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On Oct. 21, 2003, in a corridor on the campus of UCLA, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the director of UCLA's Hillel chapter, suddenly assaulted me when I merely asked him a reasonable question. He kicked and scratched me while trying to throw me down a flight of nearby stairs. Fortunately, I was saved from possible concussion by several bystanders who pulled him off me in time. When these Samaritans were finally successful in prying the rabbi off me, he attacked me again. He assaulted me three times in the course of several minutes, and each time I had to be rescued by helpful bystanders. There was a wall of students separating him from me when I finally landed on the staircase and the rabbi stormed off screaming and shouting incoherently. I later learned that after he assaulted me, he also shouted and screamed at another woman, Allyson Rowan Taylor, and had to be physically restrained from attacking her, too. I suffered physical injuries that required medical treatment. I am still trying to overcome the emotional trauma that I suffered.
This incident occurred within moments after we had run into each other by chance in the corridor, as we both, along with hundreds of other people, were exiting from a lecture hall. We had just heard a speech by the lawyer and Jewish activist Alan Dershowitz. My sole communication with Rabbi Seidler-Feller before the incident occurred was a brief question that I asked him: Was he aware that Sari Nussiebeh, a Palestinian Arab who was scheduled to speak on campus the next evening, as a guest of Hillel, had worked as a spy for Saddam Hussein's Iraqi military during the Gulf War of 1991? Was he aware that Nusseibeh had contacted the Iraqi military suggesting targets in Israel for Saddam Hussein's missile batteries to attack? (Iraq fired tens of missiles into Israel during the war, causing extensive property damage, forcing the entire population to wear gas masks, and causing at least one death).
Instead of thanking me for this information, Rabbi Seidler Feller's only reply to my question was to assault me. More than three years later, I received the following letter from Rabbi Seidler-Feller, which was published in the campus newspaper of UCLA, the Daily Bruin, and in the internet edition of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal which stated:
"I am deeply sorry that I hit, kicked and scratched you and called you a liar on October 21, 2003. By taking these unprovoked actions, I have contradicted the pluralism, peace and tolerance about which I so often preach. I also have violated the humanitarian teaching of Judaism regarding kindness and respect for others that I am bound to uphold." And Rabbi Seidler Feller also stated: " I am accepting 100% responsibility for my actions on October 21, 2003. I had no right to do what I did."
My purpose in recounting this unfortunate event is not to disparage Rabbi Seidler-Feller. I have accepted his apology. In the language of the lawyers, our dispute has at last been resolved "amicably." Rather I wish to set the record straight after more than three years of unfair and misleading press coverage of this event in four widely read Jewish newspapers, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, the Forward, the Jewish Week, and the Jerusalem Post. This unfair and inaccurate coverage has included, in addition to news reports and editorials, comments about me by some fifty UCLA professors, by the Jewish Progressive Alliance, and by others within the "progressive" wing of the American Jewish community. This unfair coverage, by blaming me, the victim, for the assault on me, felt like getting beat up all over again. It has greatly increased and prolonged the emotional trauma that this incident has caused me for more than three years after it occurred. Finally, I wish to make some brief observations about the values and unstated assumptions that seem to underlie many of the unfair criticisms of me in the press.
One theme of these inaccurate descriptions of the assault is the claim that I had provoked it by calling Rabbi Seidler-Feller a "capo," an expression referring to concentration camp inmates who were forced by the Nazi guards to police their fellow prisoners. Thus, according to these reporters of, or commentators on, the incident, I was the true aggressor, having provoked the Rabbi beyond human endurance by a grave insult. In reality, I had not called Rabbi Seidler-Feller this or any other disparaging name, or indeed made any disparaging or provocative remark to him at all, before he assaulted me. It was only after he grabbed my wrist, dug his nails into it, and called me a "liar" that I have blurted out this word, at a moment when I was in pain and shock as a result of an entirely unexpected assault, and scarcely knew what I was saying. In these circumstances, most people would have used far stronger language.
