L.A.’s Jews and Other Minorities: Oh, How We’ve Danced!

In Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the world, we Jews have grappled long and hard with our sense of place in America. Ultimately, having found our “place in the sun,” we have forged meaningful relations with many of the communities that make up this complicated goulash.

Earlier this year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that Jews are the most admired religious group in America — more than Catholics, Muslims and Evangelical Protestants. Jews received a favorable rating of 77 percent, compared to Catholics’ 73 percent, Evangelicals’ 57 percent and Muslims’ 55 percent. Unfavorable ratings for Jews are at 7 percent, Catholics at 14 percent, Evangelicals at 19 percent and Muslims at 25 percent.

An American Jewish Committee (AJC) study in 2005 found that American Jews exceed all other identifiable religious and ethnic/racial groups in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, mean years of schooling, years of higher education of spouses, prestige level of jobs, household income and net worth (and these are just a few of the measures).

Another AJC study revealed that the trend lines for Jewish acceptance and success are clearly aiming upward. Over the past 30 years, Jews with four-year college degrees increased from 39 percent to 61 percent, occupational “prestige” increased from 46 percent to 52 percent, self-identification as “upper class” increased from 10 percent to 20 percent, self-identification as being “above average” in income level increased from 41 percent to 51 percent, and self-evaluation as having been raised in an “above-average income” home sky-rocketed from 24 percent to 52 percent. According to every measure of success since the 1970s, the trends are consistent and favorable.

Jews are a forceful presence in academia — not only on faculties and in student bodies, but also in the highest levels of administration (from Williams to UCLA to Harvard). Jewish studies centers have proliferated and numerous non-Jews take classes with them. Jews in the corporate arena have headed not only DuPont but also Bank of America and too many other Fortune 100s to name. In the political world there are two Jews on the Supreme Court, two female Jewish senators from California, and more than a minyan in the Senate. There have been Jewish governors in states from Vermont (Kunin) to Hawaii (Lingle) and an Orthodox Jew was a major party nominee for vice president of the United States with virtually no negative questions being raised about his religious affiliation.

My career as a professional in the L.A. Jewish community has spanned almost 30 years. Over those decades, as a participant in Jewish community leadership, I watched and celebrated the transformation of the reality of Jewish life while also observing the community’s self-perception gradually, if reluctantly, keep pace — almost as if acknowledging that positive news would bring about its end (e.g., invoking the evil eye, ayn horeh). But reluctant though it may be, there has been a dramatic shift in status and self-perception, and that shift has radically altered how we relate to other ethnic groups and to our own leadership.

In order to understand the shift that has occurred, it might be illuminating to trace what has happened over the past 30 years and to look at where the community and its leadership are now and where we should go next.

Jews and blacks. Jews and Latinos. Jews and Muslims. To be a Jew in Los Angeles is to be in constant relationship with the other ethnicities and religious groups that make up the complex fabric of the city.

It is also crucial to realize that, despite the dark exhortations of some of our East Coast leaders, the outlook for American Jewry here is bright and sunny.

When I joined the staff of the local Anti-Defamation League office in 1975 as its western states counsel, the community was focused on the security of Israel and the increasing economic clout of the Arab world, the impact of the Arab boycott of Israel overseas and, domestically, the rise of “Third World” antagonists on college campuses, the continued vitality of the Ku Klux Klan and various right-wing extremist groups that were enjoying a rebirth.

Jews were insecure about their incipient rise in America’s corporate structure, which was reflected in the enormous amount of attention accorded Irving Shapiro’s becoming the chairman of DuPont in 1973 — the first Jew to head a Fortune 100 company. It hadn’t been all that long since the civil rights laws of the 1960s initiated the transformation of the corporate suite. The doors that had been opened a decade earlier resulted in a Jew being elevated to CEO of one of America’s blue-chip companies, a powerfully symbolic and significant milestone for the American Jewish community.

Because of our still-lingering level of discomfort at the time, we retained a certain level of defensiveness. An off-color remark on a late-night talk show, a dim-witted sitcom episode, or a politician or preacher’s errant comments became targets for swift and unambiguous condemnation. Very few slights were too minor to be ignored or allowed to go unanswered. We were, after all, a disadvantaged minority with a tortured history of discrimination that was only beginning to harvest the fruits of a free and open society. We were still in the shadow of the Holocaust and hadn’t yet adjusted to our dramatically improving status.

The insecurity that prevailed in the 1970s and ’80s frequently colored our dialogues with other groups. Whether black-Jewish or Latino-Jewish interactions, those relations seemed to be shaped by the memories of the “grand coalitions” formed during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s and animated by the notion that as an aggrieved minority we needed allies for protection against potential bigotry and hate from the white Christian majority. Frankness and recognition of frequently divergent interests were often sublimated in favor of efforts to sustain a united front.

During those years, the community leadership’s efforts at “outreach” often ran counter to what Jews perceived as their real, everyday concerns. In Los Angeles, no single issue demonstrated the gulf between what the Jewish “Joe six-pack” wanted and what leadership pursued than that of public-school busing. Jewish organizations, virtually unanimously, endorsed the transfer of tens of thousands of kids across Los Angeles, while the parents of kids in public schools were divided — at best — and permanently alienated from their community organizations — at worst.

