February 28, 2002
Religion, Rabbis and Reform
A "moral response" to secession? Think again.
The San Fernando Valley secession movement faces almost total opposition from Los Angeles' political, civic, academic and media establishments. But over the coming weeks, it is likely to be taking flak from the city's religious elite, too.
Among those likely to be weighing in against secession are some of the rabbis who, following the lead of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, have joined other clerics in studying the "moral implications" of a Valley/city split. These clerics, called the Council of Religious Leaders, will be issuing a report later this month that, if not condemning secession as a racist heresy, seems certain to skewer the idea as bad for the various Los Angeles communities, including the Jews.
The problem here is not so much with opposing secession -- it is indeed a debatable proposition -- but treating it as a moral issue of righteousness than a more mundane dispute over the best possible scale for efficient and responsive government.
I haven't seen the Council's report. But my sense that the secessionists will get assaulted from the pulpit grew out of conversations with two prominent Jewish members of the committee studying the issue. Although they both live in the Valley, Alan Henkin, Pacific Southwest vice-president of the Union of Hebrew Congregations and Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Los Angeles-area Board of Rabbis, made clear to me that they view secession as a dangerous idea, with negative ramifications for community life.
Henkin fears secession's impact on various communities -- Latino and African American, as well as Jewish -- by cutting off the Valley from the Westside and the rest of Los Angeles. It's also bad for the Jews, essentially, because the Valley Jews might "fragment," that is, set up their own institutions free of the Westside establishment.
If there's some good news in the rabbi's views, it's the one assertion Henkin seems predisposed not to share -- that secession is largely an effort by middle class whites to flee "people of color." It's a notion, he admits, some clerics are pushing, but makes little sense since the Valley these days is hardly Barbie-paradise.
Today the Valley is about half Hispanic and Asian. By most measurements, it is more diverse and integrated than the rest of the city, which increasingly resembles a Manhattan duopoly of affluent whites (increasingly older, single and childless couples) and poor Latinos, with a shrinking African American population.
But if the bloody shirt of racism is not waved high by the religious police, that of poverty will be, suggests Diamond. The rabbi told me that he and his fellow clergy analysts are shocked at the degree of poverty and social dysfunction in Los Angeles. One can only hope they don't join Mahoney -- who is spending lavishly on his spanking new cathedral, while the once-proud Catholic education system lies in tatters -- in attacking Valley secession as part of Los Angeles' cruelty toward its less fortunate.
The Valley of course has its poor pockets, but less so than the city. It also has less of the ultra-rich. In reality the Valley is what Los Angeles should be -- mixed and middle class. It is a place of upward aspirations, particularly for Latinos who, according to a recent poll, are even more in favor of secession that Anglo Valleyites.
The problem here, however, is not so much what the rabbis will say, but why in God's name they are saying it at all. Secession has many weaknesses, but also a solid rationale. It is a logical citizen and business response to an almost completely dysfunctional system that essentially benefits those who really now rule the L.A. roost -- the public employee unions, the Mandarin bureaucrats and well-connected developers.
Rabbis, priests and imams on the council may not have seen this reality, because most of their time has been spent talking to the L.A. academics and activists who make their living portraying our city as hell on earth. The clerics seem may buy into the notion of a city not of often-multiethnic neighborhoods, but of a kind of tribal city dominated by clans identified by racial pedigree. They don't see what works in Los Angeles -- its neighborhoods -- and what doesn't -- the city government and its main institutions.
The anti-secession forces -- you will see gobs of union and special-interest money spent to kill this fading movement -- will cynically play on this kind of communalism to prop up a distant, unresponsive and sickeningly smug government system. Their real goal is not to help the poor, but to ride the middle class and small businesses in order to prop up the well-connected and the bureaucracy.
Most rabbis are not necessarily experts at seeing these things. They rely too much on Abraham Heschel and not enough on Max Weber. They often mistake nuanced issues of politics and geography for great moral issues.
These rabbis should worry less about the impoverished pockets, and more about the middle class Angelenos, many of them Jewish, who work hard, pay taxes and, in return, get overpriced, often inefficient services, horrific schools and an imploding infrastructure. After all, it's the middle class residents who pay most of the taxes and create the jobs which in turn help the poor, whose basic goal, for the most part, is to join the middle class themselves. There's a moral dimension here, too, but one that clerics may too easily overlook.
Secession may not be the best way to achieve justice for this community, if for no other reason because it will never overcome the institutional opposition of so many entrenched forces. But civic reform -- such as breaking Los Angeles into a more responsive borough system -- is an option that has barely been considered as an alternative to the current mess. It's not likely to get on the religious radar screen.
Instead of essentially endorsing the status quo, our religious leaders would do better to look at what the purpose of government is -- which is to serve the people so they can better help themselves. They should look more deeply into why so many Valley residents signed the secession petitions in the first place. And, out of respect for those sentiments, they should avoid offering what some might see as the Almighty's edict on what is essentially a question of political efficiency and responsiveness.