There were three police cars outside the door of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md. Inside, Julie Knoll, the temple president, advised a temple member named Leon to leave on account of his blood pressure, then went to the podium and said that the discussion was an opportunity to learn and share, and that people should be civil. The speaker was introduced. Rabbi Michael Lerner wore a brown rumpled suit, dark yarmulke and red Hebrew-looking tie. He was big, boyish and excited.
Rabbi Lerner’s theme was that Jews who love justice must come forward to reclaim their tradition from the brutal actions of the Israeli government in the last two weeks.
“I promise you that in 200 years, they will talk about this period as one of despicable behavior on the part of the Jewish people,” he said, “and that what the Jewish people did to the Palestinian people was a terrible deep shame.”
It seemed that about a third of the 200 people in the temple sanctuary had come to battle Mr. Lerner. But as he spoke, his voice rising in fluent, turbulent riffs on the Torah, you could sense them turning stonily silent in their seats, deciding not to take him on, and the questions tended to be friendly.
A young Jewish woman got up and said that she had organized campus protests with Palestinians and then was upset to discover anti-Semitic literature at the events. Mr. Lerner told her that she should tell them she would not be party to any disgusting lies about Jews.
A man rose to say he was a Christian and a professor who agreed with Mr. Lerner but was scared to express his point of view because he would be labeled an anti-Semite.
Mr. Lerner thanked the man for his courage. The forces of Jewish correctness are vindictive, he said. They had instilled a fear that if you said what you really thought about Israel, you were going to be labeled anti-Semitic or, if you’re Jewish, as a self-hater.
A middle-aged woman stood to object. She had been to Israel. “The Jewish community is in jeopardy. My concern is to protect the Jewish children in a real way. That’s what you haven’t touched on.”
Another member of the audience rose unbidden and seemed contorted by feeling.
“The pain of the Israelis is very, very real,” he said. “But the Israelis have done things that have made the Palestinians justifiably hate us.”
The rabbi said that suicide bombing was reprehensible, unjustified and a sin against humanity. “Got that?” he said. But he said the Israeli actions were not protecting Jewish lives, but creating more hatred. Jews had to learn to live with an Islamic majority around them. The ultimate triumph of Hitler was that he’d convinced his victims’ descendants of the rightness of his worldview: the more power and control and domination you have over people, the safer you’ll be.
The temple president, Ms. Knoll, watched silently from the back of the room. Her own heart was in conflict. It seemed to her that she, along with the rest of the official Jewish community in America, had adopted a kind of wall of silence. She was not going to be critical of Israel; she would stand up for Israel. At the same time, she recognized that this was not one of the shining moments in Jewish history.
The next day, April 11, Mr. Lerner went to the corner of 22nd and C streets, outside the State Department, to stage an act of civil disobedience with other members of his so-called “Tikkun Community.” It was a beautiful day. Again, more than 200 people surrounded him, though now he was joined at the press microphones by Cornel West, the Harvard professor now headed for Princeton.
The contrast between the men was spectacular. Mr. Lerner wore the same suit and tie as the night before. Threads hung from his jacket hem; his hair was all over the place. Mr. West wore a stylish black three-piece suit with a silver watch chain at the vest pocket. A narrow black scarf was wound tightly around his neck, and he moved lightly in pointy black gusseted shoes. Mr. Lerner’s coat bulged with a book called Radical Voices . Mr. West had brought no jailhouse reading. His Afro was combed out beautifully for the cameras and glinted with hair spray.
Both men spoke in the cadences of their traditions.
“I will never allow my Jewish brothers and sisters to deal with this by themselves. It is a human issue,” Mr. West said. Then tilting forward, he seized his own earlobes defiantly, as if to mock caricatures of black people. “And I don’t ask anyone for permission to play my small role.”
Mr. Lerner said, “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Israel-why in the world does the Torah repeat that so frequently? Because the Torah is a force of healing and transformation. It says we do not have to pass on the pain from generation to generation. What the Nazis did to us was morally disgusting. We will not follow in their logic. We hold to the deepest truths of the Jewish tradition: that every human being should be cherished; that the blood of the Palestinian people is equally precious to the blood of the Jewish people.”
