ANALYSIS: Obama worked hard to gain Jewish trust

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (JTA)—A major Republican tack against Barack Obama has a simple theme: By his friends you shall know him.

For the McCain campaign, in recent weeks this has meant repeatedly linking the Democratic presidential nominee to William Ayers, the former member of the Weather Underground. But Jewish Republicans had been employing the strategy for many months in the run-up to the Nov. 4 vote, with the goal of portraying Obama as soft and unreliable in his support for Israel.

Jewish GOPers point to Obama’s 20-year membership in the church of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his associations—however limited—with Palestinian activists and his consultations with some foreign policy experts seen as critical of either Israel or the pro-Israel lobby.

To buttress this line of attack, they stress Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iranian leaders. Hovering in the background—and at times right up in the voters’ faces—have been Internet campaigns and outright pronouncements by some conservative pundits depicting Obama as an Arab or a practicing Muslim.

Obama has responded by explaining how he has dropped troubling relationships, touting his ties to some Jewish communal leaders in Chicago and pro-Israel lights, casting himself as a lifelong supporter of Israel and presenting himself as a leader who would work to revitalize black-Jewish relations.

He has insisted repeatedly that Israel’s security is “sacrosanct,” cited his defense of Israel’s military tactics during the 2006 war in Lebanon and pressed for tighter U.S. sanctions against Iran as part of his pledge to do everything in his power to block Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. senator from Illinois has spoken thoughtfully about Jewish holidays and religious traditions, as well as the early influence of Jewish and Zionist writers on his worldview. And last Martin Luther King Day, Obama used the pulpit of the slain civil rights leader to condemn anti-Semitism in the black community.

“I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time,” Obama told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year, noting “theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris.”

“So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”

Such policy and ideological pronouncements were enough to secure support during the Democratic primaries from a few pro-Israel stalwarts in the U.S. Congress (most notably Robert Wexler of Florida) and the media (New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz). And even the recently defunct New York Sun—a neoconservative newspaper that had plenty of problems with Obama’s domestic and foreign policies—felt inspired to publish an editorial in his defense on the general question of support for Israel.

“We’re no shills for Mr. Obama, but these Republicans haven’t checked their facts,” the newspaper declared in the January 9, 2008 editorial. “At least by our lights, Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America.”

Still, despite such sentiments and Obama’s feverish efforts to allay Jewish concerns, polls showed him having trouble with Jewish voters—first during the primary season, when he reportedly trailed his main party rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and then throughout much of the general election race when surveys showed him failing to match the totals of previous Democratic nominees.

In recent weeks, however, as the Republican ticket has had to cope with the nation’s economic collapse and the declining popularity of vice-presidential choice Sarah Palin, Obama has been able to flood swing states with waves of newfound Jewish surrogates who were either neutral or with Clinton during the primaries but are now speaking out for him.

Their effectiveness was in evidence last week in a Gallup Poll that showed Obama breaking through a plateau that had dogged him for months: The Democratic candidate garnered 74 percent Jewish support, matching past Democratic candidates and bypassing the persistent 60 percent showing since the primaries.

The trend toward Obama was tangible earlier this month at the B’nai Israel synagogue in Rockville, Md., where the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Noah Silverman made the case for GOP nominee John McCain in a debate with Michael Levy of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Unlike the false depictions of Obama as a radical Muslim that have spread through the Internet, Republican Party reminders of Obama’s past associations with alleged radicals “are not smears,” Silverman said.

The packed hall burst into sustained laughter. Such derision, however, has not inhibited the guilt-by-association attacks. John Lehman, a Reagan administration Navy secretary, at this city’s Jewish community center last week cited the usual litany. He even tossed in Wright, though McCain has banned the use of the pastor’s liberation theology as a cudgel.

“You’re known by the company you keep,” Lehman said several times.

He later defended his mention of Wright, who once described Israel as a colonial power and used the phrase “goddamn America” in a sermon about the continued struggle facing blacks.

“It’s an important issue,” Lehman told JTA. “I don’t see how someone could sit in a pew for 20 years and listen to that crap.”

The Youngstown audience wasn’t interested—it peppered Lehman and the Obama surrogate with questions about policy.

That doesn’t mean that some of the attacks are not substantive. In an interview with JTA during the primaries, Obama failed to say how he could not have been aware of Wright’s radical views on Israel over a 20-year relationship with his church.

“It doesn’t excuse the statements that were made, it’s just simply to indicate it’s not as if there was a statement like this coming up every Sunday when I was at church,” Obama said at the time, evading the question, which was how Obama responded to Wright’s radicalism on those occasions, however infrequently he may have encountered it.

A few weeks later, Wright’s public appearances grew intolerable, and the Obamas left the church and cut off the pastor.

On other fronts, Obama has been less decisive in walking back from what many Jewish and pro-Israel activists—including his own supporters—see as obvious blunders.

Obama still won’t acknowledge that his “I would” reply to a debate question in 2007 about whether he would meet unconditionally with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant just that. And his clear declaration of support for Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital at the AIPAC policy conference in May was followed up by poorly conceived clarifications to the Palestinians, then to the pro-Israel community, then to anyone who was still bothering to ask.

The most effective Republican tack has been his status as a blank slate: Obama is 47 and has barely four years of experience on the national stage.

What has smoothed these concerns has been a strategy of systematically cultivating the Jewish community since his first run for state Senate in 1996. His closeness to scions of Chicago’s most influential Jewish families—including the Pritzkers and the Crowns—propelled a state-by-state outreach that strategically targeted similar dynasties.

For instance, the campaign’s Jewish outreach director in Ohio, Matt Ratner, came on board after a meeting between the candidate and his father, Ron, a leading Cleveland developer. The campaign has set up Jewish leadership councils in major communities and hired Jewish outreach directors in at least six swing states.

Obama used the same strategic outreach in building his policy apparatus. The foreign policy team making the case for an Obama administration that engages in intense Middle East diplomacy features several accomplished Jewish members.

In addition to Wexler, Obama’s circle of advisers on Israel and Iran policy includes familiar veterans of the Clinton administration such as Dennis Ross, once America’s top Middle East negotiator; Dan Shapiro, a lobbyist who once headed the legislative team for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.); and Mara Rudman, a former national security councilor.

Obama reached out to Wexler, a make-or-break figure among Florida’s Jews, before announcing for president, and since 2005 has been consulting with Ross—the most reputable name among Jews in Middle East peacemaking.

“His vision of direct American engagement” with leaders in Tehran “for the purpose of stopping Iran’s nuclear program was so compelling I wanted to be a part of it,” Wexler told JTA.

“Direct American engagement” with Iran was once inconceivable as a pro-Israel position. Due in part to a concerted effort by Obama and his Jewish friends, however, it has gone mainstream, most recently in a bill co-authored by the Democratic nominee that promoted tightened anti-Iran sanctions as well as the utility of engagement. The bill, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives but was killed by Senate Republicans without explanation.

The bill is just one example of how Obama has offered detailed policy proposals that have meshed his emphasis on diplomacy with some of the hallmarks of Israeli and pro-Israeli strategies, especially when it comes to Iran. By the time Obama or his surrogates have rattled off a detailed sanctions plan that includes targeting refined petroleum exporters to Iran, the insurance industry and Iranian banks, listeners at some forums almost appear to have forgotten about Obama’s one-time pledge to meet with Ahmadinejad. It doesn’t hurt that the McCain campaign is short on such specifics.

In a trip to Israel over the summer, Obama impressed his interlocutors by internalizing their concerns over Iran and immediately integrating them into his own vision for the region, Ross said in an interview.

“He told the Israelis during the trip that ‘Iran with nuclear weapons was not only an existential threat to Israel, and I view it that way, but I also would view it as transforming the Middle East into a nuclear region, undermining everything I’d hope to accomplish,’ ” said Ross, who accompanied Obama on the trip.

None of this guarantees a smooth pro-Israel presidency. During the primaries, Obama cautioned Cleveland Jewish leaders that to be “pro-Israel” does not mean being “pro-Likud,” an encomium that could haunt the U.S.-Israel relationship if Obama is elected and the Likud Party—as projected—returns to power in case of early elections in Israel. Still, Obama supporters credit a meeting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for some of the nominee’s initiatives dealing with the Islamic Republic.

But it is the overemphasis on Obama’s Middle East views and associations—real or imagined—that might prove the critical weakness in Republican efforts to cut down Obama’s support among Jews. It’s not just that it’s true now, as it has been in past campaigns, that Jews are not single-issue voters. It is also that Obama has uncovered an exquisite Jewish spin to his broader appeal to generous notions of America’s liberal past.

