Violence in Mideast Sparks Debates in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Jewish community leaders in Los Angeles are struggling to cope with doubts and questions raised by weeks of violent confrontation between armed troops and rock-throwing Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories and within Israel itself.

"There is no question in my mind that the Jewish community is terribly concerned with the impact that TV and newspaper headlines are having on the good name of Israel," said Stanley Hirsh, president of the Jewish Federation Council, an umbrella group made up of more than 150 organizations.

"And short of us living in Israel, the only thing we can try to do is try to understand the problems," Hirsh said. "We really have no way of solving them."

For weeks, the crowded refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and the narrow alleys of Arab towns on the West Bank have been the scene of confrontations between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops. Starting with the rumor that a traffic accident that killed four Arabs was deliberate, the angry demonstrations have evolved into a protest against two decades of Israeli occupation.

The emergency has prompted a series of public and private meetings designed to bring the confrontations into perspective for the Jewish community of more than half a million in Los Angeles County, the nation's second largest.

It has also dominated the front pages and letters columns of recent issues of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. A headline asked: "What should we do? The stories are troubling, the news coverage extreme and America's Jews are immobilized."

Jewish Journal Editor Gene Lichtenstein said: "I think the Jewish community's response is really intense. The people I've talked to are very upset at what's going on but they're also upset at the (major media) coverage."

Israel's earlier crises were less controversial, at least for American Jews. They hailed the victories of 1948, 1956 and 1967 and shared in Israel's despair over early setbacks in the 1973 war as well as the joy that came with the Camp David accords with Egypt.

It was Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that first saw a serious difference of opinion among American Jews about Israel's strategic aims.

Then, as now, differences in the U.S. community reflected arguments within Israel itself. Most American Jews agreed that it was up to the Israeli leadership to decide what to do. But like many Israelis, a significant number of American Jews raised questions about Israel's continued military presence in Lebanon, which was eventually reduced to a zone of influence along that country's southern border.

Many Jewish leaders interviewed in recent days said that they, too, share the alarm expressed in Israel about the long-term effects of control by the Jewish state over 2.2 million Arabs in the occupied Gaza Strip, on the West Bank of the Jordan River and within its original borders.

Predictably, hard-line groups such as Americans for a Safe Israel are focusing their efforts against what they see as distorted reports about Israel's use of force to put an end to more than six weeks of confrontations in which 36 Palestinians have been killed.

"The media don't clearly present the case in a fair light, namely that the Israelis are really trying their best to withhold any kind of lethal fire," said Julian White, a rabbi who is president of the group's local chapter.

Need for Accommodation

Other groups, such as American Friends of Peace Now, say the violence in the occupied territories shows the need to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.

"It's saddened me enormously but it underscored the importance of assisting those groups in Israel that are working toward ending the occupation and ending the moral corrosion that it leads to," said Rabbi Sanford Ragins of the Leo Baeck Temple, a member of the Peace Now advisory board.

And middle-of-the-road organizations, while working to counter negative reports and cartoons, are saying that this is the time for discussions on the seemingly unanswerable question of how two peoples can coexist on one piece of land.

"We join with most forward-looking people in Israel who want to find a solution, and it's our profound hope that the Arab nations who have been reluctant to come to the bargaining table will now see the need to do so," said Neil C. Sandberg, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the American Jewish Committee.

'Open, Frank Discussions'

"All these problems are being 'wrassled' with between American Jews and Israeli Jews in an open fashion," said Ed Sanders, an attorney who is the former president of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Council and a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

"I know these discussions are very frank and open, and I participated in some of them," he said.

"All of this does not show any diminution of support for Israel, because I believe that, No. 1, there isn't any and, No. 2, my observation of the community in this instance is that it stands united in spite of their concerns about what's happening," Sanders said.

Although some have called for the debate to be muted for fear that it will be seen as divisive, Isaiah Zeldin, senior rabbi of the Stephen S. Wise Temple, said that an informed Jewish public is necessary to inform other Americans about the complexity of the problem.

"Secondly, I think that the American Jewish community is a friendly pressure source on the Israeli government to move toward solutions, with the understanding that we must look for people on the other side who are willing to look for solutions as well," he said.

Missing Perspective

A lecture scheduled at short notice in Zeldin's temple attracted about 700 people last Tuesday to hear visiting Israeli professor Meir Zamir speak on the historical background of the unrest, a perspective that many Jews say is missing from most newspaper and television reports. Zamir noted that poverty, politics and the spread of fundamentalist Islam are all factors in a decades-old dilemma that led to bloodshed in the past and to widespread violence this year.

A standing-room-only crowd is expected at a community meeting called for Thursday night by UCLA Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who said he wants to "really open up the discussion in the community because of my sense that there's a lot of pain, confusion and even alienation."

"My feeling is that it does more damage to remain silent in the face of the events than it does to confront the dilemmas raised," Seidler-Feller said.

But Burton Levinson, a Los Angeles attorney who serves as national president of the Anti-Defamation League, said that public debate about Israel's options presents a puzzling paradox at a time when rocks, bullets and tear gas canisters still litter the sites of recent confrontation.

Sign of Weakness

He was especially concerned that debates among prominent American Jews and other figures on the editorial pages of leading newspapers would be seized upon as signs of weakness that would encourage demands for Israel to make unacceptable concessions.

"I don't expect Israel to be perfect, yet I don't know if debating its imperfections in public is exactly the way to help the situation in the Middle East," Levinson said.

"Let's suppose that those who are anti-Israel see the arguments being continued in the front pages or on the editorial pages. Then they are encouraged to keep the kettle boiling and not to try to restrain their Arab brothers and sisters in the Middle East."

Lennard Thal, regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he favors taking risks to reach a peace agreement.

But he also said:"I am not sure that there's any value for the organized Jewish community to have some sort of town meeting and have a public debate. . . . There may be some wariness on the part of some to have forums that are open and public, out of concern that they might be misunderstood."

'In Favor of Debate'

On the other hand, said Gerald Bubis, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at the Hebrew Union College, "I'm very much in favor of debate, and I reject the idea that Jews or Israel will be less well thought of because of that debate.

"It shows the strength of Israel and its democracy, because those debates sure don't take place in the Arab countries," said Bubis, an active member of the American Jewish Congress and other community groups.

Virtually all the Jewish leaders interviewed said that they were offended by cartoons in The Times that used religious motifs such as the Star of David and the Eastern (Wailing)Wall of the ancient Jewish temple as symbols of oppression in the occupied territories.

They also differed with editorials that criticized Israel for using "an excess of force," deporting alleged ringleaders and failing to come to terms with the consequences of the rapidly growing Arab population in the occupied territories.

"The notion is that somehow Israel ought to be transforming what's going on, without the understanding that no one (from the Arab camp)is quite ready to talk to Israel," said David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"There aren't black hats and white hats, especially as TV has been portraying it," he said. "You can't make deals with 15-year-old kids throwing rocks."

Ilan Elgar, Israel's deputy consul general in Los Angeles, said he has heard different opinions, but "the vast majority of the community . . . is that, by and large, they are with Israel in the belief that, first of all, we must restore calm and then strive for a political solution, not a violent one."

Amid the gloom and confusion, some found hope in the recent decision by the Jewish Federation Council to fund the upgrading of a blighted Tel Aviv suburb inhabited by Jews and Arabs alike.

Underwritten by a $10-million commitment from Los Angeles Jewry, the project seeks to improve education, health care and social services for the Ajami-Lev Yaffo neighborhood.

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