Anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller barred from speaking at Jewish Federation headquarters

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles barred anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller from delivering a previously scheduled speech at its Wilshire Boulevard headquarters on June 24.

Geller, who is Jewish, had been set to address the Western Region of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) with a speech titled “Islamic Jew Hatred: The Root Cause of the Failure to Achieve Peace.” The Sunday morning event, announced in early June, was abruptly canceled just hours before it was to take place.

The event was later moved to another location, the Mark in Pico-Robertson, but not before the 30 would-be attendees stood in protest on the sidewalk in front of Federation headquarters holding signs reading, “Jews! Don’t Silence Other Jews! Shame on the Jewish Federation.”

“I’m a proud, fierce Zionist,” Geller told the crowd, decrying the decision to cancel her event. “And the take-away from this is that Zionists are not welcome at L.A. Jewish Federation.”

According to ZOA National Vice Chairman Steven Goldberg, who said he spoke with Los Angeles’ Federation President Jay Sanderson early on the morning of June 24, the reason for the cancellation was fear that local Muslim groups might protest outside the building.

“They need spinal implants,” Goldberg said of Federation leaders, noting the absence of protesters.

A statement from a coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish groups condemning Federation for hosting the event had circulated via e-mail on the afternoon of June 23. A second statement, commending Federation for the cancellation of the event, was circulated by the same group the next morning.

Explaining the move, Federation Chairman of the Board Richard Sandler said on June 26 that the decision to bar the event was based entirely on safety concerns. “Unfortunately, due to the processes regarding non-Federation events in the building that we had in place at the time, we only became aware of the possibility of protests and counter-protests at the building late Saturday,” Sandler said in an interview. “Due solely to the fact that the Zimmer Children’s Museum has its greatest amount of traffic on Sunday, we made a decision, to protect the safety of children, to request ZOA to move the event.

“ZOA did nothing against our processes,” Sandler said. “As a result of this, we are now reviewing our processes to avoid such a situation in the future.”

ZOA has been a tenant at Federation headquarters for less than a year, and ZOA’s local executive director, Orit Arfa, said she had filed an official request to use a board room in the building about a month in advance of the Geller event. ZOA also requested the event be listed on the Jewish Federation’s own Web site. Both requests, Arfa said, were approved.

Geller, who blogs at, is known for her strident criticism of all things Muslim. She first gained national prominence in 2010 when she led opposition to a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York’s Lower Manhattan, and she has since supported efforts in other cities to oppose mosque construction. She told The New York Times in 2010 that she does not believe in the existence of a “moderate” Islam, and that “a moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim.”

The resulting publicity has made Geller perhaps the best-known anti-Muslim activist in the United States, and she has drawn the criticism of organizations that track hate groups and hate speech.

Stop the Islamization of America (SOIA), a group co-founded by Geller in 2010, has been branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Center on Extremism, said in an interview on June 22 that while his group and others have concerns about radical Muslim individuals and groups, Geller goes further, to the point of xenophobia.

“The difference between [Geller and] legitimate criticism about the very serious threat of radical Islam,” Segal said, “is that she vilifies the entire Islamic faith by making assertions that there are conspiracies against American values inherent in Islam.”

Geller hinted at the threats she perceives in her remarks at another local event she organized on June 23, the day before the Federation barred her from entering through its doors.

“You are at war, and you are the soldier,” Geller told a crowd of about 200 people who had come to a hotel in Manhattan Beach to hear from a panel of former Muslims. The event was designed as a protest to an event being held simultaneously less than three miles away by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).

“We have an Islamophilic president,” Geller said, and described the upcoming U.S. presidential election as a crucial moment. “Afterward, I think we’re going to have to go underground. I’m not overstating it. We live in a very, very dangerous time.”

Meanwhile, at the nearby Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, about 500 Muslim men, women and children could be found in the parking lot outside, eating ice cream, Indian food or Fuddrucker’s cheeseburgers made with halal meat.

The program for CAIR-LA’s “A Summer Night for Civil Rights” included a pair of comedians and a few musical acts, separated by a short intermission, when the entire crowd filed out of the auditorium and into an adjacent courtyard for the prayer that takes place at sunset. Men and women, standing separately, removed their shoes and stood at the edges of long strips of butcher paper taped to the concrete. The prayers, conducted in Arabic, took about 10 minutes.

