June 22, 2006
A Harvest of Conflict
Did Anti-Semitism Take Root at the South Central Farm?
Developer Ralph Horowitz made no secret of his intense displeasure with the 350 mostly Latino farmers who squatted on his 14-acre parcel at 41st and Alameda streets in South Los Angeles. As he saw it, the farmers who cultivated avocados, squash, tomatoes and other produce on individual family plots without paying him were squatters who, in effect, stole from him.
Before Horowitz finally evicted the farmers and their supporters last week, he also had to endure celebrities railing against him and demonstrators showing up at his home -- not to mention the expense of thousands of dollars in legal fees spent on enforcing his property rights.
But Horowitz hauled out the most explosive grievance at the 59th minute of the 11th hour in the standoff. Speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter last week, Horowitz said he refused to reward a group that included people who had made anti-Semitic remarks about him.
"Even if they raised $100 million, this group could not buy this property," Horowitz told NBC4 in a separate interview. "It's not about money. It's about I don't like their cause and I don't like their conduct. So there's no price I would sell it to them for."
Horowitz, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, also has talked of being infuriated by an Internet site that accused him of being part of a "Jewish Mafia" that controls Los Angeles.
The South Central Farmers group and supporters have emphatically denied engaging in anti-Jewish posturing, noting that many in their ranks are Jewish, including rabbis. They accuse Horowitz of playing the anti-Semitism card to divert criticism from him and to splinter an alliance of Westside Jews, environmentalists and South L.A. farmers that coalesced around saving the farm.
"I believe Horowitz thought he was getting a lot of bad press, and sometimes people believe that if you attack you can take the issue away from those people who are questioning what you're doing," said Dan Stormer, a civil rights attorney who's representing the farmers. "The best defense is a good offense."
Other observers say that Horowitz had plenty to be aggrieved about, and studies suggest that anti-Semitism is a real problem among Latinos. But evidence of actual anti-Semitism on the part of the farmers or leaders is slim or even nonexistent.
The recent battle over what many call the largest urban farm in the nation captured headlines around the world, pitting Horowitz against poor Latino farmers and do-gooder celebrities. With last week's eviction looming, entertainers such as '60s folk icon Joan Baez and actors Danny Glover, Martin Sheen and Laura Dern visited the farm site to show support. As pressure mounted and the bulldozers began rolling, many hoped Horowitz would buckle and sell the property, especially after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he helped cobble together a $16.3 million offer for the land -- a bid that apparently met the asking price. (Some insiders say the complicated proposal would have demanded substantial good faith from Horowitz, such as a provision that would have required him to borrow $6 million against the property with the expectation of getting reimbursed within 18 months.)
In the end, though, Horowitz walked away from a deal that would have made him a media hero, one that would have allowed the farmers to continue growing their fruits and vegetables that, supporters say, some relied on for sustenance.
Why didn't he sell? Horowitz told several media outlets that his anger toward farmers for squatting on his land and vilifying him had so alienated him that he wouldn't sell to them for any price. He "disliked from the beginning," he said, "the activists, the movie stars, the anarchists and the hard-nosed group."
He also pointed out a land trust that offered to purchase the land had missed a deadline.
But what about the anti-Semitism bombshell -- which is bound to reverberate through the Jewish community, while also raising questions about Horowitz's timing and motives?
It's not difficult to find implied and explicit anti-Semitism linked to the cause of the South Central farmers.
La Voz de Aztlan, a Web site that describes itself as "a totally independent news service," offered that "Not many people are aware that Los Angeles has a powerful 'Jewish Mafia' that is in cahoots with the Los Angeles Police Department and many local elected politicians. ... Through 'backroom deals' and collusion with certain Jewish L.A. City Council members, Ralph Horowitz was given ownership of the land and he has now placed an 'eviction notice' on the entrance to the farm."
The AfroCubaWeb site linked to the La Voz story and in its summary added the word "sinister" in front of "Jewish land developer Ralph Horowitz."
