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Religion and politics: A rabbi’s place in the Jewish community

By Charles Proctor and Kelly Rayburn

Feb. 10, 2004 9:00 p.m.

As Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller waits to hear if he will be
allowed to continue as director of UCLA Hillel, the Los Angeles
Jewish community pays close attention to the fate of one of its
most important ““ and controversial ““ figures.

The Los Angeles Hillel Council is investigating allegations that
Seidler-Feller assaulted a woman at a campus event Oct. 21, and
will ultimately recommend if the outspoken politically liberal
rabbi should be fired.

The interest of many members of the community in whether
Seidler-Feller leaves or stays goes beyond the alleged assault.
Seidler-Feller’s ordeal has highlighted a rift between Jews
who have different perspectives on politics and, specifically,
Israel ““ a nation that so often brings Jewish community
members together.

As a vocal proponent for a dovish position that sometimes runs
against the mainstream, Seidler-Feller, who declined to comment for
this article, has drawn criticism from people who feel Jews must
unequivocally support Israel, especially in its current state of
impasse with the Palestinians. And as the head of one of the
largest Jewish student organizations in the country, some people
feel he forces his political views on impressionable students.

His position as someone who helps mold and shape the next
generation of Jewish leaders is threatening to many.

The whole situation was brought to a head on Oct. 21 when
Seidler-Feller allegedly kicked Rachel Neuwirth, a local community
activist and journalist whose political views are almost 180
degrees different than Seidler-Feller’s.

The incident, which appalled many members of the Jewish
community, opened a window of opportunity for some people who had
disagreed with Seidler-Feller for years to put him under a
spotlight and ““ they hope ““ get him fired.

Dr. Sheldon Wolf is a friend of Seidler-Feller’s who
studied Jewish scripture under the rabbi. He describes himself as
conservative, in line with the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us.
He is also a strong supporter of Seidler-Feller because of his
profound respect for the rabbi’s accomplishments.

The talk Wolf has heard in the Jewish community about
Seidler-Feller falls along two lines ““ those who discuss the
Oct. 21 incident as an isolated event, and those who discuss it in
terms of its political ramifications. Wolf compared the political
aspect of the discussion to the discussion that might happen were
there to be a vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court. If a more liberal
judge was threatened with removal, Democrats would naturally rush
to the judge’s defense while Republicans would call for the
judge’s ouster.

The analogy to the Supreme Court may seem dramatic, but it is
not far-fetched. Los Angeles is home to the country’s
second-largest Jewish community. UCLA is Los Angeles’ largest
and most prestigious university ““ the self-described place
where great futures begin.

The setting places Seidler-Feller in a powerful position. Some
say he uses that position to impress his political views on
students.

“(People) feel that he is misteaching their children, the
youth of America, the future leaders,” said Ross Neihaus,
president of Bruins for Israel.

The perception that Seidler-Feller’s political views are a
problem has gained greater prominence because of events in
Israel.

The second intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel, has
changed relationships within the Jewish community, especially on
college campuses. After the intifada broke out in September of
2000, Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League
documented a rise in anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic incidents on
campuses around the country. The movement against the war in Iraq,
which tended to hurl defiance at Israel and the U.S. government,
also increased concerns about such sentiments on campus.

To counter the movement, Jewish organizations poured millions of
dollars into Israel advocacy groups which sought ways to outreach
to campus communities. As the intifada continued, the perception
among many of these advocacy groups is that they had to defend
Israel aggressively.

As the deterioration of the Mideast peace process agitated
relationships between American Muslims and Jews, it also agitated
relationships within the politically diverse Jewish community. The
Jewish American mainstream generally followed Israeli public
opinion as it shifted to the right, and people who didn’t
follow suit felt increasingly marginalized. Some were branded as
traitors and “self-haters.” Some were intimidated into
silence.

Not so for Seidler-Feller.

As an outspoken liberal, Seidler-Feller continually expressed
dovish views as Jews on campus felt more and more threatened.

