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Rabbi Michael Lerner: Obama is wrong to reject a policy of containment

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

A few days ago, if you opened up The New York Times, you would have seen this ad. “No, Mr. Netanyahu, No, President Obama: NO war in Iran and NO first strike!”

Behind the ad was Rabbi Michael Lerner, who edits Tikkun magazine, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives. And Rabbi Lerner joins us now where he’s in Dallas. Rabbi Lerner’s the author of 11 books, including the bestseller The Left Hand of God. He’s the editor of Tikkun magazine and the Rabbi of Beyt Tikkun, synagogue without walls, in Berkeley, California. He’s also the chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives. He’s on a book tour with his new book Embracing Israel/Palestine. And he comes to us today from Dallas. Thank you, Rabbi, for joining us.


JAY: So the point of the ad, if I understand it correctly, is to really contradict something that President Obama said in his speech at AIPAC recently, where he says the United States is against a policy of containment, meaning that if Iran seems to have a nuclear weapon, if in the eyes of American intelligence agencies decides—that Iran decides it’s going to have a weapons program, that the United States will attack Iran. He essentially bought into that underlying assumption, and your ad was there to critique that. Do I have it right? And what’s your argument?

LERNER: Well, we don’t believe in a preemptive strike. You know, the United States has lived with crazy regimes in other places. We lived with Stalinist Russia when they had atom bombs and they were declaring their commitment to bury the United States. We lived with North Korea right now. That is at least as crazy a regime as the one in Iran, and we have not sought to destroy their regime or to take preemptive strikes there. In fact, the truth of the matter is is that the way that the world system works right now for the atomic powers is that each knows that the other could wipe it out if it used its atomic weapons.

So we don’t believe that there’s any reason to think that Iran would want to end the very existence of the Persian history of many thousands of years and destroy all the Iranian people by taking a first strike, using nuclear weapons either against the United States or Israel, because it would certainly know and does know that it would—that would be the end of Iran.

JAY: Now, you’re describing the Iranian government or regime as crazy, which tends to make one think irrational. I mean, if you’re right, that would seem an argument for something. But Panetta and others are calling Iran actually a rational actor, they say. So, I mean, what do you make of this crazy versus rational?

LERNER: Well, when I say crazy, I don’t accept the view that they are all crazy. I do think that they’re extremely repressive to their own people, as we saw in the election after—the aftermath of the stolen election which elected their current president, the incredible repression that they did against their own people, hundreds of thousands of whom, sometimes millions of whom, were out on the streets demonstrating against the stealing of that election by Ahmadinejad and his mullah cronies. But—and, of course, they’re incredibly repressive against the Baha’i, and they deny the Holocaust, and they have at least been—seemed to talk about destroying Israel. So this is not a wonderful regime. This is a regime that is human-rights-denying and repressive. But so was the Soviet Union. So when it existed, that’s exactly what it was, and we didn’t [incompr.] we took the containment strategy, mutually assured destruction. And that worked. It’s been working for a long time.

So when President Obama ran for office, he ran first against Hillary Clinton when he was seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, and the main point he made in his campaign was, hey, I was the one—I, Obama, was the one who voted against a preemptive strike on Iraq, and Hillary voted for it, so you can see I’m the peace candidate. Now he has adopted the very strategy that George Bush had used in Iraq—a disastrous strategy, I might add—and has really reversed the very policy that got him the Democratic nomination in 2008.

Well, we don’t believe in preemptive strikes, first of all. In general, we in our Network of Spiritual Progressives believe that the path to peace must be a path of peace, and that the means that we use must be as holy as the ends that we seek. So if United States gives Israel, either overtly or covertly, the go-ahead to take a first strike, knowing full well that there will be retaliation which could then lead the United States into a war with Iran, which could then lead Russia and/or China into a war with United States—we don’t want that. We don’t need such a war. We’ve had plenty of wars.

I understand the pressure on Obama to prove that he’s tough, and I understand the pressure on many people in Congress who want to show not just the Jewish community, but particularly the Christian Zionists in our country—who are at least six or seven times more of them than Jews in this country, the Christian Zionists—show them that our alliance with Israel is strong and powerful. But I believe that Israel’s best interests lie with peace and reconciliation, not with domination and control over anybody that we suspect as being our enemies.

JAY: Now, in your ad, you go the full way, which is even if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it’s not cause for a first strike, ’cause there’s been all this debate about where the red line is and what capability is when they make a certain decision, and there’s a lot of ambiguity about all of that. But in the final analysis, Obama did take the position of no containment. And the opposite of that is: then you do need to accept the possibility that Iran will have a weapon. In fact, there’s a lot of ex leading security and intelligence analysts in Israel saying you can’t stop the bomb anyway, so you might as well learn to live with Iran, and a lot of Israeli intelligence people are saying that isn’t inherently an existential threat. But that’s certainly not something you hear in the United States. And you represent a synagogue. There’s a lot of Jewish members of your spiritual faith network. I mean, how does this break down, do you think, in terms of North American Jewish public opinion?

LERNER: Well, the first thing I want to say is that there was a poll done in Israel a week and a half ago, and it showed that the majority of Israelis are opposed to a first strike, a unilateral first strike by Israel against Iran. So why doesn’t their government say that? Well, during the Iraq war, polls showed that 70 percent of Americans were against the Iraq War, wanted it to end right away. And yet our government didn’t end it. So these countries that are supposedly democracies do not necessarily reflect the will of the people.

The second thing I want to say is that in the Jewish community there is a great deal of fear. And one of the things that I discuss in my new book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is that the Jewish people have been suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. We went through an incredible trauma, and that was that in my lifetime, one out of every three Jews alive on this planet was murdered. And imagine if in the United States on 9/11, instead of killing 3,000 people, had killed one-third of our population, let’s say, 100 million people. Well, we’d probably be living under extreme fascism today and nobody would be talking about anything except military, military, military. They’re doing that anyway with 3,000 people. That was a terrible tragedy. But the Jewish people have gone through this incredible tragedy.

And so when we look at the world, many Jews look at the world through the framework of Hitler and they see Hitler everywhere. They thought that Nasser was Hitler, and then we thought that Arafat was Hitler, and many people in Israel talk about the [incompr.] as though it was—they were all Nazis and wanting nothing else but to destroy us. And now people are looking at Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government and saying, oh, that’s Hitler, and they’re going to destroy us all. So I think they’re basically wrong. But at the same time, I want to have a lot of compassion for the Jewish people in this country and around the world, because I understand where that trauma comes from, and it’s well grounded in our actual experience. But, unfortunately, it distorts our perception.

JAY: And something I say all the time: not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism, but a lot of it is, so you can’t discount existing antisemitism and Judenhass today. But let me just ask you another more geostrategic question about all this. When you listen to Israeli security analysts and the real conversation going on in Israel about Iran and a bomb, it isn’t really about the idea that some day Iran might drop a bomb on Israel, ’cause as you point out, it would lead to such a counterattack on Iran, there wouldn’t be an Iran. But it’s about what it does to the balance of power in the region, and it’s really about Hezbollah—to some extent about Hamas, but more than anything it’s about Hezbollah and the idea that a nuclear-armed Iran somehow tips the balance, in the sense that Israel is no longer the dominant military power in the region and gives forces like Hezbollah more encouragement or strength and all of this. How do you respond to that argument?

LERNER: Well, I think it’s the same kind of thinking that led us into the war in Vietnam, namely, that a powerful enemy force with nuclear weapons is going to shape the whole area. But as we saw after that tragic war, with the United States responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 (some people say 3 million) Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans, it turns out that China, which has all those nuclear weapons, has not at all controlled or shaped the life of Vietnam today or Cambodia or Thailand. So this is an argument which also was made about how the Soviet Union would be a threat.

These arguments come from the neocons, the people who believe that it’s inevitable that these regimes that we don’t support are going to hurt or dominate or control. And it’s a funny reversal, because actually it’s the United States which is playing a role all around the world of attempting to dominate and control other countries. And so I think that that argument is a wild projection.

That doesn’t mean that Iran won’t have influence. Of course Iran is going to have influence. It’s one of the biggest and most richest states in the region, just as Saudi Arabia has influence. But to suddenly think that the balance of power is going to change and that, therefore, because of our fear of the possibility of the balance of power changing, that the United States is going to get dragged into a war with Israel against Iran, this is total craziness. In other words, your worst fantasies are being played out by doing what—precisely the thing that we were fantasizing would happen if we didn’t do anything [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, maybe the real issue is if you’re committed to regime change in Iran, which seems to be the underlying assumption of Israeli and U.S. policy, it’s a lot harder to have regime change in a country that has a nuclear weapon.

LERNER: Well, I don’t believe that is true. And we saw that in the Soviet Union, that you can’t use nuclear weapons against your own people. And the only way to get regime change, as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring, is for the people of that country to unite against their government. And we saw in Iran a few years ago, after the election, hundreds of thousands of people, and at times millions of people, [began] demonstrating against their government and very agitated about that. They were repressed at that time, but they have not been defeated.

But the question that we have to ask ourselves if we want regime change—and I certainly do want regime change in Iran—the way to get it is to support the democratic forces inside Iran. But an attack on Iran undermines those democratic forces, pushes them into the hands of the mullahs, pushes them into the hands of the most extreme fundamentalist elements there, on the grounds that those fundamentalist elements are then seen as the champion of the nation against these intruding forces of Israel and the United States. That’s the last thing we want to do if we want to see regime change.

What we need to do is the exact opposite strategy, what we in the Network of Spiritual Progressives call the strategy of generosity. And, by the way, we have articulated that in terms of a global Marshall Plan. The global Marshall Plan is described in detail at our website, for global Marshall Plan, or you can just go to And the global Marshall Plan that we propose has been introduced into Congress by Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota, who is the chair of the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives, of which there are 80 members. (Most people don’t even know there is a progressive caucus in the House of Representatives, but there is, and Keith Ellison is chair of it.) House Resolution H. RES. 157 endorses this strategy of generosity and a global Marshall Plan.

To make that strategy work, here’s what is needed. Number one, United States has to apologize to Iran for overthrowing its democratically elected government. Number two, it has to apologize to Iran for having supported the Shah for 26 years [incompr.] and continued to support him against the revolution that came from the people from below in 1977-78. And three, we have to apologize to the progressive forces in Iran for not supporting them in the time of the revolution, ’77-78, when—. And by not giving them support, we allowed the most regressive and antidemocratic forces to win, namely the ultraconservative wing of the Iranian fundamentalists. So that’s one step.

And secondly, we need to create this global Marshall Plan, which we lay out—we mention it in the ad, and we refer people to our website

JAY: Alright. Well, we’ll put a link underneath the video player so people can go and take a look at that. Let me ask you one other quick question. President Obama, he can do all this logic. When he ran in the primaries, as you were suggesting before, not only was he the candidate that claimed to be against attacking Iraq, but he also was the candidate that called for a more rational approach to Iran. You know, he said, if you don’t like how powerful Iran’s getting, you shouldn’t of invaded Iraq. And he talked about if you stop threatening regime change, if you don’t want them to have a bomb—I mean, in the primaries he spoke with some rationality. You don’t hear that now. Why do you—how do you account for President Obama fundamentally agreeing with the underpinnings of Netanyahu’s logic?

LERNER: I don’t have an inner path to his mind. When I met with him face-to-face in 2006, he told me he loved what Tikkun was saying, our magazine, T-I-K-K-U-N, Tikkun magazine, which is the magazine of liberal and progressive Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and many atheists and secular humanists. And we have been talking for a long time about a strategy of generosity, and he told me, oh, yes, I totally agree with you. And he even said he thought the idea of global Marshall Plan was a great idea.

So what transformed his mind I do not know. I do believe that he is the captive off the worldview of the neocons today, the captive off the worldview of the CIA, the various intelligence agencies, and of the military. How that happened I don’t really understand, and I think that’s going to be an amazing story if anybody can get into his mind to find out. But I don’t think he actually knows that. In other words, I don’t think that he is saying, gee, I’ve given up on everything I believe in. I think that he’s telling himself, well, I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances, in which there are all these pressures on me.

But, unfortunately, he never hears the pressure from his own constituency, the people who elected him. And part of the reason for that is we ourselves have been too silent and too much agreeing with him. I think it’s a tragedy that we didn’t have a liberal or progressive candidate running in the primaries against him and forcing him to address the issues of what happened to him, how come he abandoned so much of what he said he was for in 2008.

JAY: Well, he may have said these things in private meetings, but I think the problem was if you listened to him as well in the primaries, even though he had seemed like, to me, a more rational take on Iran, he said his foreign-policy roots were in Truman. He even said his foreign-policy roots were in Reagan, the idea of the need of American, you know, hegemonic power in the world, I guess, in his mind, to defend freedom and democracy and such. But at any rate, for the U.S. to be the dominant power, that has been at the core of his foreign-policy outlook.

LERNER: Well, as I say, he was—. I’m in favor of America having a great deal of power. And the way that we get that power is through a strategy of generosity, not a strategy of domination. You see, in the 21st century, the way for us to have influence and power in the world is by showing others that we genuinely care about them, whereas the strategy of domination actually just generates more and more enemies for us. So he may say he’s for a strategy of—that he wants America to be powerful, but he’s taking a path that is leading America to be even less powerful. It’s the same path, the same disastrous path that President Bush took.

And there are many, many of us, many liberals and progressives in this country, who are kidding themselves into believing that the morally Clark Kent Obama of his first administration will suddenly take off his clothes and become the ethically and morally Superman of the second administration once he’s reelected. I think there’s not a chance of that happening, and I think we have to acknowledge that, if we’re voting for Obama—I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t—but if we’re voting for Obama, we are actually giving that, the military-industrial complex and the Wall Street forces that have supported him, yet another chance. Of course, the other side is that the other side is worse.

So what are people to do? Well, the answer is: we need to build people power, and we need to build a movement that is not dominated by realism. Instead, we’ve got to be unrealistic and insist on our largest views. And this is why I’ve identified very much with the Occupy movement—I’ve been down there in Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco, where I live—and support transcending the realm of what people call political realism. Some people say, well, politics is the art of the possible. And I always say, you don’t ever know what’s possible until you struggle for what is desirable. And that’s why we—.

JAY: Well, we know that at trying to create The Real News Network. Thanks very much for joining us, Rabbi.

LERNER: Okay. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Rabbi Lerner invites you to join the Network of Spiritual Progressives at, and then to get active in spreading a revolutionary consciousness for replacing the globalization of selfishness and materialism (a.k.a. global capitalism) with the globalization of generosity and bulding The Caring Society: Caring for Each Other and Caring For the Earth. When you join, you get a free subscription to Tikkun magazine  To become involved with us, email To contact Rabbi Lerner: