COMING TO TERMS: AN AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY
NOVEMBER 7, 1995
Shortly after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, American Jewish leaders, with divergent views, talk with Jeffery Kaye KCET-Los Angeles.
JIM LEHRER: The Israeli Justice Minister said today he's planning to introduce legislation banning protests at the homes of elected officials. Now to the reaction of an American Jewish Community. Jeffrey Kaye of public station KCET-Los Angeles reports and discusses.
JEFFREY KAYE: Yesterday in Los Angeles, 2,000 people gathered for a memorial service to pay tribute to Yitzhak Rabin. The ceremony was held at a center named for Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. California Gov. Pete Wilson recalled his longtime friendship with Rabin.
GOV. PETE WILSON, California: How privileged I have been to enjoy the friendship of a great and courageous leader. Blessed are the peacemakers; how blessed, my strong friend, must you be.
JEFFREY KAYE: There are about 600,000 Jews in Southern California. Their religious practices are varied. They range from strictly observant to non-existent. Most Jews are not affiliated with synagogues. Their political beliefs also span a wide spectrum, from support of the Israeli government to opposition to the peace process. But religious and political divisions have been put aside as Los Angeles Jews have mourned the killing of the Israeli prime minister. Last night, hundreds of mourners attended a candlelight vigil in front of the Israeli Consulate. Irwin Field, president of the Jewish Federation Council, sounded the theme of unity and peace.
IRWIN FIELD, Jewish Federation Council: The Los Angeles Jewish community has stood with the people of Israel for 48 years. We have been with them in times of calm, in times of stress and strain. We are with them in this--in these days of mourning.
JEFFREY KAYE: In Los Angeles, opponents of the Israeli government have been publicly silent on that issue. Politics has been overshadowed by grief. Last night, rabbis from Judaism's three main branches: orthodox, conservative, and reform, led mourners in the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. But mixed in with the religious was the secular and, in particular, support for Israel. And before mourners left, they joined in the singing of the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikva, which in Hebrew means "Hope." (Group Singing Hatikva)
JEFFREY KAYE: Joining me now are Marlene Adler Marks, managing editor of the "Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles;" David Eliezrie, an orthodox rabbi who disagrees with the peace process; Gerald Bubis, past national co-chair of Americans for Peace Now; and John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Thank you all very much for joining us. Marlene Marks, let me start with you. In the taped piece from Israel, we saw extraordinarily deep and abiding political divisions. Are those deep political divisions in Israel a fundamental part of the Jewish community here in Los Angeles?
MARLENE ADLER MARKS, L.A. Jewish Journal: Well, the first thing to say is that many people in Los Angeles, a proportionate number, have relatives in Israel, and they have taken sides based on family connection. Others have what's called a vestigial yearning for Israel, which has now become awakened, having nothing to do with previous politics. And that's the thing that I probably would stress more, what's going on now, is the healing coming from this re-connection and the politics that I see played out will be brand new based on that whole new connection that many, many Jews are feeling. expect might happen in the future, but traditionally, what have we seen in the last few years in the Jewish community in America? Are those divisions from Israel reflected in the Jewish community here?
MS. MARKS: Clearly they are. There were people sitting out in front of the Israel Consul General's Office after there was a sit-in at a settlement in Israel. I mean, we see almost an immediate effect. We have certain synagogues that are very actively involved in the settler movement, and others that have taken pro- Likud Party positions years and years ago, and then others that are quickly aligned with the Labor Party as well.
JEFFREY KAYE: Gerald Bubis, would you agree with that, and do you see that as healthy?
GERALD BUBIS, Americans For Peace Now: I would agree with it. I think it's incomplete, because I think for the most part there was a high level of indifference about all of this among most Jews and Los Angeles. I do think that I agree very strongly that this will stir up feelings of concern and review of where a given person was politically as a result of what's happening.
JEFFREY KAYE: When you said indifference about this, you're talking about the peace process in general, or are you talking about Israeli politics?
MR. BUBIS: I think about Israeli politics. I believe most Jews really don't know very much about Israeli politics, just as most other Americans don't. And I think this will bring much more interest and focus to this whole matter of the future of the Middle East than was formerly the case.
JEFFREY KAYE: John Fishel, as an executive director of an organization that--as an umbrella group for many Jewish organizations, would you agree, have Jews been particularly politically active in Los Angeles from where you stand?
