November 9, 2006
L.A.‘s Jews and other minorities: oh, how we’ve danced!
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.