There is a wonderful story called My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner by Chaim Grade (he’s the Yiddish writer who should’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Whenever I have a principled dispute with a fellow Jew, I like to think of the title of that story. This post concerns my quarrel with Michael Lerner. Though we don’t know each other very well, my history goes back several decades with him.
At the beginning of the 1982 Lebanon war, a Bay Area community coalition asked me to speak as a representative of the progressive peace group, New Jewish Agenda, to a region-wide protest rally. I was in the middle of writing end of quarter graduate papers and pleaded exhaustion. I thought of Michael Lerner and told them to invite him. I went to that rally and heard Michael give what I thought was an extremely disappointing, mealy-mouthed defense of Zionism and Israel, when I thought Israel deserved severe criticism for the invasion.
I resolved from that moment never to pass on such a speaking opportunity to another person, especially not someone of whose views I wasn’t confident.
A year ago or so, the editor of the wonderful poetry collection, With an Iron Pen, a collection of Hebrew anti-Occupation poetry asked if I would review her book. I told her I’d be delighted to do so but had no publishing connections to get such a review published. She contacted Tikkun and they agreed to publish a review. That’s the first time I ever published anything there. Afterward, I received a letter from the magazine inviting me to join the advisory board, which I was glad to do.
At the beginning of the Dirar Abusisi case, I felt almost immediately that this was a major story, one that demanded attention be paid by anyone concerned about Israel. I approached Michael with a draft essay and after reading it he graciously agreed to publish it. In the same e mail, he asked me if I would write a post about Tikkun’s 25th anniversary celebration happening in Berkeley.
I was in the middle of preparing for a libel lawsuit to begin and writing intensively about the Abusisi case and I missed the date of the Tikkun party. I apologized to Michael when he brought this to my attention, and immediately published a post crediting Tikkun for the wonderful work that it had done on behalf of Jewish progressivism over the years.
But Tikkun never published the Abusisi essay Michael had accepted. Finally, I got an e mail from him saying that because Haaretz had published its first substantive piece on the story, mine was no longer newsworthy. Though he didn’t say it explicitly, he essentially killed my essay.
I don’t know why this bothers me more than other editors who’ve behaved in similar ways. I had an article killed by London Review of Books (at least they paid a kill fee). I also ended my sustained relationship with Comment is Free because of high-handed editorial judgements. But this seemed to me more of a personal affront.
Michael is a rabbi, a fellow progressive. Doesn’t he have just a wee bit more of an obligation to act professionally and ethically? I think so. Perhaps I’m being naive. He IS an editor after all. But still…
I wrote Michael what I thought was a civil email asking him to reconsider, telling him that I thought he’d made a commitment to my piece and that he was not respecting me or my work by abandoning it. I waited for a reply. None came.
So my quarrel with Michael Lerner has come to an end. Now it will be at a distance. Unfortunately, Michael Lerner is not a person of his word. And that is sad. He disrespected not only me and my work, but the plight of Dirar Abusisi. He deserves better as do I.
A few months ago, Lerner had written an e mail to me saying that my blog posed an infringement on the name of his magazine and caused confusion for his readers. I’m not sure of what he was proposing. I supposed he wanted me to change the name of my 8 year-old blog. I replied that my blog had existed since 2003, had an identity distinct from his magazine, and that our titles were sufficiently different that most people would understand we were separate. I naturally refused to change the name. I never heard back from Michael on the subject.
When I conceived of the idea of submitting my essay to him I thought this might be a way to test our relationship and see whether it was back on track. I’d welcomed his acceptance of my piece as a sign that it was.
He seems to care very deeply about his own projects, but less so about others. Undoubtedly, Lerner is a creative genius in terms of conceptualizing projects and movements that have really moved the political debate among Jews and the nation at large. But at what price? Michael, it’s not all about you. Sometimes it’s about other people. Like Dirar Abusisi…and his six children in Gaza without a mother or father…and the fact that three nations have cooperated in his kidnapping and imprisonment. Tikkun could’ve had the story. It could’ve struck a blow for justice in a Jewish context, which is one of the things Tikkun was meant to do, I should think. Now another publication will.