My lunch with a Los Angeles Tea Partier
Of the 3,977 angry e-mails I received last week, one stood out.
“I am a Jew, a member of Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles, and the founder of the largest local, grass-roots Tea Party group in Los Angeles called the Hancock Park Patriots,” Mark Sonnenklar wrote.
“I, and many of my fellow leaders in the Tea Party movement, are pretty upset about the recent ‘Tea-hadist’ cartoon published in the Jewish Journal. I would like to discuss this matter with you. Would you be open to a phone call?”
Sonnenklar was referring to the political cartoon in the Oct. 11 issue of the Jewish Journal. Our longtime cartoonist, Steve Greenberg, portrayed a Tea Party activist as a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest labeled “Govt Shutdown.” You get the idea.
Tea Party-affiliated Web sites reposted the cartoon and urged readers to e-mail me their outrage. It worked. Overnight, my inbox filled with thousands of e-mails railing against the cartoon. The vast majority of the letter writers were not Journal readers. Many repeated the charge that the cartoon “mocked the actual victims of Islamic terror,” and I took that to heart. I issued a public apology for the cartoon’s insensitivity to terror victims.
Many letters were vicious; some were strange.
“May God show you the error of your wicked ways and give you the redemption you clearly do not deserve!!” Scott Walker wrote.
“You should … use your amazing resources to find out just how many Muslim Brotherhood members are working in the White House,” Charles Walter wrote. “Did you know Obama has a ‘Sharia Czar’?”
“Jews have caused [sic] the world by stealing land instead of just paying for it in the first place, I guess I can understand the idiocy,” someone calling himself Ron Paul wrote.
The few writers who identified themselves as Jews were not much kinder.
“This may come as a shock to you, Comrade Eshman,” Aaron Shuster wrote, “but not all Jews share in your utopian socialist agenda for Islamic hegemony.”
Amid these screeds, Sonnenklar’s civility stood out. So did his Web site. It listed seven action steps activists could take. No. 7 was, “Click here to sign up for the Koch Brothers Check Distribution” — a cheeky swipe at those who say Tea Partiers are just dupes of the 1 percent.
I called Sonnenklar, and three hours later we met for lunch at Le Petit Greek on Larchmont.
Sonnenklar is 44, a corporate lawyer, father of three, and he bears more than a glancing resemblance to Bradley Cooper. He wore blue jeans and a trim striped dress shirt, untucked, along with the standard L.A. three-day growth of beard.
We decided not to talk about “it” — the cartoon — until at least after the grilled halloumi.
Sonnenklar told me he had established the Hancock Park Patriots in 2010, because he was “tired of not doing anything. I wanted to make a difference.”
Between 50 and 100 people from all over Los Angeles attend the Hancock Park Patriots’ monthly meetings. Sonnenklar estimates about 20 percent of them are Jewish.
“The goal is not to become a third party,” he said, “but to become more powerful within the GOP. There needs to be a Tea Party to bring the Republican Party back to its core principles.”
Those principles: smaller government, greater individual liberty, protecting free enterprise.
The Constitution is sacred, he said — everything has to flow from that.
I asked him: Don’t many progressives want the same things? More efficient government, greater liberty, etc.? And isn’t the Supreme Court the arbiter of the Constitution, and didn’t it uphold Obamacare …
“It’s a very politicized court,” he interrupted, and then batted away my arguments.
He saw President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to “fundamentally transform” the country as a declaration of war against America. I saw it, in the context of a boilerplate campaign speech, as a promise to the middle class.
We were like two doctors who agreed easily on what an ailing patient looked like, but not on the cure.
“I’m not a moderate,” he said, smiling. “I’m just more articulate than most.”
I asked him how that flies in his Reform Beverly Hills synagogue, which has a liberal reputation.
“I have no doubt if people found out I was a leader of a Tea Party group, I would be ostracized,” he said. “As a conservative in Los Angeles, you can’t be open. You’re going to be the one guy at the dinner party who stands out. The Tea Party is almost a support group. Now I feel I can be open about who I am and my political views.
“We are under attack by the hard-left establishment,” he went on. “They are using Alinsky-like tactics to undermine any opposing point of view. That’s why this cartoon hit such a nerve.”
Sonnenklar knew I had publicly apologized, but he pushed further. Would I run a cartoon of Obama in a Hitler mustache?
That didn’t sound very funny or clever to me, I said — and talk about insensitive. I did point out that the Journal publishes opinions from many different perspectives, because thoughtful debate is a core Jewish value.
We reached an impasse on many points, but it was a good, long lunch — a useful outcome to an unfortunate incident. After all, thoughtful argument may be a core Jewish value. Agreement — not so much.