November 9, 2006
L.A.‘s Jews and other minorities: oh, how we’ve danced!
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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.