David Myers, a UCLA history professor and a friend of the rabbi,
said some people perceive Seidler-Feller to be the cause of the
tension in the community because of his outspoken nature, a
conception Myers calls “preposterous.” Myers said
Seidler-Feller is nothing more than a recognizable figure
who expounds a particular view despite some people’s efforts
to put the “onus of responsibility” on him.

“He’s a Jewish community activist who has not been
shy in expressing his views about the Middle East conflict, and at
a point in history when initiatives for peace are not favored in
the Jewish community, he … finds himself in a somewhat
unfavorable position,” Myers said.

Gideon Baum, president of UCLA’s Jewish Student Union,
said Seidler-Feller’s views make people, including himself,
uncomfortable sometimes. But he added that being made uncomfortable
is often beneficial to spiritual and mental development.
Furthermore, Seidler-Feller brings “way more” people to
Hillel than he drives from it, Baum said.

Others say Seidler-Feller crosses lines he should not cross.
They oppose not just his views, but the way he expresses them.

Ben Shapiro, a fourth-year political science student and
nationally syndicated columnist, said most of the speakers
Seidler-Feller recruits for Hillel events are from the left-wing.
When a more conservative figure is brought in, the speaker will
likely be hotly contested by Seidler-Feller, Shapiro said.

It is not Seidler-Feller’s nature to let assertions he
disagrees with stand uncontested ““ whether or not he is
attending a Hillel-sponsored event.

For instance, when the late Edward Said spoke on campus last
year, Seidler-Feller challenged the Palestinian intellectual and
activist on a statement that 800,000 Palestinians were expelled
from Israel in 1948. He then asked Said to sign a petition calling
for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and
a two-state solution to the conflict. (Said did not sign it.)

At a Hillel-sponsored event with Dennis Prager in Spring 2002,
Seidler-Feller took exception with a comparison Prager drew
relating Israel’s relationship to the West Bank with the
United States’ to Puerto Rico. In a letter to the Daily
Bruin, Seidler-Feller said Prager’s comparison was
“imprecise.” He said Prager’s exaggerated defense
of Israel ultimately hurt Israel’s cause.

It’s his style, more than the substance, that some find
bothersome.

Bruins for Israel President Neihaus said, “He just puts
his views out there and in your face and he argues them adamantly
and he pushes them on you. … I wouldn’t even say
it’s his views that are the problem. I agree with a lot of
his views. It’s just the way he goes about pushing them. He
will state his views very forcefully.

“He claims that he’s open to dialogue and listening
but you find that in practice it’s actually very hard to sit
in a dialogue with him.”

There’s more to Seidler-Feller’s public persona than
forcefulness of opinion. A passionate man, his temper has flared at
times.

During a campus demonstration, Seidler-Feller once grabbed a
sign equating the Star of David to a Swastika from a protester. The
rabbi ripped it up and stormed away, stunning onlookers.

The incident between Seidler-Feller and Neuwirth was the most
controversial incident ““ by far. It was reported on in
major newspapers, including the Jerusalem Post. UCLA students
traveling to Israel have been asked about the developments at their
school’s Hillel.

The Oct. 21 incident began after a presentation by Harvard Law
Professor Alan Dershowitz, who was discussing his book “The
Case for Israel” in Royce Hall. According to eyewitnesses,
Seidler-Feller was leaving the event when he encountered several
protesters.

Seidler-Feller stopped to talk with the demonstrators, and at
some point in the conversation Sari Nusseibeh’s name was
mentioned. Nusseibeh is the president of Al Quds University and the
Palestinian Authority Commissioner for Jerusalem and was speaking
on campus the next day about a joint Jewish-Palestinian effort to
gather signatures for a proposed peace plan. Neuwirth heard the
name and approached Seidler-Feller, saying Nusseibeh had helped
direct Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Israel during the 1991
Gulf War.

Accounts at this point become muddled. Seidler-Feller allegedly
grabbed Neuwirth’s wrist and confronted her about her claim.
At some point during the confrontation, Neuwirth allegedly called
Seidler-Feller a derogatory term for a Jew who helped the Nazis
during the Holocaust. Allegedly, Seidler-Feller began kicking her.
Accounts differ on whether Seidler-Feller attacked before or after
he the derogatory term was mentioned.

