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Jewish Journal

Prager vs. Lerner: A Clash of Politics, Values

by Andrea Adelson

October 31, 2002 | 7:00 pm

"Charged."

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."

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