April 2, 2020

The Mideast Comes to L.A.

I suppose there has always been a division between Jews who are affiliated and those who are not. Two separate worlds. The first wears the definition with pride: The Jewish Community. The second by default or distrust or indifference, or maybe choice, seems to be cast adrift, at least from fellow Jews who make up the “community.” Now, with the crisis in the Middle East heating up, with American foreign policy suddenly thrust into the very center of the action, with Europe turning against Israel and European crowds singling out Jews, the question arises: Will the two groups come together, accept a common Jewish identity? On the basis of partial evidence, I would say, not in Los Angeles. Or, at least, not yet.

A group of us gathered to celebrate a friend’s 51st birthday last weekend. It was a warm mix of people in the arts and in television, Jewish, but largely unaffiliated. In the midst of birthday laughter, one of the women turned to me and asked hesitantly what I thought of Ariel Sharon. Suddenly, all conversation at the table stopped.

I don’t like what he’s doing, I replied. There was a visible sigh of relief, a relaxing of tension as men and women, almost released, began to talk about the conflict in the Mideast. They were troubled. They didn’t like what Sharon was doing, hated the military incursions and the destruction that followed in their wake.

But they didn’t like or trust Arafat either. They were pro-Israel, but not in favor of its present policies — and felt at a loss because they saw absolutely no solution in sight. That evening, a more focused and diverse crowd turned out for a discussion sponsored by PEN (the national writer’s organization). The room was packed, with an overflow crowd spilling outside. The guest speaker at this somewhat hurriedly planned gathering was Robert Fiske, a journalist who has reported on the Middle East for the London Independent for more than 20 years. He had just flown in from Bethlehem. Over the years, Fiske has covered the fighting between the Russians and Afghanistan, reported from Iraq and Iran, been on the scene in Lebanon in 1982. He had also interviewed Osama bin Laden on three different occasions, the last time in 1997.

Given his experience and the fact that he had just arrived from the war zone, I was surprised that relatively few affiliated Jews were present. No one from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; no rabbis; nor any organizational or community leaders. Perhaps they knew Fiske would be critical of Israel. He loathes Sharon, dating back to the 1982 debacle. But he has only scorn for Arafat and the members of the PLO around him. Still, his point of view — that Israel’s military policy could not succeed; that a political solution was needed; that that solution could only be brokered by the U.S.; and that George Bush’s approach was simplistic and Colin Powell’s was hypocritical (why did he fly over the rubble and destruction wrought by the latest suicide bomber in Jerusalem and not visit the stench and shattered ruins of Jenin?) — was not what Jewish leaders wanted to hear. However, the audience — Jews (unaffiliated), Muslims and Latinos, but mostly white Americans — applauded him enthusiastically.

Of course it is the affiliated Jews in Los Angeles who organize and come out loyally for demonstrations in support of Israel and who respond vocally with anger and alarm at each day’s events. More than a half-dozen rallies have already marked the month of April, and this coming Sunday, linked to the annual Israeli Festival, the city’s largest celebratory demonstration is scheduled to take place. The Federation says 35,000 are expected.

Not surprisingly, the synagogues have united behind Israel. One particular service at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in the city, seemed to capture the feeling of connectedness that America’s affiliated Jews feel for Israel. The temple’s rabbi, David Wolpe, spoke to his congregants about those Israelis who were in need because of the suicide bombings. What can we do? he asked, for help them we must. Within 25 minutes, he had received pledges of $700,000 from the entire congregation, including children. That sum was matched by Magbit, a Persian Jewish philanthropic group (about half of Sinai Temple’s congregation consists of Iranian Jews).

Some of this is misleading. As Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal pointed out in an editorial, the numbers at the rallies are small, given Los Angeles’ 520,000-plus Jews. Hollywood’s Jews, for example, have largely been silent. And not everyone in Los Angeles’ affiliated community agrees that uncritical support is best.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), along with Peace Now and UCLA’s Hillel, held a town meeting several weeks ago to question Israel’s policies. Two observant Jews, Professor David Myers, a historian and the former director of UCLA’s Jewish studies program, and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, an Traditional rabbi and head of UCLA’s Hillel, were leaders at the meeting and helped set its tone. Myers characterized his position as one of being deeply torn, almost paralyzed, and desperately looking for a way to find a voice: A voice that would be loyal to Israel, but at the same time, deeply unhappy at the path it was taking. And deeply critical as well, of the Jewish leaders in America, who once again, he said, were appealing to the primal fears of Jewish Americans. A follow-up town hall meeting is set for April 26.

According to PJA Staff Director Daniel Sokatch, there are many Jews in Los Angeles, affiliated and unaffiliated, who are committed to Israel, who feel they are part of the Jewish community, but without a voice, and without leaders who reflect their doubts and views. Endorsing a bankrupt policy does not necessarily demonstrate loyalty to Israel and/or its interests, explained one Jewish critic. When I asked about his identity, he smiled. Unaffiliated, of course.