In making the case that Obama is an unreliable flip-flopper, Republicans note that one of the biggest applause lines in his AIPAC speech was his Jerusalem pledge. But they don’t mention that the biggest applause line had nothing to do with Israel—especially extraordinary considering the foreign-policy-first crowd.

“In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder,” Obama said in his conclusion. “They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man—James Chaney—on behalf of freedom and equality. Their legacy is our inheritance.”

In Washington’s culture of sarcastic bon mots, surely there lurks a line about what it takes to make an AIPAC activist cry. Judging by some of the faces in the crowd that day in May, Obama found the soft spot.

VIDEO: Blacks and Jews are back together and working side by side for an Obama victory

JTA’s Eric Fingerhut and Ron Kampeas on Thursday’s events at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.  With a focus on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, they explore a new emphasis on rebuilding the Civil Rights-era alliance of Jews and Blacks.  Included—Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis.

Don’t Let Affirmative Action Fade

Louisville, Ky., is a city divided between white and black, rich and poor; between the West End of town, where blacks live in camelback shotgun shacks and the East
End, with its leafy neighborhoods of white gentility.

But after decades of court-ordered school integration, Louisville’s Jefferson County Board of Education has one of the most successful voluntary desegregation programs in the country. Schoolchildren take the bus from one end of the city to the other to maintain a broad racial balance, attending schools in both the inner city (black) and the outer suburbs (white).

Two years ago, Crystal D. Meredith, a white mother, sued the school board after her son was refused admittance to his neighborhood school because of his race. The board argued in court that his attendance would have tipped the school’s racial balance, and won. But after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower courts decision in favor of the board, Meredith’s lawyer, Teddy B. Gordon, a self-made civil rights attorney and a Jewish liberal, believed the new conservative Supreme Court would hear the case, and he was right: After prolonged review, the case is on the Supreme Court docket for December.

The Louisville case may seem far away and far removed, but the outcome will impact hundreds of public school districts in the country if it turns back the clock on voluntary desegregation programs.

For instance, as part of a court-ordered voluntary desegregation plan in 1981, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) created its popular magnet programs, using race as one of the determining factors for school assignments. In a city rife with racial tensions, the LAUSD’s aim was for a more diverse student body.

If the Louisville school board fails to win its argument before the Supreme Court, these popular LAUSD programs will be in jeopardy. Magnet assignments, based on points that use race to achieve ethnic balance, would be invalidated by this ruling. Permits With Transportation (PWT), another LAUSD program, which buses minority students, whose resident schools are highly segregated, to more integrated schools outside their neighborhoods, would probably cease to exist.

Why is the Louisville case so important? Why should we, as Jews, care about its outcome, especially if our children may not even attend public schools? Is affirmative action even relevant in 2006, in our schools, in our world? What are the benefits of diversity in education anyway?

To answer these questions, one first needs to look at the repercussions of the decision by the Supreme Court in Dowell v. Oklahoma City in 1991 that ordered a return to neighborhood schools and an end to court-ordered desegregation, replaced by voluntary desegregation plans — such as the one Louisville developed.

For many in fiercely segregated and poor areas, the return to neighborhood schools meant a return to the segregated classrooms of the past. According to Jonathan Kozol in “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” (Crown, 2005), inner-city schools are now experiencing levels of segregation that haven’t been seen since 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unlawful.

A look at the 2005-2006 statistics from a few of LAUSD’s urban schools tell the story: Jefferson Continuing High School: 91 percent Latino, 9 percent black, no white students; Fremont High School, 91 percent Latino, 9 percent black, one white student; Locke High School; 65 percent Latino, 35 percent black, .1 percent white; King/Drew Magnet: 67 percent black, 31 percent Latino, .5 percent white; Crenshaw High School: 65 percent black, 35 percent Latino, .1 percent white; Garfield High School: 99 percent Latino, .2 percent black, .2 percent white.

If one looks, it’s not too hard to see the connection between the resegregation of our urban classrooms to the numbers of minorities admitted to our public colleges. Prop 209, the California voter-initiative passed in 1996, that banned consideration of race and gender in admissions to public colleges and hiring, has only added to the problem.

In June, the Los Angeles Times reported a “startling statistic” — that out of 4,800 incoming freshman at UCLA, only 96 were African American, the lowest level of black student enrollment in three decades. Students, professors and administrators mutually blame the school’s admission process and the passage of Prop 209 for the falling numbers of black students — a number that has been slipping for a decade.

If prospective black students were to visit the Westwood campus today expecting to see a reflection of its big-city surroundings, they would be sorely disappointed. The same goes for other UC campuses: UC San Diego counts 52 incoming African Americans this fall; UC Berkeley, 140; UC Merced, 33.

How does a return to segregated LAUSD classrooms and the end of affirmative action at the UC schools reflect upon Jewish concerns? Do we read these statistics and shrug our shoulders? Do we accept a de facto, “separate but equal,” for blacks and Latinos in our public schools and colleges?

Jews have always invested themselves in the fight for fairness and equality in the realm of public school education. After World War II, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith waged campaigns against discrimination in schools and the workplace.

In the late 1940s, Jewish activist Esther Swirk Brown initiated the case that eventually landed in the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

That 1954 landmark ruling declared that “separate but equal” has no place in the field of public school education, and is “inherently unequal.”

In 2003, the Supreme Court returned to Brown v. Board of Education when it upheld affirmative action in higher education at the University of Michigan’s law school. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reflected upon the enduring impact of Brown in America, and expressed the hope that improvements in lower levels of education would make such policies unnecessary in 25 years. Speaking for the majority opinion, she wrote:

“This court has recognized that education … is the very foundation of good citizenship. (Brown v. Board of Education). Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized…. The skills needed in today’s increasingly global market place can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.”

For all these reasons — good citizenship, an appreciation of different cultural values, preparation for the future — our children benefit most when they participate in a diverse society. As fully functioning citizens they must learn to sit down and talk to others to appreciate cultural differences.

Without exposure to different viewpoints, races and values, our children will be stuck with their heads in the sand, with impenetrable dunes forming on their backs. A diverse student body is necessary in assuring that all children have equal opportunities, which should be as important to Jews as to any other minority.

In December, the Supreme Court will decide if the same principles for higher education apply to public schools.

Does “race” still matter?

Although Louisville’s desegregation plan may be flawed, as attorney Gordon will try to argue, an end of affirmative action and a return to segregated schools, as we are witnessing in the LAUSD and on the UC campuses, doesn’t bode well for anyone. Affirmative action is not only for the benefit of minorities, but for the benefit of all our children as well.

Charlotte Hildebrand is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

We Need Blacks’ Aid in Anti-Semitism Fight

The Jewish people are under attack. Horrific expressions of anti-Semitism are spreading across the United States and the world. These attacks, both verbal and physical, are occurring at all levels of society, from the highest ranks of government to individuals on the street.

This month, as we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we ask blacks to embrace his legacy and to join Jews in defeating the injustice of anti-Semitism. Even as King struggled to achieve equality for black Americans, he did not hesitate to express total disdain for anti-Semitism, especially when it reared its ugly face in his own community.

King championed the civil rights of Jews, spoke out for the human rights of Soviet Jews and reminded the world of those Jews who endured beatings and humiliation and gave their lives for the civil rights movement.

The Jewish community cannot alone fight the battle against anti-Semitism. Blacks and Jews have a long shared history of working together to effect social change, as when Jews stood by their African American brothers and sisters in the civil rights era.

"In the struggle for human rights, as well as in the struggle for the upward march of our civilization, we have deep need for the partnership, fellowship and courage of our Jewish brother," King said.

Now the Jewish community needs the partnership, fellowship and courage of black Americans. The civil rights of Jews are now at stake.

A recent national poll by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding found that 77 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Jews agree that they should work together on civil rights. Anti-Semitic incidents are up dramatically in the United States, including a 24 percent increase on college campuses in 2002.

In England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Turkey and other countries throughout Asia and Europe, synagogues are bombed, Jewish schools are torched and members of the Jewish community are forced to hide their yarmulkes and Star of David pendants.

Were King alive today, he would speak out vociferously against this new wave of anti-Semitism. He also would not tolerate the moral laryngitis that many political leaders seem to suffer in the face of these despicable acts against the Jewish people.

King invoked the immortal words that "a people who fight for their own rights only are as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people." He acknowledged the interdependence of our two communities — black and Jewish.

"Every Negro leader is keenly aware, from direct and personal experience, that the segregationists and racists make no fine distinctions between the Negro and the Jew," King said. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

In this spirit, we appeal to black Americans to stand in solidarity with their Jewish brothers and sisters, who face the scourge and evils of anti-Semitism.

Courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding; Russell Simmons is the group’s chairman.

