September 17, 2008
Rabbi Avi Weiss, teacher, scholar, political activist, became the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. Born in 1944 in Brooklyn, at his core, his parents inspired in him to love Israel and Zionism. Throughout life, he believed Jews had to speak up for themselves and for Israel. Educated at Yeshiva University, in his intellectual youth, he emerged on the far right of the political spectrum at one point embracing Meir Kahane and later in life drifted more to a political center, never leaving his deep passion and love of Israel, embracing the ordination of women and same sex marriage. In this 2008, interview he recollects his formative ideological commitment to Israel, and significantly recounts in great detail his personal confrontations with President Jimmy Carter on May 1, 1978 and again later in his presidency. Weiss deeply disliked Carter’s repeated anti-Israeli stances. “I despised him,” said Weiss. Weiss, though he voted for Carter in the 1976 presidential election, became vividly angry at Carter’s ‘dancing with the Arabs and the Palestinians.’ Weiss believed it was Carter’s intent to wrest from Israel both its ability to speak independently for itself and also provide political support to the Palestinians, when he felt that they truly had ‘Jewish blood on their hands.’ In this interview he recounts his deep opposition to the Carter administrations decision to sell of ‘offensive’ F-15 military airplanes to Saudi Arabia in 1978.
Weiss believes that Carter’s sponsorship of the Holocaust Commission, announced officially on November 1, 1978, when it was offered up to Israel and the American Jewish community was a blatant example of Carter’s political expediency to tamp down increasingly loud anti-Carter American Jewish sentiment. Weiss calculates that in this, Carter succeeded! Weiss recalls his anti-Carter political activism with several stories about confronting Carter in public at campaign gatherings, at a synagogue meeting in Brooklyn, and over Andrew Young’s meeting with PLO representatives at the UN. Weiss’s recollections provide valuable context for why segments of the American Jewish community steadily lost faith in Carter as president. Each of the stories Weiss provides was reported upon in national newspapers of the time.
Ken Stein, 3.15.2022
AW: I was born at the tail end of the Shoah, and the Shoah had a great influence on my life. My father… got out in ’35. My mother’s uncles and aunts were all killed, and that is how I grew up. I grew up with the “never again” philosophy and that was one point of inspiration for a lot of my early activism. It was very RE-active. I grew up in Brooklyn.
KWS: What kind of Jewish background?
AW: My parent’s home is a religious Zionist home. Even though my father’s home is very Haredi, very Hasidic. My father rebelled against that, he went to modern religious Zionism.
KWS: When were you born?
KWS: And, any recollections of Israel’s establishment? What is your earliest recollection about your family’s connection to the state of Israel?
AW: No. My first recollection is no specific recollection. Our home, it was infused with Israel, everything was Israel. Therefore, I grew up with that, with that great school.
KWS: What school did you attend?
AW: B’nei Akiva that was a very important piece of my growth years. …religious Zionism.
KWS: Where did you go to elementary school? You went to B’nei Akiva.
AW: But, I went to different schools, frankly, what my parents could pay. First, I went to a religious Zionist school, but then my father pulled me out and I went to a Haredi school…Torah Das. I have memories of once- you know if you were the best student- the prize was, every week if you were the best student, you could sing any song you want. So I was not a good student, but one week – I do not know how I was- but when it came my change chance, I stood up at attention and started singing Hatikvah. Then, I did not get too far into the song [laughing] It was a … by the way. However, I grew up in that Zionist home, and it was a kind of philosophy that the whole world was out to get the Jews.
KWS: What formative experiences do you remember from growing up? Any Anti-Semitic experiences? Anything you look back on and say, boy that had an impact on me? Any one, two, or three little vignettes, stories, walking down the street someone called you an epithet.
AW: There were bunches of them. That was not uncommon.
KWS: Growing up in Brooklyn in the fifties that was what?
AW: It was, well growing up in the fifties; I was wedded to the Brooklyn Dodgers, that was a very important part of my life. [KWS and AW recollect Dodger player names] I can tell you a lot about the ’55 Dodgers, I remember the seventh game.
AW: I do have memories, once; my parents told me things when I was a bit older. The world was out to get the Jews. Jews in the camps were once attacked. It was the philosophy that everyone was out to get the Jews and that was my view, .as I grew up I think I was very young to the 60s. I was already close to twenty, maybe a little older, I was very taken by the civil rights movement, swept me off my feet. It was something about it that touched me. Coming from my background, I was a Yeshiva student; it was my own shortcoming so I never went down south to protest. I was a bit young then. I could have gone but I never did go. I used to sit mesmerized. You have to also remember, what I heard from my Rebbis was that black people. Terrible racism. It elevated inappropriate words, inappropriate language. I used to travel to Williamsburg, I used to take the bus all the way down to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, we’d go through some black neighborhoods those were the areas where, distinctively, the message I received was you got…beware you’re in trouble. It is unfortunate.
KWS: Where did you go to college?
AW: I went to Yehiva College. Studied math, I was a major in math. Then decided to go to (inaudible)
KWS: And years at Yeshiva were where?
AW: I graduated Yeshiva University in ’66 and was ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi with a smicha from Yeshiva University in ’68. It was called the rabbinic wing. I have now broken from the establishment; I am nowhere near, where I used to be when I was ordained.
KWS: You said you were nowhere near today as compared to where you are today. [Politically]To what direction have you taken?
AW: Uhh, political activism, I was in the 70s certainly, I identified very much with the Right, maybe the extreme right. I was one of the supporters of the Jewish underground. I was very taken by Kahana. I considered him a teacher and a friend. I broke with Kahana.
AW: But the point was, it was this philosophy that runs through you “never again”.
That is what inspired my earliest activisms. In addition, I think that it is a positive but dangerous. If you are inspired only to react, that is a danger; I think the next step was… Martin Luther King had a tremendous impact upon me. And I think the next step is where I’m at now, it is a much more proactive activism.
