The seminar of a lifetime

As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.

Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.

In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.

The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?

When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].

The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.

Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.

Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.

The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.

The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.

Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.

Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to

South African Judge Inspires Redemption

When he turned 6 in 1941, Albie Sachs received a birthday card from his father, Solly, a union leader in South Africa. The card read: “Many happy returns, and may you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”

It would be less a wish than a prophecy. The younger Sachs would grow up to become a leading civil rights lawyer and activist as South Africa successfully struggled to free itself of the taint of legally sanctioned racial segregation and the violence it took to deprive the nation’s black population of its basic human rights.

Today, Sachs is a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela and playing a leading role in writing the nation’s new constitution after the fall of apartheid. But like many soldiers, Sachs was injured in the fight. He was jailed without trial twice and spent months in solitary confinement. He lived in exile in Mozambique for decades. In 1988, he was almost killed when agents of South Africa’s security forces planted a bomb in his car. The attack left him without sight in one eye, tore off his arm and required a grueling rehabilitation, during which time Sachs had to learn to walk and write again.

This month, Sachs is in the U.S. sharing his experiences — and his message of how societies can rebuild in the aftermath of violence and injustice — during a series of community conversations sponsored by the educational organization, Facing History and Ourselves, supported by a grant from the Allstate Foundation. On Jan. 23, Sachs will arrive in Los Angeles for a talk at the SGI World Culture Center.

Sachs says his Jewish heritage has played a part in informing his activism. His parents — like most of South Africa’s Jews of that time — fled pogroms in Lithuania as small children with their families. The family’s experience of escaping violence and discrimination fostered Sachs’ parents’ political activism, which in turn ignited his own commitment to justice.

“They had a freedom-loving spirit that came through to me,” Sachs says of his parents.

He recalls that the only book he was allowed to have in solitary was the Bible.

“I was struck by the Old Testament,” he says. “Some parts are very punitive — smiting every man, woman and child, every cat and dog,” he says.

But then there is also the opposite: the words of hope in the Song of Songs, the Psalms and the prophets, Sachs says. Faced with the contrast between redemption and anger, Sachs chooses redemption.

Sachs recounts the time he met with the man who organized the car bombing that almost cost him his life. The man was about to go before South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I didn’t feel I was ‘forgiving’ him,” Sachs says. “I was trying to establish a human relationship. He won’t be my friend, but if he sat next to me on the bus, I’d say, ‘Hello, how are you doing?”

Of his assailants, Sachs says: “We’re sharing one country. That’s much more powerful than vengeance.”

Justice Albie Sachs will speak at the SGI World Culture Center, 525 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, on Monday, Jan. 23, 7-9 p.m. The program is free and open to the public. For more information, call (626) 744-1177 ext. 22.

Laureen Lazarovici is a writer and social activist who lives in Los Angeles.

Present-Day Apathy Not Always Case

“Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” by David Von Drehle (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26)

We live in cynical times. For years, young people have felt disengaged from the political process. Knowledge of governmental figures and the workings of law seem more tenuous among college students every year. Now, driven by electoral ambiguities and corporate scandals, Americans have grown increasingly disillusioned about the impact individuals can really have on the governance of this country.

This hasn’t always been the case. The first half of the 20th century was a time of unrivaled activism. That involvement took many forms. In New York, the infamous Tammany Hall political system openly bought and sold votes and the influence that came with them. Opposing the forces of the ward bosses, sachems and scouts — as the Tammany operatives were called — were the ranks of progressive thinkers who agitated for change. Among the latter group, Eastern European Jews, recent immigrants from such oppressive and anti-Semitic regimes as Russia, Hungary and Lithuania, were in the vanguard. Having lived through the pogroms (as well as other forms of discrimination and intimidation) in their hometowns and cities, they came to the United States prepared for better treatment, and willing to fight for it when it was not forthcoming.

The immigrant’s life was not an easy one. As is well known, many ended up in the tenements of the Lower East Side, working for slave wages in sweatshops and dreaming of better days to come. That their bosses were often other immigrant Jews did not ensure that they would be treated fairly or even humanely. Those who could amass their fortunes at the expense of other, more recent arrivals, did so without a second thought.

