Divest Now

I’ve been incredibly frustrated reading about the turmoil in Iran and feeling that all I can really do about it is watch more Anderson Cooper.

President Barack Obama himself had a hard time calibrating his response to the uprising following June’s rigged election returns, which allowed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to retain power. If Obama had shown too much support for the millions of protesters who took to the streets, they would have been derided as American stooges. If he showed too little, they would feel abandoned in their struggle for civil and human rights.

So if the President didn’t quite know how to help, how is John Q. American supposed to know?

Well, now we have our chance.

On Tuesday, July 21, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to urge the county $9-billion pension fund to divest any assets or funds from companies doing business in Iran. The recommendation is aimed solely at companies assisting the Islamic Republic’s energy sectors.

Direct investment in Iran is, of course, prohibited by Federal law. But the County recommendation, proposed by Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Michael D. Antonovich, calls on the County to divest its funds from outside companies that aid and abet Iran’s economy.

About 50 people crowded into a hearing room to debate Resolution 4, “to send a five-signature letter to the CEO and Members of the Board of Investment of the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA), requesting that LACERA divest from those companies that are liable to U.S. Government sanctions by virtue of their investments in the Iranian energy sector.”

Fifteen speakers representing synagogues, the young professional Iranian-Jewish group 30 Years After, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and others presented the case for divestment.

“I am here today, urging the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and County Pension Board, on behalf of my organization and countless other citizens of Los Angeles, to divest from companies doing business with Iran,” said Michael Yadegaran of 30 Years After. “As you know, the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. L.A. County’s divestment will send a powerful message to all corporations currently doing business with Iran and will make other corporations think twice before entering into new contracts with Iran.

“As Americans, we reap the benefits of freedom and democracy. It is time that we punish those who deprive their citizens of basic human rights,” Yadegaran said.

The resolution passed with four votes: Supervisors Yaroslavsky, Antonovich, Don Knabe and Gloria Molina (Mark Ridley-Thomas was not present for the vote).

LACERA’s investment board will take up the resolution at its next meeting, which at press time had not been scheduled. But organizers point out that the resolution is non-binding, and the board is composed of appointed officials whose sole duty is to maximize the return on the pension fund’s investment. While some of the five-member board are known to be sympathetic to divestment, others are more of a question mark.

“I wouldn’t call this a done deal at the Investment Board,” said one organizer. “We will still have to explain the need for this, and political arguments don’t resonate to a pension fund.”

Proponents of the measure can and do argue that Iran’s tottering regime makes investments in companies that do business with Iran too risky for the public good. Right now companies like Nokia, which provided the hi-tech infrastructure that allowed Iran’s mullahs to dig into computer and phone records to root out dissidents, are facing worldwide public backlash. Who needs that headache?

But if the investment board takes a slightly more long-term view, they would have to wonder how well any of their investments would do in a world destabilized by a nuclear-armed Iran.

That’s why there isn’t a sane country in the world that wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. Israel and the Jews may have the most immediate stake in this — considering Ahmadinejad’s promise to destroy the Jewish state — but there is international consensus that an Iranian bomb would lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race, threaten the world oil supply, increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and blackmail, and make the current corrupt regime there even stronger. In a world where the current regime in Iran has the bomb, any Investment Board better be selling short.

Divestment and sanctions offer an effective tool in pressuring the regime in Iran toward collapse, or at least convince it to stop its rapid march toward developing nuclear weapons.

That’s the real reason for divestment, and it makes sense enough that there need be no others.

“Sanctions are a necessary prelude to a peaceful option,” Gidi Grinstein, who runs the Re’ut Institute in Israel, wrote me via e-mail. “Hence, divestment as part of a package of sanctions may not be successful on its own in stopping the nuclear project, but compounded with the two other legs of a credible and viable military option and a political package, it may work. An effective outcome is not guaranteed, but decisive action here is very important.”

Want to help make a difference in Iran? Write a thoughtful letter supporting divestment to:

William R. Pryor, Chairman, LACERA, P.O. Box 7060, Pasadena, CA, 91109-7060.

That’s our chance, and we had better take it.



Hate Crimes Down; Jews Still Target

The number of reported hate crimes in Los Angeles County was lower in 2003 than 2002, and while that decrease is part of a 12-year decline, Jews remain a highly visible, often-targeted religious group.

The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations’ Dec. 16 hate crimes report stated that anti-Semitic hate crimes jumped by one, from 78 in 2002 to 79 last year. Statewide, the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents dropped from 223 in 2002 to 180 in 2003.

