Prager vs. Lerner: A Clash of Politics, Values


That’s the atmosphere expected at an upcoming debate between two of the Jewish community’s most outspoken activists on each side of the political spectrum.

In Prager vs. Lerner, conservative talk show host Dennis Prager will debate Michael Lerner, editor of the leftist magazine Tikkun, on Nov. 7 as part of the Orange County Jewish Community Center’s book festival.

“They are thought-provoking speakers with polar-opposite views about nearly everything,” said Arie Katz, founder of the Community Scholar Program, which is co-sponsor of the Nov. 7 “We Beg to Differ” debate at Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm.

Prager is best known as a veteran host of a conservative, nationally syndicated talk show, now broadcast on KRLA-AM, a radio station with a small percentage of the Los Angeles radio audience. He is also a prolific author, who teaches Torah twice a month at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

Lerner, a San Francisco rabbi, is the editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly magazine with a circulation of 24,000 that is variously described as leftist and progressive. Its stand on calling for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders and respect for Palestinian rights has earned Lerner death threats. He achieved fleeting mainstream fame by becoming a spiritual mentor to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in 1993 adopted his turn of phrase, “the politics of meaning.”

“Their agenda is an open book,” said Rabbi David Woznica, an executive vice president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who will moderate the exchange. No winner will be declared.

The two antagonists are both steeped in Judaism and regularly tested on their positions. Woznica’s intent is to illuminate for the audience the values that underlie those stances and how they arrive at differing conclusions.

“I love to ask why,” said Woznica, who moderated similar debates at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and has compiled a fat clipping folder in preparation.

Most polling shows that Jews remain the most liberal group in the United States, said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor and author of “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of the American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Yet, many Jews are more conservative about Israel than any other foreign-policy issue, a viewpoint that also applies to the current confrontation with Iraq and the war on terrorism, he said. While there continues to be a vociferous peace camp, any private misgivings about Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are rendered irrelevant by the terrorism of the intifada, Freedman said.

The conservative shift by leaders of the established Jewish community is what prompted Lerner in 1986 to start the influential magazine with the financial help of his then wife, Nan Fink. With Tikkun (Hebrew for “repair”), Lerner’s editorial intent was to create a liberal alternative to Commentary, the conservative magazine of the American Jewish Committee, which has a circulation of 26,000. By comparison, National Review and The Nation, opinion journals of the political mainstream’s right and left, have circulations of 150,000 and 100,000, respectively.

Lerner says Tikkun articulates a vision of Judaism that rejects materialism, selfishness and vacuity. An unabashed utopian, in January he convened the Tikkun Community, seen as a movement committed to spiritual, economic and social transformation.

Its Tikkun Campus Network, by organizing academics, spiritual leaders and students into a new group, hopes to diffuse tensions on campuses inflamed by nasty barbs thrown by student supporters of Israel and Palestinians. Lerner’s son served in Israel’s military.

Lerner, 59, leads a 200-family nondenominational Jewish Renewal movement synagogue, Beyt Tikkun, started in 1996. He is a career chameleon: from anti-war activist in Students for a Democratic Society while attending UC Berkeley to philosophy professor, psychologist, editor and spiritual leader. He did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Prager, 54, a fixture on Los Angeles morning radio, spent 18 years in weekday shows on KABC-AM. He left two years ago when the new Disney management intended to end his show’s syndication.

Prager’s new radio home is KRLA, a Salem Communications Inc.-owned station that draws less than a 1 percent share of the L.A. radio audience, according to Arbitron. Salem’s programming includes other conservative talk show hosts, such as Michael Medved, and Christian rock and talk shows. Prager’s national audience in 33 cities is 287,700 weekly, said Monica Koffman, Salem’s research director.

Prager thinks his longevity on the air is owed to his personal appeal to listeners, rather than fitting into an ideological mold. “I try to earn my listeners respect in the ad hominem way I take on adversarial positions,” he said.

For seven years before entering broadcasting, Prager, who attended a yeshiva, was a lecturer and director of the Simi Valley-based Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which offers nondenominational Jewish education. Though the Jewish life courses he taught were well received, Prager was dissatisfied.

“I always wanted a broader audience,” said Prager, who has gone on to write four books, numerous opinion pieces and lecture extensively. On the air, he is a moralist, less scathing than some of his peers, but often dismissive of alternative views. He also is one of the few Jewish writers to build nontheological bridges to Christian supporters of Israel.

“If you can’t tell the moral gulf between Israel and its enemies, then there is something wrong with your moral compass,” Prager said.

Asked how he will prepare to meet Lerner, a reprise of a similar Oakland exchange 10 years ago, he said, “There’s nothing to prepare. It’s the easiest thing I’ll be called to do.”

Prager supports capital punishment and in 1992 opposed an effort by Conservative Judaism to re-examine views on gays and lesbians. He also can be inflammatory. In an opinion piece, he described the nations surrounding Israel as “morally equivalent to Nazism and Stalinism.”

