Michael Twitty eats olives in Machane Yehudah market in Jerusalem. Photo by Jacob W. Dillow

A taste of Black history and a side of Jewish culture


As an African-American Jew by choice, the esteemed author and culinary historian Michael Twitty considers Passover his favorite Jewish holiday. 

“Nothing pulls more at my heart than the songs and traditions and recipes … of the world’s oldest Emancipation ritual,” Twitty wrote on his blog, Afroculinaria. “There is also no other holiday where I feel more whole as an African-American who happens to be Jewish, thanks to the shared history of slavery leading to redemption and freedom.”

In two separate events at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, Twitty will share his life’s journey as well as Passover recipes that draw on his penchant for what he calls “kosher/soul.”

“It’s taking the foods of African and Jewish diasporic people and blending them together,” Twitty, 40, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., said during a recent telephone interview.

At the Skirball, he’ll whip up his West African brisket, seasoned with spices including ground ginger, paprika, cinnamon, chili powder and cayenne, then seared in olive oil before being baked atop sautéed onions.

For the seder, his hard boiled eggs are cooked in water steeped in hibiscus, accompanied by a salt water brine spiked with a touch of lavender and preserved lemon.

During seders past, Twitty has served sweet potato kugel, matzo-meal fried chicken, and an apple-rhubarb charoset.

He follows the Sephardic custom of eating legumes and rice during Passover, the latter a Carolina Gold version originally brought to the United States by enslaved Africans.

His Pesach table is graced with two distinct seder plates: one a traditional Ashkenazi version, the other influenced by African and African-American cuisine.  There is a collard green for the bitter herb maror, for example, as well as a molasses and pecan charoset.

Twitty noted that Passover often comes in April, which is the same month in 1865 that his enslaved forebears were freed after the Civil War. 

In Alabama, a great-great-grandmother was “liberated on that day from her particular labor camp called a plantation,” Twitty said.  A great-great-great-grandfather, Edward, born in 1839, had toiled on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. “One day my ancestor was hot, so he knelt by a creek and splashed some water on himself.  That’s when my Daddy saw the whip marks on his back,” Twitty said.

“For me, being Black was a great preparation for becoming Jewish,” Twitty added.  “When you are African-American, your antennae [for sensing trouble] are planted deep inside your skull.  It’s learning how to recognize and process prejudice.”

Twitty grew up in a nominally Christian home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where his grandparents had fled Southern racism during the Great Migration north almost a century ago.  “I didn’t like soul food, and I didn’t like being Black,” Twitty said in a 2016 TED talk of his early years.

But he slowly learned to appreciate his heritage, even as he was drawn to Judaism, first after watching the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” when he was 7. He promptly told his mother that he wanted to be Jewish, yet he was taken aback when she informed him that conversion would require him to have a second circumcision.

Even so, his interest in Judaism persisted, and Twitty continued to fall in love with the culture, especially through food, while hanging out with his Jewish friends’ grandmothers in the kitchen.

Years later, Twitty’s uncle, an avid genealogist, found that their family tree included distant relatives who were Jewish. A recent medical test revealed that Twitty’s own DNA features some Ukrainian Ashkenazi ancestry.

While researching Jewish cuisine for a festival in 2000 sponsored by the Smithsonian, Twitty learned to make challah from the prominent Jewish chef Joan Nathan. When he dropped by a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue in Maryland, in part to obtain recipes from the rebbitzen, a caterer, Twitty discovered a spiritual home. He converted to Judaism in an Orthodox ceremony in 2002 while he was in his early 20s.

Of why he was drawn to Judaism, Twitty said, “It’s a very realistic [spiritual] path. The Hebrew word for worship is ‘avodah,’ which is the same word for work. And prayer is actually ‘tefillah,’ which comes from the word ‘L’Hitpalel’ – to turn inside and examine yourself. It’s also a very humorous religion, where laughing at yourself is almost a 614th mitzvah,” he said, a reference to the 613 in the Torah. “Black culture,” he added, “also relies a lot on humor as a means of survival.”

As Twitty began teaching Jewish studies around Washington, however, not everyone in the community was welcoming. One fellow educator accused him of teaching his students to steal. Others told him he might be religiously Jewish, but could never be culturally Jewish.

“People often want to put me in a box,” he added of his diverse identities, which include his being gay. “But I try to be as unboxable as possible.”

Twitty’s work as a culinary historian includes research on how slaves helped to create Southern cuisine, as well as extensive interviews with Southern Jews about how their traditional recipes changed after their families settled down South (think gumbo and matzo ball soup).

A turning point for Twitty came in 2011, when he read a book, “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin,” filled with family recipes that had been written down by prisoners of the concentration camp. In doing so, the women were performing an act of defiance, preserving their heritage even while suffering.

“It dawned on me that the same thing could and should be done with the African-American connection to slavery: how we should connect to our food roots and use that as a means of preservation of our heritage and resistance against the narrative that says we should forget,” he said.

Twitty thereafter embarked upon what he tartly describes as his “Southern Discomfort Tour” to research his upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” due in stores in August. The book describes his odyssey retracing his African ancestors’ cuisine, including how he prepared food as slaves once did, on historic plantations and dressed in period garb; how he shared meals with both African-Americans and descendants of his family’s former slave masters; and how he taught kosher soul cooking classes at an Alabama synagogue.

Preparing historically accurate dishes on the very plantations where his ancestors had labored is another act of defiance, Twitty said.

“I wanted to reclaim those spaces for the people who were victimized and hurt there,” he said. That’s also why he believes that Auschwitz might be a good place to celebrate a bar mitzvah. “I want to look into the faces of those who would destroy, oppress, minimize and erase us and go, ‘You didn’t vaporize us — sorry,’ ” he said.

Twitty’s goal is to seek what he calls “culinary justice” for African-Americans, whose food was appropriated by white Southerners who refused to acknowledge its origin. “It’s [in part] about honoring the source,” he said. “Some [white] people who are on top may feel they have a certain amount of privilege and power, so they can freely access [African-American] culture. It’s not borrowing, it’s not quoting; it’s taking without giving credit. It’s theft and exploitation.”

Part of Twitty’s inspiration comes from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis he’s known who are dedicated to social causes. “Culinary justice is a very Jewish concept to me,” he said.

MICHAEL TWITTY’S MATZO MEAL FRIED CHICKEN

This is a blend of old school, antebellum recipes with my own special kosher/soul touch.

– 1 teaspoon kosher salt
– 2 teaspoons Bell’s Poultry Seasoning
– 2 teaspoons coarse ground black pepper
– 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
– 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1 teaspoon (sweet) paprika
– 1/4 teaspoon allspice
– 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
– 2 kosher chickens, preferably fryers, cut into breast, wing, leg and thigh portions
– 4 eggs
– 3 cups matzo meal
– 3 cups per whole chicken kosher-for-Passover cooking oil or, if you are Sephardic like me, vegetable oil mixed with Crisco

Combine the salt and seasonings together in a bowl.

Wash chicken and pat dry. Season the chicken with the spice mixture and set aside for a few hours in the refrigerator.

Prepare the egg wash by beating eggs with a fork and mixing with a little water. Then prepare your station: The egg wash should be in a shallow dish and the matzo meal should be in a separate shallow dish.

Brush the chicken with the egg wash, then cover in matzo meal. Place the coated chicken pieces on a rack over a cookie sheet in the refrigerator to set. This will help keep the coating on. The chicken can sit for up to 30 minutes.

Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan until hot but not smoking, about 325 degrees or so. Follow the rules of frying chicken: Ease the pieces into the frying pan or Dutch oven. Do not crowd the pan. Remember dark pieces take a bit longer to achieve doneness. Seasoning the coating is a no-no because some herbs and spices will burn in the coating. Adding more chicken will cool the oil, so adjust accordingly.

Fry around 8 minutes each side and turn to brown all around another 4 minutes per piece. Use your best judgment — crispy and golden brown on the outside doesn’t mean done on the inside. To test, you should aim for 160 degrees or above for white meat and 175 degrees or above for dark meat. The appearance of the chicken and the doneness of the meat inside are the two factors you have to balance when frying chicken. There is no exact formula, so have oil and meat thermometers handy, and use your eyes, ears and nose to do the rest of the work. Use tongs, not a fork, to deal with the chicken.

When the pieces are done, transfer them to a clean rack over paper towels on a cookie sheet. Want to get rid of more oil? After 5 minutes, transfer to a plate or basket or bowl with paper towels, just don’t do this when they come out of the pan fresh it will affect the crust.

Makes 8 servings.

Source: afroculinaria.com

For more information about Michael Twitty’s appearances at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, visit skirball.org.

For black Jews, Obama represented an America of multiple identities


On Election Day 2008, Marcella White Campbell remembers her 4-year-old son playing in front of the TV, repeating the name of the man who would soon become the first African-American president of the United States.

“He was running around and rolling the name Barack Obama on his tongue,” said Campbell, managing editor of Bechol Lashon, a group that advocates for Jews of color. “I remember looking at him and thinking, this is this biracial man who may be president of the United States. He’s trying to get around this moment and figure out what it means to him. I couldn’t even imagine how exciting it would be for my kids.”

Obama made history as the first black president, but for African-American Jews, that was only the beginning of his resonance. Several African-American Jews told JTA that eight years of having the son of a black man and a white woman in the White House showed them that living with a hyphenated identity doesn’t make you any less American.

“It helps you to imagine what it means to be American in a different way,” said Yavilah McCoy, founder of Ayecha, another advocacy group for Jews of color. “The fact that there was a president that viscerally embodied the idea that you can both have an ethnic and cultural identity and be American and a leader of the American people, while holding those things to be true, I think as American Jews, it is a model for us.”

But where some African-American Jews felt hopeful watching Obama’s administration, others doubted that underlying currents of racism in America would dry up or disappear. Shais Rishon, a black Jewish writer who goes by the pen name MaNishtana, remembers that when Obama walked onstage to declare victory in 2008, MaNishtana was afraid the president-elect would be assassinated.

“I knew he wasn’t going to be any worse than any other president,” MaNishtana said. “But I also knew there wasn’t much he could do by himself to fight the tide of what had come before.”

Jewish Americans have long grappled with the significance of their dual identities and how each affects the other. For African-American Jews, that struggle contains yet another dimension. Campbell told JTA that along with identifying with Obama personally, she has felt compelled to defend him as a black person in Jewish contexts and as a Jewish person in black contexts.

“There have been times when someone says Barack Obama is really bad for Israel, and I guess I feel more put on the spot than someone else might feel by that in the sense of needing to back him up,” she said.

American Jews at large voted for Obama twice in large numbers. But Jewish leaders have frequently opposed his actions on Israel, including signing an agreement with Iran last year that they said fell short of curbing its nuclear program and last month allowing the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution criticizing Israel. MaNishtana, who is Orthodox, remembers feeling hurt when synagogues he attended edited their prayers for the country — removing any well wishes for the president.

But when reflecting on Obama, African-American Jews interviewed by JTA focused more on his significance for the black community. Several pushed back on the idea that he should have spoken out more forcefully on issues affecting black Americans, questioning how much difference it would have made and appreciating that he worked to be a president for all Americans, regardless of identity.

“Given that his job is so hard, are there some things he could have come out and said earlier? Yes,” said Jared Jackson, who heads Jews In All Hues, which helps Jewish organizations be more attentive to diversity. “But would it have stopped, you know, the killing of unarmed black and brown men and women, and trans [people]? I can’t really say.”

The reflections of some black Jews have changed with the election of Donald Trump, who has promised to undo Obama’s legacy and who won office after a campaign that included statements targeting minorities. They worry that the Trump presidency could erase or counteract Obama’s message of inclusivity.

“Part of the narrative we were teaching them during the 2008 election was what this was showing was that America is changing,” Campbell said of her kids. “We believed that at that time and we told them that. The past eight years culminating in the 2016 election has left us wondering: Is that true? Did we lie to them?”

But no matter what comes, African-American Jews who spoke to JTA all said they would remember Obama’s years fondly as a time when they felt represented in the White House.

Rabbi Capers Funnye, head of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, an African Hebrew Israelite body, is also Michelle Obama’s cousin. He remembers standing a few rows back in a crowd some years ago watching Obama greet voters. When Obama reached Funnye’s section, he called out the rabbi’s name, surprising Funnye’s relatives.

“One cousin said, ‘Damn, the president can pick you out of a crowd?’” Funnye recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know him and he knows me.’”

How do we regain black-Jewish love?


Of all the complicated issues running through American Jewish life, one of the most complicated is surely the relationship between Jews and African-Americans, which has frayed in recent years. A key question for both communities as we go forward is: How can we inject more love into the relationship?

There were times when the two communities were a lot closer. As Michelle Boorstein wrote in 2013 in the Washington Post, “Jews were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and they played a role that was especially remarkable in light of their making up such a small part of the nation’s population.”

Unfortunately, the good vibes of the ’60s didn’t last. By the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship was “strained by such points of contention as the opposition of some Jewish leaders to affirmative action and anti-Jewish comments made by black leaders Jesse L. Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.” More recently, the division over controversial Israeli policies has frayed the relationship even further.

There are also elephants in the room no one likes to talk about, like vestiges of racism and anti-Semitism. And let’s face it, as Jews became more and more successful, it became harder and harder to identify with oppressed minorities.

Like I said, complicated.

But I found a ray of hope last Saturday night at a movie screening dedicated to Black History Month. Hosted by the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, which houses the Malibu Film Society, an ethnically mixed audience of about 300 watched a 40-minute excerpt of an unfinished documentary produced by Spill the Honey, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the ties between the two groups, titled “Shared Legacies: Honoring the Jewish/Black Civil Rights Alliance.”

