November 15, 2019

Dissent in Los Angeles

A few weeks ago, two Israeli army reservists came to Los Angeles to explain why they (members of an organization called Yesh Gvul), and perhaps 450 of their fellow reservists, refused to serve their time of duty in the Occupied Territories. They had already spoken in San Francisco, Boston and a host of other U.S. cities — mostly to Jewish groups — and they had few illusions about their reception in the United States.

Nevertheless, they persisted — mostly out of a deep sense of patriotism, ironic though that may sound. Their hope was that they might engage with open-minded American Jews, men and women who could listen to a different Israeli voice. Perhaps they could affect sentiment here and a groundswell of pressure from Jews in America might help shape policies and viewpoints in the White House or in Congress. At least that was the aim of one of their sponsors, Women in Black in Los Angeles, a 150-member wing of the international group of women opposed to war in the Mideast, based in part on the Israeli-Palestinian women’s organization that holds protest vigils to register its opposition to Israel’s occupation policy.

The first scheduled meeting for the reservists was a breakfast at the home of Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air. It was a wonderful L.A. start. Beerman has a reputation as a man of great principle. He is a pacifist, a political activist on the left and much admired by Jewish intellectuals, but he is also, surprisingly, liked and respected by many Jewish leaders whose perspective is quite different from his.

Beerman assembled a close set of like-minded friends, about 20 in all. People like political activist Stanley Sheinbaum (a former head of California’s ACLU, friend of Bill Clinton and one of the five Americans who met with Yasser Arafat in 1988 in Europe) and Norman Lear (a Democrat and civil rights activist who was the creator of the television series "All in the Family"). They could be said to have money and influence, though not necessarily strong ties to the organized Los Angeles Jewish community. They, and the others at the breakfast, embraced the two Israeli speakers.

It was apparently not difficult. Ishai Sagai, 25, came across as modest and patriotic. According to Beerman, Sagai seemed admirable, a moral and passionate young man. He is an officer in the reserves, a lieutenant, who sketched in for the Angelenos a few incidents that had convinced him Israel’s army in the West Bank and Gaza had become an occupying force. Invariably, out of anger or frustration or self-defense, some of the Israeli soldiers ended up humiliating Palestinians and, in the process, dehumanizing them. It was destructive for both Jews and Arabs, he believed. He had asked his commanding officer to let him serve anywhere but the Occupied Territories, even at the Lebanon border. He wound up in jail for 26 days.

Ram Rahat, the other reservist, was middle-aged and a founding member of Yesh Gvul. In 1982, he had objected to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and had protested by not serving. He was an accountant by occupation, a Canadian by birth. Their message at the breakfast meeting was clear: The army’s action in the West Bank and Gaza was a betrayal of everything Israel stood for, and as soldiers, rather than defending families, friends or the state, they were simply protecting settlers. Their words reinforced the feelings of nearly everyone in the room, according to Beerman.

That evening, speaking at Temple Emanuel, a leading Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, brought the two reservists back to reality. About 250 people had come to hear them, but lining the wall at the back of the sanctuary were a group of about 25 protesters carrying signs calling into question the courage of the two Israeli men and denouncing them for aiding Arafat. At times the evening turned nasty and the hecklers drowned out the two reservists. "Our children should not be exposed to this filth," was one cry; "Get out of here," was another.

Sagai and Rahat were scheduled to speak at a Reform temple in Sacramento, but a week before their appearance the invitation was rescinded — protests had been lodged that only one side would be heard and that was deemed not appropriate. But according to one source, the rabbi and the congregation president had been pressured by Sacramento’s Jewish influentials — judges, lawyers, political and Jewish organizational leaders.

The same groups apparently tried to persuade the minister of the local Presbyterian church to cancel his invitation as well, but he stood fast. More than 500 people, including members of the Sacramento Jewish community, made their way to the Presbyterian church that evening to hear the two Israeli reservists. In its way, the church gathering had the makings of a new kind of Mideast peace group — only one not exclusively or even overwhelmingly Jewish. Perhaps that is the direction of the future: Jewish organizations and observant groups allied with the Christian right on one side, and a peace movement consisting of Jews and non-Jews, secular and religious, on the other. It suggests a direction that many Jewish organizations might view with considerable reservations, despite their recent linkage with Christian evangelists. Namely, a political response in which Americans, Jews and non-Jews are united on Israel on the basis of beliefs and commitments that extend beyond ethnicity.