What began as a campus dispute over Israel resulted in a four-year legal battle that came to an end only this month, after a top campus rabbi in Los Angeles issued a formal apology.
“I am deeply sorry that I hit, kicked and scratched you and called you a liar on October 21, 2003,” Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller wrote in his apology to Rachel Neuwirth, a 57-year-old pro-Israel activist in Los Angeles.
The apology from Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles, caps a long saga that began when Neuwirth confronted Seidler-Feller after a campus appearance by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Neuwirth, who was born in Israel, is a real estate broker by profession but has advocated for Israel in articles in right-wing magazines.
As part of the settlement that was agreed to in a California Superior Court, Seidler-Feller had to write the public apology and also pay a “substantial” sum of money, according to Neuwirth.
“I can take a beating; I was in the military,” Neuwirth told the Forward, “but when you grow old, you really feel it all over yourself.”
The national Hillel organization was also a defendant in the suit. Seidler-Feller was initially suspended from his position at UCLA, but he has since been reinstated and will not be disciplined further.
“The whole incident happened three years ago, and it was dealt with appropriately at the time,” said David Levy, executive director of the the Los Angeles Hillel Council.
Seidler-Feller, who has been a Hillel director for almost 30 years, is currently on sabbatical and could not be reached for comment. His lawyer said that the settlement was “amicable,” but he declined to comment otherwise.
Seidler-Feller has had many defenders in the Los Angeles area, most of whom have claimed that Neuwirth and her allies were using the incident to oust Seidler-Feller as retribution for his dovish views on Middle Eastern politics. Lawyers for Seidler-Feller initially said he was provoked to assault Neuwirth after she called him a kapo — the word for Jews who collaborated with the Nazis. In his apology, the rabbi said his actions were “unprovoked.”
The incident was given further amplification this week when a columnist for the UCLA student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, wrote that Seidler-Feller should be fired for his actions. The columnist, David Lazar, also tracked down another pro-Israel activist who said she was confronted by Seidler-Feller at the same event. Allyson Rowen Taylor, who is a regular in Los Angeles pro-Israel circles, told the Forward that, as she was walking out of the event with Rowen Taylor, Seidler-Feller “lunged at me. He was literally spitting in my face.”
Rowen Taylor said she did not push her complaint because she works for Jewish organizations in the area.
Because it is confidential, the settlement does not entirely clear up the exact sequence of events on the fateful night in the fall of 2003. What is agreed upon is that Neuwirth and Seidler-Feller were both at a campus event with Dershowitz, an outspoken advocate for Israel. Afterward, Seidler-Feller was speaking with a group of Muslim protesters when Neuwirth approached. She heard the rabbi inviting the protesters to an event the next day with Palestinian activist Sari Nusseibeh. Neuwirth chastised the group, saying that Nusseibeh had been responsible for Iraqi missile attacks on Israel.
Seidler-Feller’s lawyers maintained that Neuwirth called the rabbi a kapo before he began attacking her. Neuwirth said she only called him that after the attack began.
Local police decided not to press charges against the rabbi, but they did recommend that he attend anger management classes and apologize to Neuwirth. She rejected his initial apology and filed her civil lawsuit.
The event gained international media attention after local Jewish groups got involved — the more liberal ones on Seidler-Feller’s side, and the more hawkish ones on Neuwirth’s. Dozens of UCLA professors signed a letter supporting Seidler-Feller, stating that “the Jewish community must ask how a longtime teacher, scholar and leader can be branded with one of the most repugnant epithets imaginable —‘kapo’.”
Neuwirth told the Forward that she is satisfied with the settlement but wishes the rabbi would have been fired. Rowen Taylor, the other person who said that she was confronted by the rabbi, now works for Stand With Us, a pro-Israel campus organization in the area. She said that, after all that has happened, “it was hard for me to sit at a table with him and discuss campus issues.”