The film chronicles the intense bond between Jewish and Black activists during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the heart of the film is the deep affection between two giants, Martin Luther King Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched together in 1963 during a civil rights march in Selma, Ala.

As much as I value complexity, what moved me most about the film was that it honored morality and holiness. King and Heschel were brothers bonding over a common cause. There was no agonizing. There was no doubt. There was no hesitation in their compulsion to fight for justice.

This sense of moral clarity and brotherly love came through in a panel after the screening that featured actor Louis Gossett Jr., Boston University professor Hillel Levine, King confidant Clarence B. Jones and Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel.

Maybe it was the moonlight drive along the coast that put me in a wistful mood, but as I drove home, I couldn’t help but wonder: “How can we get this Black-Jewish love back?”

It was something Susannah Heschel said to me over the phone a few days later that got me thinking.

“Martin Luther King made the Hebrew Bible central to his civil rights activism,” she told me. “This brought tremendous pride to Jews. Here was the most important moral movement of the century, and King put our holy book at the very center.”

Her subtle point was that the relationship was a two-way street. As much as Jews honored Blacks by fighting for their rights, King honored Jews by elevating their holy story.

I found in her answer a sign of how Jews can bring more love to our relationship with the African-American community: We can show them we need them as much as they need us.

It was Rabbi Heschel himself who said that one of the greatest human needs is to feel needed. His great insight is that making people feel needed is an expression of the deepest love.

As much as Jews must do more soul-searching and increase our fight for economic justice for Blacks, we must also embrace areas where Blacks can help us– such as, for example, in the area of prayer.

“My father once said that hope for the future of Judaism in America lies with Black churches,” Heschel told me. “Their prayers reminded him of Chassidic shtibls. There is a passion of praying to God, of wanting to be heard by God.”

What a powerful thought: Blacks teaching Jews how to pray with more love and more passion. Maybe someone should start a Black-Jewish Prayer Alliance, where Jews of all denominations would regularly visit Black churches to feel the passion that so inspired Rabbi Heschel.

None of this will eradicate the dark impulses of racism and anti-Semitism. But if there’s one thing Jews need, it is for God to hear our prayers. If our Black brothers and sisters can show us the way, well, that’s a dream worth having.

Watts: The day the mirror cracked


Late last month, a University of Cincinnati police officer was indicted for murder for the unprovoked killing of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed African-American motorist, the most recent in a spate of high-profile deadly encounters between police and African-Americans across the country. As Los Angeles prepares this week to mark 50 years since the Watts Rebellion — which broke out in the aftermath of a traffic stop of an African-American man, Marquette Frye, by California Highway Patrol Officer Lee Minikus — it’s easy to fear that little has changed in the United States.  

In some ways, that concern is well placed. The same issues that burned into America’s consciousness in 1965 shape our nation today. The contemporary American political world was born on that August day. At the same time, much has happened since then that provides reason for hope. Some of the changes over the past five decades, at least in Los Angeles, can be attributed to the movement surrounding the late Mayor Tom Bradley, whose life and times are explored in an important new documentary, “Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race.” (I served as an academic adviser to the filmmakers.)

It will be 50 years ago on Aug. 11 that Americans confronted in Los Angeles the beating heart of racial conflict. Only five days before, on Aug. 6, the heroic drama of the civil rights movement had reached a profoundly satisfying outcome, as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. With the signing of the Civil Rights Act just a year prior, the nation had seemingly completed the work of a movement that pitted self-evidently heroic African-Americans and their allies against the blistering, open racism of the white South. The good guys had beaten the bad guys. What seemed like an ending to a feel-good movie, however, turned out to be a prequel to a long, painful struggle.

A traffic stop in South Central Los Angeles set off the Watts Rebellion — days of rage, burning and looting that shocked America. The simple, if often volatile and dangerous, drama of good vs. evil in the American South suddenly hit closer to home. The oft-hidden lives of African-Americans and their unique experiences exploded into the open.  

Can you imagine the shock to the political system when the comforting sense during the civil rights movement of a peaceful protest, of people refusing to sit at the back of the bus, building national sympathy and legislative change, was replaced by images of angry young Black men raging against the system, even against those white leaders who had supported the civil rights movement? To this day, the American political system has not recovered from this challenge, which fundamentally changed the American landscape. The mirror cracked, and the cracks spread from the South to the rest of the nation, from local politics to the state and national levels.  And now we have a whole new political system for which race is often the fulcrum.

For African-Americans, Watts brought about a new conversation in which winning the support of sympathetic whites became, for a time, less important than stating the root causes of the violence. The Black Power movement emerged, a philosophy manifested by Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton in their book of the same name. The role of police became the flash point.  In an age before cellphone cameras, it was difficult to convincingly illustrate the Black experience with law enforcement to a wider audience. When I studied Bradley’s career, I found there had been almost no mainstream local media coverage of police misbehavior toward minority communities prior to 1965, in contrast to the plethora of material on the topic in local community newspapers.  

Many whites reacted strongly and negatively to the emergence of a new Black Power movement, and that friction began to redefine American politics. Democrats began to pay the political price. White liberal mayors (there were no big-city African-American mayors until 1967) found themselves caught between insurgent African-Americans and the resistance of many white voters. This rage was particularly hard for Jews. After all, Jews were among the closest allies of African-Americans, and had taken the civil rights movement deeply to heart. Some lost their lives in the South at the hands of enraged segregationists.  But few Jews had directly encountered this kind of anger.

The white backlash was felt most immediately in Los Angeles, where Mayor Sam Yorty (who had recently won re-election over James Roosevelt, a liberal supported by many Jews), grabbed the role of defender of public order, embracing the authoritarian Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker. Gov. Pat Brown, a strong advocate of civil rights, became caught in the middle of this racial dynamic. Strongly disapproving of the violence, he soon found himself alienated both from the African-American street and his Democratic base among white voters. Sensing vulnerability, Yorty challenged Brown in the 1966 Democratic primary and did him immense damage, softening him up for Brown’s general election defeat by Ronald Reagan.  

Democrats suffered major congressional losses nationally in 1966, and in 1968, Richard Nixon followed the path hewn by Yorty and Reagan right into the White House. Playing on white fear and resistance became the defining electoral strategy of Republicans, a plan that was highly successful for many years and continues to this day. However, this approach has now limited the ability of Republicans to appeal to nonwhite voters, including Latinos and Asian-Americans. Using white identity as an organizing principle leaves Republicans struggling to persuade their most intense supporters to be open-minded toward immigrant-origin communities of color, let alone to win support from African-Americans.

Watts had another important impact, and that was the development of a highly successful movement for Black electoral empowerment, a push that in Los Angeles eventually centered on Bradley. A former police officer, Bradley was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1963, where he quickly became Parker’s  most vocal and effective critic. Bradley had warned that civil unrest was in the air, but he was ignored. Bradley had a deep base in his own African-American community, but he also was particularly close to the Jewish community, which had strongly supported his 1963 City Council campaign against a white conservative. Jews also were the only white group to vote against Proposition 14, the 1964 ballot measure to permit racial discrimination in housing. Bradley’s biracial coalition overcame what had seemed impossible in the wake of Watts and other civil disorders, continuing the tradition of bringing together African-Americans and liberal whites, especially Jews.


A traffic stop in South Central Los Angeles set off the Watts Rebellion — days of rage, burning and looting that shocked America.

Watts and Bradley are inextricably linked. Bradley’s leadership abilities and calm demeanor would have been appealing in any era, but in the context of the rebellion in Watts, these qualities took on a special meaning for whites who were still generally supportive of civil rights, but in the face of the violence were now walking in unfamiliar territory. Once the genie of rage was out of the bottle, local politics became about police and other issues that divided the city. As an African-American who was both passionately determined to bring about change and an active pursuer of bridges to other communities, Bradley was able to speak across blocked lines of race and to make steady, if at times frustratingly slow, progress. Protest morphed into the politics of change and made for more productive efforts than the dead end path of guilt.

Bradley had to balance the expectations among African-Americans that their concerns about local issues would be honestly confronted and resolved, with the hope of other groups that he would be fair to all. Yorty knew how to play on white fears and resentments, and in the mayoral race of 1969, portrayed Bradley as a Black militant who would make life impossible for whites. Yorty’s fear mongering was enough to beat Bradley, but in 1973, Bradley was able to put together a winning coalition of Blacks, Jews, white liberals and Latinos to beat Yorty, kicking off a run of five consecutive terms. While his strongest early coalition was with Jews (as well as many Asian-Americans), Bradley ultimately forged extremely close relations with the emerging Latino community. By the end of his term, with the alliance between African-Americans and Jews on its last legs, Latino voters were among his strongest supporters.

Bradley’s historical contribution was quite different from the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. His accomplishments came from his ability to cross bridges in a big city with racial divides very different from those in the segregated South. Instead of desegregating lunch counters, Bradley’s mandate was to improve police practices and to open up City Hall to the city’s diversity and, if possible, to advance economic equality for the inner city. And in today’s Los Angeles, the task is to forge alliances not just between African-Americans and whites, but also among all the city’s communities, with special reference to Latinos and Asian-Americans. 

Bradley’s story resonates strongly today, in the era of the first African-American presidency. Bradley faced many of the same choppy waters that President Barack Obama has been navigating since his inauguration in 2009. And while Obama has probably done more than any political leader to bring the inner dialogues among African-Americans into wider conversations, change has been very slow in coming. We are still trying to come to a greater understanding of one another, to cross the racial divide, with the possibility of a backlash not far behind in the rearview mirror.

Mayor Tom Bradley brought about changes in the wake of racial strife.

Unlike the civil rights movement, the story of race relations in today’s America has no single narrative or clear, comforting ending. (Notably, even the successes of the civil rights movement have receded significantly with the Supreme Court’s obliteration of the heart of the Voting Rights Act and restrictions on voting nationwide.) But what offers hope is the possibility of mutual understanding.

Bradley’s greatest achievement was civilian oversight of the LAPD, which may be reflected in the availability of information essential to such understanding.  Following the videotaped police beating of African-American motorist Rodney King, Bradley created the Christopher Commission, which bluntly demonstrated the need for fundamental change. Proposition F, which removed the police chief’s civil service protection and strengthened civilian review, was placed on the ballot, and only six weeks after the 1992 violence that broke out after the police accused of beating King were acquitted, that measure won a strong majority with the combined backing of African-Americans, Jews and Latinos. One wonders if the presence of “information” in the form of the King videotape and the illuminating Christopher Commission report made it possible to convey the issue to a wider range of voters than the largely unseen arrest of Marquette Frye in 1965.  

When it comes to bridges across racial lines, information is still the most important currency, and it is hard earned. And information now goes in both and all directions. In 1965, it was about African-Americans getting a hearing for the first time about a reality that had been obscured to a wider community; now it is about that information going back and forth. As Obama nears the end of his eventful presidency, he has become more forthright in stating realities and keeping lines open for receiving information as well. But the divide is not going to disappear anytime soon. This will be, in John F. Kennedy’s words, a “long twilight struggle, year in and year out.”

WATCH: Jon Stewart delivers joke-less monologue on Charleston shooting


As Jon Stewart said Thursday night, his job for the past 16 years has been to deliver jokes based on the news.

On Thursday, however, he simply could not do his job – the killing of nine at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina had left him, for the first time, unable to write jokes.

Below is video of Stewart’s joke-less monologue, in which he delivers one of the most impassioned segments of his career.

The original Rachel Dolezal was a Jew named Mezz Mezirow


[Forward] As we all know, Rachel Dolezal was by no means the first white American to take on aspects of African-Americanness in her persona — calling Elvis, is anybody home? — although she will go down in history as one of the all-time champions of the syndrome based on the sheer chutzpahdik of her transformation. But blackness has always been an integral part of American identity, and has only grown more so with the passage of time (think of white-rap pop star Eminem and black President of the United States Barack Obama for two recent mirror-image examples), so that for any American, it’s nearly impossible not to take on some degree of Afritude without even trying.

Read about Mezz Mezzrow, the original Rachel Dolezal, here.

NAACP official who resigned says she identifies as black

Rachel Dolezal, right, is interviewed by host Matt Lauer on the NBC News “TODAY” show in New York on June 16. Photo by NBC News' TODAY show/Anthony Quintano/Handout via Reuters

[Reuters] Washington state civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal, who has been accused of falsely claiming she is African-American, said on Tuesday she identifies as black and has been doing so since she was 5 years of age.

Dolezal, in an interview on NBC's “Today” television show, said a major shift in her identity came when she was doing human rights work in Idaho and newspaper stories described her as transracial, biracial and black.

“I never corrected that,” she said, “… because it's more complex than being true or false in that particular instance.”

Dolezal, 37, who grew up with adopted black siblings, resigned on Monday as president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a leading U.S. civil rights organization, amid reports that her parents are white.

Her own concept of her race began when she was 5 years old, Dolezal said.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the black curly hair,” she said.

Shown a photograph of herself as a teenager with fair complexion and blond hair in the TV interview, Dolezal said, “I would say that visibly she would be identified as white by people who see her.”

Dolezal took issue with critics who have said that by presenting herself as African-American, she was putting on a black-face performance – an outdated act in which white actors used makeup to portray black stereotypes.

“I have a huge issue with black-face,” she said. “This is not some freak … mockery black-face performance. This is on a very real, connected level. I've actually had to go there with the experience.”

Dolezal had represented Albert Wilkinson, a black man she worked with in Idaho, as her father and she said they had a family-level connection, according to media reports.

“Albert Wilkinson is my dad,” Dolezal said. “Any man can be a father. Not every man can be a dad.”

Dolezal said her two sons, who are black, had been supportive of her identity.

“I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday,” she said. “He said, 'Mom, racially, you're human and culturally you're black.”

Why I don’t want to watch the (white) Oscars this year


In my family, the Academy Awards are an annual event celebrated with the kind of specific rituals more often associated with major cultural events: the days of predictions beforehand; the festive spread of Fritos, onion dip and enough nosherei to feed a small army; the red-carpet gossipfest; even the inevitable boredom — all are part of our family’s life cycle, as ingrained as the Fourth of July. Even as our children grow up and move out of town, we watch the Oscars in virtual togetherness, texting feverishly: “Can you believe what she’s wearing?” “Adele Dazeem?!”

But this year I won’t be breaking out the onion dip. I can’t. The almost-complete shutout of any artist of color in any category is too nauseating. To hoist a glass and laugh along with the jokes will feel like enjoying a party at a whites-only country club.  

There may be a million reasons why “Selma” was shut out almost entirely from awards, starting with the inaccurate representation of LBJ’s conversations with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Selma” got nods only for best picture and best song, notably bypassing director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo; as a comparison, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-theory movie, “JFK,” which took far more liberties with the truth, was nominated for eight Oscars, including best director, best supporting actor and best screenplay. Even this year, “The Imitation Game,” whose director was nominated, has been widely criticized for exaggerating Alan Turing’s role in cracking the Nazi codes; “Foxcatcher,” whose director was also nominated, bears so little resemblance to actual events that it is astonishing that the DuPont family has not sued for defamation.

But for me, it’s not only that the near-shutout of “Selma” feels particularly galling in the context of Ferguson, Eric Garner and marches in the street to remind America that #blacklivesmatter. It’s not only that DuVernay, however you may feel about her interpretation of LBJ, has made a powerful portrait of a movement whose work is still not finished, nor that Oyelowo has given a stunning portrayal of King, nor that Carmen Ejogo is luminous in her portrayal of Coretta Scott King.  

It’s that there are no other African-American nominees from any other movie at all. In a roster of dozens of nominees, there is only one single person of color — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — and he is not American, so, in fact, there is not a single American person of color.  

To contextualize this whitewash, remember that the Oscars are taking place in Los Angeles, a city whose population, according to the latest U.S. Census, is less than 50 percent white — 48.5 percent of people living here are Latino; 9.6 percent are African-American. More than 11 percent are Asian, and the rest are mixed race, American Indian or Pacific Islander. These minoritized groups, taken together, are, in fact, the majority of Angelenos. Am I crazy if I feel sick celebrating an industry that, despite being based in one of the most vibrantly multicultural cities in the world, almost exclusively tells stories by and about white people? Am I crazy when I bristle at the word “minority” when used to refer to a majority of our population?

We can dismiss all of this by saying that the Academy is made up a bunch of old, out-of-touch white men, but these awards are a pretty accurate reflection of the movies that Hollywood green-lights. The Writers Guild of America reports that 95 percent of screenwriting jobs in 2014 were taken by white people. According to a recent UCLA report, film directors of color make only 12.2 percent of movies, while actors of color play only 10.5 percent of leading roles. Of the 90 percent of movies with white leads, half of them featured a cast that was over 90 percent white.  

This gross underrepresentation speaks to the entrenchment of Hollywood’s white bubble, but the problem goes far deeper; it goes to lack of access in the entertainment business to internships and job opportunities, which in turn goes to the lack of educational equality for children of color, who are far more likely than white children to grow up in poverty. Latino-American children are twice as likely to grow up in poverty than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty. In turn, children growing up in high-poverty communities are being educated in a system that has been decimated by slashes in funding that have eliminated arts education and even libraries from low-income neighborhoods.  

When I taught in a high school in South Central Los Angeles, I was stunned to find that many of my students could not sing a single note on key. Why? They’d never had a music class. Ever. High schools are required to offer students one arts class during their entire four years; many offer only that, and some offer none at all, despite the requirement. In a city with so much talent, where the entertainment business is the fifth-largest income producer, why have no companies reached out to low-income communities to offer any arts education for children?  Where is the bridge between the glitter of the red carpet and the hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty only a few miles away?  

So, forgive me if I skip the party in front of the TV this year. I can’t have fun celebrating an industry that, so many years after the civil-rights heroes were beaten down in the streets in their quest for justice, remains starkly segregated. I can hope, as King said, that the arc of our moral universe bends toward justice. And I will shut my eyes and try as hard as I can to believe it. 


Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach.

Incoming councilwoman: Knockout attacks may be caused by black-Jewish tension


An incoming New York City councilwoman said the wave of so-called knockout attacks may be caused by tension between blacks and Jews.

Councilwoman-elect Laurie Cumbo, who was elected to represent the Crown Heights neighborhood and will take office next month, made the statement in a Facebook post on Tuesday calling for a zero-tolerance policy toward the “knockout game” and for strengthening the relationship between African-Americans and Jews.

In the game, attackers try to knock out someone with one punch. At least ten such attacks have taken place in the Brooklyn borough of New York City since September, most directed at identifiably Jewish people, according to reports.

Cumbo said that she had many discussions with local residents during the primary season and that “many African American/Caribbean residents expressed a genuine concern that as the Jewish community continues to grow, they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes.”

The councilwoman-elect said she did not mean to bring up the issue “as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a ‘hate crime’ against a community that they know very little about.”

Cumbo stressed her admiration for the Jewish community. However, she added, “I also recognize that for others, the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment, and a sense that Jewish success is not also their success.”

She called for the communities to “gain a greater understanding of one another so that we can learn more about each other’s challenges and triumphs despite religious and cultural differences.”

Cumbo called for a detailed investigation of the knockout attacks, leading to “arrests and legal action.”

“If one person attacks another, regardless of the motivation, there is no justification for such an action,” she wrote.

Jewish leaders reportedly criticized Cumbo for her assertations.

The Anti-Defamation League said that Cumbo’s statement “evokes classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

“As an organization that has worked for more than 20 years to improve Black-Jewish relations in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, we are troubled by the incoming councilwoman’s sentiments, particularly her comment about resentment over Jewish economic success, which evokes classic anti-Semitic stereotypes,” New York Regional Director Evan Bernstein said in a statement.

Other incidents of knockout attacks have occurred in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., The Associated Press reported.

Will a new generation step up to civic leadership?


At first glance, Jews might appear to be enjoying a renaissance of political influence in Los Angeles. Eric Garcetti is the first elected Jewish mayor and the two other citywide elected officials — City Attorney Mike Feuer and City Controller Ron Galperin — are Jewish, too. So are three City Councilmembers.

But the era is long past when an energized base of African American and Jewish voters could team up to help Mayor Tom Bradley make history. Power in Los Angeles is more diffused, and thanks in part to the Jewish commitment to expanding and leveling the democratic playing field, a wide variety of diverse constituencies are better organized. This is a welcome change that has helped lift the voices of all Angelenos.

“Jewish heritage is American heritage,” Vice President Joe Biden said last May, crediting Jews for America’s progress in women’s rights, civil rights, science, law, and LGBT rights. Yet as Los Angeles political expert Raphael J. Sonenshein noted in his column in the Journal in June, Jewish support is “no longer a necessity for minority access to political leadership at the local level.” In other words, Jewish voters are not the deciding factor they once were in Los Angeles politics. Meanwhile, many of L.A.'s most influential Jewish leaders have turned from political pursuits to philanthropic initiatives.

Now a new generation of Jews is growing up in a new Los Angeles. Our region is more diverse than ever, and while serious inequalities and social divisions persist, many areas are seeing new integration. Jewish Angelenos, having left downtown for the Valley and the Westside, are returning to an increasingly integrated urban core, from the East Side to Pico-Union to Koreatown.

As Biden rightly noted, that spirit of integration pervades contemporary American Jewish identity—and so does civic commitment. Jumpstart’s latest research on charitable giving, Connected to Give, confirms the generosity of American Jews across all causes. The stronger our community connections, it shows, the stronger our commitment to the common good.

Like that of so many others, my own story—a co-chair of the Clinton Foundation Millennium Network leadership council who is the child of a Holocaust survivor, a new County commissioner who is the cofounder of an innovative Jewish nonprofit startup—reflects this synergy. Like so many others, I am inspired by a Jewish tradition that spurs us, indeed demands of us, that we help lead the conversation about where our city and society are heading, and how we all can get there together.

For me, as for a number of other Jewish Angelenos active in civic service, appointed office has offered the opportunity to bring my personal commitments and professional skills to bear for the broader good.  There are myriad city and county commissions that advise government departments and agencies. The City of Los Angeles alone has more than 50 commissions with more than 300 commissioners. They develop policies governing the LAPD and pensions for city workers, ideas for modern city planning, solutions for increasing affordable housing. Commissions are a key mechanism for citizen participation in and oversight of government, and they play a central role shaping the local agenda.

But we are a handful among hundreds. How can we ensure that rising leaders from across the diverse spectrum of the Los Angeles Jewish community have the skills and understanding necessary to earn an appointment and make a sustained positive impact? By making sure we're training the next generation of Jewish civic leaders.

And that’s where the Jewish Federation’s New Leaders Project (NLP) comes in.

For more than 20 years (and currently recruiting for next year’s class), NLP has helped train hundreds of Jewish leaders, many of whom have gone on to serve as elected and appointed officials (including commissioners), nonprofit directors, business executives. NLP helps young Jewish leaders broaden their understanding of the complex issues and diverse communities across the region. Participants meet with innovators both inside the Jewish community and out. And they get to work hands on with elected, civic, community and business leaders, forming crucial relationships and learning the nuances of the city's power structures — all through a lens grounded in Jewish values. NLP has helped inspire similar civic efforts in other minority religious communities, such as the SikhLEAD Leadership Development Program and the American Muslim Civic Leadership Initiative.

The future of our community—both Angeleno and Jewish—depends on creating more opportunities for us to live out our values for the benefit of the broader world. My own training as an NLP fellow in 2012 helped broaden my civic horizons and prepare me to take on the obligation of building a better Los Angeles.

The echoes of the Bradley era still resonate today as Los Angeles’s diversity continues to be a source of our strength. Whether through training programs like NLP or service through commissions, each of us can make a powerful statement that we care deeply about our society and that we will keep fighting to repair the world. Jewish values—American values—call us to act.


NLP is currently recruiting for 2014. For more information, go to www.JewishLA.org/NLP.

Israeli hope for kidney disease


It’s been decades since Dr. Karl Skorecki did his medical training at what is now called Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Boston teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, but he still vividly recalls the patients with kidney disease he met there.

He remembers their names, their faces, their suffering. He also remembers the question he began asking, one that has guided his career ever since: Why are there so many young black men and women with kidney disease? 

“The answers I was given were often very general and not precise: lifestyle, socioeconomic issues, and partly that’s true. But it seemed to me there was more going on,” the son of Holocaust survivors said. 

Today, Skorecki has come a long way in answering that question. As the director of medical and research development and director emeritus of nephrology at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, he heads a team that has pinpointed a genetic variant predisposing many people of Sub-Saharan African descent to kidney disease. He said his department was one of two research teams in the world to first pinpoint the mutation.

African-Americans account for 32 percent of people with kidney failure in the United States, though they only make up about 13 percent of the population. They also are nearly four times as likely as Caucasians to develop kidney failure, according to the National Kidney Disease Education Program.

“That’s not a minor difference,” Skorecki said. “That’s a striking difference, and one that begs to be resolved.”

This devout Jewish doctor is on a mission to educate African-Americans about the genetic risk they face and much more. He also wants to raise millions to continue research as his team tries to discover what external factors — viral, toxins, etc. — might trigger the disease in people with the mutation. He’s also trying to understand the mechanism by which the mutation leaves the kidneys vulnerable and find a way to stem that vulnerability with medicine, perhaps leading to a vaccine or drug.

To this end, he traveled across the United States earlier this year, speaking with African-American physicians, civic leaders, pastors and celebrities. He also spoke at a musical fundraiser that took place Aug. 22-25 on Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard that featured artists Natalie Cole and Smokey Robinson.

When Skorecki visited Los Angeles in May, the chattering diners at the Post & Beam restaurant in Baldwin Hills grew silent. About 20 African-American clergymen turned to look at the tall, earnest-looking man who sat before them wearing a kippah, curious to hear the message this stranger had traveled halfway around the world to bring them. 

As Skorecki spoke, many heads in the audience began nodding. Yes, they quietly agreed, kidney disease has long plagued the black community.

“I think we’re on the verge of making a real difference. Something real and important on something that’s responsible for a lot of human suffering,” he told them.

The doctor outlined his experiences and how they ultimately led him and his team to the AP0L1 variant.

“I felt, all these years, driven to try to work with this problem,” Skorecki said. “Now, it’s time to turn scientific discovery into something that people will actually benefit from.”

The doctor said his reason for addressing the clergymen was so they could help spread the word about his research to their congregations. 

For Barry Greene, senior pastor and teacher at St. Matthew Tabernacle of Praise Church in Baldwin Hills, Skorecki’s message hit particularly close to home. Many people in his congregation have kidney disease, and a good friend of his recently died from it, he said. 

“So many people need information about their health and wellness,” Greene said. “You’re always praying for somebody who has some kind of physical ailment.”

The Rev. Marguerite Phillips of Holman United Methodist Church on West Adams Boulevard, who also knows many people affected by kidney disease, said Skorecki’s talk made her feel more optimistic for the future.

“It’s wonderful to know there are specialists working in this area,” she said. 

No one seemed to notice — or, at least, care — that Skorecki is a Canadian living in Israel focusing on an issue affecting African-Americans.

“We’re all made of the same material. It doesn’t matter what race, nationality, religion or creed,” said Robert Bolden, pastor at Crenshaw Christian Center. “We all have kidneys, and kidneys are only one color.”

