No laughing matter

Jason Alexander takes a tour of Sderot as part of a delegation from OneVoice, which calls for grass-roots action to make the two-state solution a reality.

Jason Alexander 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jason Alexander 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The tour of Sderot almost didn’t happen. On the night of October 26, a Grad rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Ashdod.
The 25 or so OneVoice delegates gathered for an impromptu meeting in the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv and debated whether the group should go ahead with its plans. After a few minutes of discussion, Jason Alexander, the famed actor from Seinfeld who played George Costanza, summed things up: “...The worst thing that could happen to the Palestinians would be if the headline says ‘they killed George Costanza.’” Assured that chances were slim the group would become a victim in the very conflict it wanted to help solve, the delegates unanimously decided to board their bus for the south.
At the makeshift museum behind the police station in Sderot, Alexander cradled the Kassam rocket gingerly. He made several expressions, grimacing, and smiling. His colleagues from OneVoice, the group that Alexander has supported for many years, muttered that this might be the wrong image for their trip to project. If Alexander suffered, he did so in silence as Sderot municipality spokesman Shalom Halevi showed off the hundreds of Kassams the town had collected over the years.
The delegates, who paid their own way to come to Israel, spent a week touring the Holy Land and seeing aspects of the conflict firsthand. After meetings with Israeli government officials, they departed for Ramallah for a talk with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. From there it was a day-long tour of the West Bank, including a city council meeting in Kalkilya and a chat with students at An-Najah University.
OneVoice was founded by 43-year-old Mexican-born Daniel Lubetzky. The handsome, smartly dressed founder articulates how he came up with the idea.
“My interest in peace comes from three levels. First of all I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. I was studying at the Hebrew University years ago and got involved in this idea of economic peace and founded a group called PeaceWorks.
In 2002 we founded OneVoice. At the time I was confused and depressed by the second intifada. Extremists had hijacked the conflict. OneVoice was about grass roots; from the bottom up, we wanted people to figure it out for themselves. In the beginning I called Mohammed Darawshe from the Abraham Fund and we met with Danny DeVito, and later Edgar Bronfman, and Jason joined us in 2004.”
As Lubetzky tells it, the group has transformed itself since then, from one of primarily wealthy interested foreigners, to one that empowers local students and youth.
“We empower citizens to [take] back the agenda. We want mainstream, moderate Palestinians and Israelis with a base of support to take the necessary risks. You should think of OneVoice like the Margaret Meade quote, ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’”
In Israel, the tour’s main headline-grabber has been the presence of Alexander. At a gathering of Israeli entertainers who had come to listen to the ideas of OneVoice at the Dan Hotel, he talked about the problem of the media’s celebrity focus.
“You can use celebrity to draw attention to this... these events have brought a lot of needed spotlight for OneVoice.
But fame and importance are not equal.
What they [OneVoice youth] will do is more important. I came here five years ago and I can see that today an agreement is close... but there is still misery and injustice [in the West Bank] and Israelis today seem confused, Tel Aviv is very distanced, more than I’ve seen in years.”
Alexander is enthusiastic about the role that artists can play.
“Artists can do amazing things,” he says, “I invite you artists to be the voice – you can push leaders and make noise.”
The Israeli VIPs aren’t totally convinced.
One begs him to come to Israel and help solve the conflict, to which Alexander replies: “This is not mine to do, don’t put it on me.”
In an interview, Alexander is adamant that he is here to listen, not give solutions.
“I’m not an expert. When I’m at home and people shoot their mouths off about what’s happening here I ask people if they’ve seen it on the ground, and if they haven’t, I say, ‘Shut up, you’re getting a third-hand impression’...The key revelation of this trip was to go deeper into the West Bank, in Kalkilya, and see a place that was suffocated...
“[But] on this occasion there is this odd optimistic excitement on both sides, the practical separation in terms of an agreement is much closer... we have to acknowledge that with everything we’re doing, there are people on both sides who don’t want this, we’re dealing with the moderate majority and the extremes will always pop their heads up.”
Alexander’s interest in Israel and in Jewish Hollywood is not something new.
“I am consistently passionate about causes but I don’t put myself out for a lot. I first came in 1990 with the Anti- Defamation League... I was 30 at the time and had lived a very small-world, self-involved life... What struck me most was how Israelis were passionately engaged. I was embarrassed about myself, I started to become more of a citizen of the world as inspired by my experience here. I saw in Israel a shining beacon of democracy to the world, up against strong obstacles, and I became interested in assisting it.”
Back in Hollywood, however, he encountered resistance.
“In my own little quiet way I advocated for the same experience I had had. Particularly in Hollywood there is, to my mind, not a self-loathing Judaism, but an embarrassed Judaism and what it results in is a relative lack of interest in Israel, and an almost absolute refusal to engage in Jewish issues.
“Let’s put it this way, Hollywood made My Big Fat Greek Wedding but not my ‘My Big Bar Mitzva.’ You won’t see that in mainstream Hollywood. Jewish themes and characters, if we see them they’re undefined, or cloaked, as in Schindler’s List which is ostensibly a Jewish story but [where] the focus is really about Schindler.”
In the 1990s Alexander tried to raise Israel’s image among his friends, but after 2003, when he became involved with OneVoice, he says he had a “purposed way” to engage.
OneVoice student leader Tal Harris is enthusiastic about his group’s success, noting that over 650,000 people in Israel have shown support, in a variety of ways, for their work.
In Sderot, Alexander explained that he felt he was seeing people deeply impacted by the conflict.
“These are the people most affected by the outcome of the conflict... none of it is speculative here, it is all experience.”
In an interview with Channel 9 at an reinforced recreation center for children built by the Jewish National Fund, he says, “How long we wait for peace is not our decision, it is your decision... the young generation will determine the quality of life here.”
On its way out of Sderot the bus stops in the center of town.
Alexander is recognized by some local youth who gingerly approach him for a photo.
OneVoice has assembled posters from a project it has worked on about the types of peaceful headlines Israelis hope to see in 2018. Earlier in the day youth film directors Omri Roth and Tal Greenberg had showed the group a short film about the 2018 theme in which a Jewish man marries a Palestinian woman, symbolizing peace and acceptance. It reminds one of the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Seinfeld creator Larry David has an affair with a Palestinian woman after falling in love with her Palestinian chicken restaurant.
On the bus Alexander eagerly smiles about the story.
“It’s the best episode Larry’s ever done.”