Beggars apparently can be choosers — or so the Iranian
government seems to believe.
The Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, which is
struggling to recover from the Dec. 26 earthquake that killed at least 20,000
people and damaged an entire region, has announced that it will not accept
humanitarian aid from the “Zionist entity.”
However, U.S. Jews and Israelis still are finding ways to
help the victims. And one of the few U.S. nongovernmental organizations running
relief on the ground is led by an Iranian American Jew.
Farshad Rastegar formed the Los Angeles-based nonsectarian
Relief International 14 years ago to aid victims of an earlier earthquake in Iran.
As an Iranian American Jew working in his native country, it’s “very
emotional,” he said.
Rastegar, who is planning to leave for Iran soon, said his
group has raised more than $150,000 for relief work in Iran, $65,000 of which
already has been routed to a bank there.
Like other Jewish humanitarians working in Iran, Rastegar
tries to keep politics out of the picture.
“Pain is the same everywhere, whether you’re in Bosnia in Sarajevo
and somebody’s shooting at you, or whether you’re in Chechnya,” he said. “A
bullet is a bullet, a child is a child and pain is pain. The religion, the
ethnicities, the national differences really dissipate in the face of these
kinds of tragedies.”
Rastegar’s religion is known to Iranian government
officials, and his group, which worked with professionals in Iran before the
earthquake, continues to be well received, he said. Despite the Iranian
government’s hostile attitude toward Israel and Jews, there should be no
problem in routing Jewish funds to those in distress, Haroun Yeshaya, head of Iran’s
Jewish community, said in a phone interview from Tehran.
“All Iranian people are going to be glad” to receive funding
from anyone in the world, Yeshaya said through Kamram Broukim, a translator in California.
Through his organization — the Fariborz “Fred” Matloob unit
of B’nai B’rith, named in memory of an Iranian Jewish boy — Broukim has raised
more than $50,000 since Dec. 28 for earthquake victims. The funds will be
directed to Iran’s Jewish community, which plans to use the money to set up a medical
clinic in Bam, the center of the disaster. Broukim is working with Iranian Jews
in New York and London to raise additional funds. About 18,000 of Iran’s 30,000
Jews live in Tehran; another 8,000 live in Shiraz. There are no known Jewish
Despite Iran’s rebuff to Israel, at least one Israeli
nongovernmental organization is addressing the tragedy.
“I have a direct and open line to Iranians,” said Ra’anan
Amir, project manager of Latet, an Israeli humanitarian group that provides
domestic and international relief. Latet has sent “tens of thousands of
dollars” to earthquake victims, Amir said.
“We are welcomed, and we have the routes to come and work in
Iran,” he said.
Amir wouldn’t say whether Latet has people or equipment on the
ground in Iran, and he admitted that he has encountered patches of anti-Israeli
resistance along the way. However, he said, such resistance in Iran and
elsewhere comes from politicians or government officials, not from individual
According to the New York Sun, Iranian citizens criticized
their government’s refusal to accept aid from Israel, which has highly trained
disaster relief teams that have assisted victims around the globe.
Asked if he thinks humanitarian good will will help bridge political
or religious divides, Amir said he doesn’t “fool with idealism.”
“In the first few days of every disaster like this one,
nobody thinks about any of these topics,” he said. “People are just looking for
a place to put their head at night, to get covers, to get something to eat, to
get something to drink and to find their relatives.”
If his presence happens to change some Iranians’ views of
Israelis or Jews, that’s great, he said. But he doesn’t know whether Latet’s
clients even know of the group’s origins — or what effect, if any, such
knowledge would have.
“I’m not going and carrying the flag with me,” he said.
Like other Jewish humanitarians, Rastegar said he is driven
by his faith.
“We’re the chosen people not for privilege; we’re the chosen
people to serve,” he said.
Ronni Strongin, spokeswoman for American Jewish World
Service, agreed, saying, “The Jewish people are compelled to step above hatred,
and we cannot stoop to the level of others. Jews must provide humanitarian need
to those that are in deep distress.”