KWS: In 1968, when Kennedy’s assassination after his brother [the President] in 1963 and then Martin are killed, and then Robert is killed, Malcolm X assassinated, Vietnam War, Chicago convention, Nixon. Where were you politically engaged were you right after you were ordained compared to, let us say, five years later?
AW: After I was ordained, my first pulpit was in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was for a year, and then I became very, that is when I really stepped out and became politically involved. Probably the first memory I have that really inspired me to say enough is enough was in January of …. [no recording for 10 seconds] for a long time even up to that point, when I was in rabbinical school, I was very much involved in the teaching, whenever I had chance to speak to talk about responsibility to stand up as a Jew, but I didn’t stand up, from my perspective, the way I should have.
KWS: What did you think your views toward Israel?
AW: In my mind, and to this day, I think about how one interacts with Israel. That is a primary concern of mine. I have other concerns, all kinds of concerns. You know, from the issues that everyone talks about from abortion to this to that. I am very liberal on those issues. But you know when I am making a decision with the whether to vote for Obama or McCain, what I think about is whether they love Israel. So when Obama surfaced and started talking about and like Brzezinski and Carter, even Brzezinski, I said oh my God we’re back to… (Hebrew saying) Just like when Palin was announced when I heard she, if it was true or not, she had a Buchanan button. That’s all I can say. That’s the way I think. I think Israel so, you know I am not naturally a “Nixon person” and I do not think much of Nixon. But history is not unkind to Nixon as it relates to his relationship with Israel.
KWS: Did you have doubts about Kissinger as Secretary of State, his being Jewish.
AW: Significant doubts. I didn’t care for Nixon or Kissinger at all…and I go through the record and I just remember thinking that he was universally not trustworthy, he was terrible on Israel; and I think he used his Jewishness to convince Jews that “stay away” from [criticizing me.]
KWS: Why do you suppose he was terrible on Jackson-Vanik?
AW: As I remember it, I’d have to look at the records, he was very very much opposed to Jackson-Vanik. There was a whole battle on Jackson-Vanik.
KWS: Did you make a distinction between him being opposed to Jackson-Vanik because what it stood for or because it was curtailing the ability to make foreign policy and agreements? Did that ever go through your mind? That he felt that Secretaries of State should have the ability to make decisions without Congress pulling them backwards?
No, I never did.
KWS: So was the question of the Jews?
AW: It was, first, I think he was dead wrong. I think you would prove him right; it was great pressures, there were pressures, economic pressures. I think he (Kissinger) was dead wrong and that was a major piece. My father tells the story that he had contact with Kissinger’s parents, and his parents used to say that they had much honor from their son, but very little nachas (good feeling) from his political career, and I have never forgotten that, and know he reminded me of the guy who is supposed to be the genius, supposed to know everything, when I think about the man who wears no clothes, I think about Kissinger. I do. I just do not think he is that bright. I think to this day he is certain about himself; that he was with a very big ego. You know, when you get so high up – and I’ve seen this many many times. I saw when I walked through the death camps, there were some Jews and Jewish advisors, they were terrible, and there were Jews who were supporting it. And I would say, you can see what’s happening so there is probably not going to be more of this. But I think when you are in the throes of power, power is, it is so attractive that it’s hard not to be high on yourself, very hard.
KWS: What do you remember about the 1973 [October] war? What do you remember about the first week, about resupply, about the negotiations that came afterwards?
AW: I remember the years before too, 1967 was, you know, ’67-’72 were quiet years, that’s after the Six Day War, but 1967 did something to, I believe, changed the way Israel was viewed around the world.
KWS: for 1973 do you remember Dayan saying that we are on the brink of the destruction of the Third Temple.
AW: You can trace back the emergence of the Soviet Movement to ’67. That is when Jews really built a certain pride. I could walk into the streets and it was, sort of, almost, in its own way a response to the Shoah. Six million died, you know, we were there with our heads were down. ‘67 that was a response, in the sense that, we could stand. And we could stand strong. I don’t think I really, when I look back, at myself from where I was coming from I think I was very one dimensional in those days. I truly feel that I was one dimensional. It took time for me to come out of that one dimentionalism. But that one dimentionalism was that, the world is out to get the Jews. Now in ’67 we were able to stand strong, we were able to protect ourselves. And I think that is important, and it is something that stays with me to this day. There are many other elements, you know, its multi- attitudinal. And that brings me to ’73, in ’73 suddenly we thought ourselves as being invincible. We were very, ya know, very very vulnerable. It was a frightening time. It was a time, of course, there was the War of Attrition, ’71-72, but ’73 was a shock, Israel got attacked. Early on, my sense was that, because of what I just told you, that Israel did not pre-empt; Israel holds back, I thought that was unpardonable. In WWII, we could not defend ourselves; in 1967 we did, in 1973, our hands were tied. It was was unpardonable. They were going to war, to bend ourselves and our hands would be tied by another power. We still, 60 years ago our hands were tied because we could defend ourselves, and now our hands were being tied because they we were not being allowed to defend ourselves. Kissinger’s view. We had encircled the Third Army [in Sinai]. Israel had a victory in its grasp, and when it did, it was taken from them. In 1967 we had liberated Sinai. So in that sense, as much as Israel is an independent state, if you were to use your language, we were not full subjects, we were objects, we were being dictated to and it distressed me. In 1973 and in 1982 too. [In Israel chided for invading Lebanon].
After 1967, we would could walk the streets with a certain pride. I do not think when I look at myself. I could not give it to you like chapter and verse now like then, it took time to come something I spoke about and wrote about the American abandonment of Israel. America would strike a deal – the argument was- that America would strike a deal with Israel forcing Israel to compromise, Israel would give in, and then after Israel would give in, America would come back and break the deal with Israel. One example would be the ’73 War. America forces Israel to compromise: Do not preempt, we promise you we will take care of them. We give in, and then when it comes the moment when we [the Israelis] the third army surrounded America says deal off. Kissinger says this is what is worth, [to get a process of negotiations started but Israel cannot touch the [Egyptian Third] army in terms of harming it; Sadat needed something out of the October War, he could not go down to an ignominious defeat; the US needed to pull Sadat away from the USSR].
KWS: Right, Kissinger implied that he needed the third army because I need Sadat to have something to negotiate with [to give to Sadat from the Israelis].
AW: Or, another step in this whole argument, it is a Shmuel Katz argument, one of, I consider him to be, in those days, he was my Rebbe. When the F15s were sold to Saudi Arabia, the promise was that they would not be offensive. That was the promise. You know that. And in the beginning of the1980s, when Reagan first came in, within the first two years of the Reagan administration was nothing but an extension of the Carter years. That stopped with the ’82 war, when the moderate Arabs didn’t go along, but at that time Reagan says guess what , we’re going to send – sidewinder missiles, or enhanced equipment for the F-15s, where they took those F15s that were supposed to be only defensive in nature, and suddenly their offensive. So, America, forces Israel to compromise, we compromise, and then America breaks the deal. And that continues from the mid-70s until about ’82. And when I think it was Sec State of Shultz then struck the deal with the Lebanese and then the Saudis, the Egyptians- I don’t remember.
KWS: the Syrians
AW: the Syrians, right. They could not deliver the moderate state. Then at that point, it is not so much abandonment, what I call the American abandonment of Israel, but American did not have anyone, they did not have any of the moderate Arab states to talk to. So those six years were good years, the last six years of the Reagan administration were very good years, and then Bush came in and I consider Bush to be one of the worst. If there was a President worse than Carter, on Israel in my opinion, it was Bush Sr. And to me, the moment that was the worst, was September 13, when he got up and he said, he was talking about the settlement stuff, he said “what’s one little guy fighting against a thousand Jews who are on the hill above them, I mean, it’s right out of “The Protocols of Zion“
KWS: Or his Sec. of State saying…
AW: yea, here is my phone number. What is this?
KWS: so let me go back for a moment, I want to after, the tape recorders off I want to deal with the historical knowledge of Jews as compared with administrations. Carter replaces Ford, what you remember about thinking about Carter as the next President.
AW: I voted for Carter.
KWS: and why did you vote for Carter?
AW: Um, I do not remember. But I voted for Carter. I must have been convinced that he was going to be good on Israel. And um, I made a serious mistake.
KWS: When Carter comes to office in January 1977, when did you begin to think you made a mistake?
AW: I think there are three things that happened as his years evolved, I think the first is, he started dancing with the PLO. That distressed me to no end. This is going back to 1977; this is early on, where the PLO had Jewish blood dripping from their hands. I think it was again a year after Carter became President; there was that terrible attack, on Haifa/Tel Aviv Rd.
KWS: No, that was the following year, that attack [in March 1978] saw the Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Which was precipitated by that attack, which was earlier in March; the month before Carter introduced the package deal and three months before you, guys were actually going to meet at the White House on the Holocaust Commission matter. .
AW: March of ’78, that late?
KWS: yes. But he did, he was in Clinton Mass., he (Carter0 offered that there should be a “homeland for the Palestinians.”
AW: He was talking about the PLO as if it reminded him of the civil rights movement. That is one of his quotes. That was a very distressing time.
KWS: You couldn’t in your own mind, having grown up as a supporter of the civil rights movement; you couldn’t see the Palestinians as a civil rights issue?
AW: Because for me, Martin (Luther King) was Martin because he was an ultra opposed to violence, and the PLO, from my perspective was a terrorist organization that was aiming at murder, and that makes the whole difference to me.
KWS: Good. Good distinction. So in addition to articulating support for the PLO,–
AW: he also did it; he did it in a cheap way. As I remember it, toward the end of his administration, Andy Young was starting he was caught secretly seeing the PLO. I remember that, we actually sat in his office, we sat in his office, and said, I can get you the chapter and verse of that. And then he was forced to resign. Then, even the way, even the day he resigned, Carter said something, which was just so glowing about Young, and frankly glowing about the PLO. This is something he preferred not doing, getting rid of him and my sense was that Young was the scapegoat. He was doing the work Carter wanted him to do. So the first issue was he was dancing with the PLO, with an ideal view of the PLO, and the worldview of the PLO, at that time. The worldview of the PLO as a terrorist organization. And I said then, and I believe with all my might, things start with the Jewish people. If you don’t stop it there, it’s going to go elsewhere. And I was correct. The first [airplane hijacking. 69-’71, one of the first hijackings made by the PLO, and their always cowardly saying we didn’t do it. But the PLO was responsible for these hi-jackings and terrorism and people let it go, and now it’s everywhere. That was my first issue. The second issue was I think the sale of planes to the Saudis. He was the first to provide the F-15 sales, and there was a lot of discussion. It did not just happen in ’78; the seeds were planted, so this was early on in his presidency. That was a very dangerous time. Because he was saying to the Saudis, at that time they were talking about the annihilation of the state of Israel. Now they don’t use that language but then, they were using that language. I felt that the sale of weapons to the Saudis was not in the best interest of Israel, it was dangerous.
Then the third piece was, that even as it relates to Camp David; I believe that in the process of Camp David- it is not a popular thing to say- he was bullying Begin. I know it because Begin said it. Begin in public speeches, in front of thousands of people and front of few people who he knew would tell me the Presidents is bullying Begin and pushing Congress [to vote for the plane deal,] if you’re talking of a head of state, Begin knows much better what is in the best interest of Israel than any President of the US. And I think that there was a influence of those three issues, ya know I think in hindsight I think I was not wrong, about many things. I was wrong because maybe because the ‘jury’ is still out. But even in hindsight, you can’t keep up every inch [of land in Sinai], it was a significant blow [withdrawal] to many people in Israel. And the way Begin described these discussions with Carter, it is deeply disturbing. So it was the PLO, it was the fighter planes that started at home, and it was the bulling of Begin.
I do not think Carter cared for Begin at all. Carter cannot shine the Jews shoes; I really despised Carter, I really despised him. Now, everybody is jumping on him, but in those days, I will show you some text that I have, I was protesting against Carter, and of course, the Jewish community criticized me. I despised him openly. I was criticized.
KWS: who criticized?
AW: The Jewish “establishment.” The President’s Conference. (Conference of American Jewish Presidents)
KWS: Who was the head of the Conference?
AW: When Carter was there, Rabbi Shindler; Shindler could have been the best president at the president’s conference. He was there for those two years, but as an example, on May 1, 1978, he attended when they had that 30 year anniversary at the White House, the Synagogue Council of America, which was then run by Henry Siegman, decided that they would convene the rabbis, hundreds upon hundreds of rabbis, down there and they’d convene at the Lincoln Memorial right before going to the White House.
AW: And I had prepared at that time, a letter, which was a polite letter, but strongly condemning the President for the F15 sales, because the F15 sales were going to Saudi Arabia; I actually prepared that letter with Yossi Ben Aharon, Yossi was the second in command at Israel’s Consul General diplomatic office in New York. And I actually prepared that letter with him. And the idea was to get as many rabbis as possible to sign the letter, and then to try to get it to Carter. So that day I went down to Washington with that letter to try to get as many colleagues as possible to sign it, about 150 did sign it. And he received it, and then I said to the Synagogue Council of America, that this is not the time to ingratiate oneself with the president, this is the time to stand up and squash him, now…
KWS: Why did the rabbis go to support Carter? Because Begin was there?
AW: Because access is very alluring, to this day, a rabbi who is rabbinating in 1978, if you go into their offices, certainly in those years you would have seen, –Carter did well [feint praise] what Carter did was, he shook the hands of every single Rabbi and sent them a picture of that handshake, and I still remember going into my colleagues offices and seeing that picture on the wall, and Rabbis throughout the country, these are wonderful people, I used to think they were, now I know they’re wonderful. I think they were mistaken, but rabbis stood up and gave speeches about how they were at the White House and they spoke to the President. To this day, access is very alluring. It is much more complicated what occurred there, but word got out to the leadership that I was gathering these names, and then I remember so clearly being surrounded, I remember some of the names of the rabbis who were around me. And I was asking them to sign and a person who became a dear friend, Sal Temples ?, who was then the head of the Synagogue Council of America, and he was the rabbinic head, he got up and he said that there is a rabbi – I think he mentioned my name, who is trying to get people to sign a petition against the president and the state of Israel ask that this is not the time to be protesting against the president,
KWS: did he make that up?
AW: this is what he said. And do I think he made that up? I am not sure. I am not sure. I will come to that in a moment, but as I was surrounded by six people, I felt like the pedals of a flower suddenly fell off. And I they just peeled off and I was just left standing alone… I do have the minutes of the Rabbinic [Orthodox] Council of America meeting. One of my mentors and dearest rebbis was Rebbi Waltzburger of blessed memory, he was then president. I only have love for this man. But in the minutes, he is quoted as saying that the Rabbinic Council of America played a role in what was happening then at the White House that morning because RCA is the Orthodox rabbinic group. Opposed to The Conservative group and the Reform group, he was quoted as saying, I have to put my hands on those, he was quoted as saying that the day went very well, except for one of our members, who we have to apologize for doing what he did. And that kind of cut me up; it was a very serious criticism. He did not mention my name in the minutes, but he knew and I knew and everyone knew, whom he was talking about. I remember that we were asked that no one protest against the president today, then Leo Landman, of blessed memory who was a rabbi in Brooklyn, taught at Yeshiva University stood up and screamed out “Avi is right”.
KWS: This was at the Lincoln Memorial [a two-hour tribute to Israel’s 30th Anniversary, May 1, 1978].
AW: After Sal (?) said what he said, “no one should sign it”. Leo stood up and said “Avi is right”. At the Lincoln Memorial, about 12 o’clock.
KWS: and you were later on going to go to the White House? All of you?
AW: yea, absolutely, from there we were going to go to the WH
KWS: and you think there were more than several hundred rabbis who went?
AW: I know there were several hundred. I can…
KWS: I will go through it.
AW: let me see if I can just find, I do not have that many files here but…
KWS: have you written any of this down anywhere?
AW: I actually have with Walter Ruby, I actually wrote memoirs. I do not like the way it is written because Walter writes, first of all Walter is a brilliant writer and a great friend, he is a bit lefty, but we had a very close association. But he wrote it and its just not me, as he wrote it … there are points there which sound like I’m gloating which is not where I’m at at all . So I need to rewrite it. But I can give you that too. Its just a couple of pages. [flipping pages]oh here it is, “Rabbi Weisberg reported on the WH reception for PM Begin on May 1, 1978, although he had reservations about the invitation, general atmosphere was a positive one, he expressed chagrin at the actions of an individual member who he felt was impolite to the president especially in the light of instruction by Israeli officials not to engage in confrontation with the president. This is the minutes of the Rabbinic Council of America.
KWS: May 1, 1978. So this is the minutes of what happened on May 1.
AW: yea, [more paper shuffling] this is the letter he gave to carter.
KWS: I would love to have this.
AW: I will give you the whole thing. This is what was reported in the NY Times and, well what happened was when we got there, when he was through, everybody lines up to shake his hand. So I said, I am not going to shake his hand. And the I said, that is not really a statement. I am not going to shake his hand…
KWS: Where were you, in line of folks?
AW: I was near the end of the line. And I had about 150 of these letters the rabbi had signed. And as I remember I was talking on when I saw Hamilton Jordan, Chief of Staff and I couldn’t hid it so I walked up to Hamilton and I gave it to him and I waited on line and what I do remember is that when Carter spoke, and when he spoke about the holocaust, I was incensed. It was not just that we were being duped, he mentioned a Holocaust Museum (he establishes it on November 1, 1978] However, he formulated it, so it wasn’t just that we were being duped, and in an effect this was an attempt to squash criticism of the F15s because on May 1,1978, so this was a way to stifle criticism. By the way, he succeeded. In my mind, there was no doubt that he succeeded. On top of that, he uses the holocaust as an attempt to keep the Jewish community quiet. That incensed me. And when I finally shook his hand, and it’s very alluring, I don’t know if you…
KWS: ha ha, I know. I know what its like.
AW: It is very alluring. I remember it was sort of like an out body experience. The President of the United States. I had to remind myself, frankly, of something your father told you, “he puts on his pants this morning just like I did, he is a human being.” And he [referring to a conversation KWS had prior to the interview with AW about growing up on Long Island in the home of German immigrant parents and that KWS’s dad was a very pragmatic guy, here sarcastically says to KWS about his dad], he is dead wrong. I may have, this is something I formulated, I have respect for the office of the presidency, and I have no respect for this occupant. So, when my tune came to shake his hands, what happened was there was a woman, who was there, protocol, who asks you your name, so I told her my name and she turns to the president and said, Mr. President, Rabbi Weiss. I took his hand, with both my hands, and looked him square in the eyes, and I memorized what I was going to say to him,
KWS: but did you let go?
AW: I said, “Mr. President, I was previously one of your supporters, but I am outraged by your disastrous tilt toward the Arabs.” He actually looked down. It was clearer to me when I said to him, “don’t give us the holocaust museum to the expense of Israel. “I said to him, “I am outraged by your disastrous tilt to the state of Israel, and then he looked at me and I thought smoke was coming out of his ears, he looked at me, straight at me and he said, “Rabbi Weiss, this conversation is over.” And Begin clearly saw what was going on. He was very close [to where we were standing]. Begin was by his side. I think he did hear the conversation. What happened close to that was that Yossi Ben Aharon, who was my teacher, came to me a couple days later, and said, “Shabbat Shalom. Kol Ha-k’vod [all honor to you, a traditionally Hebrew expression used when a Jew does something notable or memorable] Yossi of course, was the person who drafted the letter for me. He wasn’t sure, but I like to believe, I do believe that there is no doubt that the PM saw something was happening. Because up to that point, what do rabbis say?
KWS: well you have 15 seconds what can you say?
AW: [static] laud and ingratiate. That is what you say.
AW: That is what you say and he saw that this person did something. About two years ago Gary Rosenblatt, a dear friend, editor of Jewish Week, he writes about moments he remembers with different Presidents. And he writes, he remembers, I’ll send it to you, he remembers an incident on the lawn of the White House. He was standing right next to a rabbi, and the rabbi was upset by something or other that Carter was doing, obviously he didn’t remember the context, and refused to shake Carter’s hands.
KWS: you actually shook his hand and you said something.
AW: And I called him on it. I said Gary; I shook his hands, whatever it was. My point is Gary who was right there, further away than Begin was, saw something happen something and it did not go according to the script. And I am very proud of that, I’m proud that, you know there is no joy in standing up and being disrespectful, and being compare against anyone let alone the pres of the US, its not the kind of thing, even then I was very young, I was 33, but I remember that is a great moment. At least, I said it the way it was. The rabbi was upset about something or other, and Gary was aware that something or other was happening, that Carter was doing, it did not go according to script. And I am very proud of that moment. You know that there is no joy in being disrespectful, being combative, it not the kind of thing that I do, even then, I was very young.
KWS: you permit me one sentence? It is analogous to a professor at Emory University who decided to resign from the Carter Center (kws experience with resignation from the Carter Center in December 2006 after Carter’s publication of “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.” )—-
AW: thanks. I heard you endured much greater consequences. I was never on the in. but I was reviled. Sol Temples (?) was a wonderful man. Take a look at Saul Temples, such a good man, but when you become the head of that bureaucracy, its hard to think straight. And when he said to Walter Wurtzburger [President of the Rabbinic Council of America] the Israelis told us not to protest. You know something, it is very possible that Israelis as a government said don’t protest, but we haven’t learned is that Israel as a government has to do and say what they have to do and say. We have to do what we have to do. The Israelis were also opposed to protesting the Soviet Jewry movement, the Israelis were opposed to Natan Sharansky when his name surfaced, they did not like the fact, at first, that he was so involved with helping Jews get out of the Soviet Union, the Israelis were opposed, frankly, to the freedom of Ethiopian Jews in the late 70s, so what? The Israelis were in favor of the Russians going into Georgia a couple of weeks ago. It is a government they have their own interests. I love Israel, I love the government, but they speak like governments. Ok. We have to do what we have to do. The best proof is, the person on the inside, the Israeli consulate general’s office, Yossi Ben-Aharon, who ultimately becomes the advisor to Shamir and all of them, he is the one who drafted the “dam” letter.
KWS: There is a policy lesson here: public statements made by governments meant for public consumption, while at the same time they can do things privately that is really what their agenda is and its done all the time and its done by every govt. and [tape ends]…the influence and the power to actually make a difference, and frustrate American presidents, many more, stages than let’s say the Cypriot Americans or the Turkish Americans can. And while Israel can say, sure, we want a holocaust museum, yes, it is terrific. They always want to be sure that the American president knows that there is a constituency that’s listening, watching, that is “utzing,” and pushing, because they want the president to understand that and that’s bipartisan amongst every Israeli Prime Minister. That is not Begin or Rabin- specific, or Netanyahu or others specific. It goes back to Ben-Gurion, I mean Ben-Gurion’s entire decision in the late 30s, ‘Chaim, [as if speaking to Chaim Weizmann] we have to move away from the British, we have to focus on America, it’s the largest audience, American Jews, we can have influence in Washington, and Weizmann said to Ben-Gurion, ‘I think it’s a mistake. And Ben-Gurion said, ‘it won’t be a mistake.’ And he spends three out of five years from 1937- 1942 in the states participating with Rabbi Stephen Weiss and a whole bunch of them and he gets them to believe that Zionism is important to them. So by the time you get to the post ’45 period, he’s (Ben-Gurion) already has put the seeds in the ground. This is not exactly something that just happened out of the blue. And every Israeli PM does understands that. That is why they have such an affinity and relationship with all the American Jewish communities. And all the three and four letter [Jewish] organizations. I mean, it does something further. I want to get back to Avi. What did you your colleagues say when they began to hear about your conversation with the President?
AW: well, you know, the conversation did not make front-page news.
KWS; Well, some people heard about it?
AW: It was recorded. I think quietly they said collectively- quietly- this is a whole history of this kind of activism is reviled by establishment leaders. By rabbinic establishment.
KWS: Did it truncate or curtail your urge to continue to speak out?
AW: no, it inspired me. Because I really felt, I did the right thing. We became more active then ever.
KWS: who is the we?
AW: Myself and a group of rabbis I work with. I fundamentally believe that rabbis play a very central role… should be playing a central role in political activism and speaking. Truth to power for a whole variety of issues. That is what the book is about, “Principles of Spiritual Activism.” There is a place where a rabbi and this process, three weeks after May 1, after the vote [for the F-15 plane deal to Egypt/Saudi Arabia, and Israel] was taken, we rented out an Amtrak and took 1,000 students to Washington in a mass demonstration. And by that time we were walking thru the streets wearing masks and on one side was a picture or image of Carter and on the other was a replica of Arafat’s Kaffieh and we were marching through the streets, really blasting Carter and at that point there were, I think there were several rabbis, Shlomo Riskin, Shalom Berger, who were “chained” to the White House. It was a very major demonstration.
KWS: who still around? Who remembers that?
AW:[showing newspaper of protest]Rabbi Shapiro, one of the greats (not deceased), this is Rabbi Rubin?, we actually had more of a demonstration, to speak at the demonstration. It was very beautiful for us, ‘we went down there with coffins, and we were trying to say the coffins represent all the victims of terror and Carter was contributing in his policies, were contributing to the coffins; this was serious business. It was all over the press, May 26th. We got a series of supportive letters.
KWS: Had you not participated in the Civil Rights Movement, would you have learned how to protest in a non-violent fashion?
AW: The Civil Rights Movement inspired me.
KWS: yea, but when I see this it could have been the March on Washington; I just have to change some faces, and the titles under the pictures.
AW: I consider Martin Luther King to be my rebbe. That’s pretty dramatic? /traumatic? Isn’t it?
KWS: So in a certain ironic sense, Carter’s defense of civil rights [for the Palestinians] and the movement for Palestinians and seeing it as a the civil rights issue, the lessons that he learned to speak up and say I want to defend the Palestinians, you as an element of American Jewry learned the tactics and the strategy of the civil rights movement so as to protest the very things that Carter was doing. I have never ever put that together before.
AW: I actually touched upon that, I think I have it here. I wrote a letter to the NY Times after Young was let go. And I touch upon what I felt could occur. Because of course, Young was an African American, and I felt that what occurred there could exacerbate Black-Jewish relations. … there’s some good stuff here. [in fact, Black Jewish relations became highly contentious after Young’s resignation – kws].
KWS: The intro chapter to the book is no longer going to be called,’ Carter and Israel.’ It is going to be called “Carter, American Jews and Israel.” I think, I do not know that anyone’s ever written about Carter and American Jews, maybe in the election time.
AW: Here it is, the letter, it was published, you have to remember this was 1979, Carter Admin was [inaudible – AW was both reading and sorting newspapers] subsequent to this, you know, the elections were coming up, so
AW: This was May of 1978. 1979 was of course, Camp David. And then we are getting into ’80. ’80 was the election. And I don’t’ remember the exact scenario or timeline, but during the campaign there were two incidents. One was an incident, I think this was now in 1980, one was at the Harmony Club and the other was at the Atrium. At the Harmony Club, Carter was speaking, it was one of those ‘vicious black nights,’ he was speaking and I came in to protest against Carter. I believe it was in the winter of 1980 it was leading up to… I probably have these somewhere. What happened was Kahana came there and Kahana got to the front of the barricades and he jumped the barricades. And the police then believed that everyone behind Kahana were Kahanites. But the people behind Kahana were my students from the school. The police went after them, Here, Harmony club, March 1980. This is the actual complaint to the civilian board.
AW: Before the New York primary [kws- that Carter lost to Kennedy, on March 26, 1980]
KWS: Because in March 1980, at the UN, UNSC 452 was passed. UNSC 452 was up to that point the only US resolution that called for Israel withdrawal from East Jerusalem. [Other UN resolutions endorsed by the Carter administration, generally said that the settlements were illegal or an obstacle to peace.
AW: There was another incident, at the Atrium club, Robert Strauss was there, and I got in and we were drinking, this was a fundraiser for Carter. Strauss was head of the Carter Campaign Committee, so I got to talk to him and I said you know I came up here to tell you that is a disaster. The editor of the NY Post was right behind me, and I did not even know it. Next morning, I get up, this is now on the cover of the NY Post, “Strauss storms out after clash with Rabbi.” (laughing) I’m sure he loved it the next day. It was an article.
KWS: March 20, 1980 NY Post. Strauss tells Rabbi I did not come here to put up with you. (AW reading article).
AW: you got to talk to Gerry Strober, one of the most articulate guys-if you can reach him. He is in NYC. [He translated Rabbi Kook into English] He is a great guy, and then there were other things that happened, at that point. It was during that period of time that Carter was invited to Ben Tzion Boxer’s synagogue [that is explained below as having occurred in October 1980, before the election, kws]. Now this goes back, this around the primary season, also right around Harmony, Atrium. I think what I am about to share with you know, Kennedy was already, I think this was early, maybe in the fall, could have been a few months, this could have been at the end of 1980, and Carter was going to be the guest speaker at Ben-Tzion Boxer’s shul (congregation/synagogue) in Forest Hills (deceased) so I got tickets. And I got a lot of tickets. Because as soon as I lined up I was spotted and they knew I was anti-Carter, and I was holding a ticket, so the police took the ticket from me. But I had tickets all over my body. In my shoes, in my pants, all over. And when I got in (KWS laughing). It was crazy, I was dreaming, I was young, you have to be driven, you have to be young to do that. You have to be crazy. It was a big hall and I went in there with my other Chevre [friends} with me. And we interspersed all over the hall and I sat –literally-in the middle of the auditorium. I still remember I was sitting near Curtis Winebaum who was the head of American University of Israel. [could not be located] This … style at all? And I remember shaking the hands of people around me, some from Riverdale, come to the shul, come to the house for shabbat meal. And I was being a little bit, I was ‘gathering’ nearby friends- from Weiss’s indications] I didn’t tell them what I was getting ready to do, I want to make sure I had some friends that were around me. And Jackson was there, Jackson got up to see. Senator Jackson. Scoop was there. And then as soon Carter got up, the first instant, within a minute, I jumped up and I stood up and I screamed out, “Why did you call the PLO a civil rights movement?” that’s what I said. And he just …like, how dare you. Carter just folded his arms, folded his arms.
KWS: what was the distance btw you and carter?
AW: 40 ft.? 30 ft.? The security tried to get to me, they couldn’t. But they couldn’t’ because in order to get to me, I was exactly in the middle. People were screaming at me, but the people surrounding me, they kind of did not know what to do because I had just invited them to the house for Shabbat; they knew I was a normal guy. Then I sit down and after I sit down- I still remember-Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University; his son jumps up, stands up and screams at Carter and then Carter launches into how he has been a friend of Israel.
KWS: All right, stop for a moment. Had you guys at all choreographed what you would do after it started, like were there was you and then there was Lamm and then there were others? Or did you just say, I am going to do this first, if you guys want to chime in do so.
AW: it is the latter.
KWS: it was not planned.
AW: no. you needed someone to jump into the boiling water and then all hell broke loose. He launched carter into a whole diatribe on how he’s Israel’s best friend. And I jumped up and I screamed, “Carter is a liar” people started screaming all over, “Carter is a liar.” It was a tough, a tough afternoon for Jimmy Carter. It was extensively covered by the news. There was an article that…
KWS: (shuffling papers) there was an invitation somewhere. Oh, I recognize that stationary.
AW: He actually wrote to me, it was good to see you at the White House. (laughing). I will give it all to you. I have the invitation here too, and on this one, I think there was an article written by James Reston. And he alludes to what happened that day, in Ben Tzion Boxer’s place…
KWS: so let me say this in context, Carter has spoken to me on many occasions about the 1980 election and other things too, and specifically why he lost in November 1980, and he repeatedly remarked to me that “one of the major reasons I lost in 1980 was that American Jews worked for Kennedy, gave money to the third party candidate John Anderson, and ‘they’ the Jews abandoned me.” So when carter says it was the loss of the primaries its his euphemism for the kinds of things that went on at the Harmony club, at Boxer’s shul, he is recollecting that the belief that he, Carter was being unjustly accused of things he did.
AW: I do not know if he knows really what happened in the boiler room. The reality is I got many calls from people who were part of the establishment who said look he’s running for re election, and they said to me there’s a good chance he’s going to win, we all know that he has a terrible temper, and they assured me he has the kind of temper, and he can get outraged in such a way that he can hurt Israel. We beg you Avi, stop.
KWS: and what was your reaction
AW: My reaction to that is I don’t have any self dignity and self respect, unless I stand up for Israel and speak Truth to Power and I argued that its that kind of honest statement, on my part, to a president, that I think gains respect from the president. I don’t think you get anywhere when you can’t really express yourself with dignity and candidness and there is no doubt, I don’t’ know if they would admit this, my role as an activist, I never worked in the establishment, not that the establishment is bad, but the strength of the establishment is its weakness, its strength is it’s the organized community and it has some power and some money. Its weakness is it is a bureaucracy it wants to have access. And it is afraid to fail, it is afraid to take risks and it therefore requires people on the outside to stand up first. Once we stood up, I believe once we stood up against [him] at Ben-Tzion Boxer’s shul, and this goes back- I think- now to the fall of 1979 so this is not yet in January of 80, we’re getting closer and closer to the primary. My sense is that that sent a message to the establishment. It is ok to stand up and tell the president what you really think. And do it publicly.
AW: Right -the incident at Ben-Tzion Boxer’s shul occurred on Oct. 13 1980. (reading from his book- Weiss quotes several articles) my point is even James Reston.
KWS: This is 1980. This is three weeks before the election. Talk about bringing to a crescendo. This is the hostage crisis time.
AW: This at his Ben-Tzion Boxer’s shule in October 15, 1980, not earlier as I thought, not during the NY primary earlier in March. Sometimes you have to have a calculated battle, sometimes they fail. [ The NY Times James Reston, wrote an article Oct. 15 covering the Carter event in Flatbush,- kws]Here it is, this is now an article by Terrance Smith (October 1980), “at his first stop in NY this morning Mr. Carter was all but drowned out by the boos and cat calls of the small but determined band of hecklers at the Forest Hills Jewish Community Center who interrupted him with taunts about his Middle East policy to the apparent annoyance of most of the audience. It was the roughest round of heckling the President has encountered in the campaign and underscores his difficulty with the Jewish community whose votes may determine the outcome of New York. Jerusalem is Jewish, shouted out those from the audience. (This remark was an apparent response to the July 1979 UNSC Resolution that categorized Jerusalem as “occupied,” and the August 1980 UNSC Resolution that called on Israel to rescind its basic law incorporating Jerusalem into Israel.] This physically rattled the president.
Kws: That’s very significant.
AW: I’m very proud of that.”