The two were pulled apart by students before the incident
escalated. But the damage ““ to Neuwirth, Seidler-Feller and a
wide swath of the Jewish community ““ was done.

Almost immediately it was evident that what had just happened
was about more than just a man kicking a woman.

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

Ten days after the incident, Rob Eshman, editor in chief of the
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, wrote a column for his
paper. “This week,” the column began, “while
fires raged, strikes festered and three or four wars smoldered,
most of the urgent phone calls I received were about Chaim
Seidler-Feller.”

Some callers to the Jewish Journal asked the newspaper to
downplay the incident; others wanted the Journal “to go after
the rabbi,” Eshman wrote.

In an interview, Eshman said those calling for the newspaper to
be more critical, typically had different politics than
Seidler-Feller.

“It was political,” he said. “It wasn’t
one-to-one, though.”

Eshman’s column went on to criticize
Seidler-Feller’s role in the incident, but in the end
recommended Seidler-Feller not be dismissed.

Noting Seidler-Feller’s contribution to the Jewish
community, Eshman said, “I thought we should temper the
reaction. … At the time I wrote it, the drums were beating very
loudly.”

By all accounts, the drum beat has softened with time.

Since the incident, Seidler-Feller has agreed to attend anger
management classes and apologized to Neuwirth. He also agreed to
stop attending campus political events for a period of time, and in
January he voluntarily took a leave of absence from Hillel until
the investigation of his incident finishes.

Some of his actions may be seen as attempts to make peace with
groups opposed to his politics. He found an influential sponsor in
the Jewish community for Bruins for Israel, the most right-wing of
major campus Jewish groups.

Roz Rothstein, the executive director of Stand With Us, said the
polarization which occurred after Oct. 21 has mostly died, and said
people who tried to make the incident political were
“unethical.”

Though the politicization of the incident has largely withered,
Myers expressed apprehension that groups on the extreme right-wing
were trying to keep the dispute alive to get Seidler-Feller
fired.

Working largely through the Internet, such fringe groups are
attacking Seidler-Feller’s character and integrity and
calling for his ouster. Some go so far as to call Seidler-Feller a
“wife-beater.”

But if some of Seidler-Feller’s supporters argue his
opponents are responsible for politicizing the event, others say
the rabbi’s supporters have downplayed a violent incident by
accusing those calling for his removal of political bias.

Gary Ratner, executive director of the Pacific Southwest Region
of the American Jewish Congress, said politics are irrelevant.

“This is solely a question about someone assaulting a
woman,” he said.

He asked how people claiming to be “peace loving and
progressive” would not call for Seidler-Feller’s
removal after he allegedly assaulted a woman.

He did acknowledge, however, that many in the Jewish community
wanted Seidler-Feller out long before the alleged assault.

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

For 28 years, Seidler-Feller has been the director of UCLA
Hillel. Although an orthodox rabbi, he has been a man of unorthodox
style.

He’s challenged the mainstream with unusual religious and
political views, sometimes to the point of making people downright
angry. A man who has for years had many adversaries now faces the
most serious threat to his job.

Baum said, “The sharks were swimming around him and he
slipped up and they went after him ““ and they went after him
in a big way.”

A representative from Hillel declined to comment on the
specifics of the investigation. But a source close to the
investigation said it is essentially over and that Hillel will make
a recommendation very soon.

Since those conducting the investigation are tight-lipped, it
may never be perfectly clear what role, if any at all, politics
played in its outcome. But there is no doubt Seidler-Feller is a
political figure.

Both supporters and detractors ““ even while demanding
an investigation free of politics ““ admit that there are
interests within the Jewish community that could be served
depending on the outcome.

Some people perceive Seidler-Feller to be a problem that needs
to be removed, or at least set aside. But to others, Seidler-Feller
is a leader asking questions about problems that cannot be removed
or set aside.

With all of its diversity, the Jewish community waits.

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