A 9/11 Conspiracy? 'I Would Not Be Surprised,' Says Tikkun Editor

By Daniel Treiman

Published February 06, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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Rabbi Michael Lerner, the longtime activist and editor of Tikkun magazine, has published an essay saying he is open to the possibility that the American government may have been behind the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I would not be surprised to learn that some branch of our government conspired either actively to promote or passively to allow the attack on 9/11,” Lerner wrote in an essay published in the new book, “9/11 and American Empire: Christians, Jews, and Muslims Speak Out.” Lerner added that he would also not be surprised if it turned out that the attacks were not the result of a government conspiracy.

“I am agnostic on the question of what happened on 9/11,” he wrote in his essay for the book, which includes articles by other contributors arguing that a government conspiracy was behind the September 11 attacks. “As other authors in this collection have shown, there are huge holes in the official story and contradictions that suggest that we do not know the whole story.”

Contacted by the Forward, Lerner repeatedly insisted that he was, in fact, “skeptical” — a word that did not appear in his essay — toward claims advanced by the book’s other contributors of a government conspiracy.

“I’m skeptical about this material, and I wrote this essay with a clear element of skepticism,” he said. “It was clear in my head that I was being very skeptical about what they were saying.”

Lerner, the founder of Tikkun and the newly formed Network of Spiritual Progressives, is arguably the most prominent contributor to “9/11 and American Empire.” In the 1990s he gained national attention after a meeting with then-first lady Hillary Clinton, during which they discussed his ideas about the need for a new “politics of meaning.” Since then, he has emerged as a leader of efforts to reconcile left-wing politics and religious belief, calling for a “Spiritual Covenant” to transform America.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based Renewal rabbi occupies a distinctive niche on the political landscape, keeping one foot planted in the Jewish community and the other in the world of left-wing activism. Maintaining credibility in both milieus has involved a delicate balancing act. Lerner, for instance, has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies, but he also has firmly defended Israel’s right to exist. Recently, Lerner sent an e-mail to supporters saying that he had recently spoken on the phone with former president Jimmy Carter in an effort to build support for a left-wing pro-Israel lobby to take on more hawkish elements in the Jewish community.

The book in which Lerner’s essay appears is billed as having been “inspired by” David Ray Griffin’s “The New Pearl Harbor,” a seminal text of the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement. The new book includes an essay by Griffin in which he makes the case that the September 11 attacks were likely “orchestrated, like many previous false-flag attacks, by U.S. agents as a pretext for a war to expand the American empire.”

In his own essay for “9/11 and American Empire,” Lerner wrote: “For those who watched the reactionary political uses made of this tragedy, it’s easy to conjure up a variety of possible conspiratorial motives that would have led the president, the vice president, or some branch of the armed forces or CIA or FBI or other ‘security’ forces to have passively or actively participated in a plot to re-credit militarism and war. We’ve learned enough about the subsequent ways that the Bush administration lied to the American public to no longer be shocked if there had been some active involvement by them in these deeds.”

But, Lerner immediately added, “Neither would I be surprised if, when all the archives were opened and all the communications revealed, it turned out that there was some other non-conspiratorial explanation for elements of the story that currently seem to make no sense.”

Lerner told the Forward that he has good reason to be suspicious of the government.

“I’ve had a lot of personal experience of government lying and doing things that are very destructive and pretending that they weren’t doing it,” Lerner said. “I was part of antiwar demonstrations in which violence was done and the violence later turned out was being done by police agents. I had that personal experience…. After that, nothing surprises me about what this government would do to achieve what its perceived ends are. Nothing would surprise me. That doesn’t mean I believe it. That doesn’t mean that I believe that that’s actually happening right now.”

In his essay, Lerner argued that searching for conspiracies — “even when there are real conspiracies” — tends not to be politically useful. He wrote that focusing on conspiracy theories wrongly leads people to believe that “the major problems we face are those generated by evil people in powerful positions, not on something more systemic.” Lerner wrote that September 11 conspiracy theorists should work to create a “Spiritual Covenant” to heal American society.

Still, his essay offered words of encouragement to those who are engaged in such theorizing.

“I salute the people in this collection of articles who are doing an amazing job of examining what may prove to be one of the most perverse conspiracies in the history of democratic governments,” Lerner wrote.

Asked about this passage, Lerner responded, “It says ‘may.’ This is very tentative. It’s not like what I believe to be.” He added: “This is like a bone thrown to them to say, ‘Well, sure, keep up the good work, go and investigate.’ I don’t feel that this investigation is going to lead any place, but it might, and if it does, I don’t think that it’s going to produce a conspiracy of the president and the vice president…. I would be surprised if that turned out to be true. So maybe I shouldn’t say, as I said before, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised.’ I guess I would be a little surprised.”

Lerner said that Tikkun is planning to publish an article by Griffin in its March issue, which would be accompanied by “a little note saying if you go to our Web site, you’ll see why we don’t agree with this.” Although he says he does not agree with all of Griffin’s conclusions, Lerner said that Griffin — who has suggested that the Twin Towers were brought down by “controlled demolition” — draws attention to important unexplained facts about the attacks.

While Lerner is willing — if only skeptically — to entertain those who posit a plot by the American government, he has no such indulgence for another popular conspiracy theory, namely that Israel was behind the September 11 attacks. He said that whereas the Bush administration benefited politically from the attacks, and thus had a “plausible motivation,” Israel had no such interest in seeing the attacks occur.

“Anything about Israel and the relationship to 9/11,” Lerner said, “I think is total baloney.”

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