The agency raised approximately $7,000 last weekend for
quake victims. The money will be used to purchase medical supplies, which will
be dispersed through Direct Relief International (DRI). DRI, which is not
related to Rastegar’s group, is seeking an Iranian partner to handle efforts on
Strongin said her group received several angry e-mails from
Jews who believed that Iran, which is implacably opposed to Israel and has
persecuted its Jews, doesn’t deserve humanitarian aid from Jewish groups.
For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC), the largest U.S.-based Jewish relief and welfare organization,
has not begun a fund for the earthquake victims.
“We haven’t been active and don’t have a presence to be able
to extend any kind of direct assistance, so we would have to work through
outside NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” said Will Recant, the JDC’s
assistant executive vice president.
In any case, he noted, “we haven’t had a response from the
American Jewish community” inquiring about the earthquake or asking if the
group was accepting funds.
Contributions can be sent to Relief International at “>www.ajws.org;
Israeli History the Dershowitz Way
“The Case For Israel,” by Alan Dershowitz (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95).
Alan Dershowitz’s new book describes an Israel no Israeli would recognize, an impossibly virtuous country whose intentions are always pure, whose conduct is forever above reproach, and whose rare misdeeds can be explained away as accidental. Conversely, the Palestinian Arabs (and for that matter, all Arabs) are depicted as malevolent terrorists bent on Israel’s destruction; every one of their deeds is attributed to the basest of motives, every decision a result of unremitting hostility, trickery, foolishness, or a combination of all three. No reader of Israeli historical scholarship or journalism would recognize the simple tale of good and evil, of angels and devils, described in the pages of Dershowitz’s book.
Though equipped with the tools of historical scholarship (footnotes, primary and secondary textual documentation, etc.) and presenting itself as an exploration of the historical roots of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in pre-State Palestine and Israel, his book is not a serious work of scholarship on the enormously complex struggle of two national movements over the same small piece of land. Instead, it is the latest in a long tradition of hasbarah, propaganda, that is not unlike the material produced by the Israeli Office of Hasbarah in years past, or pamphlets issues today by various pro-Israel advocacy groups in the United States.
In seeking to “make the case for Israel,” Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard and prominent defense attorney, has abandoned any pretense of balance, nuance or objectivity, all of which are guiding values for professional historians. That he is more interested in a one-sided polemic than a sober historical exploration is evident in the title of the book (would anyone interested in the political history of the United States rely on a book titled “The Case for America?”). It is also evident in its structure — each chapter title is framed as a question (Did Israel Start the Six-Day War? Were the Jews Unwilling to Share Palestine?) whose answer is predetermined from the outset, and then divided into sections on “the accusation,” “the accusers,” “the reality” and “the proof.”
Dershowitz is not to be criticized for writing a polemic, for that is what he set out to do, and he presents his case with passion. But the question is: Is such an approach helpful at this critical time?
Most important, it is evident in the book’s many factual errors, misinterpretations of evidence and selective quotations. To take but one example: Dershowitz resurrects the old, discredited canard that the Arabs themselves are primarily responsible for the departure of approximately 750,000 Palestinians during and immediately after the 1947-1948 war, and therefore bear most of the blame for the creation of the refugee problem. To bolster his case, he quotes the prominent Israeli historian and author Benny Morris: “In some areas, Arab commanders ordered the villagers to evacuate, to clear the ground for military purposes or to prevent military surrender.”
Dershowitz also uses evidence from Morris to argue that the Arab leaders of Haifa encouraged their community to leave. What emerges from Dershowitz’s selective use of Morris’ book is an account of the refugee problem that places responsibility for the problem squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians themselves.
