Don’t Let Them

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Eight years after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the unending debate over Jew-on-Jew 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 passions of the Middle East remain, but the bit about an extremist killing an Israeli leader is out. The remake has a rabbi kicking a nudnick. It’s almost hilarious, except that it involves real people and real pain.

The dispute, which we reported last week, involves a spat at the University of California at Los Angeles between the campus Hillel director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, and a local Jewish militant. Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel chief for 28 years, is a charismatic Orthodox rabbi known for his dovish Middle East views. He’s become a focus of persistent protest by pro-Likud activists who claim his liberal views are corrupting the young.

The tiff came after a Hillel-sponsored speech by Alan Dershowitz on the justice of Israel’s cause. Exiting the event, we’re told, Seidler-Feller spotted a group of anti-Israel protesters and approached them to suggest they hear the other side. 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 Kapo,” or Jewish collaborator with the Nazis. At that point, eyewitnesses say, the rabbi kicked her.

She complained to the campus police. They passed it to the city attorney, who decided not to press charges but to send the pair to an arbitrator. Sources say a deal is emerging in which both would be ordered to attend anger-management classes.

But it doesn’t end there. There’s said to be a campaign afoot to pressure the national Hillel organization into firing Seidler-Feller. Rabbis we know have received phone calls from colleagues pressuring them to speak out against him. They report being told that major Hillel donors could yank their gifts if he isn’t fired, something Hillel denies. Some fret that integrity requires speaking out, that if the shoe were on the other foot and a rightist had kicked a leftist, the left would be howling for blood. Remember Rabin, they say. “It’s a real moral dilemma,” said one rabbi who’s a friend and ally of Seidler-Feller.

Well, they’ve got it all backward. The Jew vs. Jew threat arises when zealots use violence to impose their will on the majority. It happens often enough to be recognizable. You know it because it begins with name-calling and then escalates. What’s worse, it often works. The bullets that felled Rabin were meant to stop the peace process he led, and they did.

What does this have to do with a rabbi’s alleged overreaction, shameful as it is, to a campaign of harassment? Nothing, except this: 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.

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