Many of the journalists and academics who publicly commented on this regrettable incident seemed to view it in purely political terms. The humanitarian and moral issues created by the incident did not appear to concern them. They expressed no concern whatsoever for the pain and mental anguish that I had endured. They did make any effort to get the facts straight, nor to hear, much the less report, both sides of the story. All that mattered to them was that someone whose political views about the Arab-Israel conflict agreed with theirs had behaved in a manner that created a public relations problem for their side of the debate, and that the individual whom he had assaulted was on the other side. Their only concern was to protect him, and themselves, from embarrassment. They did this by the classic ploy of blaming the victim.
Following are some examples of the sort of press coverage that I have found offensive and hurtful. Not one of these writers witnessed the attack on me and not one ever contacted me to hear my side of the story before going into print with a version of events that was both inaccurate and damaging to me.
EIGHT YEARS AFTER the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the unending violence has moved from the Holy Land to La La Land, in an absurd parody that only California could concoct. In the Hollywood version,... the remake has a rabbi kicking a nudnick. It's almost hilarious except that it involves real people and real pain . . . a group of his hawkish critics reportedly came over and a heated discussion ensued, during which one of the critics called the rabbi "worse than a capo," or Jewish collaborator with the Nazis. At that point, eyewitnesses say, the rabbi kicked her. . . There's said to be a campaign afoot to pressure the national Hillel organizing into firing Seidler-Feller. . . .What does this have to do with a rabbi's alleged overreaction, shameful as it is, to a campaign of harassment? . . .Chaim Seidler-Feller's critics have been trying to shut him up because they don't like what he says. If their alleged success in provoking him is permitted to obliterate a distinguished 28-year record of service, they will have imposed their will on all of us. We must not let them.
THERE ARE MANY ironies at play here: A peacenik facing accusations of assault. A pro-Israel activist using the same Nazi rhetoric against a fellow Jew that the Arab extremists use against Israelis. . . But the one irony even Seidler-Feller's most eager opponents dare not lose sight of is that ending Seidler-Feller's career at UCLA Hillel might be, in their minds, a win for Israel, it will be a net loss for the Jews of Los Angeles. As a teacher, thinker, leader and innovator he has few peers in this city. As much as he has tried to wrest the darker threads of messianism from the Zionist ideal, he has also sought, in the tradition of Rabbis David Hartman and Shlomo Riskin, to infuse secular Zionism with a deeper understanding of Judaism itself. It's true Seidler-Feller has something to learn from what happened on Oct. 21, but it is also true that he has much more left to teach.
THE FACTS INDICATE that following a UCLA lecture by visiting Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz on Israel, Neuwirth had allegedly called Seidler-Feller a "kapo," and the rabbi, whose grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, had allegedly pushed and kicked her. . .Citing the rabbi's record, Rob Eshman, the editor of the LA Jewish Journal, wrote in his column that ending the rabbi's career at Hillel would be "a net loss for the Jews of Los Angeles." The controversy with Neuwirth highlighted some of the reasons he has become a target figure for the right. When Dershowitz spoke in late October about Israel at a university-wide event, a pro-Palestinian group picketed outside the hall. Seidler-Feller approached the group and engaged them in dialogue about Israel. Before leaving he issued an invitation to a Hillel program in which a former Shin Bet director and Palestinian representative Sari Nusseibeh would engage in a debate. It was at this point that Rachel Neuwirth intervened. She objected to Seidler Feller's "apologetic manner," particularly with regard to Nusseibeh, whom she called an enemy of Israel. The argument over Israel and how American Jews needed to act escalated and words led to the alleged physical exchange [there was no "physical exchange." I offered no physical resistance at all to Rabbi Seidler-Feller's assault. R.N.] For the moment Jewish life continues here undimmed and undiminished: The right is indignant and filled with sounds of virtue; the left is in quiet retreat, hoping this will all blow over; and not very much has changed in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; or between Jews and Jews.
