Matthew Modine, Ed Asner, actress Ruby Modine and Hilary Helstein, executive director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Photo Credit: James Franklin at RozWolfPR

Defending Ed Asner, and Israel


The defenders of Israel fought a noble battle last week on behalf of the survival Jewish state. They forged a united front, raised their voices and rallied their troops. They charged into battle and came close, very close, to defeating their common enemy: Ed Asner.

Yeah, really. Ed Asner. The actor from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant.” The voice of Carl Fredricksen in “Up.” Santa Claus in “Elf.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival was all set to honor Asner with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its gala opening on April 26. Days before the event, two self-appointed defenders of Israel sent out a mass email denouncing the festival for choosing Asner, and calling on advertisers and attendees to boycott the event.

Their issue was that Asner, who is 87, is listed on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an advocacy group that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.  BDS seeks to protest and reverse Israel’s policies, including its occupation of the West Bank, by boycotting all Israeli products and services, including its academic and cultural institutions. As I’ve written many times, it is a deeply anti-Israel movement under the guise of an anti-occupation movement. 

The connection between Asner, BDS and JVP — which, spoiler alert, turned out to be far more tenuous than it first appeared — raised the defenders of Israel to DEFCON 5.  Immediately, they sent out an email whose subject line read, “SHAME ON THE LOS ANGELES JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL.”

Because TRIBE Media, which produces the Jewish Journal, is the sponsoring organization of the festival, we found ourselves at the bizarre end of a very small but very noisy pro-Israel advocacy effort.

As the events of the week played out, the experience gave me time to reflect on how the Jewish community decides who is inside and outside the tent, who is kosher and who is treif

In Israel, this has become a policy issue with diplomatic implications. The same week two well-meaning L.A. Jews were trying to take down a third for not meeting their standards of “pro-Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu snubbed the German foreign minister because the minister refused to cancel his meeting with the anti-occupation groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

And since at least 2010, Netanyahu’s government has passed laws against not just those who support BDS, but those, like many Israeli artists, who support in principle a boycott on goods from the West Bank.

The aim of these actions is to normalize Israel’s now 50-year occupation and criminalize opposition to it. Those who oppose it went from being dismissed as doves to being persecuted as outlaws.

BDS poses a unique threat to Israel, though not necessarily an existential one. But one could easily make the argument that the occupation, if it results in a single chaotic binational state or apartheid rule over Palestinians, poses a far greater, truly existential threat to a democratic Jewish state.

The point is, we can have an argument over this without criminalizing, demonizing or ostracizing those who take one position or another. Some BDS folks really do want to erase Israel. But the (mostly) young Jews who are attracted to the movement see it as a way to redress an injustice. I think they’re wrong, but I want to engage them.

Similarly, those who think annexing part or all of the West Bank is the best way to manifest Jewish destiny or achieve security are wrong — and possibly even more dangerous to the state’s future — but I want to speak with them, as well.

Ed Asner, it turns out, doesn’t support BDS. In an interview with Avishay Artsy before the festival, he told the Journal he was rethinking it. Later, he flatly denounced it.

“I just want peace,” he said.

That didn’t quiet the defenders of Israel. They called him and the festival frauds because Asner was still listed as an adviser to JVP. Because at 87, after receiving more Emmy Awards for acting than any male in history, after standing up for the rights of workers, the oppressed and the disabled his whole life, after donating endless time and money in support of Jewish and non-Jewish causes, after playing an active role in his own Jewish community — in other words, after doing more for humanity and the Jewish people than the vast majority of us — Asner still wasn’t kosher enough.

Ridiculous.

It’s important to note that not one of the major groups that support and defend Israel — StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee — signed on to the anti-Asner campaign. They cut the guy some slack — maybe because they assumed he heard the word “peace” and said, “Sure, use my name.” Or maybe because the Jewish people and Israel have real enemies to fight, and Lou Grant isn’t one of them.

The night of the gala, the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills was packed. Asner stood and received his award to a standing ovation.

And, I’m happy to report, somehow Israel survived.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

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