April 17, 2008
Anti-Semitism charge colors liquor license fight in City of San Fernando
City Administrator Jose Pulido confirmed as much, testifying that City Councilman Jose Hernandez, who led the majority that denied the permit, had once said about Aszkenazy: "He's being greedy. He's Jewish, you know."
The city -- a 90 percent Latino municipality in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley -- agreed to pay the builder $750,000, based on lost revenue and court costs.
It could appear to be a clear-cut instance of a Latino city official displaying bias against a Jewish builder. But almost nothing about this case is what it seems. For one thing, Aszkenazy, 47, grew up Catholic in Pacoima. For another, Hernandez has been a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue with Jews.
Hernandez (photo) is a 77-year-old retired political science professor, a courtly gentleman, frail in handshake and demeanor, his voice breaking at times. He told The Journal that he's been hurt by the allegation. "I want the Jewish community to understand my feelings," he said. "I never made the comments attributed to me."
He pointed out that he co-founded VOICE, Valley Organized in Community Efforts, "a group which brings together... Christians and Jews" to address issues of "common concern."
Hernandez admitted that one aspect of the statement is true.
"I said 'Sev is greedy,'" Hernandez said. "But I said nothing about his being Jewish. Sev Aszkenazy is trying to get rid of me so he can put his own people in the City Council."
Aszkenazy said that in the last few years, three opponents of his projects on the City Council -- Hernandez, Nury Martinez and Mayor Julie Ruelas -- have had an "anything-but-Aszkenazy program," and that this attitude is frustrating his plans for the city's development. It's an argument that The San Fernando Valley Sun, a weekly paper, makes over and over, in a strident, one-sided way.
Not coincidentally, Aszkenazy -- besides being a successful San Fernando real estate developer -- is also owner/publisher of The Sun. In its articles, as well as its editorials, The Sun regularly condemns the three council members who oppose Aszkenazy. A recent issue ran an editorial calling them "despicable," "self-serving" and "hypocritical."
The editorial cartoon on the same page featured the three City Council members bent over and kissing each other's rear ends.
But there was a time when Aszkenazy and Hernandez were allies. Throughout the 1990s and until 2003, the City Council, led by Hernandez, regularly approved Aszkenazy's proposals.
During those years, Aszkenazy proposed and built project after project. He "collected millions of dollars in tax subsidies ... with the support of a City Council gung-ho about revitalizing the city," the Los Angeles Daily News reported.
One of those projects is Library Plaza. Inspired by colonial-era San Fernando Mission, Library Plaza has a public library, restaurant, coffee shop and other businesses. The center's inner courtyard is open, airy and always buzzing with activity.
According to Aszkenazy, the break in his relationship with Hernandez occurred five years ago because of a muckraking series that appeared in The Sun.
Interviewed at his office in San Fernando -- in the same building that houses the offices of the newspaper he owns -- Aszkenazy said that in 2003, The Sun exposed a troubling financial situation at the Latin America Civic Association (LACA), an organization that managed Head Start programs and whose director is Hernandez's friend.
Aszkenazy said that when The Sun exposed LACA's irregularities, Hernandez came to Aszkenazy's office with another city official who threatened Aszkenazy: Stop the articles or Aszkenazy's development business will suffer. Aszkenazy recounted telling them he had no control over The Sun's content and held his ground.
Hernandez denies having threatened Aszkenazy or that this event influenced his later decisions about Aszkenazy's projects.
Eventually, LACA lost its federal funding -- nearly $11 million -- and in the eyes of those who followed these events, The Sun's articles were held partly responsible.
Aszkenazy -- with his olive skin, fluency in Spanish and Pacoima background -- had always been thought of by those in San Fernando as a fellow Chicano. Aszkenazy said that after The Sun ran its articles about LACA, he was treated differently. He recalled that a friend spoke with Hernandez, who reportedly called Aszkenazy "an outsider."
Another factor in the change toward him, according to Aszkenazy, was that competing development companies -- recognizing that he bore a similar name as a well-known Beverly Hills real estate developer and hotelier -- "outed" him as having Jewish roots.
In 1960, Aszkenazy's Mexican American mother became pregnant as a result of an affair with Severyn Ashkenazy, then a UCLA graduate student who had recently arrived from Europe. She named her son after his biological father, who disappeared from her life months before the baby was born and later changed the spelling of his last name.
"My name was my mom's choice," Aszkenazy said. "She put it on the birth certificate. She was very proud of my Jewish father, and I think she wanted me to be proud of who I was. And I'm both, so she didn't want me to be ashamed of either community...."
Aszkenazy was baptized at a church on Olvera Street and was brought up by his single mother in a nonreligious Catholic home in Pacoima. After dropping out of college, he went to work as a firefighter for the city of Los Angeles and married his high school sweetheart, Martha Diaz. He never had contact with his biological father, his namesake, but he'd see the name in the papers: Severyn Ashkenazy was responsible for a series of posh Westside hotels: Le Mondrian, L'Ermitage and others.
"I was a very happy L.A. fireman," Aszkenazy said. "And I was also interested in connecting with my dad. I'd be at the fire station, and in the early 1980s, my dad was in the papers quite a bit.... If he had called with a problem, I would have been the one that showed up.... That would have been interesting. But it didn't happen [that way]."