Three’s Company

This was one weird summer for American Jews.

On one hand, it brought an unprecedented wave of anti-Semitic terror attacks: three Sacramento-area synagogues firebombed in June, six Jews shot leaving a Chicago shul in July, an armed assault on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in August. Together, they suggest a danger unlike any that American Jews have ever faced.

On the other hand, the attacks prompted a national flood of outrage. America showed the haters they were an isolated fringe. This suggests that American Jews may be more secure than we’ve ever realized.

So which is it, safe or unsafe? Go know.

Somehow, no American Jews were killed this summer. Not until the end of August, when a Jew was shot dead on a Brooklyn street — by police, not terrorists. The officers apparently overreacted to an Orthodox spiritual seeker having a psychotic episode.

Naturally, this was the event that sent Jews into the streets in angry protest. Which suggests that Jews are like everybody else, only more so.

The summer’s troubles evoked many responses. Some concluded that Jews are alone in a hostile world, even here in America. Others decided that Jews are in the same boat as their neighbors.

Three responses are particularly worth examining. They’re noteworthy because they come from three Jewish political leaders who share remarkably similar resumes, yet who responded in starkly different ways.

The three, Zev Yaroslavsky of Los Angeles and Dov Hikind and Noach Dear of Brooklyn, may be the most inescapably Jewish of all American elected officials. Their names alone make them stand out as symbols.

This summer, as violence struck their cities, all three were in the news, shaping the community’s response.

Yaroslavsky is chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He answered the Aug. 10 community center shooting with a tough gun control measure, which bars gun sales on county-owned land. This effectively abolishes America’s largest gun show, which meets at the county-owned Pomona Fairgrounds. Gun enthusiasts replied by flooding Yaroslavsky with hate mail, much of it crudely anti-Semitic. Yaroslavsky says the letters proved gun control is a meaningful response to anti-Semites. It must be, if it bothers them that much.

Dov Hikind is a New York state assemblyman who represents Borough Park, a section of Brooklyn that’s mostly Orthodox Jews. It was there that police officers Aug. 30 shot and killed Gary Busch, a troubled, newly Orthodox Jew, after he attacked them with a hammer. Hikind lambasted the police, insisting that they should have known Busch was harmless, given the character of the neighborhood. “This is not Dodge City; this is Borough Park,” he told reporters. Get tough elsewhere, not here.

Noach Dear represents Borough Park on the New York City Council. When crowds of Chassidim protested the Busch shooting, Dear backed the police. The police have a tough job to do, he said. Wait for the official inquiries before passing judgment. “The department has been working very, very closely with the community, and we have to make sure we don’t hurt that relationship,” Dear said.

These disparate responses to the violence — attack the system, let the system work, use the system to counterattack — are characteristic of the three men. Hikind tends toward confrontation. Dear tends toward conciliation. Yaroslavsky tends to take charge.

On the surface, the three are almost eerily similar. It’s not just their Hebrew names. They’re all career politicians of the baby boom generation. They all started their political journeys as militant student leaders in the Soviet Jewry movement and went straight from there into Democratic politics.

They all started running as nice young men in Jewish neighborhoods where Soviet Jewry activism was record enough. Yaroslavsky, 51, ran for the Los Angeles City Council in 1975 in the heavily Jewish Fairfax section, moving up to the county board in 1994. Dear, 45, ran for Borough Park’s City Council seat in 1981. Hikind, 49, ran for the state Assembly in 1982.

All three speak Hebrew, a rarity among American Jews. All three frankly credit their political values to their Jewish backgrounds, a rarity among American Jewish politicians.

And yet they couldn’t be more different. Hikind and Dear are Orthodox Jews, both graduates of the traditionalist Torah Vodaath yeshiva. Yaroslavsky grew up in a secular, Hebrew-speaking, Labor Zionist home and belongs to a Reform congregation. He’s a liberal. Hikind and Dear are conservatives.

Yaroslavsky traces his values to the Labor Zionism of his youth. “It informs my view of social justice, of human rights, of opportunity for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” he says.

Hikind and Dear both credit Jewish tradition with shaping their politics. But they’re different traditions. Dear cites the Talmud as his main influence. Hikind cites the Holocaust.

Hikind, a child of Holocaust survivors, joined Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League during college. He still echoes Kahane’s hawkish views on Israel and militant opposition to black anti-Semitism. He frequently endorses Republican candidates when he thinks the Democrat is too soft on black militants. He’s considered a maverick in state politics.

Dear is the opposite. He sees himself as bridge-builder. He’s worked closely with local Muslims on municipal issues. During the 1980s, he befriended Soviet officials in hopes of easing Russian Jewish conditions.

“The modern mood is to be the tough guy and make others scared of you,” says Dear. Not for him. “I don’t change from tradition. I believe the Talmud is a living well. Everything we need is right there.”

He cites a Talmudic injunction he once quoted to Bill Clinton: “Be of the oppressed, not the oppressors.” You wouldn’t catch Hikind saying that.

In fact, Hikind and Dear are said to despise each other for their opposing views of Jewish pride. They’d both like to run for higher office, preferably Congress, and a race between them could get nasty. Both have been tarred by charges of financial wrongdoing. Dear is said to be under investigation. Hikind was tried and acquitted last year, and may have a clearer path.

Yaroslavsky seems the safest bet for the future. His reputation is squeaky clean, his fund-raising prowess is legendary and even his enemies call him a heavyweight. He’s a perennial favorite for mayor, though it’s not clear he wants it.

Whatever these Jewish pols’ future, anti-Semitism is sure to grow. That means political leaders such as Yaroslavsky, Dear and Hikind, willing and able to articulate a vision of Jewish life, will be more needed than ever.

“We need to work together,” says Yaroslavsky. “We can’t be oblivious to the sort of racism and anti-Semitism exhibited by certain right-wing groups out there, because the ground in these extremist communities is very fertile for somebody to come forward and pull the trigger. All of us — Jews, blacks, Latinos — are on the hit list.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.