Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller did not lose his temper or kick freelance journalist Rachel Neuwirth, his lawyer said Tuesday immediately following a city attorney’s hearing on the case.
After an Oct. 21 lecture at UCLA featuring Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, Neuwirth called Seidler-Feller "worse than a kapo," and the UCLA Hillel director allegedly pushed and kicked her. Donald Etra, Seidler-Feller’s lawyer, provided a witness on Tuesday who denied that the rabbi lost control, despite several eyewitnesses who say otherwise.
After talking separately to the UCLA Hillel director and the journalist each for an hour and a half, hearing officer Michele Worden said she would review the evidence and submit her recommendations to the city attorney.
Eric Moses, spokesman for the city attorney, and the opposing lawyers would not speculate on the recommendations, but the options include filing charges against Seidler-Feller, ordering binding arbitration, directing one of both parties to take an anger-management course or dropping the case.
Hillel is also investigating the incident, but the organization is waiting for the city’s recommendations before announcing what steps it will take, said John Hanover, president of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, who spoke on behalf of UCLA Hillel, Los Angeles Hillel Council and Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
On Tuesday, Neuwirth appeared only with her lawyer, Robert Esensten, and Seidler-Feller and Etra showed up with several character witnesses who provided testimony about Seidler-Feller’s high moral character, including UCLA history professor David Myers, Cedars-Sinai chaplain Rabbi Levi Meier and professor Sheldon Wolf from the UCLA School of Medicine. The character witnesses said they never saw the rabbi lose his cool, Etra said.
Businessman Jeffrey Levine also provided testimony to Worden that he had witnessed the incident and that Seidler-Feller did not, at any point, lose control.
"He testified that the rabbi was talking to one of the protesters outside of Royce Hall, that Ms. Neuwirth interrupted and was shouting at the rabbi, that Ms. Neuwirth stuck her fingers directly in the rabbi’s face, and the rabbi removed those fingers, which appeared to be attacking him, and calmly walked away," Etra said.
Levine did not see Seidler-Feller kick, hit or grab Neuwirth, Etra said. As to the allegations that the rabbi lost his temper, "That did not happen," Etra said.
"At this point, we are contesting all of the facts that are alleged by Ms. Neuwirth," Etra said.
Levine’s report contradicts those of several other eyewitnesses.
"[Levine’s] account is very different from what I saw," said Ross Neihaus, president of the UCLA student group Bruins for Israel, who said he helped restrain Seidler-Feller from charging at Neuwirth. "How much control the rabbi had is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but as far as his actions those statements are false. Maybe [Levine] was there on a different day."
"That [testimony] is an outright lie," said StandWithUs Program Director Allyson Taylor, who was present at the event. "He is perjuring himself. Neuwirth has physical bruises that have been photographed."
Taylor said that Seidler-Feller called her after the event and apologized "for losing his cool."
Seidler-Feller apologized to witnesses following the event, because "he is a peaceful man, and he doesn’t want this incident to be blown out of proportion," Etra explained.
The incident and its aftermath have revealed the divide between Israel-oriented doves and hawks in the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Seidler-Feller and his supporters believe the right is using the incident to quiet political opponents. On Wednesday, Dec. 3, Masada2000.com, a right-wing Web site depicted Seidler-Feller under the headline "Judenrat."
"It is our view that the case is solely political, that Ms. Neuwirth is trying to achieve a political agenda that she has and the allegations in the complaint have very little connection to reality," Etra said.
But Neuwirth and Esensten insist that the case is not about politics, but battery.
"This case is solely about a man battering a woman," Esensten said. "This is not about his political views and we are not trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
On Nov. 20, Esensten and Neuwirth filed a civil complaint in the Los Angeles Superior Court against Seidler-Feller and Hillel, seeking undisclosed damages for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent retention. As of press time, the rabbi had not been served with the complaint, but his lawyer had responded to the civil complaint in writing: "This case is totally political. Ms. Neuwirth violently disagrees with the rabbi’s views about the Middle East. Apparently she will stop at nothing to take revenge."
Neuwirth, 53, a real estate agent for Nelson Shelton and Associates in Beverly Hills, also submits opinion articles to various right-wing Internet publications such as Chronwatch, a media watchdog and conservative news site; Front Page Magazine; and Arutz Sheva, Israel National News. These sites generally do not pay their opinion writers.
Neuwirth told The Journal that she is "neither left nor right" when it comes to Israel, she is just concerned with "reality." She also said she had her own "personal Holocaust" because her brother died in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Her articles are generally passionate defenses of Israel and attacks on the scourge of militant Islam and the alleged naivete of land-for-peace agreements.
"Pursuing peace through a mechanism like the Quartet’s ‘road map’ is doomed to failure. The Middle East conflict will only be resolved when all terrorist Islamist factions in the Arab states and elsewhere are expunged." Neuwirth wrote on Arutz Sheva in July. "The Quartet’s attempt to negotiate with terrorist factions [as defined by the U.S. State Department] is a mockery of the American-led war on terrorism."
On a posting on the Alef mailing list, Yigal Arens, the division director at the Information Sciences Institute (which is affiliated with USC), wrote "Rachel [Neuwirth] is an otherwise normal person who has a compulsive obsession with those whose position on Israel and Israeli policies she disputes. She has made it her life’s mission to hound such people and groups and has by now become a constant disruptive presence at all meetings, demonstrations, etc., that support Palestinian rights in Los Angeles. She is not to be reasoned with."
Neuwirth responded that she never said Israel is perfect and that Arens "barely knows her."
Seidler-Feller is also known for being zealous about his beliefs, that peace can and should be achieved with the Palestinians and, in the words of one community rabbi who did not want to be named, "belittling or scorning those who disagree with him."
He is also known for, on occasion, getting physical about expressing his beliefs.
"He can grab people in passionate way," Neihaus said. "It is not like a regular thing, but [we] have been in conversation once or twice and he would put his hand on my wrist, but it was nothing I found aggressive or offensive or painful."
Officials at the City Attorney’s office said that Worden will submit her recommendations to the city attorney’s office in two to four weeks.
Tom Tugend contributed to this report.