“Is this anti-Semitic?”
I was just asked that question about a column in today’s LA Downtown News. I had wondered the same after I read the piece in which Executive Editor Jon Regardie ponders what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might say in explaining his criticized trip to Israel this week. (Just a guess, but considering flights are now over $2,000 and a few dozen city employees are flying out Wednesday, Angelenos can expect this to cost them upwards of $100k). Here are Regardie’s ruminations:
Many people have asked why I am visiting Israel. First and foremost, I feel it is important to establish ties with the Jewish state. And understand, Los Angeles, that when I say Jewish state, I am referring not just to Israel, but also to California.
This is an important journey for me and for our entire community. This will establish both trade and symbolic ties between Los Angeles, the city of the 21st century, and Jerusalem, the city of the first century. Average them out and you have the city of the 11th century.
Los Angeles, we are well above average.
I will spend much of my time in Jerusalem, where I will explore important issues related to green technology and security. I must travel around the world for these pursuits because apparently there is no one in Los Angeles capable of providing expert advice on such matters. I travel to Israel not for myself and to shore up my standing among the Jewish community in the city and the state, but to help Los Angeles.
During my time in Israel, I will sign several important deals that have been hammered out in advance, agreements that would go into effect whether or not I am there to sign them in front of American and Israeli television cameras. While some may argue that my appearances at these signings are merely symbolic, those people do not love Los Angeles, and they do not love the Jewish state.
I love and support the Jewish state, and I am not just referring to California.
I will be accompanied on my eye-opening journey by several political, cultural, municipal and religious leaders. They will provide valuable guidance, and each will be instructed how far behind me to stand when we tour important historical and business sites. I will rely on their expertise and knowledge. Kind of.
I will have photo opportunities at places such as the Wailing Wall. Know that when appropriate, I will look especially somber and thoughtful.
I will not stay just in Jerusalem. With my delegation and a supply of Listerine Breath Strips, I shall tour places including the seaport of Ashdod and the desert town of Sderot, both of which I expect to be able to pronounce correctly by the time my plane lands. Make no mistake, Los Angeles, at each of these destinations I will proudly step in front of the Israeli and American media trolls and make important speeches.
A key part of my journey will involve gaining firsthand knowledge of Israel’s counter-terrorism activities, a subject addressed in the film Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Los Angeles, know that as I journey to Israel to make our city safer, I will not mess with the Zohan.
The focus on security is especially important, and its lessons for Los Angeles are extensive. As such, I assure you that by the time our delegation returns, we will be able to protect Los Angeles from Palestinian rocket attacks.
I have not made the decision to travel to Israel lightly. Indeed, there are many places I could go for my summer vacation, all of them packed with symbolic intent, all of them tied to substantial voting blocs in the city and state.
But Los Angeles, none of them will have as far-reaching and message-sending an impact as will this trip to Israel. For by establishing relationships with Jewish leaders in Israel, I will also strengthen ties with Jewish leaders in Los Angeles, many of whom stood behind me when I ran for mayor, and who will not forget, in voice or donation, that I have traveled to the Holy Land.
Discounting the mock mayor’s error in stating, in a portion I didn’t include, that Gavin Newsom was “remaining stateside while I help Israel”—he visited Israel last month with the San Francisco Jewish Federation—let’s evaluate the contents of this speech that could be construed as anti-Semitic. There are two that jumped out at me and are related:
“when I say Jewish state, I am referring not just to Israel, but also to California” and
“by establishing relationships with Jewish leaders in Israel, I will also strengthen ties with Jewish leaders in Los Angeles, many of whom stood behind me when I ran for mayor, and who will not forget, in voice or donation, that I have traveled to the Holy Land”
Both of these seem like the kind of jokes for which Tim Watley, the dentist on “Seinfeld,” converted to Judaism. (“And this offends you as a Jewish person,” the priest asks Jerry, to which he responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.”) Both offer nuggets of truth, but also the seeds of anti-Semitism; it depends on who utters them.
Outside of Israel and New York, California is home to more Jews than any place on earth. Both our U.S. senators and some of our most influential representatives—Henry Waxman and Howard Berman, for starters—are Jewish. So too are some of our most prominent residents, business leaders and philanthropists like Eli Broad, David Geffen, Michael Milken and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page (sort of).
In Los Angeles, Jews—major players in real estate, finance and the garment industry—are important political donors, no wonder presidential candidates spend so much time in town, and have played an important role in local politics since at least Rosalind Wyman was elected to City Council in 1953. We’ve also got that Hollywood thing going on.
It’s fair to say politicians pander, at times, to the Jewish community; look how badly Barack Obama overcompensated last week at AIPAC. They sell themselves to members of other religions too. George Bush offered himself up to evangelicals, as have most the candidates this presidential season, and it got him two terms. But California as a lesser Jewish state? Hardly.
At the same time, Villaraigosa has been called an honorary member of the Tribe, and he’s prone to lame jokes, so Regardie’s impersonation doesn’t seem far off.
I emailed Regardie and left him a message at work, asking for his help in assuaging fears that his column was anti-Semitic. “I didn’t read it as such,” I wrote, “though I could understand why someone might.” I’m half expecting to learn that he is Jewish and took the day off for Shavuot.
*** Update: Regardie responded about five minutes after I posted:
absolutely no intent at anti-Semitism in the column. For this piece, I was following a format I have done several times before (a couple links of examples pasted in below), “imagining” speeches or exchanges to address topical issues involving Mayor Villaraigosa (and sometimes others), and using humor to do so. I hope the piece is not being misinterpreted—I am Jewish myself.
(Hat tip: LA Observed)