A reporter asked whether Mr. Lerner had received threats. Mr. West hugged the rabbi and cried, “Is the sky blue?”
Mr. Lerner described threats he’s received in phone calls and e-mails, and said that the Anti-Defamation League had refused to condemn them, saying that they arose from political differences, not because Mr. Lerner is Jewish.
Two Arab women in chadors came up holding the Palestinian flag. “Let’s welcome these women,” someone said.
Mr. Lerner glanced at one of their posters, equating the Holocaust to what is happening now in Palestine. The rabbi said he didn’t agree with that statement. What was happening in the West Bank was bad enough without having to describe it inaccurately as genocide, he said.
Then a solid-looking man walked into the circle holding an Israeli flag. He introduced himself as Jim Matlack, the Washington director of the American Friends Service Committee. He said that Quakers had helped Jews out of Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, and now they condemned lethal attacks on civilians, whether by suicide bombers or helicopters and tanks.
The theme of the Holocaust was taken up by Cherie Brown, of the National Coalition Building Institute. She said that the mechanism of oppression is that when a people are mistreated, they often turn around and mistreat others.
“Every Jew needs to sob their heart out,” she said. “We need to build healing mechanisms.”
It was 1 o’clock. The demonstrators had been standing there more than two hours and had to decide whether to disobey the law. There followed a chaotic and open discussion. Some had second thoughts- because there appeared to be no national media here, and because they approved of the Bush administration’s tough new line with Ariel Sharon.
One man suggested that they restage the disobedience outside the Israeli embassy. An older woman said, “Why the Israeli embassy and not the Palestinian office?”
She was answered by Zack Winestine, a skinny New Yorker wearing a black sweater and tan baseball cap. He said it was an issue of responsibility.
“Look at the people upon whom we can have an influence,” he said. “As an American, as a Jew, I can be responsible for the Israelis. Because it’s my people, and my tax dollars.”
Mr. Winestine seemed to tremble as he spoke. This was obviously a moment of great moral urgency. He said he had long sought an opportunity to speak out against Israeli actions, but within a Jewish framework, supporting Israel. Mr. Lerner had provided that.
The rabbi said that he had confused feelings himself. After all, Jews are suffering in the Middle East. But Jewish organizations have demanded loyalty and discouraged Jews from expressing their outrage over Israeli actions. He wanted those people to come out of the closet.
“The only reason they’re not,” he said, “is the power of AIPAC”-the American Israel Public Affairs Committee-“and the forces of Jewish convention, which narrow the dialogue and make it impossible for the voices of Jewish justice to be heard.”
The heart of the discussion had become Mr. Winestine. Voice quavering, he said he felt a need to act.
“It’s a matter of complicity,” he said. “We as Jews and we as Americans have to make clear that we do not support what is going on. Now is the time. We shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. It is an opportunity for history.”
A final vote was taken. Civil disobedience won. The group sang “Down by the Riverside,” then moved out into C Street opposite the doors of the State Department and sat down.
A line of police formed along the sidewalk, and a demonstrator beat a conga drum. A police lieutenant rode up on a white Harley and told Mr. Lerner that those who did not clear the street after warnings would face jail time and a $100 fine.
Mr. Winestine’s baseball cap was passed around and soon overflowed with cash.
The protesters patted the asphalt and passed around a
Cornel West shot out his gold-cufflinked cuffs for the plastic handcuffs. Mr. Lerner’s suit seemed ready to burst as he was arrested.
They were taken away at 2 o’clock. Sunlight and calm reigned again on C Street.
What had passed was an agonized discussion among people for whom this had been a decisive moment. The mockery kicked in quickly. The Washington Post covered the demonstration the next morning in the Style section and treated it as farce: “Peace Demonstrators Arrested, Without Much Conviction.” The Post took delight in the fact that Mr. Lerner and Mr. West had been allowed to go to the men’s room at the State Department before they went to jail.