Despite less than 200 incidents targeting California’s Jews last year, Jews accounted for 84 percent of religiously motivated hate crime victims in L.A. County and 70 percent of such hate crimes statewide, according to the California attorney general.

Countywide, reported hate crimes dropped by 14 percent from 2002 to 2003; there were 692 such reported crimes in 2003 compared to 802 in 2002, a steady drop-off that has continued since 1991. The bulk of 2003’s reported hate incidents involved violent crime, including assaults, plus 10 attempted murders and one homicide, many of them gang-related.

Amanda Susskind, Anti-Defamation League Pacific Southwest Region director, said in a statement that the commission’s report showing an overall decline is “consistent with state and federal reports that show an overall reduction in hate crimes.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Pension Trouble

State Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills) is nothing if not bold. He’s introduced a California constitutional amendment that would scrap the state’s entire public employee pension system for millions of workers and replace it with a 401(k)-type system, as in the private sector.

Some background: Public employees in the state today contribute a specified amount, along with their public employer, to an organization like the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), which invests it on their behalf. Even if the investments fail, the worker will still get whatever pension that was promised when the worker took the job. If necessary, the state would borrow to cover the difference.

As most people in the private sector know, 401(k) plans have no guarantees. If the pension investments fail, too bad.

Richman said public pension benefits have increased too sharply, and have led to the current spate of borrowing to cover the difference. The state borrowed $3 billion in the 2004 budget to pay pensions. CalPERS, on the other hand, attributes the current borrowing to the devastating 2000 market downturn in its investments, a temporary setback. Nobody can predict, of course, when the market will go sour.

“In the 1970s, the corporate world started moving away from defined benefits for the same reason that the state has to: You don’t know from year to year what you’re going to have to [contribute],” Dan Pellissier, Richman’s chief of staff, told The Journal. “The promises that they’ve made to employees don’t match the amount of money they have on hand.”

CalPERS sees Richman’s proposal as shortsighted.

“When times are good, employers really make out on the deal,” said CalPERS spokesperson Darin Hall. “For all the school employees we cover, there were three years [before the market downturn] where their contribution rate was zero.”

When times are bad, everybody has to pay. But Hall thinks it’s in the taxpayers’ interest to at least give public employees (firefighters, police, civil engineers, etc.) that much support.

“I guarantee you that these doctors, architects and engineers can make twice as much money in the private sector as they’re making now,” said Hall, pointing out that the better benefits often sway professionals to work for the government.

A prospective firefighter today knows that despite the risks of the job, his family enjoys guaranteed retirement and disability funds. Would he really sign on if the state replaced that with a 401(k)? — Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

2 Teens Arrested in Vandalizing of Menorah

Two teenage suspects have been arrested in the Dec. 15 vandalizing of a menorah at a Thousand Oaks shopping mall, police said.

Two days after the incident, Ventura County sheriff’s deputies arrested 18-year-old Kevin Bowers and a 17-year-old boy on hate crime, burglary and felony vandalism charges in connection with the incident at The Oaks mall. Police said the menorah was knocked off its table stand and then broken in half after being stomped by one of the suspects before they fled the crime scene in front of numerous witnesses.

Police believe the suspects are part of a loosely organized Conejo Valley white-power culture using the number 88 as a neo-Nazi code to make “Heil Hitler” salutes, because the letter H is the alphabet’s eighth letter and therefore “88” would reference “HH” or “Heil Hitler.”

Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike De Los Santos told reporters the suspects “admitted their part in the crime,” but that the 17-year-old juvenile said he committed the alleged vandalism at Bowers’ request and that he had not been associated with the neo-Nazis before.

Last year, a Conejo Valley home’s Chanukah decorations were vandalized, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Gennady Shtern, ADL Valley director, praised the menorah crime’s “swift arrest…. This hateful act against a symbol of the Jewish faith is particularly disturbing,” Shtern said. —DF

Professor Gets Prison for Fake Hate Crime

A psychology professor, who spray-painted her car with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, has been sentenced to a year in state prison for falsely telling police that unknown vandals were responsible.

Pomona Superior Court Judge Charles Horan on Wednesday also ordered Kerri Dunn, formerly a visiting assistant professor at Claremont McKenna College, to pay the college $19,500 for extra security measures taken after she reported the apparent hate crime.

After Dunn reported the “vandalism” last March, the campus and Jewish communities reacted with outrage, staging daylong sit-ins, teach-ins, forums and rallies.

At the time, Dunn maintained that her car’s tires had been slashed, windows broken, and the exterior spray-painted with the words “Kike Whore,” “Nigger Lover,” “Bitch” and “Shut Up,” accompanied by a half-finished swastika.

In initial news stories, Dunn, a 40-year-old caucasian, was said to be converting from Catholicism to Judaism. As time went on, this aspect became increasingly vague, changing from “undergoing conversion” to “considering conversion” to “a possibility of conversion.”

However, after a brief investigation, Claremont police announced that two witnesses had “positively identified the victim as vandalizing her own vehicle.”

A jury convicted Dunn on Aug. 18 of filing false police and insurance reports. She could have received up to three years in prison.

Gary Lincenberg, Dunn’s attorney, insisted on his client’s innocence and said he would appeal the sentence. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Monitor Poll Leans Toward Divestment

A Christian Science Monitor poll ricocheting around the Internet has attracted Middle East activists, with almost 60 percent of the poll’s 1.2 million respondents saying that American churches should boycott Israeli-allied businesses.

The divestment poll was launched Dec. 6 by the Boston-based Monitor and was attached to a news story about mainline Protestant denominations considering divestment of church funds from Israel-allied companies. The 75,000-circulation daily newspaper poll’s question — “Should U.S.-based churches boycott certain companies doing business with Israel? — found 60 percent of respondents saying yes and almost 40 percent voting no as of Jan. 4.

Over New Year’s weekend, the Israel advocacy group, StandWithUs, sent out two e-mails urging its supporters to vote against divestment. That activism was opposite the work of the Palestinian-allied group, Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, with its Web site stating, “Sign the poll on the CS Monitor Web site to support divestment!”

With the newspaper’s site getting about 1.9 million unique users per month, the poll’s 1.2 million participants are noteworthy.

“It’s the largest response that we’ve had in recent memory,” said Monitor online managing editor Karla Vallance. “The gay marriage poll would be No. 2. Both sides of an issue will spread word around and will vote and try to get the numbers up.”

Vallance said the activist-driven poll results do not reflect the Monitor’s regular online readers because, “it’s clearly being used for other reasons.” Because so many nonreaders wanted to influence the poll numbers, Vallance said the Monitor probably would give future polls, “a limited shelf life,” instead leaving them online indefinitely.

The unscientific poll’s “yes” response included the supporting statement, “The U.S. government has failed to act to curb Israel’s policies towards Palestinians,” while the “no” response stated, “It is discriminatory and does not help the peace process with the Palestinians.” — DF

People of the Book AWOL?

Abigail Yasgur is clearly proud of her domain, the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. Yasgur, who has directed the library with a tremendous store of energy and intellect for eight years, sweeps her hand over the custom-built Starbucks style checkout counter, the curved toffee-colored wood illuminated by a row of low-hanging mini-pendant lamps.

Cushy chairs form a centerpiece in the middle of low shelves, and little hidden nooks hold treasures for browsers and scholars amid the university-style stacks.

But when we get to Yasgur’s corner office three floors above Wilshire Boulevard, her concerns surface. The third floor of a corporate office building — 6505 Wilshire, in this case — is not the place for the community center she envisions the library becoming. She wants to see a storefront library with an auditorium and meeting space, where families and academics and teens and the intellectually curious can hang out.

But as Yasgur has been saying for years, circumstance has made the library one of the most underutilized resources in the city.

The library circulates about 200 books a day out of its 30,000-book collection, and has a database of about 4,000 patrons. Many of those people come for the children’s library on the first floor of the Federation building, and for the adult and children’s programming at locations throughout the city.

The library is part of the Bureau of Jewish Education, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a logical marriage since many of the library’s frequent users are educators or students. The Federation funds the library at about $182,000 a year, and Friends of the Library raise about $30,000 a year for programs and acquisitions.

But being part of another agency means the Library’s board is not fully empowered or energized, making it difficult for Yasgur to get started on the approximately $7 million she would need to raise to build her dream library.

So for now, she is doing what she can to get more people aware of what the library can offer. A service for the homebound allows books to be delivered directly to your door. Programs for kids and adults are increasingly held at other venues — public libraries and bookstores, or shopping malls.

The library has produced a public radio series on topics such as music, humor and storytelling that has been broadcast on stations nationwide. A summer reading program involves kids from places like Louisiana and Michigan. And programs such as lectures with authors, storytellers and family programming continue throughout the year.

Slowly, Yasgur knows, word will spread about her domain – the largest Jewish public library in the nation, tucked into the second largest Jewish community in the nation, where only a handful of people ever use it. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor