LOS ANGELES — After reading news of devastating fire storms, widespread local labor strikes and Middle East suicide bombings, readers of the Los Angeles Times may have found some relief in the headline “UCLA Rabbi Accused of Kicking Woman.”
The incident may generate some laughs, but it has triggered a face-off between supporters and critics of a controversial rabbi — and between Jewish hawks and doves.
It all started following a recent speech on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles by acclaimed attorney and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who was promoting his new book, “The Case for Israel.”
As the audience left, the director of UCLA’s Hillel, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, noticed a few pro-Palestinian demonstrators and went over to talk to them.
During the conversation, the rabbi invited the protesters to attend a discussion the next day on a peace plan proposed by Ami Ayalon, a former Shin Bet director, and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh.
Overhearing the conversation, Rachel Neuwirth, a journalist and pro-Israel activist, took Seidler-Feller aside and said Nusseibeh had advised Saddam Hussein to launch Scud missiles at Israeli cities.
An argument ensued, and as it heated up, Seidler-Feller grabbed Neuwirth’s arm. Either before or after the arm-grabbing incident, Neuwirth called the rabbi “worse than a kapo,” referring to Nazi-appointed Jewish administrators who oversaw fellow concentration-camp inmates during the Holocaust.
Seidler-Feller then allegedly pushed and kicked Neuwirth.
After a sleepless and painful night, Neuwirth said, she visited a hospital for pain relief and then reported the incident to campus police, who passed the case on to the Los Angeles city attorney.
At this point, the city attorney’s office has scheduled a hearing on December 1 to resolve the brouhaha “outside the criminal-justice system,” according to a municipal spokesman.
Seidler-Feller has not talked to reporters, but according to his attorney, the rabbi has since tried to apologize to Neuwirth and others for his action, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reported.
Seidler-Feller, who has been UCLA Hillel director for 28 years, is a graduate of Yeshiva University, an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and an advocate for liberal causes.
The editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, Rob Eshman, noted in an editorial last Friday that in a week in which Los Angeles was besieged by fires and strikes, most of the urgent calls he received were about the incident.
Neither friends nor foes defended Seidler-Feller’s physical attack, but his opponents saw his action as part of a long list of grievances centered on allegations that the rabbi soured Jewish students’ views of Israel.
His supporters protested Neuwirth’s insulting use of the word “kapo’’ as an example of the increasingly harsh rhetoric and demonizing of the left by right-wing Jews.
“My fear is that people will use this as an opportunity not only to attack or condemn a person for what may have been inappropriate action, but use it as an opportunity to settle political scores. That would be most unfortunate,” said David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA. “This is an opportunity for them to attack Chaim for what he stands for. My strong hope is that my suspicions are not confirmed.”
Eshman’s editorial strongly opposed demands for Seidler-Feller’s resignation, and the rabbi himself, through his lawyer, said he would not quit.
City attorney’s office spokesman Eric Moses said no criminal charges would be filed in the case. Possible recommendations at the December 1 hearing, he said, might consist of telling the parties to avoid each other or mandated attendance at an anger-management course.