October 10, 2002
USC recently hosted a panel discussion around this topic: Is secession good for the Jews?
Secession, in this instance, referred to the referendum calling for the San Fernando Valley to separate from Los Angeles and become an independent city of 1.35 million.
The panel's title was not surprising given its campus host: The Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. But among the four panelists (two for secession, two against), only one, Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Dist. 38), a candidate for Valley mayor if secession prevails in the Nov. 5 election, made any reference to Jews.
He explained that he was Jewish, but disliked the panel's heading. It made him uncomfortable, and so he was going to ignore it altogether and speak about how secession was good for the Valley and, indeed, for all of the 3.75 million people in Los Angeles.
In an earlier day, everyone in the audience would have known why he wanted to slide away from the good-for-the-Jews question. It was not "cool" to be public about Jewish interests or preferences. The non-Jews might hear, and who knew what consequences might follow. Certainly nothing good.
But this is the 21st century and, for better or worse, the Jews are central players in Los Angeles. Jews are at the heart of the city's cultural life. The garment industry is crowded with Latino workers, but many owners are Jewish businessmen. Real estate and development are identified with major Jewish entrepreneurs. Local politics has a strong Jewish presence, and in terms of fundraising for statewide and national political office, Los Angeles in particular and California in general are essential to the nation's political life. I haven't even mentioned Hollywood with its Jewish agents, corporate lawyers and moguls.
If you start compiling names of L.A. influentials -- Frank Gehry, Steven Spielberg, Eli Broad, Haim Saban, Bruce Ramer, Rob Reiner -- it becomes evident that the Jews, on the basis of influence, per capita income and education, are the Brahmins of Los Angeles. And as Brahmins, their agenda is focused on the good of the city, since their interests -- business, civic, political -- are connected to the health and welfare and success of the city as a whole.
Is secession good for the Jews? It is not so much embarrassment that leads to silence, as it is the sense that it is the wrong question. The primary question for many Jews: Is secession good for the city of Los Angeles?
And only after that, is it good for the citizens of the Valley?
Of course, not all Jews agree on secession. The San Fernando Valley is home to about half of the city's half-million Jews, and some of them favor secession. They see a better life for themselves and for middle-class interests, much as they did nearly 20 years ago when they overwhelmingly opposed busing inner-city children to schools in the Valley. Smaller is better; we will have more voice in our affairs, more clout, said some Jewish voters who live in the Valley.
And there is either hope or optimism that somehow their problems (if not necessarily those of greater Los Angeles) will be diminished, if not solved, by walking away. Nevertheless, in a July poll 57 percent of Jewish voters opposed secession while 34 percent were in favor of it, with about 9 percent undecided.
Officially, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is supporting discussions, panels, dialogue and has taken no stand. The liberal Progressive Jewish Alliance is not so constrained; they are opposed to secession. Their leaders explain that in Jewish tradition, a city is a community with obligations. Each is committed to help all, particularly the poorest members of the community. They fear that a new city might strive for a new slate, doing away with rent controls, minimum wages and restrictions for developers and corporations; that the Valley leaders are looking more in the direction of middle-class and upper-middle-class needs.
It is an instance where Jewish tradition, Jewish self-interest and political outlook are united.
The Southern California Board of Rabbis has not taken an official stand either, though the head of the board, Rabbi Mark Diamond, and many members of the clergy have spoken out against secession. Diamond notes that Los Angeles is "not working," but fears secession will only make matters worse for the have-nots. He is looking for plans that include health care for the uninsured, low-income housing and new jobs, but finds them somewhere between vague and absent. He points out the San Fernando Valley city with 1.2 million people would be the sixth largest in the nation. No small-town life here. Work on our present problems, he urged.
There are other groups, of course, who oppose secession out of more direct self-interest: labor unions, the Democratic Party, large segments of the political bureaucracy: All have a strong Jewish allegiance and a significant Jewish presence.
The odds are heavily in favor of secession losing at the ballot in November. To succeed, it requires a majority of the vote in both the Valley and throughout the city. Polls suggest secession will lose heavily in the city and might not even secure a majority in the Valley. The city's myriad problems will remain. But spearheading multicultural efforts to resolve some of them will be the Jewish Brahmins of Los Angeles.