Reaching Across the Divide : Michael Lerner and Cornel West Are Living a Model of Rapprochement Between Blacks and Jews. How Can They Get Others to Follow Their Lead?

Itabari Njeri, a contributing editor to this magazine, is the winner of the American Book Award for "Every Good-bye Ain't Gone." Her next book, "The Last Plantation," explores ethnic conflict and healing and will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year

Two grizzly bears chatted in the forest. Behind them, a familiar-looking man--thin, pale and bearded--was hooked on a tree limb by his shirt. As the man dangled helplessly, one bear turned to the other and said: "His name is Bradshaw. He says he understands I came from a single-parent den with inadequate role models. He senses that my dysfunctional behavior is shame based and co-dependent and he urges me to let my inner cub heal. . . . I say we eat him."

That Brian Moench cartoon sums up how many react to the concept of "healing," a notion now so trivialized that if Americans hear once more why they should understand, for example, the problems of the latest serial-rapist-murderer who was abused as a child by his clubfooted, alcoholic, transvestite father, they'll throw up their hands and side with the bears: "Eat him."

When it's suggested that the concept of psychological and spiritual healing be applied to the political realm, the response is often more adverse. The perpetrator may be subject to the most vicious before-dinner preparations: hacked, skewered and basted in vitriol while roasting. That happened to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton when, in a 1993 speech in Austin, Tex., she embraced a "politics of meaning" and decried the materialism and spiritual bankruptcy of American life that breeds alienation and despair. "The market knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," she declared, saying the country faces a spiritual and ethical crisis. Many in the media declared her assessment "psychobabble" and dismissively dubbed her "Saint Hillary" for an alleged self-righteousness equal to that of President Jimmy Carter, who dared suggest in the '70s that the country was suffering from a spiritual "malaise."

Hope, worth, love, caring--the stuff of a politics of meaning--are qualities sought in private therapy or church, goes the conventional wisdom, but not in public life. Perhaps that's why co-authors Michael Lerner and Cornel West hedged the issue in their recent book "Blacks and Jews: Let the healing begin," a dialogue about the frayed relationship between blacks and Jews and how to mend it. They discuss the economic inequalities between the Jewish and black communities, Zionism, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, crime, affirmative action and more. Although "healing" highlights the subtitle of their opus, the authors do not address that issue until Page 249 of a 276-page book, and then only superficially. That may be a relief to some, but not to me.

Lerner and West leave many questions begging when they fail to discuss the connection between the alienation they lament in their book and its consequences for mobilizing Americans to make social change. How will an alienated population find the political will to make education, health care and the eradication of poverty paramount? By even the most conservative estimates, at least 40% of those eligible to vote in the United States don't. If people are that alienated from politics, how do you engage them to make the fundamental institutional changes West and Lerner advocate?

Lerner is the founder and editor of the liberal Jewish bimonthly Tikkun, in which he's been articulating the politics of meaning since 1986. Created, according to its founder, to be the "liberal alternative to Commentary and the voices of conservatism, conformism, materialism . . . and assimilation in the Jewish World," Tikkun, which supports the Israeli peace movement, has become one of the nation's most widely read and quoted political and cultural journals in the nation. A philosopher and psychotherapist by training, Lerner, 52, was a national leader of the anti-war movement in the 1960s and chairman of the Berkeley chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. In the '70s, he founded the Institute for Labor and Mental Health in Oakland, where he served as a psychotherapist for working people and developed the concept of Surplus Powerlessness--also the title of his 1991 book. In that work, he asserts that when humans feel powerless for an extended length of time, they become more willing to accept parts of the world they would otherwise reject. Despite real constraints, he writes, "we see ourselves as lacking the real power--limited though it is--that we really do have." This internalized sense that how people treat each other and live and work together is part of some fundamental and unchangeable reality is the greatest obstacle to social change, he argues.

The author, as well, of "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation," Lerner has been called America's preeminent liberal Jewish intellectual. Those who criticize Hillary Clinton for embracing Lerner's ideas have called him other things: "The Guru of the White House," for one, and have compared his role to that of Mary Lincoln's seances, Florence Harding's Tarot cards and Nancy Reagan's astrologer.

West, 42, is the author of the best-selling "Race Matters" and nine other books. A professor of Afro-American Studies and the philosophy of religion at Harvard University, he has been compared to Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential theologian who fused religion and politics. In the '30s and '40s, Niebuhr, who had a lifelong preoccupation with the problems of political power, helped to shape public political discourse about the immorality of U.S. isolationism in the face of Nazism, and the concerns of working people at a time when politicians were indifferent to them. Assuming a similar role, West calls himself a prophetic Christian who speaks truth to those in power. He says that in the 1990s, our public conversation must significantly address "how wealth is produced, power is distributed and status accrued. . . . I don't think we can start thinking about fighting racism in America unless we ultimately talk about black people gaining access to decent paying jobs and resources. Which means we've go to talk about redistribution in some significant way."

Like, Lerner, West carries the baggage of acclaim--the W. E. B. DuBois of his generation some have said. And like Lerner, West has detractors: The Neoconservative literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, not an admirer of West's efforts to revive the progressive alliance between blacks and Jews, has called West's writing "noisy, tedious, slippery, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared" and "almost completely worthless."

Lerner and West believe that coalitions between blacks and Jews, the backbone of the liberal forces in this country, are key to any strategy to relieve the misery and despair that many Americans experience, whatever their ethnicity or class. But in that particular inter-ethnic relationship, people have circled their wagons and staked out either tribal or political positions that won't allow them to compromise and form alliances. Both tribal and political factors may contribute to the hostility of many right-wing Jews, like Wieseltier, and black nationalists at Lerner-West appearances at Howard University and L.A.'s Afrocentric Esowon bookstore. Blacks at both forums vociferously challenged the importance of a black-Jewish dialogue while there are significant wounds to be healed in the African American community.

At their appearances, the duo exemplify what a principled dialogue between blacks and Jews is like even when the parties disagree--as West and Lerner sometimes do. One tension between them is the degree to which a strategy for political change should emphasize lessening alienation and despair, which both men say is deepened by the Right with its political strategy of exploiting ethnic, class and sexual divisions.

It's clear that both believe that the social alienation and political inertia they see across the American landscape have psychological and spiritual dimensions that must be addressed through some sort of healing. However, though they have open, honest and principled dialogue with each other at the level of personal friendships and in public forums--a model, I believe, for all Americans, especially in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson verdict, which proved once again that the national discourse seems permanently constipated by irreconcilable racialist perceptions--they do not provide a specific strategy for achieving the healing they seek.

I told them I wanted to put their feet to the fire and make them focus on this issue, because I think it's crucial to implementing the vision they share. They agreed.

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