The biggest Noozhawk story of last week — and a national one at that — was the alcohol-fueled Deltopia violence in Isla Vista. The morning after the April 5 riot, the small, densely populated neighborhood west of the UC Santa Barbara campus was littered with broken glass, empty pizza boxes and beer bottles.
But that Sunday morning was much quieter than the night before as I made my way to the Santa Barbara Hillel Community Center, at 781 Embarcadero Del Mar, to attend a “peaceful” day-long program of classes and lectures about Israel. The small, densely populated nation often finds itself at the center of many turbulent conflicts on the other side of the world from Isla Vista.
Styled as a “teach-in on Israel” covering the Palestinian conflict, Israeli culture, politics, science and technology, the day provided a fascinating look at current events in the Middle East. More than 200 people participated.
Now in its eighth year, the teach-in was organized by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara with the help of, in part, co-founder Peter Melnick, and Peter Jacobson, volunteer professor of Middle East Studies at Santa Barbara City College.
Melnick, a Drama Desk-nominated composer for musical theater (Adrift in Macao) and film (LA Story), is the grandson of illustrious composer Richard Rogers of the renowned Rodgers & Hammerstein duo and the son of late film producer Daniel Melnick.
Melnick was raised in the New York tradition of lox-and-bagel secular Judaism, but became involved with the Jewish world on the West Coast after moving to Montecito in 1993 — even having a Bar Mitzvah in his 30s. He says Israel and its complexities are his third passion after family and musical theater.
Melnick co-founded the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara with his wife, attorney Laini Millar Melnick, and Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, the spiritual leader of Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara.
“We are a group that fosters support for Israel through nuanced educational programs rather than propaganda,” he explained.
The teach-in was anything but public relations fluff. Over the course of seven hours, guests heard from a world-class lineup of speakers on a range of topics, from co-existence projects for Israel and Palestinian children to the nearly moribund peace talks.
The riveting morning keynote address on “The Changing Political Geography of the Middle East” was delivered by Alon Ben-David, the charismatic senior defense correspondent for Israel Channel 10 News, who flew in for the event.
Ben-David has covered nearly all major events in the region for the last two decades, and he articulated many of the issues Israeli leaders face and how much has changed since Israel became a state in 1948. He also talked about cyber-terrorism, describing it as the new face of terrorism in the 21st century and a threat to all countries.
Other speakers included Atlanta-based filmmaker David Lewis, who has made numerous documentaries on terrorism for CNN and Frontline, including one on Hezbollah for which he gained access to its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. An investigative reporter and on-camera journalist for CNN, Lewis led a class about Hezbollah’s existential crisis.
Scholar and Fox News pundit Yossi Olmert lectured on tribal, cultural and religious factors at play in the complex landscape of Middle Eastern politics.
Among the day’s presenters, there was a striking diversity of opinions, much of it thought-provoking and challenging, and it opened up the avenues for discussion between the speakers and with the audience. At one point, Ben-David said that unless Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank, it will eventually face harsh economic sanctions from the international community and more boycotts of Israeli exports.
The highlight of the afternoon sessions was a compelling panel discussion led by David Suissa, publisher of The Jewish Journal. Titled “Israel: Boundaries to the Conversation?” the panel addressed the question of how to talk about the difficult issues, and whether any topics should be regarded as off-limits. These difficult, important questions kept the audience riveted to its seats for more than an hour.
According to Melnick, “a critical approach is essential when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and taking the position, ‘My Israel right or wrong' just isn't the best way to show support for Israel. It probably never was, come to think of it.”
Diversity of opinion is no accident, he said.
“We started the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara during the summer of 2006 Lebanon war, at a time when Israel was getting highly criticized by one-sided media coverage,” he said.
The Israel Committee put on its first all-day program that fall. Eight teach-ins later, the annual program has evolved into a Santa Barbara institution — one of the “best and most important educational programs of its type in the country,” according to Gross-Schaefer.
A professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for more than three decades, Gross-Schaefer and his wife, artist Laurie Gross-Schaefer, travel nationally and internationally, working for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and engaging with college students on the issue.
“You can’t address the problem of media bias by putting out your own one-sided propaganda,” Melnick told me. “Our goal was to offer the entire community of Santa Barbara, not just the Jewish community, an opportunity to educate themselves about what is happening in Israel and its place in the worldwide community.”