Muhammad Ali’s Message: Fight for Your Vision and Change the System

In this vein, the U.S. must halt drone warfare, bring the troops home, stop sending arms to the Saudis, tell the Turks to stop bombing their Kurdish minority, and tell Netanyahu to end the occupation.

A smiling Muhammad Ali shows his fist to reporters during an impromptu news conference in Mexico City on July 9, 1987.
A smiling Muhammad Ali shows his fist to reporters during an impromptu news conference in Mexico City on July 9, 1987.Credit: Jorge Nunez/Reuters

The following is one of the eulogies to be read at Muhammad Ali’s funeral Friday, as prepared for Haaretz.

I feel deeply humbled by this honor to be chosen by Muhammad Ali and his family to speak here today, and moved to know that my ideas touched Muhammad Ali.

American Jews have played an important role in the continuing fight for social justice and peace, so our presence in this memorial is a testimony to the very many in our community who celebrated Muhammad Ali’s courageous fight for peace, social justice and a world in which love and generosity win out over fear, hate, militarism and domination.

As a religious Jew and rabbi I wish to honor this comrade in the struggle for tikkun olam – the healing, repair and transformation of our world. And as a representative of the Jewish world I want to reaffirm our solidarity with Muslims around the world who are experiencing a growing Islamophobia that blames the billion and a half Muslims for the crimes of a small fraction of Muslims – the kind of hatred that we Jews have known all too well in our history.

Muhammad Ali had the courage to say no to Farrakhan and leave the anti-Semitism and homophobia of that part of Islam, and eventually to draw sustenance from the Sufi approach to Islam – the ultimate in a love-oriented religion. There were moments in his earlier life when he mistakenly talked as though Jews were running the world or as though Zionists were running the U.S. media.

I know that kind of generalizing – I hear it from Israelis all the time when they talk about Palestinians as though they were all terrorists and training their children to kill, or when Jews sometimes engage in goyim-bashing, or when American politicians engage in Islamophobia, or when some American lefties talk about working-class people as though they were all racists, or some women in the U.S. talk about white men as though they were all rapists.

But Ali left all that behind decades ago, and in his actual interactions with Jews was never racist toward us. In my own conversations with him I found him very interested in learning about Judaism and at the same time interested in teaching me about his interpretation of Islam.

Ali said: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

In this March 29, 1967, file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, center left, and Dr. Martin Luther King speak to reporters.Credit: AP file photo

Tikkun is a Hebrew word that means healing, repair and transformation. So in the spirit of Muhammad Ali, we at Tikkun magazine say that the whole global economic and political system of selfishness and materialism must be replaced with a system based on love, generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sustainability, and as my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Abraham Joshua Heschel, would say, awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe.

If Muhammad Ali were here today, I’m sure his message would be this: Don’t waste your time on this planet fighting the small battles – put your life energies and money into fundamental systemic transformation. Don’t be "realistic" – go for your highest vision of the world you want, rather than settle for that which the 1 percent, the powerful politicians and the superrich, and their many faithful servants in the media, academia and politics tell you is possible by their criterion of realism.

African-Americans’ stark reality

What made Muhammad Ali a global hero was that he stood up to the American government and said no to the horrific war in Vietnam that cost America 65,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of people wounded, with many disabled veterans even today among the homeless and hopeless, because America doesn’t care for its homeless. Many African-American youths face a stark reality: that they are not going to get jobs, that they may be headed for prison, that the primary way out of poverty is to be a sports hero or a musical or movie or TV performer.

Muhammad Ali “made it” becoming the world’s heavyweight champion. Now whether you are white or black, capitalism’s message of “looking out for number one” leads many who “make it” to forget about their brothers and sisters who did not, and to simply build on their own careers. That’s why it was so amazing to see Muhammad Ali give up the privilege he had won in the boxing arena knowing he would lose his title, knowing he would face the racism of American society that would be heaped upon him for saying no to the crazy war in Vietnam. But here is what he said:

The way to honor the memory of Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today in our own lives.