“The people behind Islamophobia are being exposed,” CAIR-LA Executive Director Hussam Ayloush told the crowd, noting that groups like his are pushing back against those who target Muslims. “Muslims are becoming, I guess, assertive, proud, courageous and standing up for their rights and standing up for their identity.”

In an interview on June 25, Ayloush said that he hadn’t known Geller was Jewish until last week, and that his group had initially intended to say nothing about her June 23 counter-protest. 

“When we found out that she was actually speaking at The Jewish Federation, which is a mainstream organization, we couldn’t ignore that anymore,” Ayloush said.

Indeed, Geller, who on June 23 referred to the CAIR-LA event as “A Sumer Night for Islamic Supremacy,” has not been CAIR’s only critic. ADL’s Web site includes a full description of CAIR’s refusal “to unequivocally condemn by name Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations,” as well as citations of statements by Ayloush calling for an end to Zionism, likening it to the apartheid regime in South Africa and declaring it to be “a political ideology whose tentacles are rooted in racism.”

But, said the ADL’s Segal, CAIR’s background does not justify the kinds of verbal and written attacks Geller has launched against Islam as a whole and the way she has painted all religious American Muslims as extremists.

“The fact that Pamela Geller also notes the fact that CAIR has these issues, that doesn’t mean that the other things she says about Muslims as a whole are legitimate,” Segal said.

Ayloush, for his part, said that CAIR-LA’s primary aim is to secure the civil rights of American Muslims, and that he stands by his criticism of Zionism, which, he said, “certainly helped deal with the plight of the Jewish people in Europe after the Holocaust and World War II, but, unfortunately, it came at the expense of creating a new plight for the Palestinian people.”

Ayloush, who praised the ADL for taking a strong stance against Geller, called the criticisms of his group by the ADL “ironic,” and cited the opposition of the group’s longtime national director, Abe Foxman, to the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan in 2010.

“While CAIR has been at the forefront of defending the rights of Muslims, Jews and all other religious minorities in America, ADL was at the forefront of opposing the right of Muslims to build a mosque in New York.”

It was CAIR-LA that circulated the statement on June 23 from an interfaith coalition that included five other Muslim groups, one progressive Christian group and two leftist Jewish groups — the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and LA Jews for Peace — condemning Federation’s decision to give a platform to Geller. The group also circulated a second statement the next day commending the Federation’s decision to prevent the event from taking place.

Salam Al-Maryati is president in Los Angeles of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which took part in the interfaith coalition. He said on June 25 that while he is happy to engage with Jewish groups, even groups like the ZOA, he appreciated Federation’s cancellation of the event, which he saw as taking a stand against Geller.

“Let’s start to make distinctions between those who are passionate, and maybe even emotional at times, from extremists who are promoting ideological violence between our communities,” Al-Maryati said.

Asked whether the ZOA endorses Geller’s views on Islam, Goldberg, the national vice chair, demurred and said Geller should have been free to speak at Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation headquarters.

“Even if you disagree, let her speak here,” Goldberg said. “What’s the harm? What’s the harm of freedom of speech?”

Geller has addressed at least one other ZOA chapter in the past, a speech to the Philadelphia chapter in March 2012, which, according to her blog, took place without incident at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Manischewitz opens new HQ in N.J.

The Manischewitz Co. celebrated the opening of its new headquarters in Newark, N.J., by making the world’s longest piece of matzah.

The production of the 25-foot-long matzah, equal to 336 regular matzah squares, was overseen Tuesday by Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger. Metzger also affixed mezuzahs to the doorways of the company’s offices.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the company’s presence in his city “makes me the proudest mayor in America. It gives me great naches,” The Herald News of North Jersey reported.

The headquarters were moved from Secaucus; the Manischewitz production facility had moved to Newark four years ago. The 123-year-old company, which now has 80 corporate positions and up to 400 factory jobs, was founded in Cincinnati.

Hitler’s Ukraine headquarters to be museum

Hitler’s Eastern front military headquarters in central Ukraine will be turned into a museum.

The opening is scheduled for May 9, known as Victory Day, which marks the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in World War II.

Some 20 wooden cottages and barracks and three bunkers remain on the site of the headquarters, known as Wehrwolf. The Nazis destroyed much of the site when they abandoned it.

The headquarters were built over the course of a year-and-a-half, ending in April 1942. Some 10,000 Soviet war prisoners and some 1,000 local citizens participated in building the headquarters.

