Our Hollywood moment: An article in three acts


One of many things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that many roads in L.A. lead to Hamilton High School. Hamilton sits at the strange but fertile delta of Beverlywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City and a couple of markedly less fortunate neighborhoods. It is a school at a crossroads, much like Alan Kaplan was himself. A founder of the school’s humanities magnet, Kaplan had run into a critical mass of trouble. His fiery teaching style and philosophical emphasis on racial inequality as a foundation of American history had always fueled admiration among most students and consternation among some parents. The parents most unsettled were African Americans who felt that Kaplan’s focus on slavery and its modern legacy was inappropriate and ultimately demeaning. By the spring of 1999, a group of about a dozen parents had organized and charged Kaplan — a Jewish man — with racism, calling for the school district to take action.

The newspaper I worked for, the L.A. Weekly, dispatched me to Hamilton to see what I could find out. Kaplan did not want to be interviewed, but I kept asking.

Finally he agreed to talk, on a Sunday afternoon. I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to open the door when I rang the bell at his place in Encino. I found him blunt, wary, impolitic, impulsive, bull-headed, but also gracious and idealistic, fascinating and fiercely committed to his students. I decided he was not a racist. I wrote my story. He kept his job.

That initial meeting, as it happened, was the start of something entirely unexpected. Within a year, we were engaged. That was the fairy-tale ending of one story, but the prelude to another — our Hollywood moment.

Dramatis personae:
Erin Aubry Kaplan — a writer, black
Alan Kaplan — a schoolteacher, Jewish
Michael Siegel — a literary agent
Michael Maren — a screenwriter
Various skeptics and supporters

ACT I: The Proposition

(Scene 1: A cubicle at the L.A. Weekly)

The phone on my desk is ringing. It’s late. I don’t want to answer. I have an uneasy, semi-permanent feeling it’s the parent group that once wanted me to write about the awful transgressions of Mr. Kaplan. The Mr. Kaplan who is now my fiancĂ©. The parents are probably still fuming, and objectively speaking, I don’t blame them. I hardly understand it myself. When I first met him, I could see right off that Mr. Kaplan — Alan — had a roguishness and rough-edged charm that hooked pubescent students, but I didn’t think it would work on me. Of course, I didn’t think I would work on him. The last person he wanted in his life was a black reporter. The last impression I thought I’d get was of a sincere, sensitive but remarkably unguarded white man who offered me dinner in the middle of a very tense interview at his place in Encino. The dinner — a large cube of lasagna and a salad — turned out to be the only food he had left in the house. He set the table and everything. He didn’t eat, just watched me. I was moved. That was the first movement of many, the first movement of an entire symphony. Now we were engaged.

“Erin Aubry? Hi, this is Michael Maren.”

It’s not the parent group. I relax a little.

“I know this is sudden, and that you don’t know me. But I’m a screenwriter, and I live in New York. And I read your piece in Salon magazine today, and I thought it was really terrific.”

For Salon.com, I’d written, “The Color of Love,” a concise account of my unlikely romance with the guy who was falsely cast as the West Coast incarnation of David Duke. Alan was not a mercenary like David Duke, plus he was a lot more chivalrous. I thank Michael for his feedback. Nice way to end the day.

“There’s something else.” Michael pauses. “I think this would make a great screenplay.” Another pause. “It’s got all the elements — love, race, conflict, story arc, resolution. And it says a lot about L.A., things that don’t normally get said. I’d like your permission to shop it around.”

“Shop it around?” I hear myself say the words. I’m sitting up straight. I glance out my window at the Hollywood Hills. I listen.

“Yes. You know, pitch some studios and networks. I’m thinking HBO would be a good bet. They do original ideas, and I’ve written for them before…”….
He’s a former journalist, now a full-time screenwriter, a real one, who wants my story. Our story.

I start to feel floaty, giddy. A tiny bit self-important.

“I think that’ll be fine,” I say. “But I need to talk it over with Alan. It’s his story, too.”

(Scene 2: The kitchen of the writer’s apartment)

I have to break this to Alan the right way. My future husband is an idealist who likes movies but hates Hollywood, at least as a concept. Parties, paparazzi, Oscar fashions, actors dating models, models dating actors, celebrity hangouts, production trailers that screw up street traffic — he hates all of it.

Like me, he’s a native Angeleno. That’s part of our connection. He grew up in Sepulveda, a rarely filmed part of town; I grew up in equally unglamorous South Central. His favorite places to eat are old-line diners like Norm’s, which has twilight meal deals and takes coupons. He also likes the eternal two-tacos-for-99-cents special at Jack in the Box. To Alan, the pretensions of Hollywood and the film industry exist purely to threaten a better, simpler, more straightforward L.A. that’s disappearing by the acre, like the Amazon rainforest. One of his biggest fears is that one day, Hollywood will discover Jack in the Box and make it chic.

“Honey,” I call out, “you’ll never guess who called me at work today.”
Alan looks at me over his reading glasses. He’s in the kitchen, a newspaper spread on the counter, his fist in a box of dry granola. He hates milk.

Sharon: Criminal or Victim?

The accusation that Ariel Sharon is a war criminal — back on the public agenda with two court cases in Belgium and a damning BBC documentary — is the latest step in a campaign to discredit and delegitimize Israel, supporters of the Jewish state say.

A quick Internet search reveals a plethora of Arab and Muslim Web sites demanding that Sharon be "brought to justice" for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

However, the Israeli premier also seems to be caught in the cross hairs of advocates of an international criminal court and a "universal justice" that knows no borders.

Sharon’s Arab antagonists may indeed be motivated by enmity toward Israel, but the international court proponents seem intent primarily on winning symbolic victories that they hope might deter future atrocities.

It’s highly unlikely that Sharon ever will wind up in the dock. But the Belgian cases and the BBC film have focused hostile attention on Israel and its leader precisely when the Jewish State is fighting what many see as an uphill battle for world opinion in the ninth month of the intifada.

The second half of the 1990s saw major strides toward prosecuting war crimes and gross violations of human rights.

It also emboldened those who have long wanted to go after polarizing figures such as Sharon, Henry Kissinger, Idi Amin, Muammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, or the now-deceased Pol Pot and Hafez Assad.

No one was ever prosecuted for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, when Lebanese Christian militiamen killed some 800 Palestinian men, women and children. Several of the planners and leaders of the attack are prominent figures in Lebanon today.

In 1983, Israel established the quasi-judicial Kahan Commission to investigate the massacres. The commission found then-Defense Minister Sharon "indirectly responsible" because he had not foreseen the possibility that the Christians — who had entered the camps to root out Palestinian terrorists hiding there — would seek to avenge the recent assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel.

Sharon received what some saw as a slap on the wrist: He was pressured to resign as defense minister, but remained in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio.

When Time later sought to assign Sharon a greater share of blame, he sued the magazine for libel. An American court ruled that the article was erroneous but lacked malicious intent.

On June 18, a group of 28 Palestinians filed suit under the 1993 Belgian law, charging Sharon with ultimate responsibility for the massacre.

The suit came on the heels of a similar suit filed in Brussels earlier in the month by a private group, reportedly on behalf of Palestinian victims of the current intifada.

In response, an Israeli Knesset member from Sharon’s Likud Party, Avraham Herschson, has threatened to file suit in Brussels against Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for alleged war crimes committed in the current intifada.

A lawyer for the Palestinian victims said similar suits against Sharon will soon be filed in Britain, France and Denmark, according to the Jewish Chronicle of London.

Perhaps even more influential in blackening Israel’s image was the recent broadcast of "The Accused" by the state-run British Broadcasting Corporation.

In the documentary, journalist Fergal Keane painted a picture that placed ultimate blame for the massacres on Sharon.

The documentary relied on interviews with Palestinian victims, international law experts and a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under President Reagan.

The film was punctuated by the assertion of Princeton international law Professor Richard Falk that Sharon is "indictable" for war crimes.

Israeli officials immediately protested to the BBC, denouncing the program as "unfair, distorted and intentionally hostile" — with a whiff of the BBC’s "well-known anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias."

The BBC and Keane stood by the broadcast.

In an interview with JTA, Falk clarified his comments.

"All the evidence I saw would make him indictable to those crimes, but not necessarily convictable," Falk said of Sharon. "That’s an important distinction. Everyone’s entitled to a fair trial."

Falk, who is himself Jewish, already was familiar to Israeli officials: he was one of three members of a fact-finding team dispatched in February by the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights to document Israel’s "excessive" use of force against Palestinian attackers — a conclusion it reached even before the investigation began.

The resulting U.N. report, said Michael Colson, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, was "one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen come out of the U.N., with Israel guilty of every sin imaginable."

All of which leads Alan Baker, legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, to conclude that "when things were going well last year, everyone was happy with Israel. But as soon as problems arose, and the Palestinians decided they didn’t want to negotiate anymore, we revert back to 15 years ago, where the name of the game is delegitimization of Israel and its basis for existence."

Power, Politics And People

J.J. Goldberg writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.


The Cities Aren’t Safe

During his bizarre, self-incriminating appearance on the witness stand at the close of his terrorism trial in Brooklyn federal court last month, 24-year-old Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer freely admitted nearly every accusation thrown at him by prosecutors. But not the knife.

Yes, the Hebron-born Abu Mezer said, he came here to “punish” America for supporting Israel. Yes, he built five pipe bombs from supplies he bought in a North Carolina hardware store. Yes, he wanted to kill Jews — “as many as I could take.” And, yes, he had talked with a friend about blowing up a subway line because it was frequented by Jews, though he insisted that he dropped that plan.

But when asked if a knife found in his shabby apartment was meant to “get people away from you when you blew up your bomb,” he gave a flat “No.” The knife, he said, was “just in case, for safety. New York is not a safe city, so you have to keep something with you.”

He should know. When he was arrested with a roommate in a pre-dawn raid on July 31, 1997, Abu Mezer was allegedly just hours away from setting off a cache of deadly bombs that could have killed and maimed scores of New Yorkers. Only a last-minute tip to police by a third roommate prevented catastrophe. Unsafe, indeed.

