Competing Moments of Truth on Schools

On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”


The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best

Los Angeles supporters of Israel’s political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren’t entirely in a mood to celebrate.

Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn’t be needed.

Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to “faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted.”

Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.

“I think we did pretty well,” he said. “If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats.”

As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.

The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.

“Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected,” she said. “A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again.”

Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.

“Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.

Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.

At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.

Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was “obviously disappointed” by the election results.

Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.

Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon’s absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s past economic policies, as well as by what he called a “vicious” campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.

The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.

“Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn’t seem to have clear message and didn’t make the right kind of noise,” Berman said.

Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.

Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.

“This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together,” Rothstein said. “You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.

A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert’s vow to draw Israel’s final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.

“Assuming Hamas doesn’t engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there’s going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba,” said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld). “They’re probably going to be using pretty much the same maps.”

A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.

“There’s a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over,” said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. “Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state.”

Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, “like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it’s in power,” Ali said.

But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won’t engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its “occupation,” recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.

“Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they’re not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn’t willing to do], Khan said. “Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed.”

Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.

Regardless of last week’s voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate’s Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.

Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.


Patriot Paranoia?

By chance, Bet Tzedek Legal Services sponsored a program on the American Patriot Act just about the

same time readers were beginning to get their copies of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

It was a perfect combination. The Patriot Act, hurriedly passed by Congress and signed by President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, gives the federal government new power to find out about our private, business and academic lives. Roth’s book projects what happens when government runs wild with such power.

Both the book and some of the implications of the Patriot Act touch the insecurity that hides deep in the hearts of many Jews — that our nation’s constitutional protections could vanish, and with them the safety and opportunity that brought Jews to America.

Nicholas Lemann, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, made the connection between Bush and Roth quite nicely when, in writing about the book, he described the perpetual wariness of the Jewish soul: “Emotionally, it could happen here. It could happen anywhere, any time. It has happened practically everywhere. It’s also the case that President Bush activates in many Jews the same emotions that Roth activates in ‘The Plot Against America.’ He may have activated them in Roth himself.”

Perhaps that explains the interest of a substantial audience at Sinai Temple on Oct. 4 for the symposium “Pursuing Justice and the War on Terrorism.” For the past 30 years, the event’s sponsor, Bet Tzedek has enlisted the constitutional guarantees of a fair justice system on behalf of Los Angeles’ poor.

The Patriot Act erodes these guarantees by greatly increasing the power of federal law enforcement agencies to wiretap, monitor Internet use and e-mail communications, obtain records of library borrowing and bookstore purchases and gather information on customers from financial institutions and other businesses. The government has new power to investigate foreigners, meaning immigrants can come under heavy scrutiny. In the past, the constitutional guarantees weakened by the Patriot Act have often — but not always — protected political, religious and ethnic minorities from the tyranny of state oppression that has periodically taken hold of federal, state and local governments in the United States.

Roth’s “The Plot Against America” takes place in 1940. The new president is Charles Lindbergh, Hitler admirer and anti-Semite, who begins exporting Jews from Jewish neighborhoods in the Northeast to areas where they would be a minority — the beginning of an American Holocaust.

Most Jews undoubtedly consider such fears far-fetched. I do. But a lot of Muslims don’t, particularly immigrants and children of immigrants who came here from the Middle East. They have rational and justified fears about the government’s growing ability to snoop and to arrest. Even the most assimilated Jew might, consider that, historically, Jews have been in the same boat as Muslims — and could be there again.

Such catastrophic thoughts were not expressed by the panelists, Jamie S. Gorelick, a member of the 9/11 Commission; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; and Viet D. Dinh, the main author of the Patriot Act.

Dinh, who was an assistant attorney general when he wrote the Patriot Act and now is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, is an upbeat, articulate man who, while fleeing as a boat child from Vietnam, survived harrowing experiences and poverty. To Patriot Act supporters, his life story counters charges that the law is a threat to immigrants.

His personal story is inspiring, but the implications of his words at the symposium were troubling. The Sept. 11 attacks, he said, were an assault on “the essential order” of a nation. And the cops who preserve such order are not the enemy.

“The single greatest threat is from Al Qaeda, not law enforcement,” he said. At another point, he said, Americans might have to give up some liberties in the face of danger.

Is that necessary? No, said Gorelick. She, like Dinh, served in the Justice Department where she was deputy attorney general before her appointment to the 9/11 Commission. Speaking from those two perspectives, she said there were “laws and procedures in place” that could have caught the Sept. 11 terrorists.