“It is time to make the Wehrwolf headquarters a tourist destination, a memorial to the victims of fascism,” the head of the local administration, Mykola Djiga, told the UNIAN news agency.

Edifice Rex

The official dedication of the Jewish Federation headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. this weekend marks a new era in the history of Jewish Los Angeles.

The structure near Wilshire’s intersection with San Vicente Boulevard is stunning. From a distance it appears as a gleaming tower of cool, aqua-colored glass. Up close, it greets drivers and pedestrians with a grove of mature olive trees and a facade of Jerusalem stone. The trees in their heavy planters are, of course, an ideal security barrier, but they are also inviting, symbolic, perfect.

There is every reason to be proud of this place, created on the frame of the old 6505, which was damaged by the Northridge earthquake. Of course 6505 will stand as the new headquarters of the Jewish Federation, but is this, then, the headquarters of Jewish L.A.?

The answer is, positively, unequivocally, maybe. Perhaps. It depends.

Inside the Federation’s Goldsmith Center, as 6505 has been renamed, you get a feeling the architects struggled to combine 21st century design with traditional notions of communal space, and they succeeded. Walk in, and you feel welcome, secure and impressed.

To your left is the Slavin Children’s Library, a nice message there. To your right is the Zimmer Children’s Discovery Place, a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art children’s museum that will serve as an ideal introduction for all children to the values of Jewish life and community. The Zimmer will open officially in February, but a walk-through in the company of museum founder and director Esther Netter brings it to life. The tens of thousands of children expected to visit the Zimmer will begin to understand not just what a community is, but how it is built and maintained.

The floors above the Zimmer will house the work spaces of the Jewish Federation staff and those of many of its affiliated agencies. (Full disclosure: the Federation is this paper’s largest client. The Journal is independently incorporated and managed, and our offices are, as they have always been, deep in the vibrant heart of Koreatown.) These areas are nice, but hardly exciting. It’s here that much of the heavy lifting of community building gets done. The Federation is the central planning, coordinating and fundraising body for 18 local and international agencies that provide humanitarian programs to Jews and non-Jews: food, clothes and legal services for the poor; job training and immigrant resettlement, relief services, child care, literacy and other programs. This is important labor, and it costs money. The Federation and its fundraising arm, the United Jewish Fund, are the second largest fundraising endeavor in Los Angeles, after the United Way. Raising money at that level is a corporate undertaking, and its headquarters need to reflect that.

A relative handful of men and women contributed the more than $20 million dollars necessary to renovate 6505. Some people have complained that the funds would be better spent elsewhere. The answer to these critics is simple: Don’t worry, there’s plenty more money out there. This is a very wealthy community whose capacity to fund worthy causes has yet to be really tapped. The Skirball Cultural Center, the Wiesenthal Center, the University of Judaism, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple, the Irmas Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple are just a few examples of entire campuses — and in some cases whole institutions — that came into being when people with a vision encountered people with deep concern — and the kind of checkbook that turns dreams into reality.

The 1994 earthquake that damaged 6505 also served as a reminder that a building, no matter how grand, can offer only the illusion of shelter and stability. Whether the Goldsmith Building will be the headquarters of the Jewish L.A. of the future depends on what vision emanates from within its striking exterior. The headquarters of L.A. Jewry will in the end be known by the good it does for others and the message its leaders articulate for the next generation.

Building Toward a New Future

It’s a clear, sunny weekday in May. A man wearing a hardhat shaped like a Stetson materializes from a construction site. His name is Rodney Freeman, and he is a member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Real Estate & Construction Division. He is also on the committee supervising the biggest enterprise ever undertaken by L.A.’s Jewish Federation – the refurbishing of the nonprofit organization’s 6505 Wilshire Blvd. headquarters.

At roughly $20 million, Freeman calls the new building “a phenomenal investment.” For many weeks, he and the planning committee, headed by capital campaign co-chairs Lionel Bell and Ed Sanders (both past Federation presidents) have been overseeing what is more of a reconstruction than remodeling. “The old building was in great disrepair,” Bell said. The committee spent three months of planning and design before embarking on the building’s 12-month construction calendar, set to wind down by summer’s end.