Skorecki said he grew up with a keen awareness of the need to do good. His parents immigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1950s, and they spoke to him frequently about both the horrors they experienced and the acts of kindness that helped them survive the Holocaust.

“They saw how horrible humanity can be — my mother lost her entire family — but she would tell me about the occasions in which non-Jews risked their lives to hide her or to give her a piece of bread,” he recalled. “You have to do good even in the face of evil and suffering. And that’s something that resonates from my parents.”

The professor’s upbringing and religious convictions also influenced his decision to move from Toronto to Israel in 1995 with his wife, Linda, and five children. 

“Jewish people need a homeland, and the way to support that is to be there if you can,” he said.

Is the Civil Rights movement over?


Ask any schoolchild when the civil rights movement took place and she will likely tell you it was in the 1960s. Recent events have made us wonder what we can do to re-create a similar sense of urgency about the civil rights at issue today. Although the challenges we are facing today differ greatly from those of yesteryear, how do we get people to think about civil rights in the 21st century? There are so many areas where we still have work to do — challenges facing the LGBT communities, immigrant rights, human trafficking — not to mention ingrained and ongoing racism and other bigotry. And there are new ways in which we are challenged by new technology — the anonymity of hate on the Internet, how much more ubiquitous (and permanent) cyberbullying is than real-time bullying ever was. 

As we look back, we are struck by the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Certainly we didn’t have better race relations or communications systems in place 50 years ago. Yet enormous strides have been made — the Civil Rights Acts, case law against discrimination and, more recently, hate-crimes legislation — even when public opinion was not there. What were the keys to the success of the movement then, and how can we regain that type of momentum now? One factor was a sense that there was a coalition among diverse groups all working toward the same goal. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” There is no escaping the fact that civil rights groups and community organizations must work together to combat lingering racial and social injustice. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles has reopened the civil rights division. The Anti-Defamation League, celebrating its centennial this year, has launched a campaign,o “Imagine a World Without Hate.” The Urban League of Greater Los Angeles works with schools and nonprofit organizations to reduce dropout rates in area schools. While these and more are certainly good examples of this happening, there are too many cases in which polarization — of our communities, our politics and our media — has led us away from rather than toward each other. 

The Zimmerman case gave rise to discussions about racial disparity and stereotyping of African-American males. According to a Pew Research Center poll on the racial divide over the George Zimmerman verdict, 86 percent of African-Americans that were surveyed felt dissatisfied with the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, while only 30 percent of whites reported feeling dissatisfied with the verdict. Many commentators remarked on race relations during and after the Zimmerman case, but sadly some turned inward to fight the battle instead of building bridges.

Some groups and self-appointed leaders organizing in the wake of the tragedy employed rhetoric that demonized and marginalized other communities rather than uniting and mobilizing them. The New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 bounty for the capture of Zimmerman and called for the mobilization of 10,000 black men to capture him. When one of its leaders, Mikhail Muhammad, was asked if he was inciting violence, he simply said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Their Florida representative called Zimmerman “a wicked white beast” and claimed “his father is a Jew; he’s a no-good Jew.”

In Lancaster, there was a community prayer and call to action. One of the speakers, Stan Muhammad, spoke as a community leader and city commissioner in calling for the creation of the Antelope Valley Youth Ambassadors for Peace. In his speech, he made a reference to certain rap artists being “faggots” who “have sold their soul to the devil [and are] being paid by the Synagogue of Satan to keep our people deaf, dumb and blind.” Granted, he apologized when people reacted immediately and with outrage, but only for his use of the term “faggots.” In trying to explain, he clarified that he was referring to rap artists who “have made a deal with the Synagogue of Satan and the deal is this: You put out what I tell you to put out because I do not want your people conscious.” The “Synagogue of Satan” is a reference to a Nation of Islam conspiracy theory that assumes that the world is being manipulated and corrupted by Satanic powers led by Jewish elites.

It is not only members of the African-American community who have jumped to bigoted conclusions in the very context of addressing civil rights and other matters affecting the community. Pamela Geller, co-founder of American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, has utilized Islamophobic vitriol in the name of coming to Israel’s defense. Her 2012 campaign of bus advertisements included one that read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” More recently, Geller’s group promoted an 18-point platform about stopping Muslim immigration into countries that do not have Muslim majorities.

Perhaps our 24-hour news cycle and the multitude of information options have contributed to a system that rewards brevity, not mindfulness. Sound bites prevail over dialogue. In some cases, self-interest trumps altruism.

But if we are successful in couching our 21st century challenges in a comparable framework of the civil rights movement, we must take our time, choose our words, and join forces to foster inclusiveness and mutual respect among communities of all kinds. 

Our communities are facing difficult, tense and painful experiences, and we are not wrong for feeling prey to ongoing racism and bigotry. However, in order to productively and effectively respond to these persistent civil rights issues, as leaders we must denounce radical hate-mongering rhetoric and reach across racial and religious lines to unite in the fight against bigotry. The Urban League must stand up to anti-Semitism in radicalized African-American leaders just as the Anti-Defamation League stands up to Islamophobia in Jewish leaders. We must not forget the lessons learned from the 20th century civil rights movement as we forge our way in these complicated, polarized, high-speed times.


Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region. Nolan Rollins is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Los Angeles.

Obama says ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago’


President Barack Obama on Friday jumped into the debate over the acquittal of the man who killed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, declaring that Martin “could have been me, 35 years ago,” and urging Americans to understand the pain that African-Americans feel over the case.

Obama came into the White House press briefing room to offer his thoughts on the case involving George Zimmerman, the Florida man who was found not guilty of murder on Saturday after shooting 17-year-old Martin during a struggle.

The Zimmerman case has brought matters of race into the American conversation once again, between those who feel Zimmerman was acting in self defense and others who believe there was no need for him to shoot the unarmed teenager.

Without saying so specifically, Obama clearly sided with the argument that the shooting need not have happened, expressing sympathy to the Martin family and praising family members for the “incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation.”

He said the case was properly handled in the Florida court and the fact that the jury found reasonable doubt in the prosecution's case against Zimmerman was relevant. And yet, he added, it is important that Americans understand the context from the black perspective.

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago,” he said somberly.

Obama, 51, recalled his own encounters with racism as a way of explaining the pain that the black community has expressed over the case.

“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me,” he said.

He said he has heard the clicks of car doors locking when he walked across the street in his younger days.

“There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often,” he said.

While he said he believes younger generations have fewer issues with racism, Americans need to do some “soul searching” on whether they harbor prejudice.

They should consider, “Am I judging people as much as I can based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” he said.

Noting racial disparities in the application of U.S. criminal laws on everything from the death penalty to enforcement of drug laws, Obama had a number of recommendations.

He urged the Justice Department work with local governments about state and local training to reduce mistrust in the system and that states should examine laws to see if they are designed in such a way that may encourage altercations.

Obama specifically mentioned Florida's “stand your ground” law that was central to Zimmerman's argument that he acted in self defense and shot Martin during their alteraction. The law was not cited as part of Zimmerman's defense but one juror cited it in acquitting him.

“I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws,” said Obama.

Editing by Christopher Wilson and Jackie Frank

Read this article, bubala!


Back in the 1970s, when I attended the freshly integrated Fairfax High School, black and Chicano gangs would spar in the lunch yard. I used to joke that we Jews should also form a gang. We’d hire a locksmith to break into stores, doctor the books and write ourselves a few checks. Despite the joking, I lived in constant fear of being mugged (one time at gunpoint!). The trauma has faded with time — although I still won’t go to the toilet between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. 

If only Jaquann and Luis had been there to save me. 

Jaquann and Luis are the African-American and Latino Jewish gangbangers who are the main characters in “Bubala Please,” a successful Web series of videos launched last Chanukah. The two meet during an altercation. Luis’ bling — a big chai — falls out of his undershirt, to be noticed, then reciprocated, by Jaquann showing his Star of David. They become fast friends — or as close to friends as gangbangers can be. 

It’s tough to explain a joke without killing it, so you’ll have to see “Bubala Please” for yourself. Still, here’s a taste: The two Jewish gangbangers celebrate all the Jewish holidays, but not in any way you’ve ever imagined. Ever eaten a Baja Gefilte Fish Taco? How about Matzoh Nachos? And suffice it to say, after you’ve watched their ultra-authentic — i.e., filthy — urban gangster Purim rap, “We Doin’ Purim” (available on iTunes) and see these homies noshin’ on hamantashen, you’ll never see that pastry quite the same way again. Likewise with Jaquann’s very emphatic Shehechiyanu. As the BubalaPlease.com warning states, this isn’t for the kinderlach. Or the ultra-serious.

[From Hollywood JournalHow to make money on YouTube with Web series]

Jaquann and Luis are played by two Angelenos from the inner city, Marcus Wayne and Rick Mancia. Take off the tear-drop tattoos, the gang wear, bling and façade of machismo, and it’d be hard to find two nicer guys, a testament to their acting abilities. To play their gangbanging alter egos, each says he channels people they’ve come across. Mancia says he’s still always shocked by the fact that “there are actually people whose idea of a weekend is: ‘I’m gonna hang out, get high and maybe beat up some guys.’ That’s the way they talk. They really exist!” he marveled. “To make them Jewish just seemed like a hilarious idea.”

Playing Jewish gangbangers has also opened curious new vistas for the actors. Wayne said, “It’s deepened my respect for Jewish culture and religion. And watching TV is a whole new experience. [Since I’ve learned a lot of Yiddish and Jewish culture] I understand television a lot better. I never knew how much I was missing!” 

By playing these characters, Mancia said, “You realize that underneath the façade that everyone sees, we are all the same. We all want to belong, to be respected, enjoy life, have some fun.” 

“Bubala Please” is the creation of Napkin Note Productions and its two nice Jewish boys from Texas, who met in college: Jacob Salamon and Jared Bauer. Salamon, the grandson of Holocaust survivors who has an Israeli father, attended a predominantly Mexican-American high school. Bauer, the son of New York transplants, attended a predominantly African-American one before graduating college and film school. 

“Bubala Please” is their attempt at achieving racial harmony. Or at least racial hilarity. “Mel Brooks earned the absolute right to make racial comedy, but we’re claiming that right,” Bauer asserts. Of course, Salamon and Bauer, both in their 20s, are comedic babies on the block. But most viewers see their mixture of Jewish and gangsta culture as sidesplittingly funny. Roseanne Barr is a fan — she wants a cameo, Salamon reports — along with more than a million other YouTube viewers. Surprised, Salamon said that lots of Orthodox Jews — many of them women — are among their most fervent fans. Both Salamon and Bauer also love the fact that, growing up as lone Jews in the Lone Star State, they now feel more connected to the Jewish community than ever before. 

The success of “Bubala Please” came as a surprise to Bauer and Salamon. Normally, through a partner company, they make commercials, including for Taco Bell. Salamon recalled, “We made the first episode as a sort of holiday card to send to some of our contacts in the business. All with our own money.” Mancia interjected, “Yeah, we worked for bubkes!” Salamon added, “I realized we were on to something when I got three e-mails in one day telling me to go watch the video, and then it registered over 50,000 views on YouTube in the first week.” He and Bauer later raised funds at the crowdfunding platform Jewcer.com, which enabled the production of more episodes, with the Passover episodes being the latest of six. Three more are in the pipeline before they wrap the first season.

Where will it all lead? With Bauer and Salamon, there is no shortage of ideas. After hesitating, they shared their idea for a full-length feature film: “Jaquann and Luis Go on Birthright.” Homies in the Holy Land? Just the idea induces laughter. Talk about being “strangers in a strange land.” If Jaquann and Luis could have brought quiet to my race-riven high school lunch yard, maybe, while on Birthright, they can work some magic between Palestinians and Israelis. I already know their opening gambit: “Make peace, MF’ers!” Hey, it’s never been tried — like “Bubala Please” itself. And that was surprisingly successful. Yasher koach, bubalas.

Jackie and the Jews [Irish, Italians, Blacks, Poles]: Ethnicity in post-war America


Jackie was the first. Jackie could not just play the game for himself. He was playing the game for every one of his race who had been denied a chance, whose future was closed because of racism and segregation. Indeed, as I remember it, Jackie played the game for every minority kid whose opportunities were constrained because of discrimination.

I was but an toddler when Jackie broke in. My mother was often ill and my father, a decorated World War II veteran, was struggling to make up for lost time in the post-war years. He was 35 in 1945, the year the war ended, 35 and just beginning his career which was delayed by the depression and the Great War. In a frenzy to make something of his interrupted life, he worked all hours of the day and night. So we had an African-American cleaning lady, Minnie — an intelligent stately woman who in our era would have gone to school and become a professional, but in those days merely struggled to survive. Minnie loved me and she loved the Dodgers and the Dodger she most loved was Jackie. On his shoulders went the fate of all those denied an opportunity, and the destiny of all, those such as my father who were to struggle to make their way in the post World War II world. He loved Jackie as well and their love for Robinson was race blind — the great equalizer between men, women and children of diverse races and creeds.

Fire, passion, daring, Jackie was anything but a simple athlete. He fought every day and every moment of every day. He was the forerunner of the civil rights movement of the sixties, and the struggles for equality that were to follow. He would do anything to win. And when finally he was freed from his vow of silence, he played baseball with intensity unmatched in the history of the game. He could beat you with his bat, with his glove, with his base-running, and even with his mouth. Duke Snider recalled a game in which Robinson tormented the pitcher until he was hit by the pitch. He then took a huge lead off first base and challenged the pitcher to pick him off. The throw to first was wild and Robinson took two bases. He then threatened to steal home, until the unnerved hurler threw a wild pitch. Robinson lumbered home, staring at the pitcher.

