She may not know the word shteibel, but she knows what's going on.
"I represented [them] before, you know, in the '80s when I was a state senator," said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), referring to the Jews of Hancock Park. "They wanted to pray, to have a temple in a house. I helped them get the permits."
When Watson runs for reelection this November, she'll face some disadvantages not usually encountered by an incumbent politician. For one, she will have only represented her constituents for 18 months. She had won the House seat in a special election last year to replace the late Julian Dixon.
Another disadvantage is redistricting, which has changed the shape of her congressional district and added new voters groups that she has never represented in Congress before. Those new constituents include the active Jewish community of Hancock Park.
"I'm very pleased to have Hancock Park back," said Watson, whose redrawn 33rd District will retain her base in Culver City, Ladera Heights and South Los Angeles, at the same time adding Hancock Park and parts of the Hollywood and Silverlake areas. Watson represented much of the same area, including part of Hancock Park, when she became the first African American woman elected to state Senate in 1978, serving five terms.
In 1976, she became the first African American woman on the Los Angeles School Board. Before returning to elected office last year to fill Dixon's congressional seat, Watson served two years as ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia.
As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Watson is aware of the tensions between African American and Jewish leaders that have grown during this election cycle, particularly the primary defeats of African American incumbents Earl Hilliard in Alabama and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia. Both incumbents were defeated with the help of Jewish organizations and individuals, largely from outside their House districts, concerned over their anti-Israel voting records.
In contrast to the two defeated House members, Watson has regularly supported Israel in Congress. She even met with Agudath Israel of America's 2002 National Leadership Mission to Washington.
Watson, who sits of the House International Relations Committee, was quick to emphasize that the addition of the Jewish community in Hancock Park to her district does not add many Jewish voters to her constituency. The congresswoman explained that she lost Jewish voters in Cheviot Hills, the Pico-Robertson area and other parts of West Los Angeles in the same redistricting.
Her well-documented support for Israel, she said, is the result of her "long relationship with Israel, going back to the '60s." In that decade, during a teaching stint in France, Watson made a side trip on her own to the Holy Land. "I'm a Catholic by the way, so the Via Dolorosa was an important place to visit."
In the 1980s, already familiar with the issues of the region and the importance of a strong Israel, Watson made an official trip to the country with a delegation from the state Legislature. During the visit, Watson conceived and later helped bring to Tel Aviv a statue honoring [African-American] Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, who helped negotiate the end of Israel's War of Independence.
In November 2001, she delivered the keynote address at the "All Eyes on Israel" conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee on Campus (AIPAC), where she said that United States has no greater friend than Israel. "I just think we need to be there for Israel," she told The Journal, "and we certainly are."
Watson's voting record reflects her visits to Israel and her public statements in support of the country. In December 2001, she voted for a House resolution urging action against Palestinian terrorism. In March of this year, she signed a letter to President Bush urging the addition of the Palestinian groups Tanzim, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Force 417 to the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Watson has also voted in favor of the congressional resolution expressing solidarity with Israel in the fight against terrorism, and in favor of a strong foreign aid package for Israel. Elliot Brandt, AIPAC western regional director, called Watson "stellar in her support of Israel."
Watson is expected to easily win reelection in the heavily Democratic district. The California Public Policy Foundation predicted a "slam dunk" for the Democrat in its California Political Review newsletter.
The prediction, based on Democrats making up 69 percent of registered voters in the district, questioned only whether Republican challenger Andrew Kim will be able to match Bush's 13 percent showing in the district 2000 election.
In a district which she called "hugely diverse," Watson represents approximately one-third African American voters, one-third Hispanics and one-third "everybody, everybody." The district includes Little Armenia, Thai Town, Koreatown and a Greek community. Luckily, Watson said, in foreign policy and her home district alike, "I'm a negotiator, not a pugilist."