However, Dershowitz neglects to mention Morris’ conclusion, based on detailed research and stated quite clearly in several of his books (including those cited by Dershowitz), that the majority of Palestinian refugees were in some cases expelled by Jewish forces and in others fled out of fear of expulsion or massacre by those forces. On the very same pages Dershowitz cites to make his argument for Palestinian culpability, Morris writes the following:
“During the second stage, while there was clearly no policy of expulsion, the Haganah’s Plan D clearly resulted in mass flight. Commanders were authorized to clear the populace out of villages and certain urban districts, and to raze the villages if they felt a military need. Many commanders identified with the aim of ending up with a Jewish State with as small an Arab minority as possible. Some generals, such as [Yigal] Allon, clearly acted as if driven by such a goal…. Ben-Gurion clearly wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish State. But there was still no systematic expulsion policy…. Yet Israeli troops … were far more inclined to expel Palestinians than they had been during the first half of the war. In Operation Yoav, Allon took care to leave almost no Arab communities along his lines of advance.”
Clearly, Morris’ argument is considerably more complicated and morally ambiguous than the simplistic version Dershowitz presents. The latter has violated a cardinal rule of historical scholarship: an author is responsible for weighing all evidence at his or her disposal before making a conclusion, even if some of that evidence contradicts one’s own argument or bias.
I suspect that Dershowitz will not be troubled by objections raised by scholars. His account of Israeli saints and Palestinian villains is not aimed at historians or academic specialists. It is also not intended for Israelis, for whom firsthand experience of their country provides a degree of skepticism and nuanced understanding utterly lacking in the book. Rather, it is aimed at American Jews who are deeply attached to Israel and seek intellectual ammunition and moral reassurance at a time of crisis. Given the brutal terrorist attacks on buses, in restaurants and cafes, an economy on the brink of collapse, fierce and unrelenting criticism of the country and an unmistakable increase in anti-Semitism throughout much of the world, it is perfectly understandable to seek solace and solidarity in Dershowitz’s impassioned plea on behalf of the Jewish State. And yet, despite the many problems confronting Israel, the author’s embrace of simplistic, black-and-white explanations should be resisted. It may be noble to raise a stirring defense of Israel, but not under the guise of serious scholarship. Like a long marriage in which each partner comes to know and love the other for who they really are, warts and all, concern for Israel should be based on an honest, balanced assessment of the country’s strengths and weaknesses, achievements as well as shortcomings. To their great credit, Israeli scholars, journalists and intellectuals have been providing such assessments to their fellow citizens for at least two decades. It is unfortunate that professor Dershowitz has sought refuge in the soothing pieties of a previous era.
Alan Dershowitz will speak on Oct. 22 at the Nessah Educational Cultural Center, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. $15-50. 5:30 p.m. (reception), 7 p.m. (discussion). For tickets, call (310) 246-7200.
Adam Rubin is assistant professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
The Pacifist Who Fought Hitler
Dark Cloud Looms Over JCRC Future
The shock waves created by recent dismissal of Michael Hirschfeld as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) continue to reverberate both locally and throughout the country as JCRC supporters worry about the future of community relations.
"The sky’s not falling, but there are some very dark clouds," said Jay Tcath, chair of the National Association of JCRC Directors and head of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council.
The layoff of Hirschfeld, a respected 24-year veteran who lost his job amid a budget crunch and retrenchment at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, comes at a time when many JCRCs have fallen on tough times. Several JCRCs have seen their budgets slashed and staffs shrunk in the past year.
Locally, Hirchfeld’s dismissal and what it portends for communal relations were on the minds on many Jewish activists last week. On Sept. 10, Federation President John Fishel discussed the matter with the body’s executive committee. The following day, he met with JCRC lay leaders. Fishel, according to several participants, said he hoped JCRC would be stronger than ever and that eliminating the executive directorship as a full-time position only reflected the Federation’s budget difficulties — not a lack of institutional support. He also talked about JCRC on Sunday at a New Leaders’ Project meeting.
Despite Fishel’s attempts to calm tensions, the executive committee and JCRC meeting were contentious, participants said. At the JCRC gathering, Fishel allegedly shouted at a lay leader from the Valley who had harshly criticized him. Fishel said he thought the meetings went well overall and that he hoped the controversy has heightened community awareness about JCRC’s importance and might increase participation.