Robinson was determined to overcome the weight of centuries. My father and Minnie understood his struggle. Orthodox Jew and underprivileged black, they both saw in his daily battle a mirror of their own life and the hope for future generations. If he made it, they could; if not them, then their children.

Pee Wee Reese was the Dodger Captain. Kentucky bred and almost a decade older than his teammates, he had broken into the game before World War II and was a star before his career was postponed by wartime duties. Reese was stable and able, dependable, savvy and smart. One could sense his roots in his demeanor, his pronunciation of his words, his courtliness, southern grace, and courtesy. So when Reese answered for Robinson, America took note. When he braved the taunts of fans and the displeasure of his southern friends by embracing Robinson as a teammate, as part of his double play combination, Reese came to exemplify every southerner who was willing to make segregation a thing of the past. There were a few such ball players in 1947, too few then, still too few. Several Dodgers protested Robinson's arrival. One year later Rickey traded them. He was determined to integrate Baseball and willing to pay the price.

Roy Campanella, certainly not the least of his mates, was all heart. In his every move one experienced the joy of the game, the love of baseball. Stocky and compact, Campy would be surprisingly swift on the base path and a stonewall protecting the plate. He was talkative. Campy would kibbutz with the batters and the umpires. He was as masterful at banter as at handling pitchers, speaking to them not just with his mouth, but by pounding his fists, gesturing in every direction.

The man loved what he did, and did it so well. Three times he was the National League's Most Valuable Player, the most valuable of a most impressive team, and when Campy played well, the Dodgers would win.

Campanella was formed by his experience in the Negro Leagues. Prior to being signed by the Dodgers, Campy played baseball year round. He reported to the Negro Leagues each spring and summer and went down to Venezuela to play ball in the winter. His alternatives were few. With a bat in his hand, he would club his way to a future. In the Negro Leagues, double headers were routine. Oftentimes teams played in two different cities during the same day. They brought their own lamps and polls to play nighttime baseball in then unlit stadiums. Travel was by bus where players often slept at night, denied entry into hotels in the segregated South and the inhospitable North. Motels were then unknown. Campy began his baseball career at 14, or so he said, for Negro League players often lied about their age in order to convince the white baseball barons to take a chance on their talents. By the time he began his 10 year major league career, Campanella had played professional baseball for twelve long years, summer and winter. Until Robinson was signed, Campanella could not dream of a big league career. He forever remained grateful that he was given his chance — just before it was too late.

Robinson and Campanella represented two faces of race and ethnicity in Brooklyn of the 1950s, then the most ethnically diverse and integrated city in America. For those of us Jewish boys — and I suspect the Irish and Italians as well — Jackie and Campy were familiar figures, they were not fond of each other and represented the polar opposites as to how to behave as a minority in the larger culture. Their struggles and the tensions between them were part of our family lore.

When our fathers told bold stories about standing up to antisemitism and demanding their rights, when their exploded in anger or triumphed by chutzpa, they became for us mini Jackie Robinsons — strong, and heroic. All over New York, Jews were breaking down barriers by being angry demanding and insistent — by playing the game more fiercely, with greater daring and conviction than the “white boys.”

When our fathers told us not to make waves, to be grateful for how far we had come, to remember with gratitude the opportunities we had been afforded, we thought of Roy Campanella. He knew what would have been his fate had he been given less talent, had opportunity not come his way just in time. Ever thankful, he could not be angry.

First generation Jews, Italians, and Irish and other ethnics understood Campy. The talented sons of pushcart peddlers and small merchants, of factory workers and machinists, were attending Harvard or Yale and even grateful to be at City College. And in those days Jews who went to the Ivy Leagues soon assimilated and if they did not, they were reluctant to go public with the identity they held sacred in private. In my New York Yeshiva, we were taught that a yarmulke was an indoor garment. Hats were to be worn in the street. In the fifties, Philip Roth was writing of Eli the Fanatic, the fearsome Jew who practiced his piety in public and embarrassed his assimilating neighbors.

So while my father and Minnie rooted for Jackie; more often than not, they played the racial and ethnic game like Campy. Jackie was respected, Campy was loved.

Slavery’s horrific shadow lives on — and so does Hitler’s


Quentin Tarantino’s “Django” is sparking controversy — and not just for its flagrant use of the n word. According to African-American film critic Tim Cogshell (quoted by Erin Aubry Kaplan in the Times), “The surreal liftoff that happens at some point in ‘Basterds’ [Tarantino’s take on the Holocaust] doesn’t happen here, because of the weight of what’s still real. For example, there’s a certain racial backlash to Obama that’s still going on. Quentin wants this to be a dark comedy, but with [black] history the way it is, you can’t get from here to there in a movie.”

There are two problems with Cogshell’s comment. First the after-effects of slavery experienced by African Americans are part of a global phenomenon of anti-black racism. Hardly anybody noticed, but just this past November the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Greece because of of “a rise in unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants.” Africans, especially “illegal immigrants,” are the main target of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn Party, but there are also “confirmed reports of US African-American citizens detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens.”

Second, Hitler may be dead, but his noxious influence persists in the twenty-first century. A case in point: the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s new list of 2012’s top anti-Semites. Greek Golden Dawn’s founder Nikolaos Michaloliakos appeared to give a Nazi salute in the Athens City Council. He claims that it was merely “the salute of the national youth organization of Ioannis Metaxas.” In May, 2012, he told an interviewer that six million did not die in the Nazi Holocaust. He called the figure an exaggeration. “There were no ovens. This is a lie . . . there were no gas chambers, either.”

Artemis Matthaiopoulos, elected MP for the town of Serres, was the front man of the Nazi punk band Pogrom. One of the band’s songs, “Auschwitz” included anti-Semitic lyrics such as “f*** Wiesenthal”, “f*** Anne Frank”, “f*** the whole tribe of Abraham”, “Juden raus” and “The Star of David makes me vomit.” Matthaiopoulos is the second neo-Nazi rocker to represent Golden Dawn in the Greek Parliament.

Greece incubated democracy—but, of course, it’s not the only modern democracy with an anti-Semitism problem. Here at home, the phenomenon of Jew hatred crosses racial and religious lines. Case in point: perennial anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan who in 2012 said: “Jews control the media. They said it themselves. . . . In Washington right next to the Holocaust museum is the Federal Reserve where they print the money. Is that an accident? . . . Did you know the Quran says that Jews are the most violent of people? I didn’t write it, but I’m living to see it.”

Public opinion polls vary, but roughly 15 percent of Americans harbor hard-core anti-Semitic beliefs—about the same percentage who say they would never vote for an African American presidential candidate. Fortunately, these levels of prejudice are only a fraction of the large majorities throughout the Arab and Muslim world who profess hostility toward Judaism and Jews.

Still, we’ve still got a real problem with prejudice right here in America—and African Americans and Jews should collectively make a New Year’s Resolution to combat it!


Dr. Brackman is a Senior Consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Black students group slams ‘apartheid’ abuse


An African American students group took out ads in college newspapers blasting “Israel Apartheid week” organizers for abusing the term.

In a full page entitled “words matter” and appearing in the newspapers on April 7, Vanguard Leadership Group accuses Students for Justice in Palestine of a “false and deeply offensive” characterization of Israel.

“SJP has chosen to manipulate rather than inform with this illegitimate analogy,” Vanguard says in the ad, signed by its members attending a number of historically black colleges. “We request that you immediately stop referring to Israel as an apartheid society and to acknowledge that the Arab minority in Israel enjoys full citizenship with voting rights and representation in the government.”

The ad appeared in newspapers on campuses that saw “Israel Apartheid Week” activity in February, including Brown University, the University of California-Los Angeles, Columbia and the University of Maryland.

Vanguard, a leadership development group for students from historically black universities, has in recent years forged ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its members have visited Israel.

Society honors black renditions of Jewish music


A society dedicated to the preservation of Jewish music is releasing an album of African-American renditions of Jewish songs.

The New York-based Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is releasing “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations” on Sept. 14. The 15-track album includes Billie Holiday’s rendition of My Yiddishe Momme, Cab Calloway singing in Yiddish and Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt singing in Hebrew.

The society is honoring Johnny Mathis, whose 1958 rendition of Kol Nidre leads the album, on Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Yes, I can


Now that the election season is over, I want to share a personal revelation that I think can help bring Obama voters and McCain voters closer together. But first, a
little background.

I’ve always loved a good conversation, especially with people whose views are different from mine. But this year, I have been vacillating between McCain and Obama, and without taking a clear stand, I found it hard to have any decent debates. I haven’t met too many other vacillators.

I have, however, met plenty of hysterical partisans.

My McCain buddies have sent me countless e-mails warning me that an Obama victory might jeopardize the survival of Israel and endanger America, and my Obama buddies have been certain that the future of the Western world hangs on their man’s victory.

If I tried to mention at a McCain table how an Obama victory would re-brand America globally, or how his ability to look at different sides of an issue might be a good thing for the country, or how there are advisers around him like Dennis Ross who could hardly be accused of being anti-Israel, I would invariably get an alarmed response demonizing the man. Conversation over.

If I expressed concern at an Obama table about his lack of experience, or his relationships with unsavory characters, or his politically convenient flip-flops on major issues, or if I brought up McCain’s experience and independent nature, I would invariably get an indictment of McCain’s war-like ways, or a demonizing of Sarah Palin. Conversation over.

People didn’t just pick sides. They dug their heels into thick mud and barely moved. Unless you were surrounded by like-minded people where you could just pile on, you either had very short conversations or screaming matches.

So I came up with a secret plan. I shut my mouth. Instead of telling people how I felt about the candidates, I channeled the big “O.”

Not the big O of Obama, but the big O of Observer. I became an observer and a listener. I soaked it up. I asked questions. I observed how people argued, what set them off and how people on both sides acted in similar ways. I learned that when emotions run so high and opinions are so intense, you learn a lot just by observing and studying the show.

And study I did. I read important writers on both sides. I read National Review and the Nation. I read the key blogs. I would go from the passion of Andrew Sullivan and Joan Walsh on the Obama side to the passion of Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn on the McCain side. Somewhere in the middle, I would hear the moderating voice of David Brooks.

Because I have many friends whom I respect who are strongly anti-Obama, I tried to muster some animosity towards the man — but I couldn’t. Maybe it was because I remember how my mother cried on a November day in 1963 when she heard on the radio that President John Kennedy had died. I was a little kid, having dinner with my family in Morocco, and all I remember thinking was: Why would my mother cry for someone who lives so far away?

No matter how many alarming blog posts I read against Obama, I simply couldn’t ignore the few billion people around the world who might soon look up in admiration to our African American president in the White House — just like my mother looked up to Kennedy from her house in Morocco.

And no matter how many brilliant and valid critiques I would hear against Senator McCain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the decent and heroic American that David Foster Wallace wrote about so lyrically when he covered McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” for Rolling Stone magazine in the 2000 election.

Back and forth I went, seeing the power and weaknesses of both sides. Instead of engaging in exhausting debates, I channeled my passion away from ideology and toward understanding.

And by the time the winner was announced, I had received an unintended blessing from my dispassionate journey. A personal revelation, if you will.

It struck me that no matter who runs the White House — even after a historic victory that my grandchildren will talk about — they still won’t be able to help me with the most important things in my life: How I raise and educate my kids, how I deal with my friends and community, how ethically I lead my life, how I give back to the world, how I grow spiritually, how I stand up for Israel and the Jewish people, how I live an eco-friendly life — in short, how I help my country by taking personal responsibility for my own little world.

Those things are not so much “Yes, We Can,” but more “Yes, I Can.”

In fact, I have a wish that our eloquent new president will have the audacity to tell the nation that, for most of us, 99 percent of our happiness is in our own hands. While we await universal health care, we should take better care of our bodies and our health and save the country billions. While we await a better education system, we should read to our kids every night and teach them the values that will make them productive citizens. While we await government action to fight global warming, we should go green in our own lives. While we await a fix to the economic meltdown, we should learn to budget and spend within our means, and, for those of us who can afford to help, have the kindness to help those who have fallen through the cracks of our debt-ridden safety net.

The truth is, despite the headiness of this historic moment, neither President Obama nor President McCain could do for us what we need to do for ourselves and for our country. If our new president can inspire us to understand this truth, he will bring about the real change we need.

Turning a page in the history books


Being an African American candidate is different


I never imagined that there would be an African American presidential nominee of a major party in my lifetime. Now that the Democrats are on the verge of nominating Sen. Barack Obama, I’m only just beginning to absorb how different it is. Most of what we know about black candidates comes from mayoral races in big cities. Quite a bit of that experience is useful, but some of what we’re experiencing now is uncharted territory.

Since 1968, Republicans have wielded the race card to divide Democrats and elect presidents. From Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton, Republicans have lovingly cultivated the racial reservations of working-class white Democrats, while at the same time appearing reasonable and above the battle to moderate white voters. The strategy has largely failed with one group of white voters, Jews, who have mostly stayed with the Democratic candidate.

Democratic candidates have struggled to find an approach that will cross racial boundaries and keep African American and white voters in the same tent. Again and again, Republicans have smashed Democrats with unanswered personal attacks on racially and ideologically charged issues.

The most successful Democrat of the era was Bill Clinton. Clinton could speak to hard-edged white audiences and leave them feeling that he understood where they were coming from. He could also deliver an attack against the Republicans without appearing negative. He liked to call his charges “comparative,” rather than negative.

After flirting with an ineffective high-road strategy, Sen. John McCain has now loosed the traditional Republican attack machine. It’s working much better than his original strategy. He managed to inject the race issue into the debate and get Obama blamed for it.

Obama is suddenly in rough waters, with the attacks sticking, his polling dropping and his party worried. McCain is having fun. Nobody is asking him any hard questions anymore about the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or about birth control policy. Now they only ask about his ads, and he’s delighted to talk about them.

Minority candidates especially when they are running for the first time carry the burden of their whole people. When we get to know them better, we are embarrassed by what we initially believed.

How many Angelenos in 1969 decided that Tom Bradley was a closet Black Panther because Sam Yorty said so? How many thought in 2001 that Antonio Villaraigosa was a friend of drug dealers?

Charges stick against Democrats, and they stick like glue to a new minority candidate. How many otherwise attentive and politically informed Jewish voters believe whatever anonymous e-mailers say about Obama, including the false charge that he’s a Muslim?

The question about Obama, one that is of deep concern to anxious Democrats, is whether he is more like those nice Democrats who show up every four years to get their lunch money stolen by the Republicans or like the tougher, quicker Bill Clinton. It’s so utterly obvious that Obama has to get off the defensive and go on the attack that it makes one wonder what’s been taking so long.

The purpose of attacking is not to be negative for its own sake but to recognize that an election is a choice between two paths and two leaders, not just a referendum on whether the Democratic candidate has passed a threshold to replace a discredited administration. An aggressive campaign does not have to be angry or ugly. It can be funny. It can be positive. It just has to be clear, simple and devastating.

But an African American candidacy is different. Obama can’t easily be the racial middleman as Clinton was. And being aggressive carries its own special dynamics. It may be that the timing is different for a black candidate.

First-time black candidates often confront evidence that their attacks on white opponents generate some voter backlash. One possibility is that Obama has been waiting for McCain to show his hand and chose to absorb the first attacks, thereby making it easier for the black candidate to be aggressive. Perhaps he feels that McCain’s harshness will weaken the Republicans among his media worshippers, and some of that has happened.

It’s also possible that the Obama people are only now coming to see that they need to change their strategy. The Obama campaign may be doing what it does magnificently well grass-roots organization and avoiding what it does poorly campaign messaging. His recent burst of ads on energy is a promising beginning.

Obama has a few advantages over African American mayoral candidates. Big- city mayors can’t do much about the economy or the economic needs of working-class whites. The president can do a lot.

Obama can present a strong economic message say by borrowing Sen. Hillary Clinton’s last several months of speeches and pound it home and link President Bush and McCain in the process. He has a whole party of allies, many of whom are white, who can go on the attack for him. Surrogates are far more important for a black candidate, and they can go places and say things that he can’t. He can pick a tough vice presidential candidate.

For all their previous success, Republicans are playing a declining hand by not expanding beyond white voters. Obama’s success with Latinos so far means that the Republicans have no margin for error. Obama will win the overwhelming share of African Americans in a very high turnout.

If Republicans can’t dominate with whites, Obama wins. If Obama can stay above the race issue and win on the economy, he will prevent a wholesale white defection.

With Jewish voters, Obama has to deal with the whole baggage of the complex relationship between African Americans and Jews, a mixture of close alliance and bursts of conflict. That one is still very much a work in progress.

A presidential campaign isn’t a graduate seminar — it’s more like a street fight.

Expect one.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. Read Sonenshein’s blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign:

Small Mac attack, Wright flap, too much tolerance


The Professor Anti-Semites Love

I was shocked to learn that an article I had published in 1972 is being cited by anti-Semites to support their twisted ideas (“The Professor Anti-Semites Love,” May 9).

I wonder how many people have actually read my article. Essentially, I analyzed aptitude test data from a nationwide study of 12th-graders.

The main finding was that gender, not ethnic identification, accounted for the most of the differences in scores: boys doing better in general knowledge, math and spatial relations; girls in English and memory. On the average, Asian students (boys and girls combined) did much better than the other groups in math (although the Jewish kids were close) and English; the Jewish youngsters surpassed the others in general knowledge; the majority whites in spatial relations. However, when ethnic groups were divided by sex, differences related to ethnicity were way overshadowed by the differences between males and females.

Just because racists cite my study does not mean they are doing it correctly or honestly. It is a complex area deserving of understanding. The original tests, whose scores I analyzed, were administered way back in 1960. Let us hope that we have made progress since then helping our children learn according to their needs.

Margaret E. Backman
New York

Professor [Kevin] MacDonald’s racist rantings and xenophobia would best be addressed by a concerned coalition of Jewish, Latino, African American, Asian and other minorities in academia. Giving him a cover story in The Jewish Journal does nothing except provide a wider platform for his ridiculous ramblings.

This editorial decision makes about as much sense as The Journal’s recent publication of a thick “green” issue, thereby destroying even more trees than usual in order to decry the destruction of our environment.

Paula Van Gelder
Los Angeles

On college campuses today there is zero tolerance for anything that can be even remotely construed as derogatory toward blacks, gays, Latinos, gay Latinos or any other group you can think of — except Jews. Jews are fair game.

When it comes to slamming Jews, all of a sudden everyone is concerned about “academic freedom.” If MacDonald had published similar “academic” findings about anyone else but Jews, he would no longer be drawing a paycheck from California taxpayers.

Frederick Singer
via e-mail

Ziman and Lee

Our views regarding the fallout from the Ziman-Lee kerfuffle (“We Don’t Need More Gabfests on Diversity,” May 2) were only confirmed by the absurd comments attributed to Rabbi Marc Schneier in The Journal (“Ziman, Lee Hold Hands, Pledge Friendship,” May 9).

His version of black-Jewish history is flat out wrong: “Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have called on the leader of the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] to join me because there were no communications between African Americans and Jews.”

We aren’t sure what kind of communication devices he was using at the time, but a simple telephone would have made contact with African American leaders possible 15 years ago, 20 years ago and beyond.

As leaders of the black and Jewish communities in Los Angeles over the past 30 years, we were there at countless meetings with lots of “communication.” There were black-Jewish coalitions that involved us, The Jewish Federation, the American Jewish Committee, the SCLC, the Urban League and many others. Contacts occurred often and were substantive.

His observations aren’t any more accurate for other cities around the country, where similar coalitional efforts were undertaken, including New York.

The good rabbi ought to get his history right, especially before he starts to offer advice on a very difficult issue.

David A. Lehrer
President
Joe R. Hicks
Vice President
Community Advocates Inc.

Too Much Tolerance?

David Suissa misses the point completely (“Museum of Too Much Tolerance?” May 9).

What better way to commemorate the memory of 6 million than to celebrate the reemergence, continuity and vitality of Jewish life celebrated by weddings and bar mitzvahs. Shame on those who refuse to revel in the celebration of life.

Anybody who has been to the Museum of Tolerance recognizes that it not only commemorates the dead but celebrates the triumph of the human spirit. Should the museum succeed and celebrations be held within, the 6 million will be dancing along.

Max Gottlieb
Los Angeles

GOP Ad

The latest ad run by the Republican Jewish Coalition, featuring one of their converts, shows how flimsy the GOP knows its ideas are (Advertisement, May 9).
Why else would the nice lady spend a few sentences merely hinting at tricky issues that good people can disagree about and the rest whining about liberal self-righteousness and playing the abused underdog like one of her talk-radio heroes?

In my political life, I’ve found that everyone who cares deeply about the issues is pretty self-righteous about it. The liberals just happen to be right, in addition. You know people don’t have a leg to stand on when they make such clumsy, pandering appeals to readers of a serious publication.

David Meadow
Los Angeles

Golden Boy

Brad Greenberg’s eulogy of Art Aragon neglected the fact that since Aragon was raised in Boyle Heights, he was obviously no stranger to Jewish customs and undoubtedly had “noshed on a pastrami” at Canter Bros. on Brooklyn Avenue on occasion, and I’m surprised he wasn’t buried at Home of Peace Cemetery (“‘Golden Boy’ Keeps Faith,” May 2).

Eddie Cress
Sylmar

The Wright Flap

Kudos to Raphael J. Sonenshein for his comments on “

The Wright flap and the black candidate


Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy is providing a crash course on race in America.

Black candidates tread a different road than white candidates, especially when they are the first black candidates to seriously contend for an executive office, such as mayor, senator, governor and now president.

While there are some advantages to the black candidate, such as strong African American support and the sympathy of many white liberals, the disadvantages are also significant.

Qualities that might be appealing or at least acceptable in a white person can seem scary if the person is black. If an African American candidate had even half of John McCain’s temper, for instance, he or she would not even be competitive. Talk about an angry black man!

A white candidate who is a ladies man may be viewed as a charmingly bad boy. A black man like Harold Ford Jr. can lose a Senate race in Tennessee after a political ad shows a white woman saying, “Call me.”

The African American candidate is held responsible for the words and action of any black person with whom he or she has any contact, and sometimes even with no contact at all. When Tom Bradley ran for L.A. mayor in 1969, Sam Yorty linked this moderate city councilman and former police officer to Black Panthers who were very much in the news. As mayor, he often had to deal with Louis Farrakhan’s controversial statements about Jews and a host of other issues.

Was Bradley a secret Panther sympathizer, or was he really in the thrall of Farrakhan? For people who knew Bradley, the questions were ludicrous. But in his first race for mayor, enough voters bought the argument to re-elect the inept Yorty.

Imagine how much more damaging it is if it is the candidate’s long-time pastor and if his comments are as appalling as those of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama took a big risk by at first rejecting the message but not the man, but when Wright began his recent speaking tour highlighting his most outrageous comments, Obama went further and cut his ties to the minister. He had every obligation to do this, and voters were right to expect decisive action on his part.

In Sunday’s New York Times, though, columnist Frank Rich finally asked the obvious question: Why are we obsessed with the Rev. Wright’s relationship with Obama but glide right past the equally shocking views of John McCain’s political ally, the Rev. John Hagee? In fact, we now endlessly debate how Obama has handled the Wright, without once asking how McCain has handled Hagee. More importantly, Wright’s damaging media tour suggests he would never be a force in an Obama White House. On the other hand, Hagee’s recent low profile could allow him to have some influence in a McCain White House.

It is noteworthy that Rich has raised this issue, because most of the media coverage seems to assume that only the Wright story is worth covering. Rich concludes, “If we’re to judge black candidates on their own most controversial associates — and how quickly, sternly, and completely they disown them — we must judge white politicians by the same yardstick.”

People come up with fairly lame excuses for the disparity. One is that Hagee is “only” a political ally while Wright is Obama’s pastor. Let’s reverse the roles. Suppose Obama did not know Wright personally, but had once denounced him and others like him as “agents of intolerance,” earning acclaim for his courage. Then, when gearing up to run for president, Obama found that Wright could move thousands of like-minded followers, and therefore changed course and formed a political alliance with him and others like him. If Obama had done this, the Wright controversy would be an even bigger story than it is today, but this is exactly what McCain has done with right-wing preachers.

Because most whites do not see themselves as part of a white community, but as individuals, many are more comfortable treating white candidates as individuals. So we only ask if McCain himself believes that a proposed event by the gay community caused a divine hand to punish New Orleans by flood (a typical morsel of Hagee’s philosophy) or that the Catholic Church is “the great whore.” A mild rejection of Hagee’s views seems enough to make the issue go away.

On the other hand, almost nobody asks whether Obama actually believes the things that Wright is saying. If we did, he would probably give the same answer. McCain doesn’t think like Hagee, and Obama doesn’t think like Wright.

Jewish voters must have a feeling of deja vu. There’s some history here. In the 1960s the historic black-Jewish alliance around civil rights was sorely tried by battles over a new black militancy. Jews were deeply hurt and angered by anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel from some quarters in the black community. The best reassurance was a strong denunciation of such comments by established African American leaders such as Bradley. For African Americans, though, the path to a new self-determination at times conflicted with the need to reassure Jews.

Because the two groups had been so intertwined, African Americans and Jews had high expectations of each other, and were more deeply hurt, angered, and disappointed when the other fell short. Jews expected to be acknowledged as a major partner in the civil rights movement and in campaigns to elect African American mayors. African Americans expected to be seen as an independent, self-directed community that could choose its own way. The Wright controversy brings that history back up in a way that the Hagee phenomenon does not.

So where do we go from here? We should resolve that African American candidates get to speak for themselves in all their variety, just as white candidates do. The variety of beliefs, characters and personalities among African Americans is tremendous. Without making excuses for Rev. Wright’s incendiary remarks, we should try to find a consistency across racial lines. Candidates of all races should tell us what they really think about their associates, whether Wright or Hagee, no matter how many votes that minister can deliver, or how close one’s relationship is to him or her. We’ll be better off if all the candidates are held to the highest standards both in their own beliefs and in their choices about their associates.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. You can read his daily blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign,

Jews must never use the term ‘shvartza’


The other day I was speaking to an engaging young Chasidic student who impressed me with his erudition in Jewish and secular studies.

I was engrossed in the conversation, gaining more and more respect for him, when he suddenly said, “Where I grew up, we lived in a tough neighborhood surrounded by shvartzas.” Hearing his words broke my heart, and my impression of him plummeted.

A friend with whom I discussed the incident told me that I judged the young man too harshly, that he might have meant nothing by it, and that it was just an expression to which he had been acclimated.

He asked me that, rather than judge this student, I lend him the benefit of the doubt and attempt instead to educate him as to why the term ought never be used.

About a year ago I wrote a column about how the word “shvartza” must be retired forever. It is an insulting, offensive, and derogatory term that has no place in the mouths of people committed to ethics.

And since we Jews have a faith that demands the highest moral standards, it simply can never be part of our lexicon.

In the wake of that column, I was surprised to find that a number of people — religious and secular alike — wrote that I was exaggerating. “Shvartza,” they said, was an innocent and benign term that simply meant “black person.”

It doesn’t. It’s a pejorative, a term with a distinctly condescending connotation. While I will not go so far as to agree with my esteemed former radio co-host, Peter Noel, one of America’s leading African American journalists, that it is Yiddish for the “N” word, I will say that it has some of the same vibes.