THE QUESTION OF how Jews argue with each other hit home for me personally. . . My close friend, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, head of UCLA Hillel, recently found himself caught in a pathological turn of the Jewish discourse. During a UCLA Hillel event, a right-wing freelance journalist named Rachel Neuwirth repeatedly taunted Chaim for his left-wing politics, and finally denounced him as being "worse than a kapo." Enraged, Chaim grabbed her arm and kicked her. . . Just before Neuwirth began shouting at him, Chaim had approached Muslim students demonstrating against Israel and tried to engage them in dialogue. For Neuwirth, that gesture confirmed Chaim as a symbol for all those unrepentant leftists who even now, after Oslo's trail of blood, persist in their dialogue of appeasement. Rachel Neuwith shouting "kapo" at Chaim Seidler-Feller is the primal Jewish scream against the return of the threat of annihilation. For his part, Chaim Seidler-Feller lashing out against Rachel Neuwirth is the blind rage of a left-wing lover of Israel who has been called an enemy of Israel one too many times. (In fact, he was trying to convince those Muslim demonstrators of the justness of Israel's existence.) And so when Neuwirth called Chaim "worse than a kapo" - the vilest insult possible for someone from a survivor family - she became for him the symbol of all those right-wingers who routinely invoke ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, but who really love only those Jews who agree with them, and hate those Jews who don't.
NOW THAT RABBI Chaim Seidler-Feller has agreed to an official recommendation that he participate in an anger management program and write a letter of apology to his alleged victim, our community must demand similar forms of teshuvah (repentance) from other sources. Rachel Neuwirth and her supporters owe Seidler-Feller and the entire Jewish community an apology for their repeated, incendiary references to Seidler-Feller as a "kapo" (a Jew who collaborated with Nazis in exterminating other Jews). Neuwirth's own "worse than a kapo" epithet reportedly instigated this unfortunate incident. During the last two months, this same reprehensible label has been attached to Seidler-Feller (whose and principled "pro-Israel/pro-peace" stance. It's time to put this sorry episode behind us and to demand civility -- in word and deed -- from all sectors of our community.---- Douglas Mirell, Executive Committee Chair,Daniel Sokatch, Executive Director, Aryeh Cohen, President,Progressive Jewish Alliance, Los Angeles.11]
VIOLENCE, SUCH AS is alleged in the episode involving Seidler-Feller, cannot be condoned. At the same time, the Jewish community must ask how a longtime teacher, scholar, and leader can be branded with one of the most repugnant epithets imaginable -- "kapo." Can this be the reward for decades of service? Such hateful language -- the language of incitement-increasingly infects Jewish communal discourse and must be condemned. In this difficult hour, we stand by Seidler-Feller. . .and fully expect him to continue to serve the community with his unique dedication and brilliance.
RABBI CHAIM SEIDLER-Feller has contributed immensely to Jewish student life and to the entire Los Angeles Jewish community in his nearly three decades as director at UCLA/ But as an Orthodox rabbi who is committed to pluralism and the search for peace, he is naturally seen as threatening by some of the more reactionary elements of our community. The failure of Rachel Neuwirth's allies to condemn her hateful and outrageous verbal attack on Seidler-Feller exposes the nakedly political nature of their calls for his resignation.
There is much more, in the same vein, in the American Jewish press.
After Rabbi Seidler-Feller apologized, I requested that the Jewish Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, the Jewish Progressive Alliance, and the nearly fifty UCLA professors retract their inaccurate and damaging descriptions of this incident and apologize to me. All of these people, except for three of the professors, have refused or ignored my request. Apparently it does not matter to these folks that Rabbi Seidler-Feller, in his official apology, even admitted that his attack was "unprovoked". None of this seems to matter to those who claim to be Jews, while ignoring the Commandment "Thou shall not bear false witness." The rabbi sent copies of his apology to the Daily Bruin, the Forward, and the Jewish Journal. The Forward ran a brief story about the apology but has not published the complete text of the letter. The Jewish Journal published the letter in its internet edition, but has refused to publish it in its print edition, which is read in Los Angeles by many of my friends, my neighbors, and my business clients The Jewish Journal has refused even a substantial sum to publish the full text of the apology as an advertisement.
