A Berkeley rabbi will be among the dignitaries and religious leaders on Friday laying the greatest boxer in the world to rest, and will use that opportunity to remind the world that Jews and Muslims can, and do, get along.
In a Skype interview in Kentucky ahead of the service, Rabbi Michael Lerner said his speech at the funeral will be a call to action not to just remember Muhammad Ali as a great guy and a champion boxer. "Don't honor him just for that," Lerner said. "I want to honor him by honoring his commitment to the powers that be, to fight for what seems unrealistic. The way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali." He said that he hopes people especially stand up for "young 20-year-old African Americans who are pushed around by the police and recognize that they are the Muhammad Ali's of the future."
Lerner is the editor of Tikkun magazine and best known for his progressive stances and his criticism of how Israel treats Palestinians while also serving as the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue. He will speak along with a Buddhist priest, Will Smith, who played Ali in the 2001 film, former President Bill Clinton and others at Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky.
Lerner and Ali had worked together during the 1960s peace movement, both challenging the Vietnam War. And the U.S. government had indicted them both for their civil disobedience. Ali chose not to fight what he called a "racist war against people of color" overseas, Lerner recalled, saying there was a "racist war at home to fight."
Lerner said he was completely surprised when Ali’s attorney called him Sunday after the boxer died and asked him to speak because of his role “as a leading Jewish spokesperson for social justice and peace in the U.S.”
Family members told Lerner that Ali and his wife had been fans of his for “many, many years,” mostly because of a book Lerner wrote about black-Jewish relations.
“I was very amazed to hear from him then, and all the more amazed that his family remembers me two decades later,” Lerner said in his own Tikkun article. “I never know who reads Tikkun, my articles in other social media, my books, or has seen or heard me on television or radio, and what impact, if any, my ideas have on people. So it was beautiful to hear that he and his family had been following my writing all these many years, had been moved by them, and had intended to make contact much sooner but never did. I feel deeply humbled by this honor and moved to know that my ideas touched Muhammed Ali.”
Ali had other connections to the Bay Area as well. Known at that point as Cassius Clay, the young boxer trained at San Jose State University with boxing coach Julie Menendez en route to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he met then-student Harry Edwards, the university said in a statement.
Edwards is now a prominent sports sociologist, who reminisced about Ali.
"It is only when a giant passes from among us," Edwards said, "and we stand blinking and rubbing our eyes in the glaring reality of our loss, that we come truly to appreciate the extent to which we all have really been just living in his shadow."