Despite a stormy week of protest and provocation following music icon Stevie Wonder’s last-minute pullout from the Friends of Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Western Region dinner, the Dec. 6 gala went off without a hitch, raising a record $14 million for Israeli soldiers.
Approximately 1,450 Israel supporters filled the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Century City for the annual gala hosted by Haim and Cheryl Saban, including a who’s who of Los Angeles’ Israeli and Jewish communities.
But for the approximately 130 protesters outside the hotel, the fact that Wonder would not appear made the moment a cause for celebration.
“We are here to celebrate our brother Stevie Wonder for standing up on a principle, the principle that the Palestinians of today are the South Africans of yesterday,” said Shakeel Syed, a member of the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. “He had the courage and principle to defy the oppressors and defend the oppressed.”
As FIDF guests drove past, the protesters shouted, “Shame on you!” “Stop killing children!” “Israel is a racist state!”
Inside, during cocktail hour, Israeli news crews clamored for interviews with celebrities, including Israeli-American business and entertainment giants Avi Arad, head of Marvel Entertainment, film producer Avi Lerner, real estate developer Izek Shomof, Oracle business magnate Larry Ellison and the Israeli-born actress-producer Noa Tishby.
The four-and-a-half hour evening, emceed by “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander, was filled with moving firsthand accounts of the Israeli experience during wartime. Active-duty soldiers flown in from Israel for the event shared personal stories, softening hearts and loosening pockets before Haim Saban personally conducted a live-auction-style fundraiser from the stage.
Businessman and producer David Matalon made the night’s only mention of Wonder, when he pledged $8,000 to the FIDF and, “In honor of Stevie Wonder, another $2,000.”
Saban was quick with a rejoinder: “I’ll have him call you to tell you he loves you,” he quipped.
When Wonder backed out a week before the gala, organizers and sponsors were mostly silent, and speculation varied over the reasons given for Wonder’s decision.
Many articles focused on the thousands of signatures on a letter and online petitions urging Wonder not to appear. The FIDF’s initial explanation for Wonder’s cancellation mentioned that some individuals associated with the United Nations had pushed Wonder, who was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009, to drop out.
But in addition to these efforts, voices from within the African-American community in Los Angeles and beyond also put significant pressure on Wonder to abandon his planned appearance.
“The first level, which has been popularized, is the petition campaigns,” said Dedon Kamathi, a producer of Freedom Now, a weekly KPFK radio show about “pan-African political and cultural” subjects. “I think that the real, within-the-family pressure came from a number of black community organizations.”
Kamathi, who first heard about Wonder’s planned appearance from Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Atlanta, said leaders within the black community told Wonder’s staff that if he didn’t drop the FIDF benefit appearance, they would picket in front of KJLH, the Los Angeles-based r&b and gospel radio station owned by Wonder, as well as at Wonder’s annual “House Full of Toys” benefit concert at the Nokia Theater in L.A. later this month.
“We take personal responsibility for people like Bob Marley, people like B.B. King, people like Stevie Wonder, people like Public Enemy,” Kamathi said, standing on the sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel about an hour before the FIDF gala was scheduled to start. “We gave them life; they live in our communities.”
A similar intimate bond applies to the America-Israel relationship, which is bolstered mainly by American and Israeli-American Jews. For many in that group, the FIDF gala is a unique opportunity to support the young soldiers who risk their lives to defend the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when, in lieu of hearing the traditional refrain of uncritical and unequivocal support for Israel, emcee Alexander shared some unusually candid remarks about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a lengthy and serious address, he talked about his love for both Israelis and Palestinians and his work with the organization One Voice, which has exposed him to nuances on both sides of the conflict.
Speaking of his engagement with Israeli and Palestinian civilians, he concluded: “This conflict continues because of the inability of leaders to break through this impasse and find a way to peace.”
Nevertheless, Alexander was careful to balance his remarks. The most vigorous applause came when he referred to the Jewish state as the most “maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nation on the planet” and expressed admiration for its soldiers.
“I believe that the men and women soldiers that defend [Israel] are among the most honorable and noble soldiers the world has ever seen,” Alexander said, though he added that sometimes “they have made mistakes.”
That rationale — that Israel’s military sometimes exercises undue power — seems a plausible explanation as to why Wonder, an avowed peace activist, feared he might compromise his image as a neutral figure by appearing. Although the protesters were quick to claim Wonder as a fellow activist for their cause — one man held a sign with Wonder’s face and the words, “Thank You!” painted on it — in a statement posted on the KJLH Web site, Wonder did not choose sides.
“Given the current and very delicate situation in the Middle East, and with a heart that has always cried out for world unity, I will not be performing at the FIDF Gala on December 6th,” Wonder said in the statement. “I am respectfully withdrawing my participation from this year’s event to avoid the appearance of partiality. As a Messenger of Peace, I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere. In consistently keeping with my spirit of giving, I will make a personal contribution to organizations that support Israeli and Palestinian children with disabilities.”
Inside the ballroom, several Israeli soldiers took to the podium to share stories, all of them heart-wrenching reminders that even with its military might, the IDF has suffered profound losses. Yoni Asraf, an American who enlisted in the IDF, told the crowd how he had lost a limb in a mortar attack during the 2008 incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. In a feat of stunning courage and perseverance, he refused to relinquish his post after his loss and spent years rehabilitating himself in order to rejoin his unit.
A Moroccan-born mother who immigrated to Israel to raise a family in peace recalled for the crowd the dreaded knocks on the door — once on the first night of Passover — informing her she had lost a child. Two of her sons died in combat. “I am not broken,” she nevertheless told the group. “You cannot break a spirit.”
After her emotional speech, host Cheryl Saban embraced her, while her husband looked on with misty eyes.
Haim Saban used his pulpit time to talk about the values of the IDF, portraying an army of ideals, of “courage, compassion, strength and sacrifice.”
After millions of dollars in pledges were collected, Grammy-winning musician and producer David Foster orchestrated some light entertainment, with performances by “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard and Chaka Khan, the Grammy-winning “Queen of Funk-Soul,” who sang the hit “I’m Every Woman.”