Is this the level of morality we Jews have descended to in our internal political discourse? Do fair and balanced reporting and love of the truth count for nothing? Has winning the argument, regardless of the facts and regardless of who is hurt in the process, now become everything? May God help us.
May God help us.
1. Hakimfar, David, "Eyewitness to a rabbi's crime,"
(http://www.jewsweek.com/bin/en.jsp?enPage=BlankPage&enDisplay= view&enDispWhat=object&enDispWho=Article%5el921&enZone= Opinions&enVersion=0&)
2. David Lazar, "Give kicking rabbi the boot," Daily
Bruin, February 20, 2007,
http://www.dailybruin.com/news/2007/feb/20/igive_kicking_rabbi_booti/ posted on
3. Yoram Ettinger, "Dr. Sari Nusseibeh: Be Wary Of Deadly Coral
Snakes Posing As Harmless Skipjack Snakes," Jerusalem Cloakroom
ArchivesAugust 20, 2002,
4. Motti Morell, "Palestinian Double-Talk: Professor Sari
Nusseibeh," Front Page Magazine, July 15, 2002,
5. Daily Bruin,
http:/www.dailybruin.ucla.edu/news/2007/feb/15/hillel_director_apologizes_attack. and Gaby Friedman, "UCLA Hillel rabbi apologizes, settles 2003 case with woman journalist," Los Angeles Jewish Journal February 16, 2007,
The Professors who were signatories to David N. Myers' letter:
Carol Baknos, Arnold Band, Scott Bartchy, Sharon Dolovich, Ellen Dubois, Stephen Engel, Gerald Estrin, Thelma Estrin, Norma Feshbach, Seymour Feshbach, Saul Friedlander, Robert Gerstein, Carole Goldberg, Robert Goldstein, Janet Hadda, Joel Handler, Zeke Hasenfeld, David Hirsch, Werner Hirsch, Jack Hirshleifer, Marvin Hoffenberg, Russell Jacoby, Sanford Jacoby, Aziza Khazzoom, Leonard Kleinrock, Traci Mann, Max Novak, Edward Ornitz, Judea Pearl, Melvin Pollner, Jeffrey Prager, David Rapoport, Bertram Raven, Ken Reinhard, Arthur Rosett, Teo Ruiz, Yona Sabar, Abigail Saguy, Emanuel Schegloff, Stuart Schweitzer, Suzanne Schweitzer, William Schniedewind, Deborah Silverman, David Sklansky, Allan Tobin, Roger Waldinger, Stanley Wolpert, Jonathan Zasloff, Maurice Zeitlin.
7. JJ Goldberg, "Don't Let Them," Forward, November 14, 2003.
8. Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief, "Reckless," Jewish
Journal, October 10, 2003,
9. Gene Lichtenstein, "Kicking Up A Storm At UCLA," The Jewish
Week, November 11, 2003,
10. Yossi Klein Halevi, "The Return of the Poison Discourse," The Jerusalem Post Dec. 5 2003.
11. Douglas Mirell, Executive Committee Chair, Daniel Sokatch, Executive Director, Aryeh Cohen, President, Progressive Jewish Alliance, Los Angeles "Apologize to Seidler-Feller," Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, January 2, 2004.
12. Professor David N. Myers and about fifty other professors at UCLA, in a letter to the Jewish Journal, November 21, 2003. See 6.
13. Ornah R. Becker, in the same issue of the Jewish Journal, November 21, 2003.
For more on this story, read "Give Kicking Rabbi the Boot" by David
(http://www.dailybruin.com/news/2007/feb/20/igive_kicking_rabbi_booti/) and "Why 'kicking' Rabbi Seidler-Feller didn't 'get the boot' at UCLA Hillel" By Jerry Gordon
(http://www.israpundit.com/2006/?p=4023, February 20, 2007)
Rachel Neuwirth is a freelance writer who resides in the Los Angeles area. Please, visit Rachel's web-site
http://www.MiddleEastSolutions.com. Rachel receives e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. This was submitted April 7, 2007.
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