My purpose in addressing this issue again is not to sound holier than thou or be self-righteous. Believe me, I am the worst person I know. But when I hear the term I feel pain. Pain that we Jews who have suffered so much persecution can be so callous as to speak condescendingly, however unintentionally, of other human beings. And pain that we religious Jews in particular can so betray our core values by inadvertently coming across as bigots.

I once found myself in an argument with a fellow Orthodox Jew, who lived in Brooklyn, after I had politely shared with him why the term “shvartza” is offensive: “It’s OK for you to criticize, Shmuley, because you don’t live in a neighborhood where you have to be afraid to walk the streets or where your car gets vandalized every night. We don’t mean anything bad with the term, but we are the victims here.”

But what do the sins of a few have to do with criminalizing an entire population? And isn’t this tactic of blaming an entire community not only racist, but exactly what is used today against Jews by the worst anti-Semites?

How many Jew-haters will harp on a few high-profile white-collar criminals from Wall Street or Enron who are Jewish to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes such as “scratch a Jew and find a Shylock?”

Jews are called by the Torah to be a light unto the nations, and it is religious Jews in particular, who live lives openly committed to Jewish ritual and values, upon whom this responsibility first devolves. But what light is it that we impart when we use a term of vulgarity that betrays the Torah’s most sacred value, that there is only one God in heaven who created every human being in His likeness.

And just think how people who are unfamiliar with Jews must react when they hear any of us using an unpleasant expression about a fellow human being.

Bigotry is least appealing among those whose lives should be most dedicated to its opposite. If you can love giant ducks and outsized rodents, then surely you can find a place in your heart for your human brother who goes by the title Jew.

How much more so that we Jews, a righteous and generous people, whose Torah calls us to the mighty ideal of loving our neighbor as ourselves, must never speak of another person contemptuously. How much more so that Orthodox Jews in particular, who are renowned the world over for their charity, humility, and loving-kindness must be extra vigilant never to offer even a hint of discriminatory language.

The speeches of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright have caused considerable consternation to the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama. Obama has eloquently expressed the need for America to transcend red state and blue state divisiveness and come together for shared national purpose. People expect that his pastor should be at least as loving, that men of God should be especially careful with their words.

But Wright has given speeches that have put rifts over reconciliation and generated heat rather than healing. The same is true of Louis Farrakhan, whom Wright has praised, even though he is guilty of hate speech against Jews and Judaism.

Our moral authority to condemn such insensitive and inflammatory rhetoric is dependent upon us being utterly different in thought, speech, and action.

Who better than Jews and blacks know what it is to suffer? And who better than Jews and blacks know that there can be no tolerance for intolerance? And who better than Jews and blacks must come together to battle bigotry, defeat discrimination, and generate good will among all of God’s children?

Blacks and Jews share not only a common history of oppression, but a common legacy of spiritual longing and a love for the eloquence of the Bible. Let us find words that will draw our communities together and a vocabulary that will instill a common faith and a common hope.

Ziman and Lee hold hands, pledge friendship


A highly charged controversy between two self-described “passionate” advocates, one African American, the other Jewish, appears to have ended on Thursday (May 1), with pledges of mutual friendship and future cooperation.

Following a closed-door, three hour meeting the two principals in the case, joined by national and local leaders, declared an end to a confrontation that had grown from a local incident to a widely reported national and international story, fueled by barrages of e-mails and blogs.

The initial spark was ignited April 4, when Daphna Ziman, the Israel-born wife of wealthy real estate investor Richard Ziman (she serves as his partner in numerous political and philanthropic causes), was honored by a historically-black fraternity for her work with foster children.

The keynote speaker was the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president and CEO of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Ziman alleged that during Lee’s talk he accused Hollywood Jews of exploiting black artists and perpetuating black stereotypes in films and that he rejected any future collaboration with the Jewish community.

Ziman left the dinner in tears and immediately sent e-mails to some friends and to The Journal. The reaction was more than she had expected.

“I just sent out eight e-mails,” she said, “and next morning I had millions of responses.”

The number may be slightly exaggerated, but it was obvious that her charges hit a deep nerve in some segments of the Jewish community. A declaration by Lee strongly denying the statements attributed to him did nothing to slow the story’s spread to national and international media, pundits and bloggers.

Since Ziman also made allusions in her e-mails to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and has given considerable support to rival candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, politics inevitably inflamed the incident and added to its intensity and news value.

Concerned by the growing acrimony, Esther Renzer, international president of the StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organization headquartered in Los Angeles, phoned a friend, Rabbi Marc Schneier, for help.

Schneier, a New York Orthodox rabbi, is founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which aims for better black-Jewish, and now Muslim-Jewish, understanding.

He, in turn, contacted Charles Steele Jr. of Atlanta, SCLC’s national president and CEO, and both flew to Los Angeles this week for the hoped-for reconciliation meeting.

Joining them at a roundtable in Ziman’s Beverly Hills home were Ziman, Lee and Renzer, as well as Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am; and Roz Rothstein, international director and CEO of StandWithUs.

Following their three-hour private lunch and discussion, the eight participants spent another two hours talking to three reporters.

Judging by the determinedly upbeat comments of the participants, their private deliberations had touches of a peace summit, a revival meeting and an exploration of past, present and future relations between the African American and Jewish communities.

Ziman and Lee, sitting side by side and occasionally linking hands, were a picture of amity and good will, with both crediting their reconciliation to “divine intervention.”

Ziman noted that in the past three weeks she had moved “from shedding tears to a sense of hope” and stressed that those present had a responsibility not to damage future generations through prejudice.

“I request the pledge of every religious leader in the United States that no racism be spouted in public places and places of worship,” she said.

Lee described Ziman and himself as “two passionate and well-intentioned people who both love God.”

Participants frequently invoked the name and example of Martin Luther King Jr. and noted that their meeting was taking place on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Schneier sought to put the meeting into the larger context of black-Jewish relations over the decades, from the halcyon days of the civil rights struggle, to the acrimony of the early 1990s and the Crown Heights riots, to a certain healing process in recent years.

“Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have called on the leader of the SCLC to join me because there were no communications between African Americans and Jews,” he said.

According to Schneier, enlightened black leadership “skipped one generation,” between King and the current evolving leadership, with the generation in between including such divisive figure as Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor.

Schneier expressed hope that “Obama can right Wright.”

Participants in the “peace summit” said there had been no advance assurance that a reconciliation would be achieved, but did not make clear by what process the parties had been finally brought together.

In pledging their future cooperation, Lee noted that he has invited Ziman to address his congregation, while she mentioned possible cooperative projects between a Jewish day school, such as the Milken Community High School, and a predominantly black inner city school.

Lee and Ziman, asked separately whether they regretted any of the words and actions that led to the confrontation, responded in different ways.

Lee observed that though he has held Passover seders at his congregation for the past 10 years, “I have learned a lot during the past three weeks, which have been the most difficult of my life.”

Ziman explained that she had “acted instinctively” when confronted with perceived anti-Semitic slurs, but did not regret her subsequent actions.


Bigotry is instinctive, a new scientifc study says


Will ‘Bro Mitzvah’ find roots in African American community?


Decked out in a black tuxedo, a brimmed hat set fashionably on his head, Douglas LeVandia Ulmer Jr., better known as DJ, walked down the aisle to the beat of two African drummers.

This was the night of his 16th birthday, and his mother, Lillie Hill, was celebrating his coming of age as an extraordinary black young adult with what she dubbed a “bro mitzvah.”

Hill knew that 16 marked a turning point in DJ’s life. And while she had looked into several African rites of passage, she believed the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, with its emphasis on family heritage and good deeds, gave her the best blueprint to validate her son’s dedication to family, school, community and church and to pass on her family’s values of education, worship and social outreach.

“This was a way to give him a stepping stone to build upon as he crosses into his adult life,” said Hill, who grew up as the youngest of 10 children in rural Indianola, Miss., and is a trained social worker who is currently teaching.

At the black-tie celebration, held last July at the West Palm Beach Marriott in Palm Beach, Fla., with about 45 people in attendance, DJ was embraced by his grandmother, mother and three sets of aunts and uncles from his extended family. They spoke lovingly of his hard work at Palm Beach Lakes High School, his mentoring of youngsters through the Children’s Coalition and his youth group work at SunCoast Church of Christ in Lake Worth. DJ’s father, Palm Beach County firefighter Douglas Ulmer, had died almost two years earlier.

A church elder, Lowrie Simon, presented DJ with his own Kente cloth, a colorful woven stole depicting his African and slave heritage as well as his family’s now predominant professions in education and psychology. Mayor Thomas Masters of nearby Riviera Beach gave the keynote talk, focusing on the troubled fate of many African American young men.

“It was very emotional; my family doing something so special,” DJ said.

Hill believed that she had created the bro mitzvah herself, learning only later of the Disney Channel’s 2006 episode of “That’s So Raven,” in which Corey finagles a bro mitzvah at the Chill Grill for the monetary rewards. Later in the episode, Corey reconsiders his motives, donating the gifts to charity.

And just last October, unaware of Corey’s fictional bro mitzvah and DJ’s real one, Paul Marx, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven and author of “Utopia in America” (Burke Publishing, 2002), wrote an opinion piece in the New York Jewish newsweekly, The Forward, advocating a ritual for 13-year-old black inner-city youths that could help steer them away from gang life.

Purposely refraining from calling it a black bar mitzvah, Marx suggested the ceremony be held during Kwanzaa and fall under the Kwanzaan principle of kuumba.

“Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it,” he wrote.

He envisioned a ceremony encompassing a serious initiation in which boys would cross a symbolic chalk line and take a vow committing themselves to certain ways of behaving. There would also be plentiful gift giving.

Marx didn’t receive his hoped-for response, but he said he is inclined to try again.

General guidelines for throwing a bro mitzvah are readily available on eHow.com, but most people are unaware of the ceremony, and it remains rare, at best.

And while Jews and non-Jews alike laud the bar mitzvah as a powerful ritual in which the Jewish community stops and takes stock of its youngsters at a crucial juncture in their lives, both Jewish and African American educators question whether a ritual can successfully be adapted from one religion or culture to another.

“I think it’s very tricky,” said Julie Batz, director of programs for Jewish Milestones, a nonprofit that serves as a community resource for San Francisco Bay Area Jews preparing for life-cycle rituals.

Batz believes that the essence of a bar mitzvah as a rite of passage — an exploration of identity; a connection to heritage; an intellectual, spiritual or physical challenge, and a gathering of witnesses — is transferable.

“But when you get to the specifics, when somebody’s studying Jewish texts or learning to lain [read] Torah, I think that doesn’t translate, and it’s difficult cross-culturally,” she said.

But everyone agrees that there is a definite need for a rite of passage ceremony in the African American community.

“The whole concept of black manhood has been kind of devalued. We have racism on one side and lack of self-valuation and self-affirmation on the other side,” said Yitz Jordan, otherwise known as Y-Love, the black Chasidic hip-hop artist whose debut album, “This Is Babylon,” was released March 1.

Jordan, who knew from age 7 he wanted to be Jewish and who underwent an Orthodox conversion almost 10 years ago at age 20, pointed out that becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, is actually a universal concept.

Jordan bases his statement on the Noahide Laws in Genesis, which, advocating such commandments as don’t kill and don’t steal, form the basic building blocks of morality and which are applicable to all humanity.

“According to commentaries in the Talmud, the nations of the world are commanded to do this when they’re 13, so really there is no cultural misappropriation,” he said, after checking with authorities at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Darkei Noam.

But others, such as Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, feel strongly that the ritual should come from within the African culture. “There are literally hundreds of rites of passage for young black men around the country,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange.

Karenga, whose Organization Us created Majando, a rite of passage model used by various churches and institutions across the United States, favors rituals that don’t deal with real or imagined pathology but rather address the ancient motive of transforming boys into men.

African-American pilots over Auschwitz


Last week, President Bush remarked that the United States should have bombed the Auschwitz death camp in 1944. Next week, Americans will commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for Civil Rights.

What do these two occasions have in common? More than one might think.

The link between the two is the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, the first African American pilots in the United States military. The Tuskegee veterans, who have come to symbolize the early years of the civil rights struggle, often speak at events honoring Dr. King. Again and again, these pilots were victimized by racist War Department officials who regarded them as inferior and did not want them to fly. Yet again and again they persevered, and their extraordinary achievements in battle undermined the claims of their racist opponents.

Tuskegee squadrons shot down a total of 109 German planes and repeatedly won Distinguished Unit Citations and other medals for performance in their missions over Europe. They were so admired by their fellow pilots that bomber groups often specifically requested the Tuskegee units as escorts for their bombing raids.

One of those raids took place in the skies over Auschwitz.

Which is where President Bush’s statement comes in. The president made his remark about bombing Auschwitz while visiting Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where he viewed an aerial reconnaissance photo of the death camp.

Those photos were taken by U.S. planes in the spring and summer of 1944, in preparation for bombing the area — not for bombing the gas chambers or crematoria, but rather for bombing German oil factories nearby.

On the morning of Aug. 20, 1944, a group of 127 U.S. bombers called Flying Fortresses approached Auschwitz. They were escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes. Most of the Mustangs were piloted by Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group. The attacking force dropped more than one thousand 500-pound bombs on oil targets less than five miles from the gas chambers. Despite German anti-aircraft fire and a squadron of German fighter planes, none of the Mustangs were hit and only one of the U.S. planes was shot down. All of the units reported successfully hitting their targets.

On the ground below, Jewish slave laborers, including 15 year-old Elie Wiesel, cheered the bombing. In his bestselling memoir, “Night,” Wiesel described their reaction: “We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks [the prisoners’ barracks], it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life. The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted 10 times 10 hours!”