Still, several community activists continue to fume. Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair, said Fishel failed to support community building during Welinsky’s term and "tried to pull the rug out." He said he thought Fishel should resign or get fired for his lack of leadership. Fishel said he had no plans to quit and that he has always worked to further the JCRC agenda.
The Federation’s president also said he expected JCRC to emerge stronger than ever. For instance, efforts are underway to recruit more lay people to lobby politicians to support Jewish and other causes.
"I sincerely believe that if we put our minds to it and work together we’ll build on the strengths of past year," he said.
Still, Los Angeles’ challenges are not unique. With organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center promoting tolerance and interethnic cooperation, some community relations committees have seen their influence wane, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Relations in San Francisco.
JCRCs appear to have also lost their direction in the past decade, said Amy Wasser-Simpson, assistant executive vice president for planning and agency relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. From the 1970s until early 1990s, they played a vital role in freeing Soviet and Ethiopian Jews and relocating them to Israel. But with resettlement efforts nearly completed, that has left a void that has yet to be filled, she said. Three months ago, Seattle eliminated a vice president’s position that oversaw community relations because of budget problems.
Federations’ relatively flat fundraising have added to the woes of JCRCs, which historically have spoken out on governmental policy, advocated for Israel and world Jewry and forged ties with other minority groups. Since most JCRCs receive the bulk of their funding from federations, their financial problems have hammered JCRCs’ bottom-line, said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for the nation’s 123 community relations councils.
"When there’s fewer dollars in the field, there’s worry that [JCRCs] can be given short shrift," she said.
That’s already happening. In Philadelphia, that city’s JCRC has seen its annual budget decline to $525,000 this year, a nearly 14 percent drop since 2000. That led to the layoffs of two JCRC employees last year. Another three community relations staff members quit in protest after the local Federation announced plans to absorb the JCRC by 2004. Now, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia has four full-time staff members, down from nine just a year ago, JCRC executive director Burt Siegel said. More layoffs are possible.
Even recently revived JCRCs are struggling. Trudi Licht became director of the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and Desert Area with the mandate to grow the moribund committee. Three years later, she has no board of directors, subcommittees or steady community participation. She blames apathy among retirees and the high number of "snowbirds" who flee during the summer for the lack of JCRC support. Still, Licht feels frustrated.
"I’m trying, but it’s not happening," said Licht, who also heads the Women’s Division Campaign.
Some JCRCs have fared well. The Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco has 14 full-time and six part-time employees, making it one of the largest in the country. It even added a security consultant to work with synagogues and Jewish agencies to prevent terror attacks, Executive Director Doug Kahn said. But reduced foundation funding has led to the Bay Area JCRC’s New Leader’s Project being placed on hiatus, he added.
Hirschfeld, the departed L.A. JCRC executive director, said he thought federations have erred in diminishing the importance of community relations. Far from wasting valuable resources, taking stands on political issues, building bridges with other minority groups and fighting for the downtrodden, the types of things JCRCs do, energizes people.
"I believe it’s a mistake for federations to be jettisoning JCRCs," Hirschfeld said. "Oftentimes, they are the key for bringing in the next generation of Jewish leaders and donors into the federation community."
God’s Conversations With Allah
The Man Behind the Vision
In fall 1994, UCLA hired Dr. Gerald Saul Levey to assume the newly merged role of provost of UCLA Medical Center and fourth dean of its top-rated medical school. Levey couldn’t have picked a more precarious time for a job move.
Beset by leadership conflicts, a weak census and budget woes, UCLA was struggling to finance its famous research and teaching programs while delivering superior care in a marketplace rocked by the Northridge earthquake, a recession, managed care and declining government revenue.
Five years later, Levey’s business acumen and love of challenges have restored a clear vision, high morale and financial soundness to UCLA.
“My earliest memory is of wanting to be a physician like Dr. Rosenstein, our family pediatrician,” Levey, 62, recalls. “He made house calls, fixed my broken collarbone and saved a finger I nearly lost. I was absolutely in awe of him.”