Take It to the Church

The church is not a place that one typically associates with Chanukah. But that will change on Dec. 6 when members of Los Angeles’ Jewish and African American communities come together at the West Angeles Cathedral. The Crenshaw District institution — with a new $60 million cathedral that makes it one of the largest African American churches in the western United States — will play host to a joint Chanukah service that will be led by the cathedral’s Bishop Charles Blake and Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts.

For Blake, the match is a natural one.

"It is a statement of our common humanity and our brotherhood," Blake said. "There has been a historic relationship between blacks and Jews because both races have been historically excluded, discriminated against and persecuted. By celebrating their heritage, in a sense we celebrate our own biblical heritage."

For five years, the 40-member West Angeles Gospel Choir has performed at the temple’s annual "Shared Heritage of Freedom" service. However, this is the first time such an evening will be staged in a cathedral. The final day of Chanukah celebration will include performances by the West Angeles Church of God in Christ Gospel Choir and the Beverly Hills High School choral group, led by Joel Pressman. Singer Nell Carter, star of the popular ’80s sitcom, "Gimme a Break!" will sing "Rock of Ages."

The idea of bringing both communities together is not new for Baron, who started organizing such cultural crossovers 20 years ago, when he and then-Cantor Judy Fox joined H.B. Barnum, composer of "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," for a program at Westwood’s Wadsworth Theatre. Over the years, relations among various Los Angeles communities have hit some highs and lows, with economic strife and municipal politics often occurring along racial lines.

"While those differences exist, I haven’t sensed any negativity or hostility or pulling away," Baron said. "It’s always been very positive."

Blake is looking forward to the Chanukah program.

"I’m quite excited about it," he said. "We get so bogged down in our own community that we sometimes do not take time to get involved with others. But we are just one community. If we fail to recognize other communities, communication will break down and misunderstandings will occur. I know that it’s going to be the most unusual eighth night of Chanukah I’ve ever seen."

The Chanukah service will take place at 8 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the West Angeles Cathedral, 3045 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles. Parking is available on site. For more information, call (310) 444-7500.

Complicated Branches

"The Syringa Tree," which won the 2001 Obie Award for best play and premieres in Los Angeles this week, might be the first theatrical work to deal with the complicated and ambiguous relations between Jews and blacks in South Africa. A solo performance written and acted by Pamela Gien, it is a partly fictionalized — though mostly factual — account of a half-Jewish, half-English child in Johannesburg during apartheid. Created by Gien in a Santa Monica acting class in 1996, the play was inspired by the brutal murder of Gien’s grandfather when she was a child.

Using little in the way of stage effects outside of a swing and a cyclorama (a two-layered semicircular backdrop), Gien creates an uncommonly moving, even wrenching, study of race relations as seen through the eyes of a little girl, Elizabeth, aka Lizzy. I was reminded of James Agee’s tone-poem "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," where the daily events of adults are experienced through the imagination, and expressed through the luminous images, of a child.

Yet "The Syringa Tree" — Gien’s debut writing effort — is about a lot more than the nostalgia of a lazy day in Tennessee. It is concerned with the suffering of black people under apartheid and the various ways whites dealt with their responsibility for it.

In a speech given to the Harvard Jewish faculty by my wife, Doreen Beinart, a Jewish South African, she noted that while organized Jewry (including the Jewish Board of Deputies and most Orthodox rabbis) did not protest apartheid for fear of being subjected to Afrikaner bigotry, individual Jews — such as Joe Slovo, chief of staff of the military wing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress — were often among the most active white people fighting racism.

That divided attitude permeates Gien’s play. From the moment the black maid, Sellamina, refers to her little charge as "my pickaninny missus," we are in a nest of nurturing warmth and color-blind affection built on a foundation of hierarchy and subjugation — somewhat like that of the antebellum American South.

In order to depict such a world, Gien has single-handedly created a theatrical album of 24 characters. She was once an actress in my company, the American Repertory Theatre, but nothing in her previous work prepared me for what she is delivering here — a series of character transformations so instantaneous and intense that the stage seems peopled with multitudes.

Still, it is not just the technical achievement that startles one into attention. It is the way she manages to delineate, physically and vocally, a whole world of whites, blacks, Jews and Afrikaners — a world of divided identities where the very fact that a black baby (Sellamina’s daughter, Moliseng) has been born without "papers" can destroy her and uproot everyone around her.

