Actor, Friend of Israel, Political Activist; A conversation with Jon Voight

By

Ruth Judah.

Jon Voight has been an outspoken supporter of Israel for many years and has repeatedly encouraged a love and understanding of Israel. On March 15th, he posted a one minute video on YouTube that received more than 160,000 hits, and encouraged support of Israel and votes for Netanyahu in the pending elections. He is responsible for raising many millions of dollars for Jewish charities, of influencing American politics in the funding of Israeli causes, and for supporting the influential evangelical movement’s support of Israel. At the same time, Mr. Voight continues to enjoy star status as a world famous actor whose recent film and television work has received the highest awards, ratings and status. This month, Mr. Voight gave an interview to The Jewish Home LA.

TJH: You’ve been in Israel many times and your public support of Israeli causes is meaningful and well reported. When did you first visit Israel?

Jon Voight: I first went in the early ‘80s when I did a film and I was there for just one day and I didn’t see much. I was not connected to the country, not as focused as I became later on.

TJH: This year will be your 25th appearance at the Chabad Telethon, which raises more than $3million annually. You also emcee The Children of Chernobyl Fundraiser and you’ve been on the advisory board of the Florida Holocaust Museum. How did you first become involved with Jewish charities?

Jon Voight: In the eighties, the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, instructed Rabbi Yossi Raichik to find a way to airlift children from the contaminated area of Chernobyl to hospitals In Israel for treatment. I became friends with Yossi’s brother, Abi, who introduced me to the charity in the early nineties. I was asked to emcee an event for them and it went OK and they’ve asked me back every year since. I became acquainted with people in Israel through this program and eventually I went and visited.

TJH: Rabbi Cunin, Chabad’s West Coast Director, calls you, “A real, super mensch.” It’s an unusual friendship; how did it come about?

Jon Voight: I met him through Rabbi Jerry Cutler. I had been working on support for the Hopi Indians, an extremely spiritual people, and I wanted a proper place to present their message to the press. I had trouble finding a spiritual backdrop for the press conference. My longtime friend, Hank Paul, suggested that I contact Rabbi Jerry Cutler, and so I reached out to him. He was immediately enthusiastic. He said, “Not only will I offer you Temple Beth El, but I’ll throw in coffee and Danish as well.” This was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The Press Conference was very successful, with Elizabeth Taylor and Tyne Daly and Cheech Marin attending and I was in high spirits. I said to Jerry Cutler, “Now that you’ve given me this help, I owe you.” He quickly replied, “As a matter of fact, I run a telethon for a wonderful group called Chabad. They help people in need. Would you come on the telethon and say a few words for them?”

I said, “I’m sure they are a good organization if you recommend them, but I don’t know anything about it, let me look into it.” He sent me to the drug program which they ran on Robertson Blvd. When I walked into the courtyard there, I was faced with a line of rough looking guys with tattoos and these men were lining up in front of a small table. I walk up to see what is going on and I see there is a robust fellow with a black beard and a black hat and he has rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt and he’s arm wrestling with these men… and he’s winning! Then he sees me, he stops everything and runs over to give me a bear hug which knocked the wind out of me; it was such a powerful embrace. I immediately liked this guy and this was my introduction to Rabbi Shlomo Baruch Cunin. He filled me in on all the details of the drug program and then asked me back to his Westwood office.

His headquarters were upstairs on the third floor, which you reached by squeezing into a tiny elevator. You could tell all the money that was raised went into the program because nothing was being spent on the decor. I mean nothing. They say that no one who goes to Chabad is turned away and I was to witness this in action. Rabbi Cunin’s outer office had a couple of chairs and a couch and really nothing much else. There were two people sitting there and waiting, a young husband and wife and they were clearly very poor and he asked them what they might need. They said they had nothing in their apartment. Could he help them with some furniture? He looked around the room and said, “How about this couch?” They were delighted, so the Rabbi told me to take one end and help him carry the couch to the elevator. We all got in the elevator, we were face to face, jammed in together with the couch. When we got downstairs the Rabbi and I heaved the sofa into my Cherokee because they couldn’t do this on their own. I delivered the sofa. I was happy to be part of this Chabad energy that was so pure and full of love. That told me all I needed to know in order to make the decision to go on the telethon.