Though Levey lived on “the wrong side of the Hudson River” during the Depression, his Jersey City, N.J., parents worked hard to support their only son’s dream.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but my family’s passion was for me to go to college and become a physician,” Levey says. “Education, achievement and raising kids who became good people — this is what my parents’ world revolved around.”
Life grew complicated when Levey turned 18. His attorney father, an immigrant from Odessa who once chaired the Republican Party in Hudson County, N.J., died suddenly of a heart attack. His mother, a first-generation daughter of Polish Jews, joined the workforce as a secretary to support Jerry and his older sister.
“With what she earned, my mother put me through college and medical school,” Levey says. “She lived to be 83 and was a great woman.”
In addition to internalizing her value for hard work and education, Levey inherited his mother’s devotion to Judaism.
“Judaism was important in our family,” says Levey. “We celebrated all the holidays and belonged to a conservative synagogue, where I went to religious school and was bar mitzvahed.
“I still remember raising money in the little, blue tzedakah boxes,” he adds, “and the sheer excitement we felt when the State of Israel was created.”
In his senior year at Cornell University, Levey met Barbara Cohen, another strong woman who would influence his life. A quick-witted blonde who sat next to him in folk-singing class, his wife-to-be was, Levey says, “a case of assigned seating — and love at first sight.” Recalls Barbara, now UCLA’s assistant vice chancellor of biomedical affairs, Levey dazzled her with his “incredible sense of humor.”
Barbara had already been accepted to medical school at SUNY Syracuse, where she graduated cum laude as the only woman in her class. After Levey earned his medical degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, the two married in 1961. They have two children, Robin, 34, and John, 36.
Dr. Barbara Levey attributes the secret of the Leveys’ happy marriage to “reciprocal devotion.” “Jerry is honest, direct, fair and empathetic — important traits for marital success,” she acknowledges. “And, after 38 years, his sense of humor hasn’t diminished a bit.”
Not content to restrict their partnership to marriage and career, the Leveys have shouldered leadership roles in Jewish organizations, often working as a team. In the past 25 years, the Leveys served on the local boards of their synagogue, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish National Fund, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
“We are active on the American Jewish Committee because of their work to improve relationships with other groups,” Levey explains, “and the United Jewish Federation, because of the great things they do for Israel and the local community.”
In 1996, the Jewish National Fund awarded the Tree of Life Award to the Leveys for their longtime commitment and contributions. Last year, the American Physicians Fellowship for Medicine in Israel presented the Leveys with a distinguished medical service award for their efforts to arrange U.S. training experiences for Israeli physicians.
During Levey’s five years of leadership, UCLA’s medical center and medical school have tangled with copious challenges, which Levey admits “intrigue and frankly challenge” him. In the devastating wake of the Northridge earthquake, both institutions have vigorously rebounded under Levey’s energetic direction.
Over the past five years, UCLA has launched 19 clinics in a community-based primary-care network; attracted $500 million in private donations, with $140 million in capital gifts for building projects; increased research funding to $227 million this year; recruited 13 academic chairs; created four new departments; maintained its 10-year reputation in U.S. News & World Report as the “Best in the West” for clinical care; and continued to identify life-saving scientific breakthroughs, such as the breast cancer drug, Herceptin.
Now, in the midst of a $600-million campaign to build two new hospitals to open in 2004 on UCLA’s Santa Monica and Westwood campuses, Levey’s star has never risen higher. Designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei, the million-square-foot Westwood complex will blend a light-filled healing environment with cutting-edge medical technology. In Santa Monica, prominent New York architect Robert A.M. Stern is designing a 525,000-square-foot neighborhood-friendly facility to replace the existing community hospital.
“Here at UCLA, we are creating the first academic health center specifically planned for the next century,” Levey says. “Can you imagine the exhilaration connected with this prospect? We are literally testing our ability to prophesy how medicine will be practiced and taught in the new millennium. If we do it well — and we must — we will be able to provide unsurpassed care for our patients and improve the health of people around the world.
“Every day,” he says simply, “I feel that these extraordinary new hospital and research buildings will be the legacy that I leave to UCLA.”
Orthodox Community Protests Police Shooting