Gien has perfect pitch in the way she depicts characters, such as the harassed father dispensing precious medicines; the slightly hysterical, vaguely depressed mother; the rigid Afrikaner farmers praying for rain, and particularly the stoical Faulknerian maid and her own child whom Lizzy’s parents help to birth.

Lizzy’s Jewish father is a doctor and her English mother manages the black staff with sympathy, yet both mother and father are regarded as outlanders, by blacks and whites alike.

When Sellamina takes Moliseng to her family in Soweto, the little girl gets sick and is lost in a hospital where people are dying of dehydration. In her terror and grief, Sellamina rocks under the syringa tree, mindless of the berries falling on her body. Lizzy’s parents help to find the little girl and return her safely to her mother.

It is that sort of thing that leads the hard-nosed Afrikaner farmers to believe that the Jews and English are making trouble with the blacks who will come and kill them in their beds.

Sadly, the Afrikaner prophecy comes true. Lizzy’s father discovers that his wife’s parents have been murdered on their Natal farm in the course of a petty theft. Sellamina is so ashamed of the violence that she can no longer look the family in the eye, and soon she leaves. Not long thereafter, the terrible events of Soweto erupt.

Eventually, the grown-up Elizabeth departs for America, vowing never to come back because "we don’t change things." Nonetheless, she returns to Johannesburg after the fall of apartheid, is reunited with Sellamina and finds her past again. This reunion constitutes a poem of inconsolable loss and nostalgia ("Oh God, how I miss it!") that leaves the audience grieving as much as the central character for the beloved country. At the end of the play, she is back where she began, on a swing, ecstatic with a vision of lost paradise.

The performance is impeccable. Gien has a meticulous eye for detail and the capacity to render each moment with truth and illumination. Don’t miss this transcendent dramatic experience.

A Non-Optional Holiday

Back in 1990, while working as an assistant at a film production company, my daily mail chores acquainted me with the postal worker across the street. One Friday, as we said our goodbyes, I said, “See you Monday,” when she corrected me: Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I didn’t know if my office would be closed, I said.

Her eyes flashed as she said she would take the holiday even if it weren’t given to her, because “it’s our holiday.”

In that flash, I saw the different worlds we inhabited in the same country, my skin color having allowed me to forget it. I knew our meant black. I wanted to tell her it was my holiday, too, but I didn’t know if it was. Back at the office, I learned that it was an optional holiday — whoever wanted to take the day off could, but the office would be open. I told my boss that I would take the holiday. I later learned from a co-worker that the boss was annoyed with me, that in her opinion “the only person who should have the day off is the receptionist — the only black employee.”

I didn’t know how to deal with that remark without getting fired, so I kept my mouth shut and took the day off. In reality, her remark wasn’t much different from the nice postal worker across the street. And though the exchanges took place 12 years ago, just last week, a friend said his office didn’t have the day off, probably because “there are no black people at our company.” This from someone who works at a hip, immensely successful production company whose management would never consider themselves racist. The misconception pervades our consciousness more than 15 years after the holiday was established.

The Bureau of National Affairs annually tracks a sample of about 475 companies to see how many observe the holiday since it was first made official in 1986. That number is currently about 28 percent, which may yet be skewed because it includes banking institutions, which take all federal holidays off. According to Steve Klein, research associate at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the private sector has been lagging, especially the non-unionized companies.

Here’s the response I wish I’d given to that CFO: “Only blacks should observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just like only relatives of departed soldiers should have the day off for Memorial Day, and only presidents with beards or powdered wigs should celebrate President’s Day.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is certainly the most relevant national holiday to my experience. While I enjoy the whole Christmas vibe as much as the next Jew, it doesn’t go deeper than crying over yet another screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

New Year’s Day apparently celebrates the hangover. President’s Day is a white sale; Memorial Day is the beginning of summer; Fourth of July is a barbecue with fireworks, hopefully without stray bullets; Labor Day marks the end of summer; Columbus Day is a bastion of controversy — how do you discover a place that’s already populated? (Hey everyone, I just discovered Carmel!), and Thanksgiving is a big family bingefest.

Now I’m not trying to bah humbug the holidays; they’re great occasions to get together with loved ones and give thanks that we don’t have to go to work. But, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a chance to honor the life of a man who gave everything to the goal of equality and to reflect on our progress as a country toward that goal. The Rev. King and his colleagues took this country out of the “darkie” ages and began the work of ending apartheid in this country.

The fact that people consider it a black holiday, not worthy of taking the day off otherwise, is a big signifier that we’re a long way from King’s dream, as well as a slap in the face of all those who stood beside him. I’m very proud that many of those who walked and worked with King were Jewish. I mourn for the Jewish men and women who died alongside their black brothers and sisters, simply for trying to register people to vote. They reinforce my belief that it is in our cultural makeup as Jews to care about the rights of the oppressed, whatever their religion or ethnicity. At least it used to be.

We have the opportunity to celebrate a man who stood for the rights of every American, every human being, who remained standing peacefully with faith and compassion, despite brutal opposition most of us couldn’t even imagine, on our own soil (from — let’s be topical about it — domestic terrorists), until he was cut down. I can’t imagine a more valuable way to spend a Monday. It doesn’t matter what you do with the free time: Have a family bingefest, go to a sale, play softball, celebrate not having to work. But please, take the day off. It’s our holiday.

A one-page text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a
Dream” speech is available with commentaries drawn from Jewish sources at

Slavery: Conflict or Commonality ?

It’s starting with a few tentative steps, but it could eventually become a stampede; lawmakers on Capitol Hill may soon consider pending legislation creating a national museum focusing heavily on the issue of American slavery.

The movement to create a new museum of African American history provides an opportunity to help mend the rift between Jews and blacks, but also presents a potential dilemma: the effort will inevitably lead to comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust.

If Jews react primarily defensively, and if they turn the moral push for recognition of the black community’s own catastrophic past into a victimization turf war, they will only widen the gulf between the two communities. And ultimately, they will do the cause of Holocaust remembrance a disservice.

“Why should the Jewish community feel threatened by this?” asks Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “This is not a competition to see whose grievances are worse; the African American community has suffered terribly in this country.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture Act of 2001, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), is a legislative first step in creating a museum jointly funded by public and private contributions.

Blacks, increasingly, want a museum in Washington that acknowledges their collective pain and teaches all Americans the historic fact that continues to affect American life: slavery.

In this they are consciously emulating the Jewish community, which created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall, that seems to be achieving all of the founders’ goals, and then some.

The Holocaust Museum attracts more than 2 million visitors annually, and it has become a catalyst for Holocaust education and scholarship. Millions of non-Jewish visitors leave with a new understanding of the facts of the Holocaust; for many Jews, visiting the Museum has become a way to emotionally connect with a historic event that continues to exert a powerful pull in Jewish life.

And the Museum guarantees that the real lessons of the Holocaust will not be lost with the passage of time.

The black community wants and deserves something similar.

The impact of slavery on countless human lives and on American culture remain mostly a footnote in history classes. Surveys show that most Americans know pitifully little about the subject. That ignorance has provided fertile soil for a kind of revisionism that portrays the Civil War as simply a dispute over states rights.

There is no national center where blacks can go to memorialize the victims of slavery, honor those who fought it and make an emotional connection to the historic traumas that help shape their own lives.

It was amazing and entirely appropriate that the U.S. government, pressed by a well-organized Jewish community, established a national museum about the Holocaust; it is equally fitting that the nation do the same for slavery.

So far, though, there are few signs the organized Jewish community is aware of the push for a black museum.

The lawmakers who have introduced the legislation have not made much noise about their proposal. Nor has a divided African American leadership actively started reaching out to other groups.

Some black leaders dismiss the idea of a museum as a diversion from providing more tangible help for their traumatized community.

Ultimately, black leaders will have to do what Jewish leaders did more than a decade ago — get together behind a realistic goal, organize a massive fundraising effort in their own community and aggressively lobby government officials.

Once the effort gains momentum, it is likely many Jews will support the effort — but also that it will touch off ripples of concern.

Inevitably, supporters will argue that the Holocaust Museum precedent obligates the government to act on their request.

The Holocaust was horrific, but it happened in Europe, and the perpetrators were Germans, they will say; slavery occurred in our own country, sanctioned by the U.S. government.

That argument is not meant to diminish the Holocaust, but merely to express the very real moral obligation this country has to acknowledge a tragedy it helped perpetrate. It is fitting that a Holocaust Museum exists on the Mall, and it will be fitting that an African American museum joins it.

A more difficult issue to deal with will be the question of reparations. Already, supporters of slavery reparations are making comparisons to the ongoing economic effort on behalf of Holocaust victims.

But there is a critical difference: Holocaust reparations are going to living survivors, while reparations for slavery would be many generations removed from the crime itself. The comparison is a point of potential friction with the Jewish community.

Still, the drive for a museum of black culture and history “could be very positive, in terms of strengthening black-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier. “A museum dedicated to slavery doesn’t take away from Holocaust remembrance; it will only strengthen a general resolve to fight all forms of racism and bigotry.”

In other words, a museum of American slavery would do exactly what the Holocaust Museum has done so well since 1993.

Straight Talk About Blacks and Jews

Issac Bitton meets Peter Noel, the man who saved his life during the Crown Heights riots.

Among Jews, the subject of black-Jewish relations inevitably brings to the surface two impassioned, if not unrelated sentiments: a liberal nostalgia for the integrated social activism of days gone by and an embittered cataloguing of the latest anti-Semitic soundbites to come out of the mouths of black leaders.

In “Blacks and Jews,” filmmakers Deborah Kaufman, Bari Scott and Alan Snitow explore the events that have given rise to resentment on both sides and trace the freefall of this once solid friendship with intelligence and a rigorous avoidance of platitudes. The documentary will air nationwide on Tuesday, July 29, the latest offering in PBS’s excellent “P.O.V.” series, a showcase for independent, non-fiction films now in its tenth year. (Locally, it airs on KCET.)

Those looking for some kind of upbeat closure will not find it here, yet there are some moments of inspiration: A black West Indian journalist rescues a bloodied Hasidic father and his son during the Crown Heights street rioting of 1991. After a reuinion much later, the journalist describes discovering the Morrocan immigrant and ex-hippie behind the Jewish man’s beard and black garb. In that same beleaguered section of Brooklyn, a black-Jewish rap group called “The Cure” belts out positive messages with affable swagger. There is also the story of how Chicago Rabbi Robert Marx joined in protest with black homebuyers in 1969 to protest racist bank practices and the cynical manipulations of local real estate speculators (many of whom were Jewish) when the city’s Lawndale area was making it’s rocky transition from a Jewish neighborhood to a black one. Few current Lawndale residents, the film points out, are old enough to remember those united efforts now.

These episodes are cheering, but they are like faint solos, easily drowned out on the larger stage of black-Jewish relations, which the filmmakers describe at the outset as having degenerated into “a public ritual of mutual blame.”

From the Crown Heights riots to the Million Man March on Washington in 1995 to the media circus that ensued after a group of predominantly black high school students in Oakland laughed disruptively during a screening of “Schindler’s List,” the filmmakers do not shy away from the deep wounds and facile stereotypes that shape the interactions of these two communities.

Much of what fuels the conflict portrayed so ably here is a microcosm of what ails the country at large: a climate of tribalism and victimology, the brutishness of public discourse and endless battles over language as a way to define and claim events. Hours after a Hasidic driver accidentally ran over 7-year-old Gavin Cato in Crown Heights that fateful day in August 1991, Hasidic student Yankel Rosenbaum was fatally stabbed. Many blacks called the eruption of violence an uprising. Jews called it a pogrom.

Nowhere in the film is the complexity of the failed relationship between blacks and Jews captured more vividly than in the final segment. In 1994, when 69 students from Oakland’s prediminantly black Castlemont High School went on a Martin Luther King Day field trip to see “Schindler’s List,” they were kicked out of the theater before the film was over. Their constant laughter — even during brutal execution scenes — got other movie patrons so upset that they stormed into the lobby to protest to the theatre manager. The real drama, however, happened later, after the news media had all gone home. Responding to student complaints that they were forced to learn about the Jewish Holocaust at the expense of their own history, Castlemont set aside a day for invited speakers to focus on the African-American experience. In one classroom a presenter is seen telling students, “This whole society’s job is to make you feel bad about being black.” Another tells them that Jews dominated the slave trade.

It’s a disturbing spectacle, but strangely enough, the most depressing moment in the entire film comes moments later, during an interview with a pair of youngish Castlemont teachers — one Jewish and one black –whose comments are interspersed throughout this segment. When the black teacher is asked about the objectionable material presented by these guest speakers, her response is dishearteningly noncomittal: “Well, out of 27 presenters, two raised some issues that the students challenged.” The Jewish teacher counters that propagating blatantly anti-Semitic lies is hardly the same as “raising some issues.” His black colleague smiles faintly and says nothing. Watching this telling scene play out like a subdued piece of cinema verité, one can’t help but feel that there remains a great deal that we shall not overcome.