Sympathy for the suffering goes to the dogs

Americans would care more about the genocide in Darfur if the victims were puppies, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed in a provocative May 10 op-ed.

Is he right?

“Time and again, we’ve seen that the human conscience isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter,” Kristof wrote.

He cited psychological studies that have found that people who are given a choice between helping one suffering person or helping a large number will overwhelmingly choose to help just that one.

Thirty-thousand children around the world die each day as a result of the consequences of poverty, but the American public hardly notices, according to Kristof. What really moves people is an ordeal like that of the toddler Jessica McClure, who fell into a Texas well in 1987, or Hok Get, a terrier stranded on a burned-out oil tanker in the Pacific in 2002. The public contributed some $45,000 to try to rescue the dog.

The eviction of a red-tailed hawk from its nest on a Manhattan apartment building sparked an international outcry, with actress Mary Tyler Moore and others rising up in passionate defense of the bird’s rights. Kristof’s comment: “A single homeless hawk aroused more indignation than 2 million homeless Sudanese.”

For the last several years, Kristof has done more than any other journalist to expose the Sudanese Arab militias’ massacres of blacks in Darfur. He has also been a courageous — and often lonely — voice against the failure of the United States and other governments to actively intervene against the killings.

Kristof knows that one way to change government policy is through an outraged public, but getting the American public to care about millions of nameless genocide victims in faraway Africa is no easy task. “What we need,” he proposes, “is more troubled consciences — pricked, perhaps, by a Darfur puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.”

Sadly, there is a historical precedent for Kristof’s disturbing scenario.

The Wagner-Rogers bill, which was introduced in Congress in early 1939, proposed to admit 20,000 refugee children from Nazi Germany. A number of prominent Americans, including former First Lady Grace Coolidge and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, backed the bill. But their support could not overcome the tide of public opinion, which was strongly against increasing immigration, despite the recent Kristallnacht pogrom.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to support the bill.

FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration, articulated the sentiment of many opponents of Wagner-Rogers when she remarked at a dinner party that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Such hateful attitudes were all too common in those days.

The following year Pets Magazine published a sympathetic photo of a British puppy, accompanied by an appeal to rescue purebreds that were endangered by the German bombing raids on England. This time, the American public’s response was swift and generous:

Several-thousand readers offered to shelter the puppies.

Our generation looks back at the defeat of Wagner-Rogers and the remark by Houghteling with shock and disapproval. We like to think that we have learned the lessons from that experience and would never again ignore mass murder.

But how will future generations judge our response to Darfur?

Los Angeles Events for Darfur

May 18

Light of HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) Art Exhibit and Silent Auction. Opening reception for community Darfur Observance Day, featuring artwork incorporating Brian Steidle photo of young Darfurian siblings. 7 p.m. $20. Bradley Tower, City Hall, 200 N. Spring St., Los Angeles. ” target=”_blank”>

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,

Q & A With David Grunwald

David Grunwald is agitated. The chief executive of L.A. Family Housing Corp. grows ever more upset as he details the indifference many Angelenos feel toward the population his nonprofit group serves: the homeless and those one or two paychecks away from being on the streets. From liberal Brentwood to conservative Pasadena, most Southern California residents don’t want homeless shelters in their neighborhoods and oppose the construction of high-density, affordable housing that could help thousands of families. NIMBY is alive and well here.

With the housing market on fire, Grunwald said the situation for the region’s poorest is likely to worsen. Housing prices northward of $300,000 for dinky starter homes and average monthly rents of more than $1,200 might make homeowners and landlords happy, but they have taken a toll on the cab drivers, waitresses and mechanics trying to eke out a living. Many have found themselves living on friends’ couches or commuting three or four hours daily from the Inland Empire and beyond. Simply put: the sizzling real estate market and dearth of affordable housing has made daily life a struggle for some of the region’s poorest.

