August 21, 1997
Strains in the Relationship
The reluctance of the popular comedian and others to lend theirtalents to the event reflect the growing strains between largesegments of the American Jewish community and Israel, centered on thelegitimacy and treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
Last week, the widening chasm became the focus of a small meetingbetween four Jewish VIPs and an Israeli diplomat, called originallyto discuss local plans to mark Israel's 50th anniversary.
The meeting at the Hillcrest Country Club was held the same daythat a large group of Conservative and Reform men and women, prayingtogether at the Western Wall plaza on Tisha B'Av, were heckled byOrthodox youths and then evicted by police.
In short order, the meeting's scheduled focus shifted asparticipants pointed to growing anger among American Jews about theconversion bill pending in the Knesset and previous attacks andperceived discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
The conversion bill would put into law the current practice ofdenying recognition to conversions performed in Israel by Reform andConservative rabbis. The measure is seen by many American Jews as anattack on the legitimacy of their branches of Judaism.
Following the meeting, Yoram Ben Ze'ev, Israel's consul general inLos Angeles, filed what he considered a routine report on thediscussion to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. He alsoindicated that the strong feelings expressed at the meeting weresymptomatic of a shifting relationship between Israel and AmericanJewry.
Somewhat to his surprise, Ben Ze'ev's dispatch was released by theForeign Ministry to the Israeli media, and the story, with someembellishments, was widely reported in the press and on radio andtelevision.
Based on descriptions of the participants by Jerusalem sources andconfirmed locally, the meeting with the consul general was attendedby four of the most influential Jews in Los Angeles.
They were Lew Wasserman, chairman emeritus of Universal Studiosand still one of Hollywood's heaviest power hitters; Bram Goldsmith,chairman and CEO of City National Corp. and a former JewishFederation Council president; Herbert Gelfand, the Federation'scurrent president; and John Fishel, the Federation's executive vicepresident.
The outspoken Goldsmith said he expressed his feelings that theconversion bill and the incidents at the Western Wall were "an insultto every Jew," with an already noticeable impact on contributions bylarge givers to the United Jewish Fund.
Goldsmith acknowledged that he himself was thinking of reducinghis pledge.
Along similar lines, one of the meeting's participants cited thereluctance by Crystal, and three other Hollywood stars, to appear atthe 50th-anniversary celebration.
The Jewish Journal sought additional clarification, but Crystal isaway on location, Wasserman declined to comment, and Gelfand is inIsrael.
Ben Ze'ev said in a later interview that he was surprised but notaltogether displeased by the Foreign Ministry's public release of hisreport.
"The Israeli media, preoccupied with more pressing matters, haspaid little attention to these issues so far, so some good may comeof it," he said.
Ben Ze'ev noted that the Hillcrest meeting was by no means anisolated incident and that he had encountered much more heatedemotions in every city he has visited in the eight Western statesunder his jurisdiction.
"The matter goes beyond the current controversy," he said. "Ithink both Israel and world Jewry are on a genuine quest for a newidentity. We need to redefine ourselves and find a broad commondenominator to hold all Jews together."
The Federation's Fishel said that while there exists a certainalienation from Israel among some Los Angeles Jews, part of this wasdue to misunderstandings of the actual situation in Israel.
The gala celebration of Israel's independence is slated for April15 at the Shrine Auditorium and will be the highlight of the year'sanniversary events in Los Angeles. Fishel said that negotiations wereunder way to have the event telecast by a major American network.
Co-chairs of the celebration are Bram and Elaine Goldsmith andLionel and Terry Bell.