It is hard to understand where they drew the strength to take on a system stacked against them; factory workers had little money, no clout with city officials — who had been paid off by the shop owners — and practically no time to organize. They worked from early in the morning until late in the night in cramped, poorly lit rooms, being driven to produce more and more by foremen who stood over them with eagle eyes, aware that they could be replaced by another desperate person for any infraction.

Then there were the safety hazards: fire was common. According to one source, approximately 136 people died in workplace fires every year. Tenement fires were common, too, and with up to 150 people squeezed into a narrow, six-story building, surviving was a matter of luck and chance. Conditions were so unsanitary at work and home that people often fell sick with diseases we think of as belonging only in underdeveloped, Third World countries.

Life indeed was hard, but somehow that difficulty galvanized people, and things were ready to burst by 1909, as David Von Drehle comprehensively and often chillingly relates in his new book, “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.” By the autumn of that year, conditions in the shirtwaist factories, where mainly young women toiled to produce ladies’ blouses, had deteriorated so far that the workers, many of whom barely spoke English, inspired thousands to stage a walkout in hopes of forming a union.

The young women drew some influential supporters, among them J.P. Morgan’s daughter and Frances Perkins, who would go on to hold the first Cabinet position held by a woman in American history. These “society women” had money, influence and the ability to draw media attention to the cause of the shirtwaist workers. What they did not have was the vote. Women’s suffrage did not pass until 1920, and yet all these women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, threw themselves into the fray. Even though they could not affect elections, they still believed they could have an impact on the way things were run.

And they were right, but first there had to be a fire. Von Drehle brings the situation that led up to the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001 — horribly to life. His book shows how the events of the previous year and a half led to the changes instituted in the wake of the devastating blaze. Primed by the strike’s impact, the government was finally ready to change business practices to protect the safety and well-being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The outcome was by no means assured. The owners, who had locked their workers into the factory floor to make sure no one stole some thread, lace or even a $0.50 blouse, were acquitted in their trial, and the Tammany bosses resisted any change that might have adversely affected their coffers. But change did come, and transformed the lives of countless American workers.

That was then. We are all enfranchised now, and yet one doesn’t have to look far to find greed, corruption and the perversion of the democratic process. What will it take to galvanize us?

The Need for Campus Activism

The level of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on our
campuses has been hotly debated in recent months. Some see an alarming surge of
pro-Palestinian prejudices that drown out and intimidate
supporters of Israel — and too often cross the line into anti-Semitism. Others,
including some Jewish campus leaders, minimize these trends and criticize
organizations that have mobilized to counter them.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA’s Hillel, for example, in
a recent article in this paper, disparaged these organizations and their
materials as “propagandistic,” “polemical,” part of the “anti-anti-Semitism
industry” and of “dubious value.”

Sadly, even though most Americans remain supportive of Israel,
there is abundant evidence that in academia, opposition to Israel’s policies
has mutated into attacks that demonize the Jewish State, undermine its
legitimacy and foment anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports
that “campus anti-Semitic incidents were up dramatically in 2002.” “Too often,”
added a recent ADL newsletter, “anti-Israel activism crosses the line into
anti-Semitism … and the bad news is that there is a silent majority on campus
that is simply not speaking out against anti-Semitism.”

It is not surprising that this majority remains silent.
Left-of-center ideology, with its fashionable post-colonialist critiques of America
and Israel, dominate campus culture. Edward Said’s bitter anti-Israel polemics
hold sway in Middle Eastern Studies departments and pervade other disciplines.
Pro-Palestinian views that distort Israeli-Arab history and spread
disinformation have been accepted as fact in many campus circles. Visiting
Israeli professors called their past year in American academia “a nightmare”
because of their colleagues’ intense and often ill-informed bias, Ha’aretz
reported last August.

“An entire year of attacks, even in corridors, staff
meetings and conferences … there is an unquestioned assumption that Israel
and the Israelis are the bad guys,” said Dr. Liora Brosh who taught comparative
literature at a New York State University.