But it did not. Even though there were additional U.S. bombing raids on German industrial sites in that region in the weeks and months to follow, the gas chambers and crematoria were never targeted.

The Roosevelt administration knew about the mass murder going on in Auschwitz, and even possessed diagrams of the camp that were prepared by two escapees. But when Jewish organizations asked the Roosevelt administration to order the bombing of the camp and the railways leading to it, the requests were rejected. U.S. officials claimed such raids were “impracticable” because they would require “considerable diversion” of planes needed for the war effort.

But the Tuskegee veterans know that claim was false. They were right there in the skies above Auschwitz. No “diversion” was necessary to drop a few bombs on the mass-murder machinery or the railways leading into the camp. Sadly, those orders were never given.

The decision to refrain from bombing Auschwitz was part of a broader policy by the Roosevelt administration to refrain from taking action to rescue Jews from the Nazis or provide havens for them. The U.S. did not want to deal with the burden of caring for large numbers of refugees. And its ally, Great Britain, would not open the doors to Palestine to the Jews, for fear of angering Arab opinion. The result was that the Allies failed to confront one of history’s most compelling moral challenges.

The refusal to bomb Auschwitz remains the most powerful symbol of that failure. As President Bush said at Yad Vashem, Auschwitz should have been bombed. And the Tuskegee Airmen are eyewitnesses to the fact that it could have been.

Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

‘Purple’ actress cherishes her own colorful history


It’s not unusual for an actress to assume a professional name, but it was quite a stretch for the daughter of Haya Kapelovitch and granddaughter of Sofia Katz to become Stephanie St. James and star in the African American cast of “The Color Purple.”

St. James has the role of Squeak, an aspiring singer of mixed race, in the musical about racism and womanly fortitude in the South, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008.

Taking a break from her eight-show-a-week schedule, St. James spoke with deep affection about her grandmother, Sofia Katz, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

Katz was a small child when the Nazis swept into her village of Budslav and killed her parents and siblings, along with most of the 175 resident Jewish families.

St. James isn’t sure how her grandmother survived.

“She never liked to talk about it,” the actress said.

At age 12, Katz resettled in Israel, worked at the Kfar Harif moshav, married and had a daughter named Haya, who grew up and enrolled at the Hebrew University.

“One day, while standing in the cafeteria line, she met a South American student from Guyana. His name was James Smith, they married, and had a son, my brother Nicholas, who was born in Jerusalem,” St. James said.

In 1972, the Smiths moved to Miami, where St. James was born in 1974. Being raised in a mixed-race family in the South had its problems, but three years later the family moved to the more liberal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My parents spoke Hebrew at home, and until I was 6 or 7, I spoke it quite fluently, but then I lost it,” St. James recalled. “I can still understand quite a bit, but I don’t speak it.”

Her father was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, but there is no doubt about her own identity.

“I am Jewish,” she said, and hopes one day to fulfill her grandmother’s dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy.

Her closest family relationship was with her grandmother, who died two months ago.

“My grandmother was a truly strong woman, who spoke six languages and went to junior college to learn English,” St. James said. “She wasn’t happy when her daughter married a non-Jew, but she loved us grandchildren and she lived for us. We talked to each other every day.”

In 1996, St. James visited Israel, where she has many cousins and friends.

Her mother recognized Stephanie’s talents early on and enrolled her in dancing, singing and acting classes. St. James applies her talents as a recording artist, spanning the genres of soul, rock and pop, and has performed in New York and with the European tour companies of “Grease,” “Fame” and “Footloose,” as well as in films.

When not touring, St. James lives in North Hollywood.

“The Color Purple” is presented by Oprah Winfrey and is headlined by the musical’s Broadway stars Jeannette Bayardelle, Felicia P. Fields, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny’s Child.

For tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Stephanie St. James

Theater: De-fusing ‘Random Sharp Objects’


In the semi-autobiographical play “Random Sharp Objects,” two Jewish women engage in a kind of impromptu psychoanalysis session. Hali (Hali Morell) describes growing up with a hippie-therapist Dad who talked too frankly about sex. As an adult, she says, she was drawn to a series of disturbed men she hoped she could “save,” including homeless men and a skinhead who taped quarters to her floor.

Esther (Esther Friedman), who is half black and half Jewish, recounts how her mother once beat her for playing house with an African American classmate and advised her to spurn black men because they “only want to get into your pants.” Esther felt frightened by black men who called out to her in the street: “I built a white picket fence around myself,” she says in the play. “I’ll be walking to my car, and they yell out at me. And I’ll flash back my ‘look.’ It’s called, ‘Back the f— up. Don’t come any closer. Don’t even ask me my name because I will cut your b– — off.”

“Objects” began four years ago when Friedman, who is in her 30s, wrote a solo show to explore why she wouldn’t even speak to black men, much less date them. When she brought her work-in-progress to director Frank Megna at the Working Stage Theater, he suggested she develop extra scenes with Morell.

“I thought both women had a similar dynamic about how their pasts had influenced their relationships,” he says.

The artists talked frankly about themselves as they improvised parts of the show. Morell — now happily married — remembered how she’d seek out “the troubled guys and try to be that ‘special’ person who could make them come around.” Although she never dated a homeless man, she was drawn to “bums who looked kind of attractive, like they could have been from the 1960s. I found myself wondering, ‘How did they get there,’ and I’d want to get to know that person.”

Friedman described how confused she felt about her diverse identities. On the one hand, her grandmother encouraged her to “pass” as white; on the other, she was perceived as black (and thus, alien) at Hebrew school. Her mother forced her to attend, stating that “Jesus was Jewish, and so are you.”

“All the kids and their moms would stare at us when we arrived,” Esther says in the play. “I asked, ‘Mommy, why are they looking at us like that?’…. The kids made fun of me and said I wasn’t a real Jew.”

The play has proved cathartic for both actresses. “I kept many of these stories secret for years, because they were so painful,” Friedman says. “But keeping secrets can kill your spirit.”

“Random Sharp Objects” runs through Oct. 20 at the Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 851-2603.

A One-Woman Picket Line


The photo shows an African American woman on the picket linewith striking supermarket workers, a portable microphone in one hand and theother holding a placard proclaiming in large letters, “Jewish Labor Committee.”

The woman is Cookie Lommel, and she is the new executivedirector of the Jewish Labor Committee’s (JLC) Western region.

These days, Lommel can be found weekly picketing thePavilions market in Sherman Oaks, bringing along doughnuts for the strikers.

When Lommel applied for the job, she brought along twoenthusiastic letters of reference. One was from the chairman of the board ofThe Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the other from the consul generalof Israel. The references were hardly needed.

“Cookie was head and shoulders above every other applicant,”said Michael Nye, JLC president.

The JLC describes itself as “the voice of the Jewishcommunity in the labor movement and the voice of the labor movement in theJewish community” — and neither role is becoming any easier.

The U.S. labor movement has traditionally been among Israel’sstrongest allies and remains so, but during the past year, anti-Israel andpro-Palestinian voices have become louder. At last year’s California AFL-CIOconvention, a resolution was introduced and passed in committee to condemn Israelfor its — purely fictitious — bombing of the Palestinian trade unionheadquarters.

Nye, a delegate as secretary-treasurer of the CaliforniaFederation of Teachers, went into action, phoned his contacts on theresolutions committee, made sure they showed up and had the resolutionrescinded.

Within the Jewish community, with its large and vocalorganizations, sizable staffs and a core of well-heeled supporters, JLC doesnot rank as a power player. Lommel runs what is essentially a one-person officeon an annual budget of $70,000 –  $30,000 of which comes from The JewishFederation and the rest through an annual fundraising event and membershipdues.

Veteran labor lawyer Jack Levine believes that the communityis moving to the right politically and identify less and less with the goals ofthe labor movement.

The JLC’s California membership is only around 400, but “itspower has never been defined by numbers, but by its network of influentialpeople, particularly in the American, European and Israeli labor movements,”said Kenneth Burt, a Sacramento-based union official, who is writing a book onthe Jewish labor movement in California.

Both the national JLC office in New York and the Los Angelesbranch were established in 1934 to alert the United States to the rising dangerof Nazism and fascism and to rescue European labor leaders and intellectuals,both before and during World War II. On the West Coast, Max Mont was the JLCexecutive director for approximately 40 years, until his death in 1991, and “hewas the heart and soul of every piece of progressive legislation during thatperiod,” Levine said.

Lommel represents a third generation of leadership. She wasborn in Cleveland of African American and Native American ancestry and may evenhave some Jewish connections .

However, her interest in Israel was awakened in early 1991,when she learned about Operation Solomon, the final, massive airlift ofEthiopian Jews to the Jewish State. She went to Israel to see for herself andwrote articles about the newcomers for black publications, but she wanted to domore.

In 1993, she organized Operation Unity to bring black andLatino high school students from the inner city to Israel and expose them tokibbutz life. Enlisting the help of her many contacts in the entertainmentindustry, as well as  politicians, educators and religious leaders, shereceived enough financing to take four groups, each composed of 15 youngsters,to Israel.

“Most of them knew nothing about Jews, except some negativestereotypes,” she said. “After the trip, an African American boy, and that wasfairly typical, said to me, ‘On the kibbutz, they accepted me as me, not assomeone who might snatch their purse.'”

Since returning, Lommel and her Young Ambassadors of Harmonyhave spoken regularly in public schools and churches and in connection with aphoto exhibit about their experiences.

In her new role as JLC executive director, Lommel’s mainpriority is to enlist younger members in her organization, especially among thethousands of Jewish union members working as teachers, social workers andengineers, in addition to those on newspapers and in public service and in theentertainment industry.

She has also become one of the most effective pro-Israel speakersin California, talking about her experiences before multiracial audiences atuniversities and telling them, “I have never been accepted in America as I wasin Israel.”  

Open Debate Preferable to Blind Support


A recent report in The New York Times captured almost perfectly the thorny questions that stand at the center of relations between the American Jewish community and Israel. Should one be permitted to criticize the government of a foreign country with which one feels a deep affinity, or is it a moral and political imperative to support the policies of that government, right or wrong?

What was so striking about The Times article was that it raised these questions not about the American Jewish community and Israel, but rather about the African American community and Zimbabwe.

The parallels between the two cases couldn’t be more intriguing. Just as a number of American Jews, usually of the progressive persuasion, have asserted their right and responsibility to criticize Israeli government policy, so, too, a group of African American intellectuals and activists recently abandoned their posture of strong support and advocacy for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by issuing a stinging condemnation of his policies, including appropriation of white-owned farmland.

In a letter of June 3, 2003, they recalled their “strong historical ties to the liberation movements in Zimbabwe, which included material and political support, as well as opposition to U.S. government policies that supported white minority rule.” But they quickly moved on to denounce “the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle.”

This public letter provoked a torrent of responses from African Americans, many of whom were critical of the signatories. According to The Times account, the letter writers have been cast as “politically naive, sellouts and misguided betrayers of liberation struggle.”

Among the more serious critics, professor Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland justified his opposition to the letter by stating that “I am on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land. You can’t escape the racial dynamic, and you can’t escape the political history.”

Another critic, Mark Fancher, questioned the legitimacy of the letter writers. “This is an African problem, a Zimbabwean problem” — beyond the ken of “people who are really disconnected from the day-to-day lives of people in Zimbabwe.”

It is hard not to hear in those words echoes of a refrain frequently uttered in the American Jewish community — the gist of which is that it is the responsibility of American Jews to express enthusiastic and unequivocal support for the government of Israel.

The underlying logic is that American Jews are themselves “disconnected from the day-to-day lives” of Israelis. It is not they who fight the wars or suffer from the scourge of terrorism; consequently, they have no standing to criticize. Indeed, to express criticism of Israeli policies is to abet the enemy — and thereby come dangerously close to treason.

I am familiar with these arguments, because I have often been on the wrong end of them. Those of us American Jews who have felt compelled to condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as immoral, self-destructive and a violation of Israel’s own best ideals have often faced the wrath of fellow community members. How could a Jew attack Israel in a time of need? Hadn’t the Palestinians surrendered any right to a state? Weren’t they better off now than before 1967?

A similar set of justifications now issues from the mouths of the opponents of Mugabe’s African American critics. How can one attack an African leader, a heroic figure, in time of need? After all, as Fancher asserts, “The one thing nobody disputes is that, whether he won or not, Mugabe got a lot of votes.” Such statements reveal the absurdity — and moral bankruptcy — of blind support.

Curiously, the tables have turned in the case of American Jews and Israel. Not too long ago, it was taboo to criticize Israel’s occupation. Israel’s government had to be supported, regardless of its policies.

But will the same people who insisted on these principles now be able to reverse course? After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a speech to his own party, used the “O” word — occupation — to refer to Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza. All of the extraordinary Israeli and Jewish public relations efforts that went into claiming that the territories were “administered” rather than “occupied” went out the door after that speech.

Even more significantly, Sharon has adopted the “road map” for peace. The logic of blind support would dictate that American Jews line up in warm embrace of this Israeli government policy.

It is tempting to argue that those who demanded in an earlier period that American Jewish progressives hold their criticism do the same as Israel enters a new and more promising phase, even if they have reservations about the road map. Tempting perhaps, but not beneficial in the long run.

The recent case of African Americans and Zimbabwe reveals that the stifling of dissent not only reinforces a dangerous status quo but replicates the very policies of repression that one might want to criticize. Open debate, with all its messiness, is preferable to blind support.

This is an important principle to keep in mind — now and in the future — as Jews and African Americans debate the policies of, and demonstrate their bonds to, the countries of their dreams.


David N. Myers is professor of Jewish history and vice chair of the history department at UCLA.