In late June, as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti hit his one-year anniversary in the job, local media outlets gave him only passing reviews.
The Los Angeles Times characterized his governance style thus far as “low-risk,” while the L.A. Daily News said his policies have been “free of drama.” He was also criticized by one UCLA professor in the L.A. Times for being more focused on day-to-day things such as infrastructure repairs and 311 wait times than on big-picture items like the city’s poorly performing public schools.
So it may have come as a surprise to mayoral observers when, on Aug. 5, he took the mildly risky move of joining eight other local elected officials at City Hall for a press conference to show solidarity with Israel in its war with Hamas. The event included playing a recording of an
Israeli red-alert siren, the sound blasted in Israeli cities when a rocket is incoming.
As should be obvious from the dramatic uptick in anti-Israel rallies across the United States, overt support for Israel is not risk-free. At the Aug. 5 press conference, a reporter asked the officials present whether the gathering could be perceived as “anti-Palestinian.”
City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield responded that the group of politicians is anti-Hamas, not anti-Palestinian. Fair or not, the possible perception that support for Israel is anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian could be risky for Garcetti — who is Jewish — given the estimated 83,000 Arab-Americans who live in Los Angeles, according to recent data from the Arab American Institute Foundation.
On Aug. 21, Garcetti, 43, met with the Jewish Journal for an interview in his City Hall office.
During the 20-minute discussion, Garcetti was polished, well-spoken and a few times took a roundabout way of answering some tougher questions on topics such as alarmingly low support for Israel among Hispanic-Americans (Garcetti’s grandfather was Mexican, and the mayor speaks Spanish) and decreasing voter participation in Los Angeles — only 23 percent of L.A.’s 1.8 million registered voters participated in Garcetti’s successful 2013 bid against former City Controller Wendy Greuel.
An edited transcript of the interview follows:
Jewish Journal: What are your thoughts on the current war in Israel?
Eric Garcetti: It’s heartbreaking as a Jew. It’s heartbreaking as a supporter of Israel. It’s heartbreaking as someone who has been a human-rights activist. The loss of life is extraordinarily tragic. I think [former Israeli President] Shimon Peres put it best when he said [paraphrasing a recent interview with the Associated Press], ‘Of course it’s immoral, but what else is there to do?’ It’s a situation that’s untenable. To see the depth of suffering and the lack of leadership in Gaza that would sacrifice lives in place of something that both Israel and the Palestinians have a huge stake in, which is peace.
JJ: You attended a press conference a few weeks ago in which you expressed your solidarity with Israel. Were you concerned that your participation might alienate Arab-Americans who live in Los Angeles?
Garcetti: My support of Israel is kind of an unshakable thing. Just as we criticize this or that that happens in America, as Americans, and that’s part of our loyalty, I think Jews do that all the time [with regard to Israel]. This is not the time to level the deepest of criticism [toward Israel]. When a nation is under attack, I think it’s time to rally around them, and that’s why it was important for me to be there [at the gathering].
JJ: Has your office received any negative feedback from the local Arab-American community?
Garcetti: Not that I know of. We always [get] individual calls about all sorts of things. I’ve been a good friend to the Arab and Muslim communities here. I broke the fast with folks during Ramadan. They’ve seen me over the years. It’s not a brand-new relationship, and they trust the work that I’ve done. There might be individuals who called, but the leadership? No, we remain very close.
JJ: A July Pew Research Center poll found that Hispanics in America have significantly less support for Israel than whites or blacks. Why is that? And is it a concern for you?
(The poll, released on July 28, showed that among Hispanics, 35 percent blamed Israel for this summer’s war and 20 percent blamed Hamas, while 47 percent of whites named Hamas as the war’s instigator and 14 percent blamed Israel.)
Garcetti: I don’t know. I didn’t experience it ever in my family. Maybe it reflects global opinion, and with such a high percentage of Latinos being immigrants or children of immigrants, maybe they just haven’t had much of a connection to understand Israel and the Jewish community. That said, most Mexicans I know, there’s almost a source of pride. Everybody in some family is like, ‘Oh maybe we were actually Jews way back that converted.’ I’ve always sensed quite the opposite, a real sense of connection and pride about people’s either Jewish roots or the Jewish community.
[Knowledge about Israel] is much less in those [native] countries a day-to-day experience than here in the United States, where people know Jews [and] know the importance of Israel as our strongest ally in the region. I think our work remains to continue to educate.
JJ: So it sounds like you think the views of Hispanics toward Israel become more favorable as they spend more time in America?
Garcetti: Absolutely. I don’t know the poll, but it would be interesting to look at third- or fourth-generation Latinos [compared to the] Latino population at large.
JJ: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been growing nationally and locally. Does this concern you?
Garcetti: In City Hall, we were able to dismiss it pretty quickly. We passed a policy that we would not be boycotting; we would not factor that into any of our business decisions here. To see it out there, whether it’s growing in actual impact or growing in noise, I’m not sure. While I respect people’s opinions — I’ve certainly been a part of boycotts and divestiture movements in other countries, like Burma or South Africa — the isolation it would cause to Israel would be damaging to Los Angeles on economic, social [and] political terms.
JJ: Would you denounce it publicly if local public universities considered adopting BDS as a matter of policy?
Garcetti: Sure. I have — at UCLA.
JJ: In recent local elections in Los Angeles, a record low number of registered voters have been actually voting. Is that a problem?
Garcetti: I could say no, because I won, but I won’t say that. [Laughs] Of course it is [a problem]. People vote when they feel there’s something at stake and/or they are connected to civic life, not to the election itself. … I’m trying to build more civic participation in between elections. You see voter turnout going down throughout the United States — part of that is a younger and higher immigrant population, so we also have to spend a lot of time building a civic activism culture within the Latino and Asian immigrant communities. You see both of those communities rising [in] population in direct contrast with voter turnout going down. You can’t just expect people to show up and vote by telling them, ‘You have to vote.’ The election is just the cherry on top — the cake itself needs to continue to be built in between.
JJ: But what does it say about the current state of civic life and local government that people aren’t voting?
Garcetti: I think that we’ve got to build an understanding that we all are interconnected in the Los Angeles area. You’re proud to be from Pasadena, and you’re proud to be from a neighborhood like Canoga Park. You might be from the Inland Empire and embrace that. Really, when we all leave here, we are Angelenos, and we say we are from Los Angeles.