JOHN FISHEL, Jewish Federation Council: Well, politically active in the sense that they're concerned about politics, politics in this country and politics in Israel. But I would agree with Jerry Bubis. I think that most Jews are not that well informed necessarily of the specifics in Israeli politics. They follow the general newspapers. They read the Jewish press. They're aware, but they don't have a profound understanding.
JEFFREY KAYE: Do you believe that the--for those Jews who are politically active--and I think everyone seems to agree that those would be in the minority--but has--to what extent has the Jewish community here in the United States affected what's been going on in Israel?
MR. FISHEL: I don't think directly it affects what's going on in Israel. I think what's going on in Israel does have some circular effect on what happens in the American Jewish community. I think it has created some polarization in the last number of years. I think that that does have an impact on how--
JEFFREY KAYE: Polarization in this country, or--
MR. FISHEL: Polarization in Israel certainly but polarization in this country as well, among those who are more politically active, more politically aware. Where it has had an impact is in perhaps a lowering in the inhibitions of some American Jews to involve themselves in the political process in Israel.
MR. BUBIS: I think there's an anomaly that this recent change has brought forth. Up until the Labor Party was elected, those of us who were moving as strongly as we could in a responsible manner against the Likud government were accused of being disloyal to Israel and also accused of speaking when we had no right to speak as American Jews. Those who attacked us the most and were the most vociferous are those now who are at the heart of the most vociferous attacks against the Labor Party, including supporting some of the most extreme elements within Israel, itself, and elements here in the United States.
JEFFREY KAYE: To what extent? Let me turn to you, Rabbi Eliezrie. You've been opposed to the, the current peace process. And how have you and, and people who were--would be affiliated with you made their points of view known in Israel? To what extent have you been affected?
RABBI DAVID ELIEZRIE: I think that it's been really a debate which has gone on here and gone on there. The fact that Jews here in America--many feel that this process could endanger security of the Jewish state, is a reflection of the way Jews feel there. And I think that the fact that we express our opinion here, it is an impact over there, and Israel's also sensitive to American public opinion. And when Jews stand up in this country and they say they question that maybe this could bring danger to Israel, this could establish a terrorist state adjacent to Israel, that I think it also strengthens the opposition in Israel.
JEFFREY KAYE: But you've heard some of the strident views that have continued to come out of Israel.
RABBI ELIEZRIE: And that really--this peace really bothers me for another reason. You have 2 million Jews in Israel, about 50 percent of the population who is opposed to the present process not just because of the holiness of the land, because they're very concerned about their own personal security. And you can take a camera and you can find a few people--and you can call theme extremists--but there's a significant portion of this population which is deeply troubled, including myself, because the risks are very great. Even Prime Minister Rabin, before this tragic event that happened this week, said there's risks for peace. It could go one way; it could go another. And the fact that these risks are there are very real, and to take and to paint extremists is one of the dangerous things which is happening right now. You have a man who did a terrible act. This was an act of an individual. The whole United States society was not responsible when somebody assassinated President Kennedy. And 2 million Jews in Israel, who support--who have questions about this peace process, or a million orthodox Jews in Israel who a great percentage, majority of them also don't support the process are not responsible for the act of an individual.
MS. MARKS: But let's talk honestly, Rabbi.
RABBI ELIEZRIE: But there's one--there's also one point, you can go further. You can go to Karyat Arba and you can find one fellow or two people who are quite extremist, and they're a very small percentage, but they're not the mainstream of the religious community.
JEFFREY KAYE: Marlene Marks.
MS. MARKS: Well, my feeling is that my three subdued colleagues here, my friends here, all of you are my friends, are, are much too modest about how anxious our communities have been. I've been on the phone with you, Rabbi Eliezrie, any number of times after small moves or big moves, and, umm, you're, you're very heated about this subject. And you, in particular, have been known to tell me precisely what you think about a policy which would eliminate Jews from the settlements, and you call it word, may I suggest, that has a certain kind of a Nazi ring to it. You get very, very angry, and very heated. I'm not holding you responsible. What I'm saying, if we're talking about, you know, how a community gives permission for violence, ever-rising violence, we're--we all have a responsibility here.
JEFFREY KAYE: And do you think that rhetoric helped create a climate in Israel? Is that what you're saying?