Joint Palestinian-Israeli discussion panels often exclude
the moderate view, though they masquerade as balanced presentations. Divestment
campaigns that blame Israel alone for the conflict and ugly slogans such as
“Zionism is Racism” abound. Pro-Palestinian rhetoric is couched in a potent
brew of popular campus causes for social justice, human rights,
anti-globalization and indigenous people’s rights; and pro-Israeli students who
share these values have trouble disentangling them from the Palestinian
position. They also face an unfriendly environment. As journalist Daniel Pipes
recently pointed out, when well-known pro-Israel speakers lecture on campuses,
they require security protection. Speakers critical of Israel, however, do not.

It is little wonder that many Jewish students feel
uncomfortable and besieged. The one-sided nature of the campus debate also
leads other students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who otherwise would have no
particular bias, to simply assume that Israel has no case.

Unfortunately, the solutions offered by some campus leaders
do not go far enough to address students’ needs or the larger problem. Their
recommendations — issuing healing messages, encouraging Jewish students to
reach out to Muslims, supporting moderate Arab Muslim students — certainly have
merit, but they do not help students understand Israel’s case and they do not
fill the urgent need to counter the barrage of anti-Israel disinformation.

Israel has compelling ethical and historical justifications
for its existence and its policies. The American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, ADL, National Hillel and grassroots groups such as StandWithUs have
mobilized to make sure this information is part of the campus debate. Their
arguments are mainstream, shared by a majority of the U.S. Congress and the
current Israeli government. All students should be familiar with these
positions even though they may not agree.

Pro-Israel organizations are helping turn the tide on our
campuses, The Forward reported on Dec. 20, 2002. Many campus activists credit
them “for providing increased resources and training to campus activists and
helping them develop more proactive approaches.”

Campus leaders need to be on the front lines encouraging —
not marginalizing — efforts to better inform students and to ensure that all
voices across the political spectrum are heard and respected. Suppressing
conservative pro-Israel views will have the unfortunate effect of keeping the
campus debate one-sided and of inhibiting dialogue. Students of today will be
the leaders of tomorrow. Hopefully, their college years will expose them to the
full range of issues about the beleaguered Middle East so they can make informed
decisions in the future. Â

Roz Rothstein is executive director of StandWithUs. Roberta Seid is director of research and education for StandWithUs.

United Front

Imagine tens of thousands of Angelenos filling the block of Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente and La Jolla to show their support for the State of Israel.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel, along with more than 40 Jewish participating organizations, hope to see this vision come to life at 10 a.m. Sun., July 22, when they stage what may turn out to be the most ambitious solidarity rally ever mounted by Los Angeles’ organized Jewish community.

From Americans for Peace Now to the Zionist Organization of America, dozens of Jewish organizations have set aside their political, ideological and religious differences to put their names behind the rally, billed as the “Solidarity Rally for the People of Israel.”

The organizers want to emphasize the solidarity aspect. “It is important that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Israel. In a time like this, it is imperative that the people of Israel do not feel alone,” Federation President John Fishel said.

This weekend’s rally will be the latest in a wave of nationwide public demonstrations of support for Israel organized by American Jews. A June 4 rally, sponsored by an interdenominational coalition of rabbis and community leaders in New York, drew about 10,000 participants. Smaller demonstrations have also been orchestrated nationwide in Boston, Chicago, Denver and other cities. (Los Angeles’ Jewish organizations co-sponsored a solidarity gathering at Sinai Temple following the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada last October.)

Overall, more than 100 rallies have taken place since October, according to Gail Hyman, vice president for marketing and public affairs at United Jewish Communities (UJC), which is planning a massive solidarity rally Sept. 23 in New York, during its annual General Assembly.

This Sunday’s L.A. rally, which has been two months in the making, will be attended by members of organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, American Red Magen David for Israel, Hadassah Southern California, Iranian American Jewish Federation, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Leaders from various groups will appear, as will U.S. Reps. Howard Berman (D-Dist. 26), Henry Waxman (D-Dist. 29) Brad Sherman, (D-Dist. 24) State Assemblymen Tony Cardenas (D-Dist. 39) and Paul Koretz, (D-Dist. 42); L.A. City Council President Alex Padilla, Councilmembers Eric Garcetti, Cindy Miscikowski and Janice Hahn; L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Dist. 23); and L.A. City Controller Laura Chick.

Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will make opening remarks via telephone from Israel. Gov. Gray Davis and Mayor James Hahn have also been invited.

Among the most compelling guests will be two students and the principal of Tel Aviv’s Shevach Mofet High School, where many victims of the June 1 Dolphinarium bombing were students.

Fishel met them on a recent trip to Israel this month as part of a larger delegation of community leaders. He was impresssed with their attitude.

“In a time of tremendous anxiety, they were very, very positive,” Fishel said. “They believed that it’s important that those of us in the Diaspora visit, and show how strongly they feel about the Jewish State — it’s our home; we have no place else to go.”

Such gatherings are effective on several levels, he said — they attract media, bring together disparate elements of the Jewish community, and send a powerful message to both Jews and non-Jews.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the strong statement of support we are making, whether it be through visits there or through rallies,” Fishel said.

Rallies send a strong message to the people in Israel, said Meirav Eilon-Shahar, the Israeli consul for communications and public affairs. “It communicates that the Jewish community here is standing in solidarity with the people of Israel. And it sends a message to the politicians and decision-makers.”

The city cannot afford not to have a rally, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, who will be at the rally on behalf of the Simon Wiestenthal Center. “If we show that we don’t care, we send the wrong signal, not only to the world but to America; we prove that American support is softening,” he said.

Now is not the time for such support to erode, Hier said. “We know the U.S. will play a key role in whatever proposals and dialogues will take place. It’s important to show that we’re standing with Israel,” he said.

Like Fishel, Hier has traveled to Israel in recent months and has gauged the social temperature. “I think that Israelis are disappointed,” he said. “It’s the appearance and perception that counts, and the perception in many quarters is that American Jews are fair-weather friends.”

Craig Prizant, The Federation’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, was working full-time with a staff of 15 to coordinate the logistics among organizations and individuals. Prizant hopes to attract between 10,000 and 15,000 people to Sunday’s rally. Its site, on Wilshire between San Vicente Blvd. and La Jolla Ave., is where The Federation’s headquarters and the Israeli Consulate are located.

“We’re reaching out like never before to every facet of the Jewish community here, including the Russian community, the Iranian community and the Israeli community,” Prizant said.

Despite organizers’ call for a “unified apolitical front,” The Federation has reserved an area in anticipation of counter-demonstrations. At least two groups, Open Tent and Women in Black, are planning to protest. “The fact that we’re counter-demonstrating does not mean we’re anti Israeli,” said Jordan Elgrably, the founder of Open Tent, a group which opposes Israeli occupation and settlements over the Green Line.

The organizations at the forefront of Sunday’s solidarity rally are undeterred, and their mission will not end with Sunday’s rally. The Wiesenthal Center has already launched an aggressive international PR campaign, placing ads in The New York Times and the Miami Herald that urge an increase in Jewish solidarity and Israeli tourism. Ads in major papers in Toronto, Buenos Aires, London and other cities will follow.

The Federation, which has already deployed a singles mission, an educators mission and several other voyages to Israel, will continue to mobilize such missions, including a major fall trip currently in the early planning stages.

With tourism in the Jewish State virtually nonexistent, Eilon-Shahar said she hopes that American Jews make the ultimate statement by booking flights there. “We understand the fear and personal circumstances,” she said. “We would like to see more efforts of individuals. It means a lot to people.”

Fishel added: “We can’t be so complacent to assume that this is just a momentary chapter in the Jewish State. This can go on for an indefinite amount of time.”

WHAT? Solidarity Rally for the People of Israel

WHEN? Sunday, July 22

WHAT TIME? 10 a.m.- 11:30 a.m.

WHERE? On the 6500 block of Wilshire Boulevard (home to the Jewish Federation and the Consulate General of Israel), between San Vicente and La Jolla Ave. (the entire block will be blocked off).

PARKING? Street parking available.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Dan Witzling at (323) 761-8077.