Jewish Journal


October 30, 2003

Hillel Head, Writer Clash on Campus

Whether Neuwirth called Seidler-Feller a kapo before or after he grabbed her arm is in dispute.


Having Alan Dershowitz speak on behalf of Israel at a university event was meant to be provocative, but nobody could have predicted the fracas that erupted after the prominent author and attorney spoke.

Outside the auditorium, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel, allegedly kicked freelance journalist Rachel Neuwirth, after she reportedly called him "worse than a kapo."

The city attorney concluded an investigation of the incident late Wednesday afternoon and recommended the parties involved in the case meet with a hearing officer in the city attorney's office to determine a resolution.

"The facts [of the case] are in dispute," said Eric Moses, director of public relations for the city attorney, "and the best way to handle a situation like this is to get the parties together to talk."

Neither Seidler-Feller nor Neuwirth will face criminal charges, Moses said.

The incident has upset many in the community, and highlighted ongoing disputes between Jews on different sides of the debate over Israel.

Donald Etra, attorney for Seidler-Feller, told the Journal that his client was seeking to resolve the case. "He has been an incredibly effective Hillel rabbi, and he intends to remain so," Etra said.

According to Daniel Hakimfar, a fourth-year UCLA student who is involved in some pro-Israel campus groups and was present at the event, Seidler-Feller approached a group of pro-Palestinian protesters who were standing outside Royce Hall as the event let out. At least one protester was holding a placard that said "Edward Said Lives," referring to a recently deceased critic of Israel.

Seidler-Feller introduced himself to them and started talking to them about Israel and invited them to a Hillel event featuring former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon and Palestinian representative for Jerusalem Sari Nusseibeh.

Upon hearing Nusseibeh's name, Rachel Neuwirth, a freelance journalist and pro-Israel activist who had also approached the protestors, took Seidler-Feller aside and objected to him approaching the protesters in what Hakimfar described as an "apologetic manner" and countered with the allegation that Nusseibeh advised Saddam Hussein to launch Scud missiles toward Israel's population centers for maximum casualties.

Seidler-Feller and Neuwirth got into a verbal argument and Seidler-Feller grabbed Neuwirth's arm. Neuwirth called Seidler-Feller a kapo (a Jewish guard in the concentration camps during World War II) and then said he was worse than a kapo because she could never judge a kapo.

Whether Neuwirth called Seidler-Feller a kapo before or after he grabbed her arm is in dispute.

At that point, Seidler-Feller allegedly pushed and kicked Neuwirth.

"When a rabbi does that, he pretty much goes against everything he has been teaching," said Hakimfar, who thinks Seidler-Feller should resign.

Etra would not comment on specifics of the incident, citing ongoing legal issues.

Neuwirth went home, but told The Journal she had trouble sleeping because of the pain. According to Neuwirth, the next day she went to the hospital where a doctor prescribed Vicodin and Ibuprofen. Neuwirth then filed a report with the campus police, who investigated the incident and passed on their recommendations to the city attorney's office.

Etra told The Journal that Seidler-Feller has tried to apologize to Neuwirth and others for his actions.

"What he did was sad and shameful," said Allyson Rowan-Taylor, program director at StandWithUs. "When he called to apologize, I said to him, 'as a rabbi, as an educated man and as a scholar of Torah, you should know better.' The thing he did was an offense to all of the things he represents."

Rowan-Taylor suggested Seidler-Feller take anger-management courses.

David Myers, professor of history at UCLA, told The Journal that he suspected that people would use the incident to manifest grudges against the controversial Seidler-Feller. He blamed a "a political culture that is really toxic" for increasing the overall tensions in communal discourse.

"This is a man who has devoted his life to the Jewish community and the Jewish State," Myers said. "I fear this [incident] will not be used as an opportunity for introspection, but rather to attack an agenda, and to act on long standing animosity toward Chaim."

Etra, Seidler-Feller's attorney, said his client would not resign.

"From what I gather, the person that started the incitement perhaps should also consider that type of course," he said, referring to suggestions that Seidler-Feller take anger management classes.

Jeff Rubin, public relations director for Hillel in Washington, would not comment on the incident.

Hillel UCLA boardmember Laurie Levenson said Tuesday the board will wait for the city attorney's office to issue its findings before making any comments.

Ross Neshaus, the president of Bruins for Israel, a pro-Israel student subsidiary of UCLA Hillel, also did not comment, telling The Journal that his organization was still deciding on a statement.

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