Jewish Influence, Coast to Coast

The idea for our lead story on Jewish influence, “East Coast vs. West Coast” (see Tom Tugend’s story), originated with our publisher, Stanley Hirsh. Those who know him can attest that his is not a shy personality; he is not someone reluctant to make his presence known or his voice heard. He has been — and continues to be –a significant player in Jewish affairs, both in California and nationally.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to me when he sounded off about the short shrift Californians were given by (eastern) Jewish organizational leaders, and the disproportionate influence wielded by East Coast Jews. It was not clear to him whether the cause had something to do with physical distance, parochialism, arrogance or just plain “old boys network,” with most of the old boys congregated on the East Coast and bolstered by midwestern stalwarts from Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland (who had probably attended school with the easterners.) I tended to agree with him.

Recognizing a good story when I saw one, I asked [contributing editor] Tom Tugend to follow up on this. In his usual thorough way, he has produced what I take to be a fair and balanced report, with quotes from easterners and westerners. Conclusion: Some said, ‘yes, you’re right,’ and others proclaimed, ‘no, you’re wrong.”

I must admit it left me feeling somewhat frustrated; though “balanced journalism” has that effect on me at times. In this case, I felt my experience as a resident of both coasts (I am an easterner, born in New York, and have lived in Manhattan, Washington and Cambridge, Mass., much of my adult life; but I have also spent the last 14 years in Los Angeles.) gave me some insight, a “feel,” if you like, for what was missing from many of the quotes as well as from the formal argument(s).

I wish I could tell you this feeling constitutes hard evidence. It does not. It comes more under the heading of impressions … but I believe that these account in part for the fact that 26 of AIPAC’s board members live in the East, while only 14 can be found west of Chicago; and that they help explain why much of the decision-making on Jewish issues (though not all) is made by people who live there, rather than here.

Would policy be steered in a different direction if California Jews had a stronger hand on the tiller? That’s difficult to prove. But given, as Tugend relates, the marked distinctions between western and eastern Conservative congregations (we are more open to innovation), the response to central authority (which is more accepting in the East) and the concern about intermarriage (more relaxed here), it seems a likely prospect.

All this is conjecture, but the four factors that underlie these suppositions seem clear-cut and convincing to me. They are spelled out below. Let me know what you think.

Distance. This is a very real factor that helps tilt decision-making in the direction of New York and Washington, where most of the Jewish organizations (let alone the U.S. government) are based. Lobbying, of course, takes place in the nation’s capital, and it is no accident that most organizations and corporations retain lobbyists and law firms in D.C. to represent their interests. That’s why AIPAC is based in Washington.

Fax machines, e-mail and that old-fashioned instrument, the telephone, are indispensable. But they are not the same thing as face-to-face discussion complete with interruptions, digressions, touching , socializing and breaking bread together. If you want to have input, live anywhere you please: Los Angeles, Sun Valley, Aspen. If you want to be one of the decision-makers, find a way to live on the Eastern littoral, and I don’t mean Blue Hill, Maine.

Networking. We all know about networking from our work experience and our social lives. It’s why a Harvard degree is helpful; or belonging to one of the Yale secret societies; or simply knowing people on a personal basis.

In the world of Jewish palavering over policy decisions and fund-raising proposals, the importance of networking cannot be overestimated. It is at the center of Jewish power politics, whose national bases are centered in the East. For the rest of us confined to this wonderful coastal outpost, our networks are mostly local, with some great trips visiting friends in New York. But the eastern decision-making centers might as well be located in another country.

Image. Journalists understand the story behind this, particularly television and magazine newsmakers: News is often shaped around prevailing images or “scripts” that the media have already sketched in for readers. Southern California? That’s easy. Hollywood means starlets, excessive spending, outrageous behavior, lots of casual sex and cocaine, and the “suits” who know nothing about scripts, art, taste or morality, but a great deal about networking.

Then there’s the beach culture image, i.e. surfing, golden men and women, perpetual youth and no concern for books, ideas or tragedy. It’s the hedonistic life, complete with “far out” lifestyle fads. Those are the media images of California. And easterners who are well-educated, well-read and smart enough to know better, often don’t.

Style. On the East Coast, I practiced journalism, occasionally taught at university and was trained as a psychologist. My first and former wife was a Wall Street lawyer. The pitch of competition, in all four fields, was in the high decibels. At work; at parties; at summer retreats in Easthampton or the Cape.

Among casual acquaintances and strangers the shape of conversations always managed to include a casual but aggressive set of questions: where do you work, what do you do and where did you go to school? In all the years I’ve been in Los Angeles, no one has ever asked which school(s) I attended.

I was reminded of this last year at a dinner celebrating the Hebrew Union College-USC connection. I was seated next to Bruce Ramer, the head of the American Jewish Committee and one of the leading entertainment attorneys in Los Angeles. He was raised on the East Coast, graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School before making the journey here. We had never met, but it turned out we had a tenuous connection: his brother had once dated a good friend of mine, who now lives in Washington.

Tell me about yourself, Ramer asked. What’s your background as a journalist?

Impressive, I replied. Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up, where did you get your law degree?

I laughed about it later at home. You know, I told my wife, that was a very East Coast conversation. — Gene Lichtenstein