And Dorff said, “If we protect ourselves at the expense of our national character, what have we protected?”

A few days after the seminar, I bought Roth’s book. His 1940 Newark was foreign to me.

I never had to fight my way through anti-Semitic gangs on my way to school or be deprived of a good assignment by an anti-Semitic boss.

But as a reporter, I have covered cops, courts, the civil rights movement, urban riots and student rebellions. I have seen the fragility of constitutional guarantees of due process when society feels threatened by protestors, rioters, by crime and, now, by terrorists.

They can bend and break, as Roth, writing from the depths of Jewish paranoia, envisioned. Gorelick and Dorff hinted at the same thing in their much more reasoned manner. The words were different but the message was the same.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at

Nathan’s Voice

At a time when Jews have unprecedented access to money and political power, it’s a fair question to ask: What do we bring to the table as Jews?

Better yet, what should being Jewish have to do with being rich or influential or powerful — or all of the above?

This is a good problem to have, mind you. It’s better to ponder how to dispense power than how to defend powerlessness. But the challenge remains, and this week the Case of the Gay Governor brought it once again to the fore.

By the time you read this, you’ll know even more of the sordid details behind New Jersey Gov. James McGreevy’s alleged affair with the Israeli man he then appointed as his homeland security director, Golan Cipel.

Cipel, 35, served as an Israel Defense Forces naval officer in such a low command that, as one New Jersey Republican state senator told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "He wasn’t going to be able to pass the simplest of four-way background checks to be a state trooper," much less a homeland security adviser.

At an Aug. 12 press conference, McGreevy, 47, acknowledged he is a homosexual and said he was resigning, but no one believed for a second his sexual predilection was the sole cause for his resignation.

What we have here is chicanery disguised as soul-searching. There is the governor, who kept his alleged Israeli lover on taxpayer’s money. There is Cipel, the lover, who now claims he is not homosexual but was the victim of serial harassment and inexplicable professional advancement.

There is the Cipel’s Jewish lawyer, Alan Lowy, who presented a pre-press conference settlement offer of $50 million. There is the Cipel’s sponsor, McGreevy’s friend and campaign donor Charles Kushner, a prominent New Jersey Jewish leader who is now the target of a federal investigation involving an alleged scheme to blackmail his brother-in-law using the services of a hooker.

Well, I thought as I followed this story, at least the hooker’s not Jewish.

I think.

Of course there is the shonda factor here — the shame of reading so many Jewish names connected to such sordid business. My New Jersey friends tell me the cringing will only increase as more revelations come to light concerning Kushner — a major donor to Jewish schools and institutions.

"Even if you discount the usual conspiracy theorists," New Jersey Jewish News editor Andrew Silow-Carroll editorialized, "the scandal retroactively casts a shadow over Jewish communal politics in the state. By appointing an Israeli of dubious experience as head of an office as sensitive as homeland security, the governor raised questions at the time over whether he was being overly solicitous of the Jewish power brokers who were so helpful to his successful run for governor."

The temptation to curry favor, to rub elbows, to advance even our noble causes through ignoble means or people increases as we accrue power and influence. Before we know it, we find ourselves handing out awards to the wrong people for the right reasons, seduced — figuratively speaking — into loving governors and others when, deep down, we know better.

It’s not that we are better than anyone else, or that we should be held to a higher standard, but that we can and should aim higher. Our tradition makes this very clear, like when the prophet Nathan upbraids King David for sleeping with another man’s wife, or when Isaiah chastises the powerful elders and princes.

"This is the material, the stories, the biblical record that cultivates conscience," Rabbi Harold Schulweis once said. "The prophet is not a fortune teller; not a prognosticator, and the prophet speaks forth against the grain of power. He will not pretend muteness or deafness."

The problem is not unique to New Jersey. Last Feb. 3, I attended an American Jewish Committee (AJC) banquet honoring Doug Dowie, the Los Angeles general manager for the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. The AJC does fine work, as does Fleishman-Hillard, as has Dowie in a long and distinguished career. But not long after that banquet, the Los Angeles office of Fleishman-Hillard came under investigation for, among other things, over-billing the Department of Water and Power and soliciting illegal campaign contributions.

Dowie, who oversaw public sector contracts, has been placed on indefinite paid leave. It is fair to say, as one local activist told me, the who’s who of Los Angeles’ Jewish and non-Jewish power elite who sang the company’s praises and posed for photos in the hotel ballroom that evening would stay far away from such an event today.