Such radical sites are widely dismissed as marginal and irrelevant, but a handful of arguably anti-Semitic posts also appeared on the leftie site la.indymedia.org. A poster who called himself "Farmboy" referred to "WHORE-witz"; "Susan" wrote: "There was a time in this country when Jews were also kept down. Do you remember that? It appears, Mr. Horowitz, that you've forgotten what prejudice is like. If it's not about the money, then what is it about, Mr. Horowitz?"
Another poster submitted a picture of a Molotov cocktail and suggested it was time to use them.
Horowitz's charges of anti-Semitism come at a time when Latino anti-Semitism in the United States has reached worrying levels. According to a 2005 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey, 19 percent of American-born Latinos hold anti-Semitic beliefs, while 35 percent of foreign-born Latinos have such views. For Americans at large, the number for those with anti-Semitic views is 14 percent.
ADL National Director Abraham Foxman has said Latino anti-Semitism stems from anti-Jewish teachings in the schools, churches and communities of Latin countries.
But is anti-Semitism the issue at the South L.A. farm? The local ADL branch has received no complaints alleging anti-Semitism on the part of the farmers or their supporters, said Alison Mayersohn, spokesperson for the ADL, Pacific Southwest Region.
The farmers and their allies explicitly disassociated themselves from anti-Semitism when word reached them that that Horowitz believed they had posted anti-Semitic comments on their Web site and/or linked to an anti-Semitic site. Both charges were untrue, and group leaders faxed a letter to Horowitz on June 9 -- days before the eviction -- to tell him that they condemned anti-Semitism.
"We have never engaged in such descriptions and would support you in speaking out against anti-Semitism," the missive said. "In addition, many of the supporters of the South Central Farmers are Jewish."
L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose Ninth District includes the urban farm, acknowledged that there have been ad homonym attacks on Horowitz, but she observed no anti-Semitism from anyone associated with the farm. Perry, who is African American and Jewish, has faced intense criticism herself for suggesting that the site could be used to generate local jobs and needed tax revenue.
Horowitz, apparently, could not be mollified. His enmity for the farmers and their supporters only grew after learning that anti-Semitic printouts from La Voz de Aztlan had circulated by unknown sources at L.A. City Hall. That Web site, which Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has called "venomous," has no official or unofficial connection with the farmers.
Even so, the injection of anti-Semitism into the dispute by third parties apparently set Horowitz off. Rabbi Levi Cunin of Chabad of Malibu, who spoke with Horowitz by phone in a failed bid at bridging the gap between the two sides, said the developer expressed upset at being characterized as a stereotypical Jewish landlord.
In Cunin's opinion, "it was a very complicated puzzle and [anti-Semitism] was just a part of it," he said. Horowitz "was vilified strongly, and I think he felt very, very hurt by the way this was all dealt with."
Farmer Alberto Tlatoa, 20, said Horowitz's charges of anti-Semitism represented nothing less than the cynical attempt of a victimizer trying to portray himself as victim. Looking tired and dispirited two days after the forced eviction, he pointed to torn branches and twisted plants where his family's three peach trees, squash and other fruits and vegetables once flourished.
"I want to call on him to look into his heart," said Tlatoa, wearing a shirt bearing the message, "South Central Farmers Feeding Families." "These are families just trying to survive, to feed their kids, to keep them away from gangs. That is not a crime."
Stormer, the farmers' attorney, said that he wouldn't have represented them if he'd detected any anti-Semitism. Stormer says he will continue to pursue litigation to undo the eviction. His next appearance in court is scheduled for July 12, when he intends to challenge the city's below-market sale of the property to Horowitz in 2003.