Relations with the black community became particularly contentious during the period from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. That was due, in no small measure, to the influence of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam. His periodic visits to Los Angeles would invariably stir up dueling op-eds on whether black leadership should or should not separate themselves from his inevitable attacks on Jews. There was general agreement between the views of the Jewish community and its leadership — the good reverend had the unintended effect of bringing Jews together in a united front against his hate.

In recent years, Farrakhan’s influence has faded, and there has been an emergence of local black political, institutional and church leaders who are more moderate and constructive and willing to speak out about troublemakers in their own community — to “uncircle” the wagons when warranted.

These new black leaders are engaging a Jewish community that, over the past decade, has undergone a visceral and perceptible transformation.

In my experience, two striking and almost parallel examples reflect the grass-roots transformation that has taken place over time; both involve Hollywood and the community’s perception of “offense.”

In the mid-1970s, a major Hollywood production company produced a hit television comedy series, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The program was a lighthearted look at a beleaguered heroine and her daily travails in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. In one episode, a young friend of Mary’s, who pursues a career in entertainment, gets a big break and is flown to Hollywood to appear on the “Dinah Shore Show.” While being interviewed, the young woman expresses surprise that her manager, her press agent, and others whom she meets in the course of her trip (all named Goldberg, Cohen or Shapiro) are so nice, “it’s hard to believe that they’s [sic] the people who crucified our Lord.” This particular segment was broadcast nationally on, of all days, Good Friday.

The following Monday the calls came in fast and furious from across the country — the community was up in arms both about the invocation of the deicide charge and the timing of the broadcast during Holy Week. The fear — expressed and implicit — was that reminding Americans of the deicide charge, especially at Easter time, could result in hate and violence being directed at Jews. In my career in the Jewish community, few events have provoked such a tidal wave of phone calls.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s when “The Daily Show” aired a segment about the Orthodox Jewish tradition of kaparot — the High Holidays’ ritual of grasping a live chicken, moving it around one’s head three times, symbolically transferring one’s sins to the chicken. The Daily Show “news” item — broadcast a day or two before Yom Kippur — showed the ritual taking place in Jerusalem with a young Chasid swinging the chicken over his head and explaining the symbolism. Host Craig Kilborn then commented that “Jews used to swing young Christians, instead of chickens, before they got too expensive.”

There were isolated complaints about the humor, a few irate callers — no groundswell, no wave of indignation, no fear that anti-Semitism might result from the oddly timed attempt at humor.

I chose to pass on complaining to “The Daily Show.” In some respects, we had come of age. We had achieved sufficient security in America to be able to absorb the humor that was also being dished out to other groups — majority and minority. We didn’t need special protection, pogroms weren’t afoot. My local leadership agreed, an attitude that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier.

More importantly perhaps, the Jewish community now interacts with other groups with newfound honesty and frankness and with the realization that being up front about one’s interests is the minimal threshold for real dialogue.

In the relationship with local Latinos, the dynamic between the Jewish community and its leadership was considerably different than the dramatic and historically significant relationship that marks black-Jewish interactions; the Latino community barely registered on the Jewish community-at-large’s consciousness. Jews had been fixated on the black community as the center of all that had to do with inter-ethnic relations. This in spite of the fact that in L.A. Latinos have been a significant force for more than a half century.

Yet Jewish political leaders managed to forge important connections with Latino leadership, despite the community’s seeming indifference. Jewish elected leaders (primarily Howard Berman, even before he was elected to Congress) recognized the importance of a strong relationship to Latinos and encouraged continued broader efforts at outreach. The key role of Southern California Jewish political leaders in decennial redistricting helped place them in a position to build alliances that arose from enlightened self-interest and political reality and set the stage for the community to follow.

The relations, minimal though they were, generally were amicable. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that a heated flash point between the Jews and Latinos arose as a result of a contested election for the state Senate in which Latino and Jewish candidates faced off (Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon). Latinos had become significant players on the political scene and were flexing their muscles. The heated exchange resulting from a last-minute election mailer directed against Katz opened a wound that took some time to heal, but the pre-existing relations (especially in the political arena) helped slowly mend the rift.

The bond that formed between Mayor Tom Bradley, who was black, and the Jewish community in the ’70s and ’80s has its mirror image in the close relationship between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Jews today.

Muslim community relations are another barometer of how the transformation of Jewish attitudes, self-awareness and sense of place in society has impacted our relations with other groups.

In the ’70s there were virtually no relations with the then under-organized Islamic American community. But by the 1990s and Israel-Palestinian mutual recognition, American Jews actively worked with Muslim leadership in major cities across the country, including Los Angeles. Liberal rabbis, mainstream civil rights organizations and activists all participated. Joint statements on a variety of issues and “dialogue” groups proliferated. Frequently though, these alliances left a feeling of unease. We bit our tongues when issues arose that had to be fudged over or obfuscated to promote harmony.

In the wake of Sept. 11, the second intifada, the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah terror, the community’s new confidence in itself and its place on the American scene led most Jewish leadership to establish certain basic requirements as prerequisites for participation in “dialogues.” This was new, frank and refreshing.

In the past few months in Los Angeles that new attitude came into sharp focus as one of the major leaders of the Islamic community, Dr. Maher Hathout, senior adviser to the national Muslim Public Affairs Council, was set to be recognized by Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. His public record of comments vis ? vis terror and its “justifications” became a major issue.

Some in the Jewish community’s leadership embraced Hathout, warts and all, and condemned those who raised uncomfortable issues. Others attacked Hathout for not being “Zionist” enough (clearly, not part of his job description as a Muslim leader). A more reasoned line of opposition argued that his stand on terror and its genesis was a relevant and important consideration in the context of his selection for an award honoring “excellence in human relations.”

The Jewish community’s insistence on honesty, forthrightness and firmness about the issues at stake resulted in Hathout issuing the most clear and unambiguous on-the-record statement by a Muslim Public Affairs Council official with regard to Israel, terror, Hezbollah and Hamas.

At this critical point, Jewish leadership recognized the community’s disaffection and anger with spokesmen and organizations that promoted contacts with those who were unwilling to be forthright in the face of the profound threats that America faced. These are issues on which there was no reason to fudge or compromise.

Ironically, it is the L.A. Jewish community’s sense of itself and its place in American society that enables honest and forthright dialogue — in contrast to the public positions taken by much of the Jewish community’s national organizational leadership, which proclaims our “insecurity.” The speeches (ADL’s Abe Foxman averring that there is a “strong undercurrent of Jewish hatred that persists in America”), the direct-mail appeals that raise fears of the sky falling if the sender’s agency isn’t supported with a prompt donation, the ads and press releases that treat every slight as if it were a major anti-Semitic incident (e.g., protesting a Whoopi Goldberg “Jewish recipe” in a community fundraising cookbook) are all evidence of a disconnect between the views of a good deal of our leadership and the reality in which most of us live. The predictions of imminent harm plus the perpetuation of the image of Jews as an aggrieved and at risk minority simply don’t comport with the reality of most American Jews’ lives.

The impact of those mass appeals to fear is, at least partially, responsible for the segment of the American Jewish community that simply won’t admit to our achievements and our domestic security. A just-released AJC poll found that 26 percent of American Jews continue to believe that domestic anti-Semitism is “very serious.” In the 2005 version of the poll, 7 percent also thought that domestic anti-Semitism would increase “greatly” over the next several years.

That pessimistic segment, though vocal, influential and, presumably, generous, is not the audience that our leadership should be catering to. Younger American Jews have a worldview completely at odds with the assumption of a hostile and dangerous American scene that could tip in the wrong direction at any time. Whether it is Reboot’s recent national study (“OMG!: How Generation Y Is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era”) or Hillel’s Millenial poll of generation Y’ers, young people (both Jews and non-Jews) are, according to the Reboot survey, “the most diverse generation in the nation … and are fully integrated into diverse social networks. While previous generations often lived in homogenous religious communities, among Generation Y only 7 percent of youth report that all of their friends are the same religion as themselves. There are few significant differences between Jewish and non-Jewish students.”

A new generation of Jews isn’t afraid America might turn to an Inquisition because of a Mel Gibson film, a silly joke on TV, or an anti-Israel comment by a college professor.

They also don’t feel obliged to engage with other groups because of fear for their own future or security — they live their lives with “others.”

Thus, the distance between leadership, which still touts the traditional paranoia, and the broader Jewish community may well only increase. Identity politics is not the wave of the future.

While our organizational leaders rarely acknowledge the “good news” that envelops us, our community has itself gradually reshaped its priorities and refocused the antennae that were so acutely aimed at anti-Semitism. It is time that our leaders recognize the distance between where they are focused and where the folks are that they seek to protect.

These leaders would be well served to not press the “gevalt” button; although effective, it is both dishonest and counterproductive. What they ought to be doing, especially in an era when most Jews feel increasingly secure, is to push the community to engage in issues that may seem distant.

As more and more Jews live in gated communities, send their kids to private schools and subscribe to private “protection services” — it’s too easy to disconnect from the tough issues that society faces. It is our leadership’s role to promote the community’s involvement in society — not animated by a fear or concern about us; but motivated by a genuine desire for tikkun olam.

As Leon Wieseltier recently observed: “By the standards of Jewish history…the Jewish attainment in America is truly an embarrassment of riches. We must not permit the collective memory of our people to inhibit us from the imagination of happiness. We — I refer to most of world Jewry — may finally be living in the sun.

“The analysis of anti-Semitism must take place somewhere between indifference and hysteria. The most loyal Jew is not the most hysterical Jew…. The cult of victimization is no more attractive, and no less coarsening, when it is the cult of our victimization.”

We need to, as Wieseltier writes, “imagine our happiness” by engaging with our fellow citizens as empowered Americans, secure in our position and determined to make ours a better, more just and more civil society for all.

David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles human relations organization chaired by former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan.


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