Rabbi Michael Lerner turned a mourning service for Muhammad Ali into a pep rally for left-wing causes on Friday in Louisville.
“How do we honor Muhammad Ali?” Lerner asked an audience of 15,000. “The way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today.” He said this calls on of us to “tell the one percent who own 80 percent of the wealth of this country that it’s time to share their wealth,” “close our military bases around the world,” and “imprison those who authorize torture,” among other demands.
Lerner said that “it’s time to create a guaranteed income,” “help create a Palestinian state,” and rid society of “racist police” and “racist judges.”
Lerner, a sixties-activist-turned-spiritual-guru, plugged his magazine, Tikkun, “a magazine of liberal and progressive Jews,” and his website during the raucous, rambling speech. He said that Jews stood in solidarity with African Americans in the sixties and now stand in solidarity with Muslims. Lerner condemned “the part of the Israeli government that is oppressing Palestinians.”
The speech, which took the shine off Ali and put it on Lerner, nevertheless drew applause, at time awkward applause and at times overwhelming applause.
“Tell the next president of the United States that she should seek a Constitutional amendment,” Lerner said, to the amusement of a laughing President Bill Clinton, that Congress should publicly fund all elections (“Make it all public funding”) and that “the way to achieve homeland security is not to seek new ways of domination.” He repeatedly used the female pronoun when referring to the next president to advertise his candidate.
Hillary Clinton famously namedropped “the politics of meaning,” a Lerner phrase he later used to title a book, in pushing for healthcare reform as First Lady in 1993. She called him to Washington in April of that year but soon disassociated from the sixties Students for a Democratic Society leader.
The fiery speaker shouted:
Tell judges to let out of prison the many African-Americans swept up by racist police and imprisoned by racist judges, many of them in prison today for offenses like possessing marijuana that white people get away with all the time. Tell our elected officials to imprison those who authorize torture and those who ran big banks and investment companies that caused the economic collapse of 2008. Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop killing the Kurds. Tell Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the way to get security for Israel is to stop the occupation of the West Bank and help create a Palestinian state.
Lerner, who remains as much a self-promoter today as he was back in the mid-1990s, offered a not-so oblique criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s Republican opponent.
“We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims, or blaming Muslims for a few people,” Lerner said. “We know what it’s like to be demeaned.”
Lerner even compared himself to Ali.
“Both of us were indicted by the federal government for our various stands against the Vietnam War,” he told the audience, which frequently interrupted him with cheers. He continued, “At the key moment when he had that recognition he used that to stand up to an immoral war to say, ‘No, I won’t go.’”