In a spirited but brief Nov. 15 speech at the Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told an enthusiastic crowd of 500, including 400 Orthodox Jewish high school students and luminaries, that he will do everything in his power to ensure "the Jewish people will never be exposed again to the kind of dangers and threats that they were exposed to in the past."
In an afternoon address beneath a blazing sun, Olmert reinforced his earlier address to the United Jewish Communities General Assembly that Israel faces implacable enemies who talk of annihilating the Jewish state and wiping the country off the map, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the Museum of Tolerance as a backdrop, Olmert admonished students from Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) to pay heed to the lessons of the past and take such anti-Semitic threats seriously.
Striking a note of defiance, Olmert seemed to call for the nations of the free world to unite against Iran, which many experts believe is trying to build nuclear weapons.
"I promise you that I and my colleagues in the Israeli government, and hopefully our friends in many other friendly governments, including the leadership of this country, will do what we need to do so that this danger will be removed," he said.
The students greeted the Israeli prime minister like a rock star, jumping to their feet when they first got a glimpse of him behind a phalanx of secret service agents. The rapturous reception seemed to energize Olmert, who smiled broadly at the crowd and delivered his speech with passion.
Security at the event was tight, with up to 300 police officers, U.S. and Israeli security agents on hand. Audience members had to arrive more than an hour before Olmert spoke, and police officers patrolled the Wiesenthal Center's roof. Dogs from the bomb squad sniffed suspicious packages.
During his two-day stay in Southern California, Olmert spoke to an estimated 5,000 delegates at the assembly on Nov. 14 and met privately with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other local politicians before his speech to YULA students.
That Israel's prime minister appeared in Los Angeles is heartening, said City Councilman Jack Weiss, who attended Olmert's Museum of Tolerance speech. "So many prime ministers would have canceled, but he came," Weiss said.
-- Marc Ballon, Senior Writer
Sderot Children's Heartfelt Drawings Come to City Hall
An exhibition of drawings by Israeli children from the Israeli city of Sderot was unveiled at Los Angeles City Hall Monday by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The children's artworks depict their experience of living in the Israeli city under continual rocket attacks by Palestinian terrorists, and they include one of a rocket about to explode into a breaking heart. The pictures were made over the summer by students at the Science Orthodox School in Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. The city has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year. During the height of the summer's conflict, Villaraigosa called Sderot's Mayor Eli Moyal to express concern for the city's well-being. Villaraigosa's call to Moyal was interrupted twice by Palestinian rocket attacks.
"My thoughts and prayers go out to Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot," Villaraigosa said Nov. 20.
Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel; Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and City Councilman Jack Weiss, among others, attended the opening of the City Hall exhibition. Weiss, whose Fifth Council District includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley, brought the drawings home with him after an August trip to Israel.
"By welcoming this artwork," he said, "the people of Los Angeles are showing their support for and solidarity with the people of Israel."
Eastern Europe's Young Leaders Visit Jewish L.A.
The founder and editor of a newspaper in Azerbaijan, a Macedonian attorney, the head of a parliamentary caucus in Kosovo and a Slovenian realtor, along with scholars, activists and political leaders from Romania, Russia, Kyrgyztan, Georgia, Croatia, Moldova, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Armenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, spent a November morning trailing tours of schoolchildren through the Skirball Cultural Center.
The outing was one of the final activities for the group of 18 political and cultural leaders from the new democracies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, who visited Los Angeles under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
This year marks the 14th anniversary of the joint program, Promoting Tolerance in Central and Eastern Europe.
"In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we, along with the Naumann Foundation knew we wanted to contribute to the development of new democracies," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the AJCommittee. "We wanted to identify future leaders in culture, education and politics and show them the types of programs and projects in America for promoting diversity and pluralism."
Since the program began, in 1992, many of its participants have gone on to become foreign ministers, members of parliament and heads of nongovernmental organizations, he said.
Exposure to Jewish life in America is a key part of the program. The group dined in the homes of committee members, attended Shabbat services and met with Jewish leaders throughout the country. This year, for the first time, there was one Jewish participant, from Moscow, but most have little or no knowledge of Judaism.
The program extends far beyond the Jewish community.
"We know that we can't focus on the safety of American Jews in isolation. We need the protection of laws for all minorities," Baker said. "We started out looking at the African-American experience, but now we also look at Asians, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, and the homeless."
As the Skirball tour wound down, Ambassador David Shahnazaryan, co-founder of the Armenian National Party, admited that he would miss the group's next stop while he embarked on his own adventure in media and tolerance. He was about to be picked up, along with his friend Elchin Shikhlinskiy, founder and editor-in-chief of the Ayn" and Zerkalo newspapers of Azerbaijan, so they can speak on an Armenian television show broadcast from Glendale.
Both men emphasize that the appearance of an Azerbaijan editor on an Armenian show is quite extraordinary; the two countries have been engaged in a long conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in southwestern Azerbaijan, where there has been an active secessionist movement, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, despite a ceasefire in 1994.
The trip has forged many important liaisons, in addition to opening eyes to unknown worlds, says Giorgy Khutsishvili, founding director and chairman of International Center on Conflict and Negotiation based in Tbilisi.
"I knew of the American Jewish Committee," he said, "but I didn't know the scope of their work. This is a program that while promoting a Jewish perspective encourages diversity and tolerance everywhere there is ethnic tension. It is very much in line with liberal democratic values for peace and human rights. These ideas should be successful in a country like mine, where we have to integrate huge minorities and include them in democratic society."
The group left the Skirball to go to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in West Hollywood for the final presentation of their trip -- a luncheon and discussion on the media with panelists representing the NAACP, GLAAD (Gays and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination) and the Korean American Coalition.
"I think of the United States' experience as inspiring, but it is also important for us to realize that it has been going on for over 200 years and, of course, there are still problems," said Dr. Gjylnaze Syla, her parliament's caucus leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo.
-- Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer