragile State. So you get the outrage of Palestinians who are by international law have every right to return to their homes, but who are actually being precluded from doing so by the newly created state of Israel, that believes that these Palestinians are largely, if not totally, hostile to the existence of the State of Israel. And so, from there you get an ongoing struggle between these two communities, which intensifies after the 1967 war, in which Egypt and Syria pose a threat and make noises as though they going to invade and destroy the Jewish state and Israel, in a surprise attack, manages to prevent that from happening and, in fact, to conquer parts of previous Palestine that had been under Arab control - namely the West Bank and Gaza, as well as sections of Syria, the Golan Heights.
KALL: And Egypt…
LERNER: But from there on, that’s 1967, you get an Israeli occupation taking place, at first in a relatively soft and benign way, but, as more and more Israeli right-wingers decide to move to the West Bank and Gaza and create settlements there, you get an intensified anger from Palestinians, which anger then is responded to by tighter and tighter levels of oppression and lack of freedom of movement and, in general, an oppressive set of rules which allow the creation of roads especially for the Jewish settlers, and Palestinians not allowed on those highways; the inability of Palestinians to move from city to city, even to visit from city to city, without spending hours at checkpoints, going through them; and, in general, a very high level of oppression which then leads to more support for the more challenging, to Israel, elements in the Palestinian population and some more support for acts of resistance, which overwhelmingly were not nonviolent resistance, but violent resistance. And the violent resistance then contributes to Israelis perceiving that the Palestinians will never accept their existence and that the only way to deal with the situation is through more violence and more domination of the Palestinians. And conversely, that response seems to validate the Palestinians worst fear that Israel is going to always oppress them. And so out of that there comes a great despair, and armed struggle - the first intifada; less armed struggle oriented in the second intifada - the second intifada taking place between 2001 and 2005. And the attempt by Palestinians to negotiate some kind of settlement that would allow for a two-space solution is thwarted because, in part by Israel's refusal to take any serious steps to end the occupation of the West Bank or to dismantle West Bank settlements but in part also by acts of terror from the ultra-nationalists in the Palestinian camp, who would prefer to see this struggle go on for the next several hundred years - until the Arab states become powerful enough to vanquish Israel militarily.
KALL: Who were those ultra-nationalists?
LERNER: The ultra-nationalists existed across the spectrum in the Palestinian world because some of them were part of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority; although they became less significant as the major part of the Palestinian Authority then were other groups. But there were sections of the PLO that felt this way and then there was Hamas, and Hamas was a group that originally started as an Islamic service group to help people who were not getting the services that they badly needed - health services, education services, and welfare services that weren’t coming to them because the Palestinian Authority had started to siphon off whatever aid was coming to Palestine, siphoning it off and using it for their own individual advantages, and not for serving the country as a whole. So that's part of the background.
Now Hamas then emerges in countering that by becoming a group that does serve the needs of ordinary citizens in Palestine, by providing food, by providing shelters, by providing educational services, by doing what it can to provide the basic social services that the Israeli government had failed to provide and becomes particularly popular in the Gaza Strip, which is an area where you have one of the poorest populations in the entire world financially, living on the least possible amount of money, increasingly, many of the people there in conditions of near starvation and some really going over the line there and actually starving to death. There’s starvation and a huge amount of hunger in Gaza, and that became intensified when Israel decided over the course of the last few years to use the closing of the borders as a security measure, but actually, its effect is to starve the Palestinian people into submission.
KALL: I need to know a little bit more about this because the Israelis basically put up a blockade. Is that what it is?
LERNER: Well the Israelis decided to withdraw from Gaza, in 2005, because their presence there - the presence of the army - was a target for constant guerrilla attacks on the one hand and this in the midst of there were hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Gazans, who were angry at Israel and were supportive of Hamas and Hamas became more of a military force that had been before. It had originally been a social service force, but it became more of a military force - at least in Gaza and where there had been a split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, because the Palestinian Authority had wanted to make direct negotiations with Israel and Hamas felt that such would violate their version of Islamic fundamentalism and would betray the Palestinian people. So they didn't go along with it, and there was a split between those two. Israel was playing somewhat of a reprehensible game here, because Israel decided to withdraw its troops, and it could've withdrawn its troops in favor of the Palestinian Authority, which was the Palestinian government in the West Bank. But instead, Israel refused to negotiate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority and just sort of left it in the hands of the people there.
The people there in Gaza were overwhelmingly pro-Hamas - in part because of the desperation level in Gaza was much higher than the desperation level in the West Bank, the deprivation of food, the deprivation of finances. It's one of the poorest places on the entire planet Earth. So, you then get more and more people out of their desperation turning towards fundamentalist solutions, and particularly since the leaders of the fundamentalist movements there – Hamas - were people who were sensitive to the survival needs of the people and had organized itself around that, so when Israel withdraws from the West Bank it de facto gave over Gaza to Hamas, because it didn't allow and didn't try to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for Palestinian Authority to have influence over the Gaza that Israel was withdrawing from. So as a result, this was a move by Arial Sharon that allowed for de facto division of the Palestinian people into a West Bank Palestinian people and a Gazan-based Palestinian people - the West Bank Palestinian people, being much more willing to deal with Israel; the people in the Gaza Strip, much less willing to deal with Israel - two different sides, and they actually came to blows at some point in 2005 and 2006.