Jewish Journal

A One-Woman Picket Line

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Dec. 18, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The photo shows an African American woman on the picket line with striking supermarket workers, a portable microphone in one hand and the other holding a placard proclaiming in large letters, "Jewish Labor Committee."

The woman is Cookie Lommel, and she is the new executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee's (JLC) Western region.

These days, Lommel can be found weekly picketing the Pavilions market in Sherman Oaks, bringing along doughnuts for the strikers.

When Lommel applied for the job, she brought along two enthusiastic letters of reference. One was from the chairman of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the other from the consul general of Israel. The references were hardly needed.

"Cookie was head and shoulders above every other applicant," said Michael Nye, JLC president.

The JLC describes itself as "the voice of the Jewish community in the labor movement and the voice of the labor movement in the Jewish community" -- and neither role is becoming any easier.

The U.S. labor movement has traditionally been among Israel's strongest allies and remains so, but during the past year, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian voices have become louder. At last year's California AFL-CIO convention, a resolution was introduced and passed in committee to condemn Israel for its -- purely fictitious -- bombing of the Palestinian trade union headquarters.

Nye, a delegate as secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers, went into action, phoned his contacts on the resolutions committee, made sure they showed up and had the resolution rescinded.

Within the Jewish community, with its large and vocal organizations, sizable staffs and a core of well-heeled supporters, JLC does not rank as a power player. Lommel runs what is essentially a one-person office on an annual budget of $70,000 --  $30,000 of which comes from The Jewish Federation and the rest through an annual fundraising event and membership dues.

Veteran labor lawyer Jack Levine believes that the community is moving to the right politically and identify less and less with the goals of the labor movement.

The JLC's California membership is only around 400, but "its power has never been defined by numbers, but by its network of influential people, particularly in the American, European and Israeli labor movements," said Kenneth Burt, a Sacramento-based union official, who is writing a book on the Jewish labor movement in California.

Both the national JLC office in New York and the Los Angeles branch were established in 1934 to alert the United States to the rising danger of Nazism and fascism and to rescue European labor leaders and intellectuals, both before and during World War II. On the West Coast, Max Mont was the JLC executive director for approximately 40 years, until his death in 1991, and "he was the heart and soul of every piece of progressive legislation during that period," Levine said.

Lommel represents a third generation of leadership. She was born in Cleveland of African American and Native American ancestry and may even have some Jewish connections .

However, her interest in Israel was awakened in early 1991, when she learned about Operation Solomon, the final, massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish State. She went to Israel to see for herself and wrote articles about the newcomers for black publications, but she wanted to do more.

In 1993, she organized Operation Unity to bring black and Latino high school students from the inner city to Israel and expose them to kibbutz life. Enlisting the help of her many contacts in the entertainment industry, as well as  politicians, educators and religious leaders, she received enough financing to take four groups, each composed of 15 youngsters, to Israel.

"Most of them knew nothing about Jews, except some negative stereotypes," she said. "After the trip, an African American boy, and that was fairly typical, said to me, 'On the kibbutz, they accepted me as me, not as someone who might snatch their purse.'"

Since returning, Lommel and her Young Ambassadors of Harmony have spoken regularly in public schools and churches and in connection with a photo exhibit about their experiences.

In her new role as JLC executive director, Lommel's main priority is to enlist younger members in her organization, especially among the thousands of Jewish union members working as teachers, social workers and engineers, in addition to those on newspapers and in public service and in the entertainment industry.

She has also become one of the most effective pro-Israel speakers in California, talking about her experiences before multiracial audiences at universities and telling them, "I have never been accepted in America as I was in Israel."  

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