November 9, 2006
L.A.‘s Jews and other minorities: oh, how we’ve danced!
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.