The tussle over the land dates back before 1986, when the city seized Horowitz's land using the eminent domain process. Officials hoped to build a trash incinerator on the site, but community opposition derailed that project. After the 1992 riots, the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which began allowing people to cultivate the land. After a series of bruising court battles, Horowitz regained possession of his land in 2003 for about $5 million -- a price well-below market level but close to what the city had paid him 17 years earlier. (As part of the deal, Horowitz agreed to donate 2.6 acres for a community soccer field.) Farmer supporters challenged the legality of the sale and continue to do so, characterizing it as a backroom sweetheart deal.
Insiders said Horowitz was initially open to working out a deal but lost interest after repeated attacks on his character. He also told several media outlets that he paid more than $25,000 per month to maintain the property but received not a penny from the squatting farmers.
Leaders of the farmers have recently come under scrutiny for alleged wrongdoing and intimidation. The L.A. Weekly reported allegations that the leaders evicted fellow farmers, even though they lacked legal authority, while also allegedly collecting "donations" from farmers. The leaders have denied the charges, saying those evicted had illegally subleased plots for personal gain.
Meanwhile, those sympathetic to Horowitz's position have included Mark Williams, an African American board member of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. Williams accused "radical" farmer activists of both bad faith and race baiting over the history of the conflict. He said that it was his mother, activist Juanita Tate, who had originally helped broker a deal with the city for the farmers to use the land while it lay fallow, provided that the farmers would vacate when needed on 30 days notice.
That day arrived when the city agreed to return the land to Horowitz. Tate took the position that the farmers should abide by the agreement. In response, she was cast, said Williams, as "a black woman hostile to the new Latin majority in our community."
Williams said that the attacks devastated Tate, the long-time executive director of Concerned Citizens, which community members founded in 1986 to block the proposed incinerator project. Tate died in 2004.
But resisting an eviction does not make the farmers racist or anti-Semitic, supporters said. In the weeks following the judge's order to leave in late May, activists and celebrities built an encampment at the farm, including a kitchen, medic station and art space. A "sacred space" also appeared, which featured a menorah and other holy and spiritual relics, supporter Sarah Coffey said.
"The community that has been built here isn't about race, religion or color," she said. "It's about sustainability and connectedness to the land."
As last week's eviction approached, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa amplified his effort to broker a solution that would have preserved the green space, which stands out in an industrial area -- and in a city that is short on accessible urban parkland. Working with the Annenberg Foundation and Trust for Public Land, the mayor helped put together a deal that he thought would meet Horowitz's asking price, said Darryl Ryan, the mayor's press deputy.
Much to Villaraigosa's chagrin, Horowitz torpedoed the deal, Ryan said.
"I think when it came down to it, Mr. Horowitz didn't want to sell the land to the farmers," he said. "Mr. Horowitz didn't like the way they were treating him."
Neither the mayor nor his staff members witnessed any anti-Semitism directed at Horowitz by the farmers or their supporters during their involvement, Ryan added.
The city has allocated a 7.8-acre site at 111th Street and Avalon Boulevard that would accommodate some 200 garden plots. Thirty displaced farmers already have begun cultivating the land. Some of the farmers remain dissatisfied with the substitute location for a variety of reasons. The city is looking for other potential garden sites as well.
Farm supporters hope beyond hope that somehow they will prevail in their struggle to regain the use of Horowitz's property, although the odds appear dim at best.
As things stand, many of the avocado and peach trees have been cut down, along with the photogenic walnut tree in which actress Daryl Hannah had perched.
But has more been lost than an urban garden?
Horowitz's "unfounded" charges of anti-Semitism have generated an anti-Jewish backlash among some Latinos, said Tezozomoc, an elected co-leader of the South L.A. farmers. The farmers, he said, feel angry about the developer's besmirching them.
But others see continued good relations between the two ethnic groups.
"The dust-up over the garden is not going to have any serious impact on Latino-Jewish relations," said David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc., an L.A.-based consulting group that focus on improving ties between the city's diverse communities. "There are other more profound and deep-seated issues that could cause friction, but the garden isn't one of them."