In an ideal world, we would never be embarrassed by the names on our institutions or the pictures in our tribute books. But it happens. Our charge is not to stay away, but to resist getting too close. As we strive to be Davids, we must remember the voice of Nathan. We need to look those we honor straight in the eye, speak truth to power and demand to know if they are, indeed, honorable.

Lieberman Candidacy Spotlights Fear Factor

Sen. Joseph Lieberman was in town the other day, raising money and support for his presidential quest. Since his stint as vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the oh-so-close contest of 2000, Lieberman has become a national fixture in the political world.

Throwing his hat into the presidential ring was a natural outgrowth of the 2000 experience and has been met with welcoming applause in all but the Jewish community. While many Jews have expressed support for the Connecticut senator, still many are troubled by either his level of religious observance, his political stands and/or the perception that his candidacy, dare I say presidency, might act as a conductor of anti-Semitism.

I made a number of calls on the senator’s behalf for a fundraiser here and was surprised by the number of Jews who told me that they didn’t feel comfortable with Lieberman’s candidacy. One person said that they were concerned that Lieberman might be unnecessarily hard on Israel, while attempting to silence his skeptics that his being Jewish would lead him to be easy on Israel.

Another said to me that while they had voted for the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000, they were extremely glad Bush was president post-Sept. 11. The person reasoned that a Jew couldn’t be as hard on Iraq and Osama bin Laden as Bush had for fear that it would be seen as currying favor to Israel.

At first, I was amused at this discomfort people were expressing, until I heard from a Lieberman staffer that concerns about Lieberman’s being Jewish have been seen consistently nationwide — expressed only by Jews. Non-Jews have expressed no such reservations about Lieberman the presidential candidate, who happens to be Jewish. Indeed, at this point, Lieberman has jumped into an early lead in the polls.

This was bound to happen. The glass ceiling that has for so long hovered over the heads of the Jewish community now has Jews questioning whether completing this ascension to the full array of rights afforded all peoples in the Constitution is really worth the risk — the risk of arousing the anti-Semites.

It is instructive to look at two prominent Jewish columnists for The New York Times, William Safire and Tom Friedman, to realize that one can be Jewish and of two different minds. Here are two very Jewishly committed men with two very different views of the world and of the Middle East. Neither one represents a monolith that some of the "Lieberman-scared" Jews fear exists.

This all tells me that there is no one unique Jewish way of thinking or looking at the world, and this is good. This should tell us that Lieberman will only be Lieberman, and if elected, he will govern as he sees fit. Certainly his being Jewish will inform and mold his behavior, but it won’t be Jewish, because there is no such thing.

A President Lieberman may pressure Israel to dismantle settlements or he may even encourage such Israeli behavior, but he will ultimately do what is consistent with his campaign platform and what is true to his political philosophy.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who is currently serving as president of the Jewish Life Network, is troubled by this Jewish ambivalence to power. Greenberg said, "It expresses a fear that at a time of heightened anti-Semitism, Jews should not be too visible."

Greenberg’s point challenges the notion that if we are fearful, then we should be quiet. Greenberg continued, "For me, the Lieberman candidacy is proof that Jews have come of age, that we are capable of taking our fate into our own hands."

Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University, contends that there is one element of the Jewish community that seems to be looking at the presidential candidates on the sole basis of where they stand on the issues. Abramowitz stated that "the fact that Jews do not automatically support a candidate because he happens to be Jewish is a reflection of the political maturity and self-confidence of American Jews."

How about that? Political maturity. What a great concept. It suggests that we American Jews have arrived at the place within American society where we feel equal to all Americans on all counts. We can now compete as individuals economically, socially and politically.

While Abramowitz is correct in pointing out this political maturity, there is still a segment of the Jewish community that appears to be afraid of this inalienable right. Greenberg claims "those Jews who are running scared in time will only hand a victory to anti-Semitism. One cannot hide or evade responsibility at this point of history. On the other hand, if we act — like everyone else — like we are entitled to compete for power and to be visible, then we will truly overcome the last residues of anti-Semitism."

If one doesn’t like Joe Lieberman’s stand on any of the issues and feels that there is another candidate who better reflects their views, then that would be a very mature way to look at the candidates. However, to reject Lieberman’s presidential bid because he is Jewish and that makes you feel uncomfortable as a Jew, that would be, well, immature.

Steve Berman serves on the board of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce. He is a columnist for the Atlanta Jewish Times.