I must say that I was a little timid at my first appearance on the telethon. I said a few simple words and that was all I could get out and then someone said, “And here’s the tote!” Before I knew it, I was grabbed by the arm and was dancing in a circle of bearded Rabbi’s. I remember I was laughing so much. I had long blonde hair in those days and I looked nothing like the perfect guy for the job! I knew very well how ridiculous it must have seemed and I couldn’t stop smiling. And it turned out my performance was entertaining to a lot of people, and they’ve asked me back every year since. I’ve stayed friendly with Rabbi Cunin. He’s an amazing energy and tremendously entertaining. When he’s on the telethon, you never know what might happen. He has no board or teleprompter and he gets inspired to speak and he’s always fantastic. You just don’t know what he will do next. It’s always dangerous and fun.

Actually, I’ve become famous for my dancing, but maybe infamous is a better word! Many people only know me from the telethon. Once, I was shopping in the supermarket. I turned a corner and a strong hand grabbed my arm. I looked down to see an elderly woman. She put a finger in my face and said, “Boychik! You’re a good dancer… and you’re getting better!!!” That’s what she told me! So that’s the adventure of the telethon.

TJH: Clearly you have an extraordinary knowledge of Jewish History. How have you learned so much on the subject?

Jon Voight: Jewish history is the most amazing tale. I would recommend Paul Johnson’s, A History of the Jews. It’s so beautifully written. There are so many books, the bible of course, being the center of all the books. I’ve made a little journey through all the Jewish literature around the bible. I’ve been quoted as saying that the greatest wonder of the world is Jewish literature and all these magnificent writings that are commentaries from the bible. It’s true. The geniuses of each generation, for thousands of years, have contributed to this literature. Their names are legend. Rashi, the Maharal of Prague, Maimonides, right down to the last century which gave us all of the Chassidic teachings. There are people today, who are continuing this legacy of insight. People like the great Eli Wiesel, the Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschl, who wrote extraordinary volumes of work and was a dear friend of Martin Luther King and walked arm in arm with him in the great final march in Selma.

Being a film actor, perhaps I am most intrigued by the writings of the prophets. This is extraordinary drama. Imagine a young person being visited by an angel or G-d or whatever spiritual entity gives him the power to speak. This moment when this human being is given this office, this destiny and accepts it, with all its inner dangers and this has given us a chart of events that were to come. It’s so moving and reading the words, even in English, one is left with no doubt as to the authenticity of these moments in history. People don’t read the prophets as much as they should and this is a sad state. In my lifetime, I understand now that this great prophecy of the Jews returning to their land, their historic homeland, has come about. This is an amazing time in the history of human beings. Not just for the Jews. This, in part, explains my love for the Jewish people and Israel.

TJH: You have achieved enormous global success as an actor and yet the orthodox Jewish Community know you for your meaningful support of Israel and Jewish causes. Do you think it strange that there are no orthodox Jews who have a public image like you do?

Jon Voight: Religious Jews are not meant to be political, although history is full of Chassidic Rabbis who supported causes. Once again, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is a good example. He was very outspoken. Eli Wiesel was very active on the part of the Russian Jews and received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Yet, for the most part, orthodox Jews don’t talk so much to the outside world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was world renown because he, “had the ear of everybody.” He did speak to the people in power at the time, but only because those people came to him.

TJH: You’ve attended dinners that have raised money for the Republican Party and conservatives have taken pride in your public stands. Given your success in the political arena and your popularity as an actor, might you run for office in some capacity?

Jon Voight: The things I do are good things, but I think the career politicians are very good people and there is always room for more of them. I have not, however, been a career politician. It’s a specific vocation and there are many good people now in the Republican Party and I will leave it to them. There are some meaningful statesman in the conservative ranks; Ted Cruz, Governor Huckerbee, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker from Wisconsin. There are very good people out there. The democratic side has few good leaders. If you see nothing else from the last four and a half years, you can see there are no strong leaders on the left. When Clinton faces no one who offers an alternative leadership option, this is a party in trouble. Yes, I think I will get involved with the election as much as I can. I speak out because I do my homework and maybe because of that I can see a few things that other people can’t see. We’re a participatory democracy. It’s a republic of the people. If we don’t educate ourselves, how can we participate? If I have something to contribute at this hour, I’d say, start taking an interest. Look for the truth. You may have to go a little distance, but it’s out there. You can find it if you keep looking. It’s a serious time in the world.

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TJH: Could the Jewish Vote be more productive? Could American Jews have greater impact in the political arena?

Jon Voight: I think the voice of the Jewish people has been heard. They twice voted for this administration. They haven’t paid attention to what is going on. The recent dealings with Netanyahu from this White House and the public hostility he has faced is unforgivable. The Jewish people must understand that this President is allowing Iran to get a nuclear bomb. This President directs attention to Iran by continuing these endless talks. We are in very dangerous times. To allow the Middle East to become a nuclear region is unthinkable.

Thank G-d, Netanyahu spoke so well and his words were important. Hopefully they reached every Jewish person as well. Obama has responded poorly, to say the least. And this has always been the way. The first time Netanyahu came to visit him in the US, Obama was very rude and made him enter through the back door, and then, took a break for more than an hour when he went off for a meal and didn’t even offer food to Netanyahu. The Jewish people have to realize that if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck! It’s very important that they wake up.

TJH: The 2014 Pew Research Report showed that in many ways, evangelical Christians are more supportive of Israel than American Jews. How is this so?

Jon Voight: These are good people and if Israel were attacked tomorrow, I dare say they would be more serious than the Jews in fighting back. The evangelicals take the bible seriously. They’re more educated in this aspect than the secular world. When I was in Israel with Glenn Beck in August 2011, we were with a group of evangelical Christians. It was a large group. I spoke to them as a group, and one night we were waiting to get into the Western Wall and there was going to be a big event, maybe 1,000 people. I felt my job was to visit with the folks as they waited in the slow line. I signed my name when I was asked and so forth and I worked my way up to the front of the line which was down some stairs to the entrance doorway. There was suddenly a huge cheer from the front of the line. I thought, “Is Elvis in the house?” I climbed up onto these ancient rocks and then I was high enough to see what was the cause of the excitement. There was a squad of Israeli soldiers crossing the road. This had caused the cheer. It was deeply moving. I stood on these ancient rocks feeling connected to the past, but it was so beautiful to see that this group of Americans had got it right in understanding that these soldiers were creating the future. We need to thank those soldiers and we need to look up to this Prime Minister who has been a great war hero. Look, he lost his brother in Entebbe and he knows the price of Israel’s existence and we should stand strong with him. He has a capability that is surpassing.

What has Obama done to support Netanyahu? After Netanyahu spoke in Washington, Obama released documents that told of the nuclear facilities in Israel. This is a very bad situation now. We should speak out when necessary. Everyone is very timid around our President and this is wrong. Does it make us a racist to criticize him? People have a knee-jerk reaction and aren’t independent thinkers and aren’t getting the accurate, true facts.

TJH: Are Jewish Americans ignorant of the politics because our media is slanted, incomplete or cheaply created?

Jon Voight: We can no longer depend on the media. If someone gives your kids bad books you would home school them. We have to home school ourselves because the media are no longer giving us the facts. The news is impotent. We have to search for the truth. We can’t rely on the media that reports news based on the subjects that get the rating’s numbers up. We must ask everyone and share and consider the different information. This is what can be done to help. Each individual should talk to their friends and share the truth as they see it. You should talk to your congressman as well about these issues. When we start to recognize a lie is being repeated, then we can decide what is our responsibility. Not all of us can step in front of a microphone. Most people have to work in other circles.

TJH: So where do we go from here, as Jews?

Jon Voight: We need to see the truth and understand what is happening in our world. We need to watch what kids are taught. The colleges are very harmful and anti-Israel. If, I go to speak at a college, I would be attacked and they wouldn’t even invite me, anyway. But Ahmadinejad? They invited him to speak at Columbia University. How absurd!

Spiritual values are being attacked. This has led to renewed anti-Semitism which has reached new heights at this time. Denial needs to go. We should be certain we know what is going on around us and make decisions accordingly. Denial needs to be overwhelmed by truth. Every Jew is, in some way a holocaust survivor. Jews are amazing at surviving, but Jewish people have to realize that assimilation is not the highest virtue and denial is not the answer and will not protect you from today’s reality.