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November 9, 2006

Jewish Time Machine: The 1982 General Assembly in Los Angeles

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/jewish_time_machine_the_1982_general_assembly_in_los_angeles_20061110

A Federation newsletter reports on the 1982 General Assembly. Courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Southern California

A Federation newsletter reports on the 1982 General Assembly. Courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Southern California

When it comes to issues making up the agenda during General Assemblies in Los Angeles, perhaps Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) was right when he wrote: "What has been will be, what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun."

Los Angeles had surpassed Chicago as the country's second largest Jewish population center by the mid-1950s, but it wasn't until 1966 that what was then called the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF), now United Jewish Communities, held its first GA here. One-thousand attended that GA, the CJF's 35th, at the Ambassador Hotel, where, seven months later, Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.

The main discussions focused on changing conditions in the Israeli immigration picture and Israel's economy, as well as issues facing overseas Jewish communities.

The GA returned to Los Angeles in 1982. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since, but the challenges confronting the Jewish world then are strikingly similar to those in 2006: A war in Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Syria, the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry, cutbacks in federal and state funding of social services, grave concerns about American Jewish identity and low levels of affiliation and giving to Jewish causes.

(Although not everything's the same- registration in 1982 cost $110 for out of town delegates and $50 for Los Angeles residents; this year it's $525 and $275, respectively.)

At the same time, it was the CJF's celebratory Golden Anniversary GA, or "GALA" as it was called, and it occurred during the period some consider to be a golden age of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, then led by president Osias Goren and executive vice president Ted Kanner.

A volunteer hospitality team of 700 Jewish Angelenos welcomed the 3,000 delegates, who were greeted on arrival by mariachis and a recreation of Farmers Market.

More than 500 marched from the Bonaventure to City Hall to call attention to imperiled Jewish communities around the world and to protest anti-Semitism in Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, the Soviet Union, Syria, Western Europe and elsewhere. Mayor Tom Bradley and law professor Irwin Cotler, who at the time was working to secure the freedom of imprisoned refusenik Anatoly Scharansky, spoke to the crowd. A conference session on the plight and rescue of Ethiopian Jews was found to be particularly moving.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino was scholar-in-residence, and spoke at two plenary sessions on the convention's theme, "Federation's Role and Responsibility in Ensuring the Commitment of the Next Generation."

Schulweis said the "megastructure" of Jewish organizations and institutions is remote and alienating to the individual Jew struggling to maintain a rich Jewish spiritual identity. He maintained that the "post-Holocaust" generation is "less secular, less moved by the public agenda and institutions and more concerned with the spiritual, personal and internal dimensions of their lives."

Prime Minister Menachem Begin was scheduled to address the Saturday night Golden Anniversary banquet. It was to be his first major speech to a U.S. audience since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in "Operation Peace for Galilee" in June 1982. After the GA, he would fly to Washington to meet with President Ronald Reagan. Debate over the Lebanon War caused a great rift in Israel. This political turmoil, the loss of Israeli lives and the massacre greatly troubled Begin. The prime minister hesitated to leave Aliza, his wife of 36 years, who had been hospitalized for much of the previous year with respiratory problems. When her condition improved slightly, she convinced him to go. The main ballroom of the Bonaventure was packed with delegates, guests and officials such as Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Tom Bradley.

Outside, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Secret Service and LAPD had their hands full with demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. LAPD had issued a permit to the Committee to Oppose the Begin Visit, a coalition of several pro-Palestinian groups and others. The New Jewish Agenda and the Jewish Defense Organization were also among the picketers.

But sadly, Begin's appearance at the GA was not to be. Shortly before he was to speak, his beloved wife Aliza died in Jerusalem. He immediately flew back to Israel for her funeral.

Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador to the United States, stood in for Begin at the GA. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, he recounted some of "the scars we in Israel bear from the terrorists coming out of Lebanon," and said that Israel's operation had smashed the PLO infrastructure, thereby striking a blow for peace in the region. Nevertheless, he observed, Israel was "criticized, vilified, calumnied and judged" by the nations of the world and "we were subjected to snap judgments" by the media and its audiences.

Arens was critical of "those who counsel us to make concessions," declaring that "the wages of weakness in the Middle East is destruction." The ambassador also recounted other achievements of the war in Lebanon and each achievement was greeted with roars of applause: He noted that Lebanon was then rising from seven years of warfare and occupation and that a new page was turning "in the tragic history of that country. Hopefully, Lebanon will join the world democratic community and also be at peace with Israel."

Perhaps what Kohelet is saying is that the significant, unresolved issues of one generation are left as a legacy to the next, to be reconsidered, reclaimed and reconciled.

-- SJS

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