He spoke truth to power we must speak truth to power. Like the Prophet Nathan who confronted King David with his sins, we must provide support for the powerless and discomfort to the powerful and the arrogant who run this country. Ali refused to follow the path of conformity to the rules of the game in life we must refuse to follow the path of conformity.

To honor Ali, tell the 1 percent who own 80 percent of the wealth of this country that it’s time to share that wealth. Tell the politicians who use violence worldwide and then preach nonviolence to the oppressed that it is time for them to end their drone warfare and every other form of warfare, close our U.S. military bases around the world, and bring the troops home.

Muhammad Ali has a "no comment" as he is confronted by newsmen as he leaves the Federal Building in Houston during a recess in his trial for refusing induction to the army. Credit: Ed Kolenovsky / AP

Tell those who created mass incarceration and ended welfare that it is time to create a guaranteed income for everyone in this society. Tell the judges to let out of prison the many African-Americans swept up by racist police and imprisoned by racist judges for offenses like possessing marijuana that white people get away with all the time.

Tell our elected officials to imprison those who authorized torture and those who ran the big banks and investment companies that caused the economic collapse of 2008. Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop bombing and murdering their Kurd minority. Tell the U.S. to stop sending military supplies to Saudi Arabia, which is the sponsor of some of the most hate-filled teachings in the Islamic world and is one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the earth. We need a BDS movement toward Saudi Arabia.

Racists who hate Palestinians

Tell Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that we in the U.S. cannot call Israel a democracy when it is today entering its 50th year of occupation of the Palestinian people without allowing the 1.7 million West Bank Palestinians to vote in the Israeli elections or to create their own independent economically and politically viable state. Tell Netanyahu that the way to get security for Israel is to stop the occupation of the West Bank and help create a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, letting settlers stay in the West Bank, but only as law-abiding citizens of the Palestinian state living in accord with Palestinian law just as Palestinians living in Israel must live according to Israeli law.

For those of us who want Israel to be safe and flourishing, the only way to achieve that is through a lasting peace agreement precisely the opposite of what the Netanyahu government is seeking, filled as it is with racists who hate Palestinians and many of whom would love to find a way to expel them all from Israel and the West Bank.

So tell our next president to use American power. She should offer a full and detailed vision to the Israeli public of what that peace agreement’s terms should be and go over the head of Netanyahu to speak directly to the Israeli public, just as Netanyahu went over the head of our President Obama to try to influence U.S. opinion against the nuclear deal with Iran.

If Muhammad Ali were here today, he would ask Bill Clinton, who is here today, to tell his wife, the next president of the U.S., that she should seek a constitutional amendment to make all national and state elections funded by Congress and the state legislatures, and all other sources of money be banned, including money from corporations, money from the rich, actually money from anyone so that our elected officials don’t spend most of their time in office trying to find ways to convince the people with money to give it to the elected officials for their next campaign.

To really get money out of politics, we’ll also need to require corporate social responsibility, so Hillary should back the ESRA the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would require any corporation selling its goods or services in the U.S. to prove a satisfactory history of social and environmental responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens who would receive testimony from people all over the world whose lives have been impacted by the behavior of that corporation.

In this April 13, 1981, file photo, sportscaster Howard Cosell, right, is pictured laying one on the chin of former world heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali during a dinner in New York.Credit: Richard Drew / AP

And tell her that the way to achieve homeland security for all of us is for the U.S. to become known not as the most militarily powerful, which we’ve been for the past 70 years, but the most generous and caring country in the world starting with a global Marshall Plan. Be Muhammad Ali fight for your highest vision, not for what others tell you is realistic.

And as chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, I want to affirm our commitment to the well-being of all Muslims on this planet, as well as all people of all faiths and secular humanists as well. We Jews, as well as our non-Jewish allies in all religions and secular humanists, wish to pay honor to the Muslims of the world as they continue today the fast of Ramadan, and join with them in mourning the loss and celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali, a great fighter for justice and peace.

Peace be upon him, peace be upon the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon the United States of America, Israel, and peace be upon all of humanity. Ode yavoe shalom aleynu ve’al kol ha’olam. God bless all people on our planet and God save our planet from ecological destruction!

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine.



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