AW: This is an exchange of letters I had with Boxer, I wrote to apologize to him. I said I’m sorry I know it was your day, but I had he wrote back a very very curt letter and I wrote to him a long letter and your welcome to read it, I said you know you mean the world to me, I’ve never seen you respond so curtly, what is going on. And he wrote to me: (KWS reading the note: “my note was regrettably so very curt, I’m fully aware of your deep sincerity, but I do not approve of your tactics. I would feel the same way if the incident had not occurred in my building. I have never endorsed any candidate for public office, I hope and pray that your euphoric endorsement of Regan, might be vindicated. [now AW reading, again] my negative reaction to the heckling, in no way diminishes my warm feelings for you personally.
AW: (reading response)… the Carter people believe that the meeting was a set-up. It was an intent to influence the Jewish vote. Only select people were being given tickets. (reading and then laughing) AW- continues to read softly from an article, but it is indistinguishable from the tape recording.]
AW: Gerry Strober (NYC) and I actually organized a group called “The… the rally down in Washington was called “The Mobilization of Israel” but then we actually, when I think back, I don’t know how I had time to be a rabbi, but we actually organized what we called The National Committee to Defeat President Carter. And, it got some real coverage, Gerry, I remember being on PBS, McNeil-Lehrer Gerry was an extremely articulate guy. And I actually have the press release; I saw it this morning that probably be of great interest to you. I just saw Gerry the other day. This I have to show you (sorting papers). I think my style of activism taps into the real sentiments of the grass roots, which often is not up there and often is not expressed, by these now trying. I mean, I have learnt. There was a time when I really thought the establishment was all terrible. They play a very important role. No love is lost between myself and Malcom [Honlein- President of the Conference of American Jewish Presidents in 2008]; he knew I had come to his hand. Malcom is a very important figure in my community. I have battled with him many many times. I see my role as stepping the fame on the activists, he is not. What the establishment is not. One of the best examples of that is the Washington rally. I do not know if you know the year of this.
KWS: did you have any contact with the-
AW: yes. National committee. I mean, I am laughing with
KWS: did you have any contact at all with the Israel Consulate after May 1978, after Yossi Ben Aharon. After the letter writing? Did he in any way communicate to you, other than saying “Kol Hakavod,’ for what you did?
AW: If I did, I do not remember, and I want to share something with you. I was in contact with Yossi because literally, he was right here. I believe he was my next-door neighbor, or I just had a personal relationship, and still have a personal relationship, but as a general rule, when you are operating outside of the establishment, I don’t think it’s good to have ongoing contact with Israelis. I would have done my part, if they would have reached out to me I would have—there have been times, but only – back up a second let me finish that thought— because once you are in that establishment framework, I think you lose your independence. I think you are on dangerous grounds. One could argue if you want to go there, you orchestrate and so on and so forth, but you’d have to be convinced, I’d have to be convinced, that the Israeli Consulate, the Consulate General’s Office, understands what you are doing is supporting what we are doing. I did not want to get in a situation where they have a sense of what we are doing and they are undermining it. Or I would feel obligated to follow their lead. It does not always work that way. For example, when I went to Auschwitz in German Defense and that created an international scene. An absolute international scene. Because subsequent to our protest against the presence of the Cardinal in Auschwitz top Cardinal, the Catholic primate, leader of Poland, and got up and in front of 150,00 Catholics and said I had come to …(not audible) This goes back to ’89, ’90, ’91 and now Dershovitz sued the primate of Poland. What I will one day write about is that that whole demonstration was thrown together with the World Jewish Congress. The WJC, so there are times when I think, if you really feel you can trust the establishment you can work the establishment to play different roles. Frankly, I did not have the trust in the Consul General’s Office. The Consul General has to take orders from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
KWS: Was there ever a conversation that went: Avi, I think what you are doing is really good and appropriate and I want you to know the PM thinks it is good too.
AW: The one time was Yossi Ben Aharon, coming back to me after 1978 saying, Min Harosh Hamemshalah, Kol Akavod. (From the Prime Minister, ‘well done.’)
KWS: In 1980, no one said to you
AW: I have to think
KWS: or, 1979, said to you: Kennedy needs to defeat Carter or Carter is not good for the Jews.
AW: I have to think what comes to mind is I became very close to David Bar-Ilan One of my closest friends, he was an advisor to many PM, he always always was very gracious to me saying the stuff you do is good. He was an advisor to me somehow additionally, I have to think.
KWS: There’s one, I have to be really straight up and candid with you. One of the things, Carter has said to me on at least three different occasions , one I have on tape actually, he said, “I have it on good source and authority that Begin in the Spring of 1980, spoke to the Jewish establishment in the US,” (kws) I asked, “who is the establishment, he said the Council of American Jewish Presidents, and urged my defeat in the primaries because they thought I was not going to be good enough for Israel in a second term. Now he said that to me explicitly Avi. I am not inventing it. So what I am trying to say is, is Carter right? Is this just a blind insertion, an invention by a man who under attack?
AW: You’d have to speak to Council of Presidents, and that’s as sure as heck, and they never said that to me.
KWS: But Yossi Ben Aharon was your neighbor.
AW: that is correct.
KWS: Let me put it differently, you did not need Yossi as your neighbor to organize a National Committee to Defeat Carter. That is my point. Like, Carter did not need money from the Arab sources to write the book. PPNA (Palestine Peace Not Apartheid).
AW: Is that true?
KWS: I said, “He did not need to take money from Arab sources to write PPNA.”
AW: I would take it a step further. The Israeli’s could have told me that we do not want Carter. It would not have made a difference. Because the Israelis have to say what they have to say. They are countless examples, of how the Israelis were wrong in their foreign policy. So here, this is actually very well done.
AW: This is a terrific letter. Well Gerry is very, this got a lot of weight. Its got it ll over. I don’t have all the articles
KWS: has someone written about this organization at all?
AW: Jerry can give you the chapter and verse.
KWS: You’ll have to give me your phone #. What of this can you provide or contacts?
AW: all of it, I’ll give you all of it.