The same 1990 article contains an eerily prescient prophecy. It says the West can save itself great suffering by confronting the Arab world and Muslim fundamentalism. “If not, once again, Jewish children will be gassed, but they will not be the only ones.”

Waking Up to the Right

Be honest: ever wake up in a cold sweat these days after dreaming that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman had indeed been elected, after all? Ever look around, while driving to
or from work, to see if anyone can tell you’re listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio — and loving what he says about Israel? Ever given any thought, however fleeting, to voting for Alan Keyes, the vigorously pro-Israel Fox TV host, next time he runs for president?

They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but the sudden discovery, and embrace (however hesitant), of outspoken conservative Republicans by lifelong liberal Democrats has been extraordinary. As Israel finds itself increasingly isolated in diplomatic and political circles around the world, we are starting to realize that not only do we supporters of the Jewish state have few friends, but that many of the ones we have are the very ones we ignored, feared and/or disliked until yesterday, it seems.

Take the Evangelicals, from Jerry Falwell to Pat Robertson, who are singing from the same hymn book (you should excuse the expression) as Ariel Sharon. Conservative Christian support has been strong, vocal and sincere. Its motivation is not politically calculated as much as ideologically and religiously inspired. So does that make me nervous, knowing that millions of American Evangelicals are praying for Israel as a phase in the fulfillment of a scriptural belief that speaks of the conversion of the Jews, the final return of Jesus and the end of days?

Yes, but not as nervous as knowing that millions of mainline Protestants are, at best, remaining neutral on the Mideast conflict or more likely following their church leaders and supporting the Palestinian cause — a twisted moral compass, given that the Palestinians threaten and abuse Christians and their holy places in the Mideast while Israel has upheld every commitment to maintaining religious freedom.

But you don’t see the pope or most other Christian leaders pointing out the deeply sinful behavior of the Palestinians, who preach pure hatred of the Jews, encourage and praise their young people for homicide bombings of Israeli women and children, and sanctify death over life. These religious leaders wear moral blinders, speaking of their concern for Christian holy sites while remaining mum when Palestinians seize, desecrate or attack Jewish sacred places like Joseph’s Tomb and Rachel’s Tomb.

Where was the outcry against Palestinian gunmen for violating the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, using it as sanctuary while holding innocents hostage, and where was praise for Israel for showing great military restraint and religious sensitivity throughout the crisis?

Without the luxury of choosing my friends, I have become far more pragmatic over the last few months, recognizing and appreciating those with the moral courage to speak out in behalf of a beleaguered Israel, and caring less about their views on less pressing issues. According to several experts I spoke with, I’m not alone.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says he recently spotted Christian conservative Gary Bauer in Washington and went over to thank him for his support for Israel. “I told him we will continue to disagree on other issues but I appreciate his voice on Israel,” Foxman related, adding that “we [Jews] are not giving up our values on issues like social justice, but we need to adjust to reality. First we adjusted to the need for larger U.S. military budgets, recognizing that if America isn’t strong it can’t support and defend Israel. Now we realize we need all the friends we can get,” including those in the Christian right community.

The ADL’s reprinting in large newspaper ads of an opinion column by Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, on “why people of faith support Israel,” raised plenty of eyebrows in the Jewish community. But Foxman says it’s important to get the message out and show appreciation for those who take a stand for the Jewish state.

Martin Raffel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs notes that “there is always tension for American Jews” in assessing their relationship with Evangelical Christians. “Our community is still queasy” about the vision of America as a Christian country, he says. “But this crisis has pulled down some of the walls that existed between us, and many welcome their suppzort for Israel, while insisting there is no quid pro quo for us.”

Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee says Jews are putting their own self-interests first now, and that’s fine. Perhaps that will translate into our being less predictably liberal in the voting booth in future elections, but that will depend on whether Israel — our priority issue — is in crisis. Bayme sees “a sober realism setting in” among American Jews that will not go away anytime soon.

For me, that realism is tinged with plenty of irony as I try to focus on feelings of sincere gratitude for the Mideast views of my newly discovered allies on the political and Christian right (not that they haven’t been supportive all along) while trying not to think about where they stand on a range of domestic issues. I guess that makes me either a skittish friend or a political pragmatist. Either way, I’m learning to seek out, appreciate and support Israel’s friends, near and far — sometimes very far.

Just recently, while speaking at a Hadassah conference, I was asked by a woman where she and her husband should go on vacation. It was more a query about politics than travel, though, because she said that while she wanted to go to Israel, her husband was fearful, so he bought tickets to Paris — but she refuses to support the French economy. So where should they go, she asked.

“Micronesia,” I suggested, mostly in jest, since even those of us who appreciate the tiny country’s support for Israel in the United Nations don’t quite know where it is. (Last month, in another shameful U.N. vote, Israel was condemned for its April incursion into the West Bank — with no mention made of the Palestinian terrorism that precipitated the military move. The vote was 74-4, with 54 abstentions, and the only countries voting “no” were the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and its speck of a Pacific neighbor, Micronesia.)

All of which reminds us to show hakarat ha’tov, gratitude and honor, to those few friends — all too few — willing to step up for Israel in its time of need.