Jewish Journal


May 13, 2004

Are Muslims Endangered?


Heightened ethnic and religious hatred might be rearing its ugly head in California -- but some politicians are eager to stand in its way.

State Assemblymember Judy Chu introduced and saw passage of Assembly Joint Resolution (AJR) 64 in early April. The resolution condemns hate crimes against "Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, South Asian Americans and Sikh Americans."

"The fact that hate crimes and discrimination continue to be perpetrated against American Muslims, Arabs, South Asians and Sikhs at a higher number than ever before is unacceptable," wrote Chu in AJR 64.

Chu spoke about the resolution at a joint press conference on April 2 with a major supporter, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). A representative from Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office and community leaders from the ethnic groups mentioned in the resolution also attended.

California is the first state whose legislature has passed such a resolution condemning discrimination against Arabs and Muslims.

The resolution has also received some Jewish support.

"We've written a letter to the author expressing our support for the resolution, and we support any action taken publicly by our leaders to denounce hate crimes," said Amanda Susskind, director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League. "I would hope that Muslim activist groups like CAIR would reciprocate and denounce the rise in global anti-Semitism as well."

Susskind, her own organization no stranger to working publicly against all manner of hate crimes, noted that the true importance of resolutions like AJR 64 is to send a "countervailing message" that hate is not endorsed by the society at large.

In support of the claim that acts of discrimination against Muslims are occurring "at a higher number than ever before," CAIR also released a study on May 3 called "Unpatriotic Acts" which noted that the number of reported anti-Muslim incidents tripled between 2003 and 2002.

"Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in Arizona, New York, California, and New Jersey experienced the greatest increase in reported incidents, ranging from a jump of 233 [in California] to 584 percent [in Arizona]," according to a statement released by CAIR about the report.

CAIR's data also claims that U.S. government policies such as those under the PATRIOT Act negatively and disproportionately affect Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities.

As with any study of self-reported incidents, many other variables could affect the numbers, such as increased reporting or increased attention to harassment. But regardless of the specific numbers in any such study, Susskind also emphasized that simply the act of reporting a hate incident is important because it reinforces the belief in the community that there are in fact groups actively working against the hatred.

Redlands, a Cross and the ACLU

It seems time for the City of Redlands to remove a cross from the public sphere.

Since 1963, Redlands has sported the same official seal on everything from its police badges to its business cards to its city vehicles. One corner of that emblem displayed a glowing cross and church. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California received anonymous complaints about the appropriateness of the image from two local residents and sent a letter on March 11 to the city asking that the design be changed.

"[The City of Redlands was] a public entity with a sectarian religious symbol prominently displayed on its seal, and that violates the establishment clause [of the First Amendment]," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU and author of the letter to the city.

"If it said, 'In God we trust' it might be a closer call, but if, as in the Redlands seal, it has a Latin cross glowing and hovering above a church, I think the message that Christianity is being endorsed is unmistakable," Wizner said.

The City of Redlands, already facing a $1.2 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, chose not to fight the ACLU in court after reviewing the strong precedent against it.

"[The city] realized that the only loser if they fought this would be the taxpayer," Wizner said.

If it had pursued the matter in court and lost, Redlands would have had to pay both sides' legal fees.

Even the Alliance Defense Fund, a group which openly derides the ACLU's positions on practically every issue, declined to assist the City of Redlands to fight the ACLU in this case due to the long odds of success. Though some local Christian private school students protested, the city has already moved forward with a plan to replace the picture of a church and cross with one of a home and star.

Despite the City Council's work to remove the iconography from all city seals by the April 30 deadline, Redlands Mayor Susan Peppler still hoped to placate a group of vocal dissenters who support the public display of the cross. She said she would explore alternatives to fight the ACLU -- so long as they don't cost the city any money.

Reaction Mixed on Riordan's School Plans

Expect big changes in California's educational system. Gov. Schwarzenegger's appointed secretary of education (and former L.A Mayor) Richard Riordan has been pushing the advancement of so-called "micro-spending" initiatives in California public schools, devolving control over 80 percent to 90 percent of a school's money from the district office to the school's principal.

His plans are largely based on the thinking of a former adviser from his mayoral days, William Ouchi. Ouchi's 2003 book "Making Schools Work" examines school districts with and without micro-spending programs and concludes that children benefit with more local control.

The plan has met with some criticism, especially for its lack of emphasis on actually increasing the funds available to poorer schools. John Perez, United Teachers Los Angeles president, has publicly stated ambivalence toward the plan, which he believes misses the major points necessary to improve education: increased funding for poor schools and decreased class sizes.

Should Riordan's restructuring of California public education funding succeed, public schools will function under a radically different funding system. Jewish parents may want re-examine their stake in public schools, for better or for worse.

"The latest demographic study that the Jewish Federation ran of the Jewish population here in Los Angeles indicated that 64 percent of Jewish children of school age in the Federation area were attending public schools," said Gil Graff, executive director of The Bureau of Jewish Education.

Graff is not convinced, however, that public micro-spending will impact Jewish private school enrollment. Though the plan will ideally lead to higher achievement for students, Graff said that many Jewish parents routinely choose to forgo excellent public facilities elsewhere in the country, "not because they consider the public education to be of poor quality, but because they consider it to be lacking in Jewish education, which is what they're seeking."

Graff added that even in districts where there is a fair amount of local power, unlike in the sprawling LAUSD, many Jewish parents distinctly seek that religious and cultural background only possible at a Jewish private school. Nonetheless, Graff emphasized the common-sense notion that all Californians, including Jews, have a massive stake in the future success of public education in California.

Though Riordan has been speaking about the merits of micro-spending power since his appointment as California's Secretary of Education in November of 2003, no specific timetable has been made public. It seems likely that many portions of the plan will have to be approved by the California legislature.

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