Grunwald and L.A. Family Housing, which will hold its annual dinner and fundraiser on Dec. 10 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, have worked hard on behalf of those people. The agency, which has an annual budget of $9 million, has provided assistance to more than 62,000 homeless and low-income Southern Californians since its founding in 1983. Last year, L.A. Family Housing served nearly 14,600 people at emergency shelters, transitional living centers and with life-counseling programs and support designed to steer homeless families into permanent homes.

Grunwald, a trained attorney with a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University, has held a variety of high-profile positions in the past decade. In the mid-1990s, he helped establish human and labor rights policies in Cambodia under the auspices of the AFL-CIO and the United States Agency for International Development. Grunwald, 41, later became director of the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance, a consortium of HIV agencies in Los Angeles County.

He spoke to the Journal about the city’s housing problems and what L.A. Family Housing is doing to alleviate them.

The Jewish Journal: How bad is Los Angeles’ affordable housing problem?

David Grunwald: Southern California’s housing crisis is über bad. There simply isn’t enough housing to keep pace with demand. We need about 8,000 new homes a year to meet demand and we are only producing about 4,000. This has put extreme pressure on housing prices — the median housing price for a single family home is almost $320,000. Even with good mortgage rates, a family would need a combined income of about $90,000 to qualify for a mortgage on a modest home. This makes homeownership unreachable for almost 70 percent of Angelenos. An average two-bedroom apartment rents for about $1,250 a month. A family of four needs a combined income of about $45,000 annually to support this rent. A recent study by a think-tank at USC forecasts that Los Angeles will grow by 3 million new residents by 2010. Where will they all live?

JJ: Politicians seems to pay scant attention to homelessness and affordable housing. Why the indifference?

DG: Actually, in response to Los Angeles’ housing shortage, Los Angeles’ mayor recently launched a new initiative to increase the city’s investment in workforce and affordable housing development. This important initiative calls for a dramatic expansion of the city’s current investment in housing from $10 million last year to $100 million annually by 2005.

While this new investment is a critical first step to addressing the city’s housing crisis, most local politicians, in response to hostile neighborhood associations, avoid affordable housing development in their community.

JJ: How does a lack of affordable housing hurt the economy?

DG: Availability of decent, reasonably priced housing is vital to supporting a vibrant workforce in our city. Without more housing there will be fewer people to fill our service jobs as well as the jobs located in our skyscrapers, office buildings and retail centers. Business growth will slow, our economy will recede and all of us will feel the pain.

JJ: Tell me about some of the more important initiatives L.A. Housing is currently undertaking.

DG: L.A. Family Housing is embarking on new partnership with private-sector investors and developers to rehab and build hundreds of affordable single-family homes over the next three to five years. Our new homeownership program will help hard-working families become first-time homebuyers. More importantly, we believe that by turning renters into homeowners, we are empowering our clients to become good neighbors and strong community stakeholders.

JJ: What is your biggest frustration?

DG: Despite all our aggressive efforts to fight homelessness, the problems don’t go away. Ideally, our agency should put itself out of work by ending homelessness. Maybe homelessness and poverty are intractable problems. While I’m not yet willing to admit this, there are moments when I feel like we are powerless to change the forces the that lead people into a life of destitution.

The annual dinner and fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m., Dec. 10, at Beverly Hilton International Ballroom, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For tickets, call Tarlov Associates at (310) 996-1188.

The Ethnic Revolution

Contrary to the ever-hopeful predictions of the Republicans, Jewish voters proved remarkably resistant to change in this month’s congressional voting.

But that predictability — Jews voted overwhelmingly Democratic, with a few regional exceptions — belies a seismic shift in ethnic politics. Several groups came out of this year’s electoral brawl strengthened — a message that is being heard loud and clear by politicians.

The rise of these groups, along with decreased electoral participation by Jews, may threaten Jewish political clout if community leaders do not heed this month’s wake-up call.

“Assimilation has a political as well as cultural impact,” said a leading Jewish political analyst. “Fewer Jews may be voting as Jews. At the same time, there’s a danger we will succumb to the trend of indifference we see in the electorate at large. What we need now that other groups are coming into their own is more Jewish turnout, not less, [and] more identification with our community’s core issues.”

Complacency, this analyst said, could turn the gains by other ethnic groups into a zero-sum game — with Jews on the losing end.

The raw numbers on Nov. 3 told an intriguing story. Jewish voters were actively wooed by both parties, and in several close races, it was expected that they could provide the margin of victory.

But when the votes were tallied, the Jewish vote made a discernible difference in only a few. Jews voted the way they always vote — about 80 percent Democratic, 20 percent Republican. There were variations, but the pattern was clear; even Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., who received about 40 percent of the Jewish vote against a Jewish rival six years ago, sank back to 23 percent, thanks to a series of gaffes and an aggressive campaign by his rival, Rep. Chuck Schumer.

Jewish “swing” voters, who can go either way, seemed scarcer than ever. Despite recurrent predictions that Jews are shifting to the GOP, political scientists say a muscular Christian right and a Republican Congress dominated by ultra-conservatives are keeping Jews firmly on the Democratic side, even though many may be attracted to the other Republican Party — the party of fiscal conservatism and individual freedom.

The African-American vote was also a lock for the Democrats. But the potential size of that bloc — and the fact that it was pivotal in a handful of contests — is not passing unnoticed by political strategists.

In Maryland’s gubernatorial contest, for example, a last-minute Democratic get-out-the-vote effort in the black community propelled the lackluster incumbent, Parris Glendening, to a convincing victory over challenger Ellen Sauerbrey.

Other ethnic blocs are rising even faster. The huge Hispanic vote came out in force, boosting Democrats in California, Republicans in Texas and Florida. Hispanic voters represent an emerging swing vote, which makes them a particularly worthwhile investment for party tacticians. Just behind them are Asian-American voters, by some accounts the next great untapped swing vote.

In a number of states, the message politicians heard was this: The black vote is increasingly important to the Democrats because of the big numbers that can be turned out under the right circumstances, and the burgeoning Hispanic community can be a swing constituency worth fighting for.

The Jewish community, in contrast, is numerically small, increasingly fragmented and utterly predictable — a constituency easy to take for granted, or to write off entirely.

GOP leaders say that they’re not going to slacken their Jewish outreach, but it’s hard to see how the party can justify the effort, given election after election of disappointing results.

Democratic officials are confident that the Jews will stay put, leaving them free to devote greater energy to the larger but less active black community — and to ethnic swing constituencies, including Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

A shift to the center in the Republican leadership could change that calculus, but there are no indications that is likely to happen.

So where does this leave the Jews? Some pillars of Jewish strength are unchanged, but there are alarming signs of a weakening at the polls.

Jews remain disproportionally involved in financing political campaigns; no other group has exploited the controversial campaign finance system as effectively.

“Elections today are decided by money, and Jewish contributions — especially to the Democrats — are substantial,” said American University political scientist Amos Perlmutter. “That means Jewish influence will remain strong, particularly on the Democratic side.”

The Jewish community is also unusually effective in lobbying and in working with state and local officials who may someday run for Congress, a long-term strategy that is already paying big dividends. Other groups are playing catch-up, but they have a long way to go.

Although the community is increasingly divided over the Mideast peace process, Israel continues to offer a focus for activism that multiplies Jewish power. The emerging Hispanic bloc, by way of contrast, is divided by economic class and country of origin. Their numbers and involvement may be growing, but translating that into effective political action will be difficult without an overarching issue.

And Jews continue to be disproportionately involved in politics as campaign consultants and workers, as party officials, as congressional and administration staffers.

But as intermarriage and assimilation continue to deplete the Jewish demographic presence, Jewish political power at the voting booth may stand on an increasingly narrow base.

Most Jewish analysts say that turnout, traditionally higher than among non-Jewish voters, is declining, although statistics are scarce. If that is true, the rise of other ethnic groups — the big story in 1998 — will erode Jewish power.

Apathy and indifference, the poisons of democratic political life, may be particularly toxic for Jews. Finding antidotes — including new ways to get Jews to the polls and new ways to educate them about the Jewish importance of political issues — is the major challenge facing the community’s political leaders in this new era of energized ethnic politics.