Serving as docent on this May day, Freeman leads a hardhat-wearing crew of core Federation execs – president John Fishel, co-chairmen Bell and Sanders, and capital campaign director Judith Fischer – on a private tour of the yet-unfinished edifice. Even as the group proceeded, communication lines were being installed, and interior systems such as electrical, heating and ventilation were being connected. Almost 300 construction workers are on the site on any given day.

By the time the dust settles in early September, Bell said, the building will boast “state-of-the-art communications systems – video conferencing, computer networking.” The current plan is for Federation staffers to move in on Sept. 4, with beneficiary agencies taking up residence by Sept. 15. And so far, according to Freeman, 6505’s reconstruction is right on schedule.

Originally built in the late 1950s, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. became the Federation’s headquarters during Sanders’ early 1970s presidency.

“We were located at 590 North Vermont,” recalls the former Federation head. “It had numerous disadvantages. Freeways were not a factor in the early days. It would take three or four hours out of your day just to assemble at the old place. There were a lot of people who wouldn’t come to meetings. And even in those days, that neighborhood was not a place where people wanted to go.”Despite naysayers, Sanders persisted in pushing for a new building, and the Federation purchased 6505 for $2.7 million. Sanders recalls his trepidation when the Federation, in an effort to raise $2.5 million, decided to approach 100 people and solicit $25,000 from each.

“After the building opened and everyone saw it, we were oversubscribed,” Sanders said with a chuckle. An additional $6 million was raised much later to remodel the building. Then came the 1994 Northridge quake, which caused internal structural damage.

“Because of the earthquake, the mandate was that we shouldn’t occupy that building,” recalls Bell.As a result, the Wilshire/San Vicente location has been substantially retrofitted with a two-and-a-half-foot concrete and steel foundation reinforcement extending around the perimeter of the building.From the get-go, the Federation’s interim 5700 headquarters was meant to be just that: transitional office space. The Federation signed a five-year lease with the intent of moving into a new building by 2000. Bell and company long mulled over ideas of either buying a building or buying land on the Westside before concluding, Bell said, that “it was best to return to 6505 after all.”

Several key motivations had a hand in that decision. One was the difficulty The Federation experienced in finding an acceptable building in West L.A. that was within their budget. Sanders explains another: “We’d lose at least a couple of million dollars from FEMA because we didn’t repair.”

The capital campaign for 6505’s refurbishing was launched during Lionel Bell’s recent administration. Freeman credits Bell for having the foresight to “open up generational lines” in the capital campaign, encouraging people of disparate generations to contribute.

He promises that the new and improved 6505 will achieve a “significant reduction in overall operating costs.” A lot of space was created by knocking out old staircases, for example. By putting the mechanical rooms on the roof, Freeman says, the building gained nearly 9,000 sq. ft. And some ceiling consolidation has given offices nine-foot instead of eight-foot ceilings. Overall, the building has increased its square footage from 102,000 to 136,000 square feet to better accommodate its 30 tenants.

Federation employees and visitors will surely benefit from the extra space and ample window design, which will allow for a lot more natural light than the building used to admit. Jerusalem stone will run down the length of the building’s Wilshire Boulevard exterior. And Freeman points out that the new building will meet American Disabilities Act standards and is the first construction project that meets the structural standards of the city’s revamped 1997 building code. The reconstruction also updates the building’s emergency and security functions.

Space in the building has already been earmarked for executive suites and agencies. Most of 6505’s 12 floors will house Federation agencies and affiliates, with the11th floor containing the Federation’s executive offices. The lobby level will include a northwest corner executive board room that is 30 percent bigger than its older counterpart. The rest of that floor will be devoted largely to family, housing the Zimmer Discovery Children’s Museum of Jewish Community Centers and a children’s library.

Bell said that when 6505 reopens, it will not only benefit the roughly 350 employees that will move into the building but will serve the entire community in more ways than ever before. A public opening is tentatively scheduled for December. And while more than $17 million has been amassed so far, Campaign 2000 will continue to raise big money with naming opportunities throughout 6505. Early in 2001, the Federation’s capital campaign will shift, branching out with a community-wide campaign to solicit contributions for its completion and maintenance. “The new building makes a very strong statement of the health and well-being of the local Jewish community,” Bell said.

Sanders seconds that notion, delighted to be championing 6505 again.”I’m doing this again because I’m emotionally attached to it,” Sanders said. “It was a great move in those days, and I was proud to lead the march. Now I’m proud to play a role and lead the march again.”