Convicted on July 23, Abu Mezer probably faces life in prison. (His co-defendant, fellow Hebronite Lafi Khalil, 23, was acquitted of the bomb charges, but convicted of immigration violations that could bring five to 20 years.)

Once sentenced, Abu Mezer will become the 20th person imprisoned in this country for plotting or carrying out deadly acts of Middle East-related terror and mayhem here, mostly in New York City. Several more suspects are awaiting trial or deportation. And one of the perpetrators killed himself on the spot.

Some of those implicated are Palestinian, others Egyptian, Sudanese, Pakistani. One is American-born. All are Moslems. Some belonged to Islamic extremist groups. Others appeared to be lone operators.

At least seven such attacks have been planned or executed since 1990, in which the primary motive appeared to be either killing Jews or “punishing” the United States for supporting Israel. The incidents include:

* The 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Toll: one dead.

* The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Toll: six dead, 1,000 injured.

* The planned 1993 bombing of four major sites in New York City, including the United Nations, FBI headquarters and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. Toll: aborted by arrests.

* The 1993 shooting spree by a Pakistani national outside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Virginia. Toll: two dead.

* The 1994 shooting of a vanload of Chassidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge. Toll: one dead, one maimed.

* The 1997 shooting spree on the observation deck atop the Empire State Building. Toll: one dead, seven wounded, plus the shooter, dead by his own hand.

* The planned 1997 bombing of a Brooklyn subway. Toll: aborted by arrests.

Not on our list are at least 16 Arab Americans in six states — Florida, Texas, California, Illinois, Virginia and New York — under investigation or facing deportation on suspicion of gathering aid in America for overseas terrorist groups such as Hamas. Also not included are at least five Middle Easterners imprisoned here for terrorist acts against Americans abroad.

No, today’s lesson involves just one thing: the deadly war being waged by Islamic militants on American soil against Jews and their American allies.

Most of the incidents have certain common threads. Two of them, the World Trade Center bombing and the 1993 bomb plot, were the work of a single group, the followers of the blind Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. He is now serving a 240-year sentence for his role in the second plot.

Two other incidents are linked more loosely to Sheikh Rahman and his group. Kahane’s assassin, El-Sayyed Nosair, had close ties to the group. Abu Mezer apparently had Sheikh Rahman in mind when he prepared his subway bombing; a note demanding the sheikh’s release was found with the bombs in his apartment.

Standing apart are the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building and CIA shootings. All were committed by apparent loners. Two of them, the New York shootings, were treated by police as homicides rather than terrorism. In both, there was clear evidence that the shooters wanted to show support for the Palestinian cause by shooting Jews. Both succeeded.

At the Brooklyn Bridge, a Lebanese cabbie opened fire on a vanload of Lubavitch students a day after the 1994 Hebron massacre. One student was killed, and another suffered permanent brain damage. The shooter reportedly had visited a mosque just before and after the shooting.

At the Empire State Building, retired Gaza schoolteacher Ali Hassan Abu Kamal opened fire on a crowd of tourists, killing a Danish rock musician and maiming his American Jewish bandmate. Abu Kamal left a letter in which he railed against Jews, Israel and Western imperialism.

The incidents have something else in common: They’ve failed to sink in. Except for the World Trade Center bombing, the cases received spotty press coverage in New York — still less nationwide — and have largely faded from memory. The result: each new incident appears as an isolated case rather than part of what is actually a growing series.

To a handful of Jewish activists who track the terror, the low-key reactions reflect reluctance by American leaders to face facts. Steven Emerson, an investigative journalist specializing in Islamic extremism, believes the problem is a “politically correct” unwillingness to single out Moslems. Devorah Halberstam, whose son was killed at the Brooklyn Bridge, believes Washington has purposely muted reactions, to prevent panic and to preserve public support for the Oslo peace process.

The truth may be more banal. News organizations are trained to lead with pictures of blood and gore. Bombs that don’t explode get buried inside. Outside New York, mayhem in the Big Apple tends to run together in a blur. Even the 1996 arrest in Pakistan of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, went largely unnoticed. For most readers, it was old news.

As for those watchdogs devoted to tracking Middle East terror — from the Anti-Defamation League to Emerson himself — their eyes have been trained on the Middle East for too long to refocus readily. The landmark anti-terrorism legislation passed by Congress in 1996, after furious lobbying by Jewish organizations, ignored terrorism on these shores entirely.

Equally important, the watchdogs have good reason to downplay anti-Israel terror at home. They don’t want voters thinking too hard about the price we might be paying for America’s alliance with Israel. Better to talk of “deranged gunmen” and “anti-Western” plots.

The fact is, as long as there’s an Israeli-Arab conflict, there will be anti-Israel terrorism. It was only a matter of time before it reached these shores. Now that it’s here, there’s precious little that can be done to stop it. And it won’t stay in New York. We’ll all have to learn to live in cities that are, as Abu Mezer said, not safe.