When Shimon Peres asked Jason Alexander if he could call him as George, after the “Seinfeld” character for which the actor is best known, it seemed like another textbook example of Israeli
chutzpah directness. But Peres actually deserves some credit. At least he had the decency to ask.
“Most people don’t ask, they just call me George,” Alexander told JTA . “They actually think that’s my name. That line between fantasy and reality gets blurred. “
There were several such moments during Alexander’s four-day trip to the Holy Land last week as part of a delegation from One Voice, a New York organization aimed at empowering moderates in the Middle East to pressure their leaders into a two-state solution. Alexander was there to lend his celebrity to grassroots efforts on the ground, capturing media attention for the Israelis and Palestinians working towards a resolution. But media outlets in Israel and around the world appeared more interested in the “Seinfeld” star than in peacemaking.
“Apparently, ‘Seinfeld’ has played very big there,” Alexander reported.
Born in Newark and raised in the Jersey suburbs, Alexander, a self-described secular Jew, had never been to Israel before the early 1990s, when he was recruited for an Anti-Defamation League mission by Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg. The trip was life-changing. Israelis, he learned, aren’t casual about their country. They were passionate and engaged. “I looked at myself and was embarrassed,” Alexander said. “I did not know what was going on in my own country. It was a real wake up call.”
Alexander has been back to Israel a half-dozen times. And though he describes himself as “enamored” of the country, the religious aspects don’t particularly appeal to him. Where the Western Wall in Jerusalem is often a highlight of Jewish pilgrimages to the Holy Land, for Alexander it was a glaring reminder of the religious divide. His wife has an Orthodox cousin in Israel who won’t hug her. “To me, Orthodoxy and fundamentalism are interchangeable words. And I’m not a fan.”
Alexander got involved in One Voice about a decade ago when he was invited to a presentation at the home of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. A Palestinian was there describing how his son had informed him of his intention to become a martyr. Alexander was so moved he offered to help in any way he could. Last week’s trip featured visits with politicians from both sides, including the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator. They visited the embattled southern Israeli city of Sderot and met with Palestinian and Israeli children.
But it was the Peres meeting that garnered the most media attention. Rather than a group discussion like his other meetings, with Peres Alexander found himself seated at the front of the room. The Israeli president even asked him for advice on how to resolve the conflict.
“The minute they said, you sit here, I was like what’s going on,” Alexander said. “I did what I could. If you had seen my eyes, it was like a bunny in the headlights. I was really grasping at straws. “