MS. MARKS: There's no question.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Bubis, I'll come back to you in a minute.
MR. BUBIS: I think there's absolutely no question that there was--there was no set of boundaries set here or there that declared certain kinds of rhetoric to be beyond the pale. And to say that one person pulled the trigger, it's probably true, but to take it out of the context of the nourishment of that person's position, outlook, belief, fanatic, toxic, willful, destructive belief is to ignore what was going on there in ways that I had not seen in the 30 years or so that I've been going to Israel.
RABBI ELIEZRIE: The tragedy here, though, I think it's an important point to mention, the tragedy is, and I think Marlene is right, and I think Jerry is correct, there has been a rhetoric. There has been a rhetoric of the right and a rhetoric of the left. And they have both been two extremes. There's many Jews in Israel who felt deeply disenfranchised because words of government ministers that had been very hostile to their needs. And there's been people in Israel on the right, that there's no question they have gone beyond the norms of, of public discourse. And what we have to ask ourselves the question as Jews here in America and Jews in general is because this tragedy, the taking of the prime minister, and I got up yesterday at 4 o'clock in the morning in California to watch this terrible event and attend its services, memorial service, it must cause us to pause and ask a question. We stand on different sides of many of the issues but we have to begin a sense of a dialogue and a discussion which is rooted in decency and dignity.
JEFFREY KAYE: Does that mean for you to take up the point that Marlene Marks made, that you now might pause before you use what she described as heated rhetoric?
RABBI ELIEZRIE: Well, I have paused in the past, and I will continue to pause, because I never, ever would, would have supported a statement and an action of violence of one Jew against another Jew. In fact, when Baruch Goldstein did that terrible deed a year and a half ago, I wrote an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times condemning him.
MS. MARKS: That's absolutely true. He did.
JEFFREY KAYE: You're talking about killing--
RABBI ELIEZRIE: Killing. And I, I believe till today that even though I disagreed with Prime Minister Rabin in many of the policies, as many--as half the population in Israel does--nevertheless, he was a man who dedicated his life to the Jewish people for fifty, sixty years, and for that, he deserves great respect from all of us. But we must, as Jews, begin to seek a way of discourse which is much more with respect and dignity from both sides.
JEFFREY KAYE: John Fishel, let me ask you this. Has, has the character of the American Jewish relationship with Israel changed? It used to be that American Jews would support the Israeli government right or wrong, no matter what. Do you see a change, and what do you think, if you do see a change about whether that's healthy or not?
MR. FISHEL: I think that there has been a change. I think that clearly the vast majority of Jews who have strong feelings for Israel continue to support the policies of the duly-elected government of Israel, but I think that perhaps it's this stridency that has been a by-word in Israeli politics, it certainly is known in our own country.
JEFFREY KAYE: Is there a lesson here?
MR. FISHEL: I think the lesson is that the boundaries of civility need to be established. The elimination of vilification and demonization from the political process need to be moved upon immediately, and for American Jews and for Jews throughout the world, Jews in Israel, we need to think that through.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Bubis, do you see a lesson, because you've been accused on the left of being just as strident as the people on the right?
MR. BUBIS: I think it's an overly-drawn accusation, and it ignores what happened here in the United States, which is where I want to have our focus be. This is a discussion about us here. Those of us who are active in the peace movement and in the advocacy of the peace movement and trying to move forward in a context of security were put beyond the pale I think for two reasons: the criticism of the right, on the one hand, and the silence of the center on the other. And in an attempt to have symmetry, in an attempt to have fairness, there was a false pairing, where peace now, for example, which has always represented a substantial minority in Israel, was seen here to be some kind of kooky fringe group until after the Labor Party and the coalition came in. So my point would be that it is for the center to understand that where and as they see extremism there's no need to match and pretend that there has to be a balancing act, there's every need to decry--
JEFFREY KAYE: Let me give you the last word. Do you see these groups coming together, coalescing, having more of a dialogue than in the past?
MS. MARKS: Well, for one thing, the center is now awake, so to that extent, neither one of them need to go to the extremes that they had to before to get the attention. Yes, I do believe that they will come together because we're going to force them to see it. The standards of decency are being established even as we speak.
JEFFREY KAYE: Ms. Marks, gentlemen, thank you very much.