Billy Crystal, others boycott Israel party over pluralism issue

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

LOS ANGELES — Actor Billy Crystal and several other Hollywood power brokers have declined to appear at a celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary.

The reluctance of the popular comedian and others to lend their talents to next year's event reflects the growing strains between large segments of the American Jewish community and Israel, sown by the status of non-Orthodox Jews in the Jewish state.

These strains became the focus last week of a small meeting between four Jewish VIPs and an Israeli diplomat, called originally to discuss local plans to mark Israel's upcoming anniversary.

The meeting at the posh Hillcrest Country Club was held the same day that a large group of Conservative and Reform men and women, praying together at the Western Wall plaza on Tisha B'Av, were heckled by ultra-religious protesters and evicted by police.

In short order, the meeting's agenda shifted. Participants pointed to growing anger among American Jews, prompted by a conversion bill pending in the Knesset as well as other violence and perceived discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The conversion bill would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel. The bill is seen by many American Jews as an attack on the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Following the meeting, Yoram Ben-Ze'ev, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, filed what he considered a routine report on the discussion with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

He also indicated that the strong feelings expressed at the meeting were symptomatic of a shifting relationship between Israel and American Jewry.

Somewhat to his surprise, Ben-Ze'ev's dispatch was released by the Foreign Ministry to the Israeli media, where the story was widely reported.

Four of the most influential Jews in Los Angeles attended the meeting with the consul general.

They were Lew Wasserman, chairman emeritus of Universal Studios and still one of Hollywood's heaviest power hitters; Bram Goldsmith, chairman and CEO of City National Corp. and a former president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles; and the federation's current president, Herbert Gelfand, and executive vice president, John Fishel.

The outspoken Goldsmith said he expressed his belief that the conversion bill and the incidents at the Western Wall were "an insult to every Jew," with an already noticeable impact on contributions by large donors to the United Jewish Fund, the campaign of the local federation.

Goldsmith acknowledged that he himself was thinking of reducing his pledge.

Meanwhile, one of the participants cited the reluctance by Crystal and three other unnamed Hollywood stars to appear at the 50th anniversary celebration as another sign of the conversion bill's impact.

Crystal was away filming on location and could not be reached for comment on his decision, while Wasserman declined to discuss the matter and Gelfand was visiting Israel.

Ben-Ze'ev said that he was surprised, but not altogether displeased, by the Foreign Ministry's release of his report.

"The Israeli media, preoccupied with more pressing matters, has paid little attention to these issues so far, so some good may come of it," he said.

Ben-Ze'ev noted that the Hillcrest meeting was hardly an isolated incident. He said he had encountered much more heated reactions in every city he had visited in the eight Western states under his jurisdiction.

"The matter goes beyond the current controversy," he said.

"I think both Israel and world Jewry are on a genuine quest for a new identity. We need to redefine ourselves and find a broad common denominator to hold all Jews together."

The federation's Fishel said that while there is a certain alienation from Israel among some Los Angeles Jews, part of this was due to misunderstandings of the situation in the Jewish state.

The celebration of Israel's independence is slated for April 15 at the Shrine Auditorium and is expected to be the highlight in Los Angeles of the year's anniversary events.

Fishel said negotiations were under way to have the event telecast by a major American network.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent