Israel’s lesson for a Latina

I’d been to Israel before as a CBS news correspondent covering Saddam Hussein lobbing Scuds into Tel Aviv. I marveled at Israel’s spirit and saw firsthand how critical America’s alliance is to Israel’s security. But my last trip was very different. 

I was part of an elite delegation of multi-faith Latino leaders, invited by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that brings influential leaders of diverse communities to visit Israel with the hope we will return and use our influence on Congress to champion strong bipartisan U.S.-Israeli relations. 

I’m Jewish by birth but did not grow up Jewish. I returned to my faith when I adopted my child and had my bat mitzvah at 50. I was hungry for more understanding, and the intensive education promised on this visit compelled me to go.

Our travels gave us such intimate windows into the hearts of many in Israel, but what stood out for me are the Israelis who transcend the politics in ways that change lives. 

One of them was the “Save a Child’s Heart” program at the Wolfson Hospital. At this most remarkable pediatric hospital, children who have heart problems come from all over to be saved with specialty surgeries at no cost to the families. Kids come from all over Africa and, most remarkably, from enemy Arab states. One child from Gaza was here with his mom, who clearly understood he would have died without Israeli intervention to care for him. As a mother myself, I reached out to this boy’s mom, who was wearing a hijab, standing by her son’s bedside. For a moment I held her hand in mine and looked into her eyes with an understanding without words between mothers. I felt her deep emotion but also the inherent paradox of having to turn to her enemy to save her son.

When I asked the lead surgeon, who runs this program and operates on these kids, how it’s possible to receive these children from enemy territories, he said it happens all the time — that he does not see the ethnicity, race, religion or politics of a child in need; he sees a beating heart in need of saving. Even the daughter of a top leader of Hamas in Gaza is also said to have been admitted into an Israeli hospital for emergency treatment. In fact, Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior leaders of the Islamist group in Gaza, is said to have had several family members who have sought treatment from Israeli doctors. The head of the recovery home for these kids described it best when she said, “In some ways, we are our own United Nations at work every day.”

Later, we visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, an innovative educational and spiritual approach to restoring wholeness for children in need. It’s a home for broken and abused kids who are received from all over the world. Whatever war, abuse or breakdown that sent them here, this was not just an institutionalized facility to house damaged souls; this was a home to heal them.  The founder’s core philosophy is restoring wholeness of being. He’s made it his life’s mission. There are no throw-away children here, and this home does not turn them away at 18. All are welcome for life: They can get married here, stay on and work, return to visit with their children and remain connected if they wish, like family forever.

Our tour guide was one of those children who arrived with a huge wave of immigrants from Ethiopia as a young child. How I marveled at her story and those of millions of immigrants from more than 100 countries who’ve been received in Israel.

Since its founding, this tiny Jewish state with limited resources has absorbed millions and serves as a safe haven for Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and those still today fleeing persecution, whether from Yemen, Africa or, now, more from France and other European nations as dangerous anti-Semitism rages anew.

As a Latina American, passionate about immigration reform in our country, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by Israel’s embrace of so many who seek refuge here. It’s no panacea — there are many challenges here, I am told, especially with new arrivals from Darfur. But still, Israel has been a beacon of sanctuary for so many and, despite all its challenges, she has opened her doors. I couldn’t help but feel ashamed to have just sent back all those thousands of women and children who arrived at our own doorstep last summer, fleeing for their lives from the perils of Central America. Many never receive even the fair hearings for asylum that is our promise, and instead experience something called “rocket docket” court cases that spin mothers and children back as fast as they arrived, without a legitimate hearing to assess their claims. God knows what they returned to.

I couldn’t help but feel their plight more powerfully as a consequence of all I was seeing here. Our Latino delegation couldn’t help but see parallels in our shared challenges, not just on immigration, but on a shared understanding that Latino issues are America’s issues in much the same way Israel’s concerns must be America’s concerns.

I must be honest: When I first embarked on this educational mission, I questioned the importance of Israel being included in our national Latino agenda. We have so much that needs to be addressed regarding an alarming lack of access to education in our community, much-needed capital to grow our businesses and desperate need for leadership roles to represent our many interests. I couldn’t imagine where Israel fits into our conversation. I had to come to Israel to understand it. What I witnessed in Israel reminded me of a Mayan greeting I learned long ago during my Mayan studies: In Lak’ech Ala K’in. It’s the Maya’s living code of the heart that means, “I am you and you are me.” It’s a statement of unity and oneness. That’s how I felt each day in Israel. 

In fact, as I write this, I find myself reaching often to touch my necklace, which I had such fun haggling for in the Arab Quarter. It depicts the Old City in silver. It holds such memory and meaning for me, this place that is a light unto all nations — and is now a light that shines within me. 

Shalom and In Lak’ech Ala K’in.

For a full account of Fernandez's trip to Israel, click here.

Giselle Fernandez is a five-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, producer, filmmaker and Latin media marketing entrepreneur.

Giselle Fernandez: A quest for understanding

As we digest news of what could be an “understanding” with Iran and what could be a historic nuclear agreement with the “enemy,” volatile rhetoric ratchets up on all sides, dividing the Jewish community here at home and the world over, making Israel more and more a divided partisan issue.  This at a time when unified support of our only Jewish state is more needed than ever.

This region of the world once more so mired in paradox.  We want peace but defy any innovative peaceful means to achieve it.  Even the attempt at diplomacy is blasted as naive, even though the opposition offers up no fresh alternatives or options, just relentless fear and incendiary criticism.

Who doesn't want peace, new possibility, hope for a new way?  We all do, just as we fear the consequences of trusting the tyrant.

I embody this unpalatable paradox within me; this thirst for heaven but paralyzed by fear of a hellish reality.  As a humanist, I want to believe finding common ground might open new doors, making a most impossible peace, possible.  As a realist, I am afraid for my people and for Israel.

It's daunting to even share these sentiments because of the incendiary politics, but both the pursuit of the ideal and a reality of fear, live in me as true.  What I long for could prove perilous, but to crush any hope for change, goes against the grain of my being as well as my highest aspirations and belief in  mankind.  So how do you see through this quagmire, this deadlock that paralyzes a path to peace always?

In a most recent trip to Israel, I was deeply inspired by a unity and cooperation I encountered in our homeland that transcended politics that so inspired me and might now serve as such needed inspiration to see our way through these new challenging times.

Here in this writing I offer a very personal account of my visit to Israel.  I hope it helps all who know her well to reconnect with her vital spirit and all she stands for in the world, not just as a Jewish imperative, but as an imperative for all humanity.  There is a humanism at work, a reach across the divide that deeply moved me and shows what's possible in an impossible reality.  What I experienced has gone missing from the narrative and it's her soul and sacred story that must not be forgotten, most of all now as we weather yet another assault to Israel's security.

Amid all the political turmoil and terror that threatens this land, I found at every turn during my visit, quiet, behind the scenes individual acts of human kindness, unity and cooperation that are so worth mention as they transcend the heated impenetrable politics before us. 

In a state surrounded by enemies, where a new brand of escalating hatred in ISIS mutates the dynamics of barbarism to new heights — where violence and war threatens the existence of this vital democracy every day — where Arabs and Jews cannot resolve how to live together in peace and polarizing viewpoints are paralyzing —  where a possible nuclear deal with Iran divides us more than ever and now a two state solution is off the table, I found it so astounding, miraculous even, I would be exposed to such darkness and yet see so much light. 

I'd been to Israel before as a CBS news correspondent covering Saddam Hussein lobbing scuds into Tel Aviv and marveled at her spirit and saw first hand how critical America's alliance is to her security.  But this trip was very different.  I can't explain it.  It was as if some cellular history was activated within when I landed this time and spirits from the ages alerted every atom in my being I was home — not just my home, but home to us all.  I'm really not trying to be poetic, it just was that poignant. 

This was not an immediate epiphany, it was rather a day-by-day unveiling and revelation that would emerge to me as Israel's greatest grace — that despite pain and peril and polarizing politics, she unfathomably prospers — that individual acts of humanity show us the possible — a look in the mirror where we  see real hope in action.  The following is a day by day account of my travels on a quest for understanding and knowledge so I could discern for myself what's at stake.

I was part of an elite delegation of bipartisan and multi-faith Latino leaders, invited by a bipartisan pro-Israel lobby, that invites influential leaders of diverse communities to visit Israel with the hope we will return and use our influence on Congress to champion strong bipartisan U.S. Israeli relations.  It was a most remarkable group, not only because of individual achievements and influence in Washington, but because we all shared a like mission to empower our communities and champion the rights of the under served.  We were a diverse group; Catholic, Jewish, Republican and Democrat.  It was almost emblematic of a unity despite differences, we would surprisingly find mirrored back to us in the Israel we would come to know, not just a divided one too often depicted in headlines to the exclusion of all else. 

The timing of our trip was most interesting.  But when isn't it in this region of the world we were told.  We were arriving with Israeli elections just a month away and Prime Minister Netanyahu rupturing further already strained relations with President Obama by accepting Speaker John Boehner's invitation to speak before the new Republican Congress on Iran.  The colossal breach of protocol at such a divisive time in Washington was causing an uproar at home and threatening to polarize Congress even further, not to mention worse, weaken bipartisan support so vital for longstanding U.S. Israeli relations.

If the politics surrounding the timing of our trip were not enough to give pause, ISIS was raging in full terror in the news and about to burn a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage for all to see, kill a young American girl volunteering in the region and soon would complete mass beheadings of a Christian delegation.  In Israel herself, Hezbollah just weeks before fired rockets killing two Israeli soldiers in the sharpest escalation between the two enemies in years.  This was the barbaric backdrop unfolding in the Middle East as we were set to travel. 

When I voiced concern prior to departure, it was met with what became a usual response from those who live these threats daily.  “This is Israel.”  It wasn't an easy decision to go.  I was outraged by Netanyahu's decision to address Congress.  I had Jewish friends discouraging me from traveling with AIPAC and was urged instead to align with other more lenient lobby groups pushing for more diplomacy with Iran than the hard line sanctions AIPAC advocated and a more responsive two state solution to Arab interests more in line with Jewish American sentiments.  I was too new a Jew to make sense of the divergent Jewish factions in America and where I stood in it all.

I'm Jewish by birth but did not grow up Jewish.  I returned to my faith when I adopted my child and got my Bat Mitzvah at fifty.  I was not exposed to the years of indoctrination to all the divergent diatribe that has shaped so many staunch opinions of many around me lucky to grow up in a Jewish household.  I have just tried to make sense of it all as I connected more and more to my Jewish roots and have found it a quagmire to wade through.  What I have always been clear on is America must stand strong along side Israel strategically in the region at all costs — that our shared democracy and pursuit of peace above all is imperative. 

I was hungry for more understanding and this intensive education promised on this visit compelled me to go.

The line up of diverse speakers promised opposing perspectives and esteemed experts and leaders from all fields to shed light on the most pressing issues; the elections, Iran, Arab interests and the surrounding threats from enemy borders.  I wanted to learn if a nuclear Iran really is the threat that Netanyahu portends or a posturing scare strategy for his re-election.

Is our President brave and visionary to pursue more diplomatic resolutions with Iran — a country that chants “down with America, death to Israel?”  Who is right here?  What can lead to peace?  I wanted to learn. 

Upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport our Hispanic Leadership group embarked on what would be fully packed days from one end of the country to the other to see with our own eyes the precarious geography of a sliver of land positioned on all sides by enemy nations.  Seeing it on a map is one thing — looking across from Israel into Gaza or Lebanon or Syria with your own eyes is another.  So close, so daunting, surreal.  Upon our arrival with the sun just setting, painting the horizon gold, we traveled by bus to the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem where we promptly checked in at nightfall as the lights of the Old City beckoned.  We were all so excited to be here on such sacred ground. We checked in and raced to our first briefing over what would be the first of many sumptuous Mediterranean feasts.  The welcoming topic, “Why a Jewish State of Israel is so Vital.”  It took everything I had to concentrate on the discourse as each course of delicacies distracted me from our first discussion.  Marinated heaps of lamb, chicken, beef, Israeli salads, olives, crisp juicy red peppers and Israeli cucumbers in a sumptuous spread would come to define the culinary adventure of our week here.  Whatever was unfamiliar we were told was most likely eggplant — all sensuous and scrumptious to both feast your eyes upon as well as your pansas (tummies in Spanish).  Amid those first bites, Dr. Einat Wilf, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, through prowess and persistence powerfully set the stage for our week ahead.  The Jewish connection to Israel dates back 3000 years and despite millennia of exile and persecution, at last the Jewish people were able to re-establish their homeland in 1948 and serve as a refuge for Jews from around the world. 

We discussed the positioning of this precious democracy and how Israel has had to fight to justify her very existence and survival ever since her creation.  After robust discussion and dessert, we were offered an enchanting trek through the Old City at night with talk of Jerusalem's rich cultural diversity.  There was not one weary jet lagged soul among us on that first night's arrival who didn't muster a second wind to walk through the Jaffa Gate, the “eye of the needle,” into a biblical time of ages past.  I didn't know if it was the time change or the sheer seduction of actually standing within this exotic city of the Bible, but this is where I first felt that sense of the mystic, that soul connection I spoke of to all that's holy and all who've come before. 

We were walking upon ancient stones of a walled city in the footsteps of sages who walked thousands of years before us, and I quietly felt a calling on this first nights arrival from a well of souls within me, not just my own — I felt somehow a link between then and now that would serve as a bridge into the future.  It felt awesome and privileged.  It was just night one.  It reminded me of that saying, “those who have gone before us are blazing a trail through the ether.” 

The next day at the crack of dawn we were up for a primer on Israeli politics followed by a guided tour of the Holy Basin, the Mt. of Olives and the Old City.  Our amazing tour guide, Uri Goldflam, offered the perfect depth of history, context and perspective with contemporary relevance and a touch of needed humor to arouse the eye lids when inescapable jet lag loomed.  As we looked out at the Mt. of Olives, Uri reminded us that only very revered souls are buried in this sacred mount, but there are exceptions made.  He told how recently the young men from the Kosher market killed during the Paris Charlie Hebdo massacre were just buried there as an example.  It was an alarming wake up call; another bridge between the ages I just referred to so poetically, which morphs into the pathetic and preposterous, how this peril still rages today and claims young lives.  This same hatred in a distorted name of what's holy has decimated so many before us and now rears its barbaric head once more to such frightening heights through Europe and most notably France where Jews are once more fleeing in fear for their lives, some finding refuge I was told in Israel.  As I stood in this sacred city, the past, present and future stared me in the face as I looked toward the new burial ground just in the distance on that sacred mount — where those beautiful boys with so much to live for were just laid to rest, killed for simply being Jewish.  A rush of thoughts assaulted my brain.  It's inescapable here when exposed to so much history that relives itself.

Radical racism, perceived separateness, supremacy above others — when will this unconsciousness end, whether against Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, women.  Overlooking that mount, these were the thoughts that rushed in.  I couldn't help but think of our boys back home taken down for such stupidity; Trevon Martin, Michael Johnson, Eric Garner.  We always espouse “never again,” and again and again it happens in different iterations the world over.  Martin Luther King's words filled me, “injustice anywhere, injustice everywhere.”  Do we learn nothing from our past?  It took me back to a dinner recently in Wyoming where a couple from California, unaware I was Mexican, began a rant against Mexican immigrants.  “It would be OK if they could just be more like us,” they said.  When I said I was Mexican, they said, “we of course are not talking about your kind of Mexican.”  When you are in Israel, the hotbed of history that offers such a glaring mirror to our shared humanity and inhumanity, you can't help be inundated with a piercing shame that the past is still the present. 

In a complete juxtaposition, music and jovial celebration echoed below us and snagged my attention to the festivities in the streets.  It looked like traveling minstrels singing and dancing through Jerusalem.  It was a Bar Mitzvah taking place with family and friends as is the custom here.  In fact, there were several going on at once; so different to the huge and costly ceremonies that marks this right of passage in the states.  I marveled at the joy and release of blue and white balloons that would soar above the Old City as a young man bopped up and down on the shoulders of a proud father and family. 

All the juxtapositions of thought, joy and pain were staggering.  We then set off with great anticipation to the Western Wall.  What can I say, I welled up in tears as my hand found its way through shoulder-to-shoulder women to touch what's left of our sacred temple, where I leaned into her stones and prayed along side women of all ages and races.  I only learned later of the controversy surrounding women at the wall.  I'm thankful I experienced it as I did.  It felt profound.  I prayed silently for all I long for in unison with those who prayed aloud in Hebrew and in chorus with birds singing loudly above us perched in the cracks amid millions of embedded paper prayers that I sensed could be my own.  Children, my own daughter's age, played in the square in the sun as the flags of Israel waved blue and white in a breeze.  It was beautiful and some of my lovely new friends hugged me as I couldn't help but cry.  As a Jew, it was overwhelming to my spirit and soul's calling to be here at our precious Kotel — in this, our homeland, our treasured hard fought Jewish state, the place every year at Passover we recite, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and here I was.  I felt the heroism of my history, the heartache of our heritage.  Deeply appreciative to stand and be present and aware that where I stood, stood for so much, for so many.  It was just so deeply moving.  I felt so proud to be Jewish.

It was no different the next morning for many of new friends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, invited to pray before dawn in a special mass arranged just for us.  Ascending those venerated stone stairs to this sacred sanctuary in candle light, to the very site Jesus was said to have been crucified, which treasures his tomb from which he is believed to have risen.  This was clearly for most of our delegation a soul experience of a life time, just as the Wall was for me.  I felt humbled to bear witness to their deep faith and worship as they knelt in prayer or stood with their hands and eyes raised and uplifted to the Lord during this extraordinary service taking place just for them.  Some read from the Bible during the mass and all received communion.  As a human being, no matter your faith, you can't help be moved by the depth of humanity, humility and holy history you experience and witness here.  To emerge into the sunlight of the new day and look out over the Dome of the Rock equally takes your breath away — it's overwhelming to pack so much sanctity into one morning.  It's simply surreal to the senses and spirit, trying to take it all in.  This Muslim shrine is believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during his Night Journey to Jerusalem.  It's the oldest surviving mihrab indicating the direction to Mecca in the world, believed by many to stand directly over the Holy of Holies of both Solomon's Temple and Herod's Temple.  Jews believe the rock to be the very place where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and was spared by G-d. 

To stand before it all, to actually see it, breathe it in — the sacred sites where all faiths and histories overlap, intertwine and interconnect — it's shattering the realization we are at war.  You can't help not see ourselves in each other, feel a deep sense we all belong here.  How tragic and preposterous it is that peace is beyond our reach.  Israel is like an onion you pry and cry through layers upon layers for understanding — only to meet a continual presence of paradoxes that exist side-by-side. 

We would visit the Church of the Beatitudes where Christ looked out upon those gorgeous waters of the Galilee and recited his Sermon on the Mount.  We went to those shores and collected holy water in bottles where so many miracles in the Bible are said to have taken place.  “It's right here overlooking these same mountains and seas,” Uri stated, “that Jesus performed his miracles, where people of all faiths throughout the ages came then and still today to honor their faith and share like values.”  “This,” he said, “is Israel.”  We trekked up through Masada — a symbol of supreme Jewish heroism.  Under attack by the Romans, Jews here refused to be taken and enslaved and chose instead to take their own lives and those of their families in a brave act of defiance that would define our transcendence for ages.  Masada was a story not only of suicide, Uri explained, but more significantly, of Jewish claim to these ancient lands.  I asked Uri why the Jews were always so hated.  “We are different,” was his answer.  The words at that Wyoming dinner rang in my head,” if they could just be like us.”

Our visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem, of course devastated the soul.  It was a heart wrenching afternoon.  But once again always a paradox of horror and hope present in every aspect of this history.  While there, a group of young Israeli soldiers were touring the museum, as required to do twice yearly, so they fully understand why they risk their lives every day for this country and their people.  I captured such a poignant picture of them gathered near a sign that read “Liberated but not Free — that is the paradox of the Jew.”  True then as it is now.  Always present, a bridging of past and present and threat to the future.  All in the hands of these young brave men and women who inspired in us all such pride.  They defend not only their land, but a region in the world whose protection impacts us all.  Of all the many horrors depicted there that tear at your core and reduce you to shame and unspeakable sorrow.  One that cut deep was the return of the MS Saint Louis that arrived to America with hundreds of Jews who could have been saved.  America sent them back knowing of Hitler's atrocities.  It was hard to hold and inexplicable to reconcile.

Shamefully, I could not bare all the incomprehensible inhumanity on display.  No matter how many times you see it, or know you must look at it square in the mirror, I had to turn away.  But one image that really startled me was a picture of a then 17 year old emaciated Elie Wiesel taken while imprisoned in Auschwitz.  I had recently interviewed the 83 year old Nobel laureate and author of so many books including his most famous, “Night,” whose life's mission to keep these memories alive through his own Holocaust Museum and Foundation have contributed so much to the world.  To see him in an old faded black and white photograph on these walls was crushing because he was that bridge, still alive, connecting me to the realness of then and now.  I stared at that picture of him and recalled us just sitting before hundreds not too long ago in a fancy hotel in Washington with him in a fine suit speaking of courage and forgiveness.  I had asked him how it was possible to forgive such atrocities.  He told me it was a decision.  He could either choose to live a life enslaved by rage or choose gratitude.  I asked him what we have learned from the Holocaust when we see genocides and acts of racism continue across the globe.  “We must not just remember,” he said, “we must actively promote tolerance and engage young people to raise their voices against injustice and racism of any kind” — that silence and apathy are complicit.  I thought of the antisemitism erupting once more throughout Europe with such a vengeance and without more uproar in America and around the globe?  How can we stand by silently and allow once more radical Islamic terror to grow within among us as in France and then be surprised by attack?

In France and more and more in Europe, the enemy is not without, we've allowed it to grow within.  These are the thoughts that force their way in as you walk through the past and feel her ominous presence in the present.  When you leave this architectural masterpiece of a museum, the heavy gray slabs of concrete that house such darkness make way to a cascading rush of light brimming through towering triangular openings and light the walkways to an outside veranda where lush beautiful vistas of Jerusalem await.  This is Israel.

In a beautiful Shabbat dinner hosted by a lovely family in Jerusalem, all of us were welcomed so warmly into a Jewish home to share in the celebration of the Sabbath.  We watched as the mother and father blessed their boy before dinner, as is the custom of this night, and it moved many to tears at the table.  This American couple who welcomed us had made “aliyah” to Israel, a move to live a more elevated religious life here.  Both were teachers of Torah and chose to raise their family here.  Before us they blessed the wine and the bread and sang the traditional “Shalom Aleichem,” welcoming the angles of peace among us on the eve of the Sabbath, which is one of most beautiful songs sung on this night.  All learned of the distinction of the Sabbath's sunset-to-sunset respite from every day life and mandate to turn inward for reflection and toward family in celebration of creation.  We heard of the parents pride as they spoke of their son's military service, but also of a mother and father's dread and daily fear for their safety. 

Our travels gave us such intimate windows into the hearts of many here and they are so worth mention because their lack of mention leaves us an impression there are no bridges between people here.  There are, and they transcend the politics in ways that change lives.  One of them was the most remarkable pediatric hospital for children with heart problems who come from all over to be saved with specialty surgeries at no cost to the families.  It's the “Save a Child's Heart” program at the Wolfson Hospital.  Here, kids come from all over Africa and most remarkably from enemy Arab states.  One child from Gaza was here with his mom who clearly understood he would have died without the Israeli intervention to care for him.  As a mother myself, I reached out to this boy's mom wearing a Hijab, standing by her son's bedside and for a moment held her hand in mine and looked into her eyes with an understanding without words between mothers.  I felt her deep emotion but also the inherent paradox of having to turn to her enemy to save her son.

When I asked the lead surgeon, who runs this program and operates on these these kids, how it's possible to receive these children from enemy territories, he said it happens all the time — that he does not see the ethnicity, race, religion or politics of a child in need, he sees a beating heart in need of saving.  Even the daughter of a top leader of Hamas in Gaza is also said to have been admitted into an Israeli hospital for emergency treatment.  In fact, Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior leaders of the Islamist group in Gaza, is said to have had several family members who have sought treatment from Israeli doctors.  The head of the recovery home for these kids described it best, she said, “in some ways we are our own United Nations at work every day.”  We also met a young doctor in training from Ethiopia here who sported a billion watt smile.  He was almost through with his internship and about to return as the only pediatric cardiac surgeon in all of his country.  He expressed such pride in purpose in now what will be made possible as a result of his experience. 

I was blown away by the benefactors of this facility and the partnering family recovery home that cares for the kids while recuperating after heart surgery.  It's like a Ronald McDonald House in the States.  American founders like Eli Broad and others had their names in scripted in the wall.  We are the most generous country in the world, I thought, and I felt so proud to be American and know we had a hand and heart in this place that saves blessed children who would otherwise never have a chance.  We visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, an innovative educational and spiritual approach to restoring wholeness for children in need.  It's a home for broken and abused kids who are received again from all over the world. Whatever war, abuse or break down that sent them here, this was not just an institutionalized facility to house damaged souls, this was a home to heal them.  The founder's core philosophy is restoring wholeness of being.  He's made it his life's mission.  There are no throw away children here and this home does not turn them away at 18.  All are welcome for life, can get married here, stay on and work, return to visit with their children and remain connected if they wish like family forever. 

Our tour guide was one of those children who arrived with a huge wave of immigrants from Ethiopia as a young child.  She told her story as we sat in a hut that served as a replica of the kind of home in Ethiopia she grew up in and had to flee.  A powerful reminder from where she'd come.  Her parents could not assimilate so easily once they arrived and she would find herself a home at this Youth Village and never leave.  She now works here and is raising her child here.  She is emblematic of the realities of Jewish persecution and immigration and the long road to refuge in a new life, in a new homeland so thankful to reach but so hard to find your way in.  This home helped her find hers and now she shares her story with pride and purpose with all who come to visit and learn.  How I marveled at her story and those of millions of immigrants from more than 100 countries who've been received in Israel.

Since its founding, this tiny Jewish state with limited resources has absorbed millions and serves as a safe haven for Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and those still today fleeing persecution, whether from Yemen, Africa or now more from France and Europe as dangerous antisemitism rages anew.  As a Latina American, passionate about immigration reform in our own country, I couldn't help but feel inspired by Israel's embrace of so many who seek refuge here.  It's no panacea — there are many challenges here I am told, especially with new arrivals from Darfur.  But still, Israel has been a beacon of embrace for so many and even with all its challenges she has opened her doors.  I could not help feel ashamed to have just sent back all those thousands of women and children who recently arrived at our own doorstep last summer, fleeing for their lives from the perils of Central America.  Many never receive even the fair hearings for asylum that is our promise, and instead experience something called “rocket docket” court cases that spin mothers and children back as fast as they arrived without a legitimate hearing to assess their claims.  G-d knows what they returned to.  I couldn't help but feel their plight more powerfully as a consequence of all I was seeing here.  Our Latino delegation couldn't help but see parallels in our shared challenges, not just on immigration, but on a shared understanding that Latino issues are America's issues in much the same way Israel's concerns must be America's concerns.

When I first embarked on this educational mission, I must be honest; I questioned the importance of Israel being included in our national Latino agenda.  We have so much that needs address regarding an alarming lack of access to education in our community, much needed capital to grow our businesses and desperate need for leadership roles to represent our many interests.  I couldn't imagine where Israel fits into our conversation.  I had to come here to get it.  I'm reminded of my Mayan studies and a greeting that so applies, “In Lak'ech A la K'in.”  It's the Maya's living code of the heart which means, “I am you and you are me.”  It's a statement of unity and oneness.  That's how I felt each day here the more and more examples of individual heroism encountered.  We met amazing women especially contributing so much to the world with their innovations.  One was Sivan Yaari, who literally knocked our socks off with technology she developed to extract water from desert that she shares with villages in Africa, completely transforming life there.  We met an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mark Levy, who founded Expanding Orthopedics in Israel who has developed as many as twenty patents for new technologies to help human beings everywhere receive more advanced orthopedic remedies.

We met this remarkable entrepreneur who, out of his living room just outside Tel Aviv, created a website for discovering, sharing and preserving family history.  His website, MyHeritage, has 80-million users, 1.6-billion profiles and 28-million family trees.  One of the most daring examples of heroism for me came from Gal Lusky, CEO of Israel Flying Aid.  Talk about defying the politics of the times, this young mother flies in the face of fear literally to bring aid into Syria where women and children refugees are in dire need and where ISIS, Iran and the Russians are becoming more and more pervasive with each visit.  She told us she wears a veil on her missions to hide her identity and pays for fuel there now mostly in Iranian and Soviet currency.  The need is grave, she told us, and the threat to Israel ever present and growing.  She told me her own child understands why she must go — that other children need her too, especially those mangled by bombs, in need of prosthesis and live in despair.  When I ask how she does it, how she deals with the fear, she says she is committed, period.  Many of the young people we would meet came from the “Technion” in Haifa, a world class university known for its stunning futuristic advancements in technology and medicine, or the renown Tel Aviv University, a thriving Mediterranean center of diversity and groundbreaking discoveries of all kinds.  It's true, if you want to get a sense of tomorrow, look to the young people in any land and you will see the future. 

Those we met here inspired such faith and made us all feel like quantum un-achievers. 

This applies also to two women members of the Knesset from opposing sides we would also meet.  They were young vibrant voices grappling with ancient divides and colossal issues, but they inspired with fresh and passionate advocacy and a kind of contemporary courage and command that once more, is an impressive example of the vital role women play in society here. 

Ayelet Shaked, Chairwoman of the the right wing Bayit Yehudi faction, supported Netanyahu, is against the peace talks with Iran, very critical of John Kerry and a known voice empowering Jews in neighborhoods with an influx of African migrants.

In her opinion, the only reason peace talks broke off with the Palestinians was not the plight of settlements, but because the Palestinian Authority refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. 

We also heard from Merav Michaeli, an Israeli journalist turned politician now serving in the Knesset as a member of the opposition Labor Party.  At the time, she offered her own leftist, much more hopeful view for peace.  A month before elections,  she  rejected the notion Israel had moved inexorably to the right.  Netanyahu's victory has proved otherwise. 

It was interesting to read of her narratives though, regarding Israel's need to reconcile its past, both with the Holocaust and “Nakba,” the Arabic name for the deaths and expulsions of Palestinians and destruction of their villages at the founding of Israel. She envisions a democratic Jewish state but one that allows all of its citizens to “live peacefully together with equal rights.”  When asked about Netanyahu, she says “his government has exploited fear, substituting a blame game for real security.” 

Two emphatic voices on opposite sides that addressed divergent view points on Netanyahu and over what's possible for a two state solution.  So much has changed since our travels.  The speech has been made, the Prime Minister has won and prospects for a two state solution aced from the narrative.  

We spoke with two Palestinian women who shared their plight of occupation victimized under Israeli rule, their lack of access to water and fear for their children's future.  I so wanted to identify with them, they were articulate women, mothers, desperate too to live in their own state and determine their own fate. How could you not empathize with them, want for them equal rights and ability to live freely as we all dream and know is right. 

Both said they longed for a two state solution.  The problem they agreed is the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State.”  One of the women said, “it's not for us to say you're a Jewish State, that is for you to say, not us.” 

We did not have more exposure to Palestinian voices and I wish we had. 

But seeing Israel so sandwiched by terror on all sides, I admit it was hard for me to stay open to other points of view when radicals from within and without don't want you to exist.  As a humanist, as a decent conscious human being, the ideal of course is mutual respect but I have to admit, I felt paralyzed by my own inner fear and deeply conflicted.  This is a place where compassion could be deadly and suicide bombers could kill your kid on a bus, I found trust and compromise challenging to reconcile. 

I was surprised at myself — almost ashamed that I, a devout democrat and humanist, leaned here to the right.  It's easy from America to weigh in, but if my child boarded these buses daily, would I feel so trusting?  What a quagmire to reconcile.  The same feeling pervades in reference to a deal with Iran.  I so want to be brave and believe and trust but I admit my fear.  It's one thing to say make that unprecedented deal living in America.  It's different if my child were boarding that bus.

It's not lost on me Israelis live courageously every day.

We stood at the border of Gaza on a Kibbutz hit by incoming missiles last summer.  We saw the stock piles of corroded weaponry and the shelters that dot every corner in the event sirens sound.  We looked a short distance to where tunnels were constructed with abundant supplies Israel sent to Gaza to build schools and infrastructure, only to be used as tools of terror against them.  We saw the piled up missiles shot into Israel.  We stood at the Israeli Lebanon Syria border with Major Sarit Zehavi at Dovev, in the North, who outlined just in the distance a constant encroaching threat of Hezbollah and Iran where a recent attack took place.

Perhaps one of the most memorable speakers was Lt. Colonel Roi Levi from the IDF who looked right out of central casting, sporting the ideal image of Israeli military power and pride.  It was his stories of occupying Gaza and his empathy for the Palestinians, especially their children, that moved me deeply.  He spoke of his mandate to defend Israel and his prowess in doing so, but also spoke with heartfelt empathy of the destruction of life he witnesses there on patrol.  It's so different than when Israelis governed there, he said, and oversaw the building of universities, businesses, a thriving economy, life. 

“Today in Gaza, under Hamas,” he says, “there is nothing.”  The refrigerators are empty, the children and young people left with no work and nothing to do but hate and blame.  He says his troops under his command warn for weeks of impending assault.  They drop flyers and sound warnings in advance to no avail.  “Hamas leaders,” he says, “shamefully use their children as pawns and propaganda to demonize Israel.”  The realities of his command, he says, effects him deeply.  He, too, is a father and says its unconscionable, what the leaders in Gaza do to their people, to their children and then blame Israelis for the blood shed.

When it came to Iran, we got differing view points from significant experts.  Dr. Emily Landau, expert in nuclear proliferation and the Director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, couldn't be more clear.  Iran has the pathways to a bomb and America doesn't get it.  She insisted on an urgent need for severe sanctions and said President Obama’s pursuit of diplomacy and this impending deal was naive.  “Iran,” she says, “is empowered to control the narrative and that creates a most dangerous proposition for the region and the world.” 

If we were looking for much needed context, perhaps it was our privileged visit to the Peres Center for Peace located in Jaffa — in this exquisite architectural masterpiece of a building made up of concrete slabs layered and lifted between openings of light that symbolized so much of what we experienced as Israel.  It soared above the ocean and operates as an independent non-profit, non-political organization whose aim is to find peace in the Middle East by empowering all to work together.  Shimon Peres himself, former President of Israel, twice prime minister, Nobel prize winner for negotiating the Oslo Accords with Rabin and Arafat, could not have received us more warmly or with a greater sense of hopefulness. 

At 91, still brimming with timeless charisma, he greeted each and every one of us individually, took selfies with us and countless pictures, seeming to understand the modern ways of honoring his legendary significance and statesmanship.  He spoke quietly with candor, context and calm about key issues we explored on our visit.  He said it was a mistake for Netanyahu to speak before Congress.  He praised President Obama's leadership, alliance and support of Israel, as one of the best in history and questioned why Obama is so criticized.  He brought up Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist Toni Morrison's writings, and seemed to say he believes racism is at the root against him.  He praised America saying we are a country that gives far more than it takes and he talked of peace being a long and difficult pursuit but ever possible.  When I asked him about Iran, he expressed no alarm.  It was an aside at the end of our visit but said with no urgency, “we're on the right track.”  It was a short but impacting encounter.  He's a man of peace period. 

I think we all felt it — the privilege of engaging with a legend, one of the founding fathers of Israel at the helm of so much history here, who is the very symbol of transformation and the possible.  He would start out as a hawk and transform into his country's most prominent dove.  He is considered a man of reconciliation, an example of shifting positions when in the best interest of Israel and of engaging with our Arab and Palestinian neighbors in a relentless pursuit of peace. It was a most powerful and poignant way to end our journey here with so much to think about, absorb and integrate. 

Our final stop, before our flight home, a baptismal plunge into the Dead Sea, the Salt Sea, ten times as salty as the world's oceans. Its saline content reaches up to 35 percent and boy do you feel and taste it!  It's rich in minerals and rich in biblical significance.  It was a bit cold and slushy on the feet, but the buoyancy that cradles you effortlessly and bounces you like a ball above the waters, is otherworldly and leaves your skin smooth and soft as if scrubbed in an ancient spa. 

It was not easy to say goodbye.  You can't come here, speed learn all this overwhelming data with such significance to humanity and share how deeply it moved you and not be changed or bonded for life.  I know I've made new friends, both on the right and left, and we've found common ground as passionate champions for Israel.  I left the Holy Land intent that a unified Congress must do the same. 

But as I feared that was not to be.  Upon my return, post speech and election, we are more divided than ever and US-Israeli relations severely strained, our leaders more enemies than allies. 

No matter where you fall on it, whether you think he was brave, or brazen, right or wrong, on the Left or Right, Netanyhu's tactics and victory ignited a deep divide in the Jewish community along party lines.  A deal or no deal on Iran will divide even more.  Instead of coming together when we need to most, we are taking sides and I so fear that when divided, we fall.  

How distracting from what is our soul and sole mandate; to protect this vital democracy in the Middle East and this precious jewel that is our Jewish State, holy land for all humanity and key to world peace.  When all seems hopeless, I think back to the heroism and humanity I experienced in Israel and I am fueled by the courage and character of those whose stories I have shared.  I can only hope we evoke their vision and conviction now to see ourselves in each other as we weigh all before us and dare to be brave as we seek new pathways to peace.

Throughout this writing, I've often reached for a necklace that hangs on my heart that I had such fun haggling for in the Arab quarter.  It depicts the Old City in silver.  It holds such memory and meaning for me, this place that is a light unto all nations and now a light that shines in me.  Shalom and In Lak'ech Ala K'in (I am you).

Israelis, Palestinians vie for Latino support during Pope’s visit

The first Latin American pope brought a wave of Latino love with him on his trip to the Holy Land last weekend.

At Pope Francis’ public prayer at Manger Square on May 25 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, near the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, Spanish was being spoken almost as much as Arabic. Flags from Argentina and Spain flew alongside those of the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican.

Francisco Primero, te quiere el mundo entero! (Francis the First, the whole world loves you!) a group of Spanish tourists chanted as they rushed the square, surrounded by giddy Palestinian schoolchildren. And then, louder: “Viva El Papa! (Long live the Pope!)

On the walls of stone buildings above the tourists, Palestinian Museum officials had hung mural-sized posters mixing images from classic Christian paintings with photos of Palestinian suffering. In one, a re-mixed “Madonna in the Meadow” showed the Virgin Mary huddling with Baby Jesus under the infamous separation wall that now divides Israel and the West Bank. In another, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” the saint’s hand was replaced by a Palestinian’s holding out his ID for an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

“Welcome to Palestine,” a huge banner proclaimed on the local mosque. “The detainees in the occupations prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity.”

So began Day One of the “Hasbara Superbowl” between Israelis and Palestinians, in which the ultimate prize was support of the international Christian community — and, in particular, Christian Latinos.

Joseph Hyman, president and founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, made the Superbowl comparison back during the first-ever Israel Summit last January, where 17 pro-Israel organizations were vying for funding from some 100 philanthropists. The star of the summit, Hyman said, was Fuente Latina, an organization that assists Spanish-language media looking to cover Israel and the region. The organization needed a funding boost to provide extra resources during the Pope’s much-anticipated visit to the Holy Land.

Its pitch was a no-brainer. Latinos form the largest minority in the United States — this year, they even surpassed non-Hispanic whites in California.

And in the University of California system, where impassioned debates over whether to divest from Israel have been pushing student-government meetings late into the night (as at many other campuses across the U.S.), more Latino students than white students have been accepted for fall 2014.

That’s not to mention the 21 countries that make up Latin America — whose population is 90 percent Christian, and mostly Catholic, like the pope — plus Spain and Portugal.

Fuente Latina’s director, Leah Soibel, an American with Argentinian parents, founded the organization in December 2012 after working seven years at The Israel Project, another nonprofit that aims to improve Israel’s image abroad. “We’ve been preparing for weeks,” she said in an interview a few days before the Pope’s arrival. “It’s going to be 72 hours of madness when he’s here. A lot of people are going to be watching — all eyes on Jerusalem.”

Even more than his predecessors, Pope Francis has captured hearts beyond the Catholic world: A pop-culture icon for his focus on the disenfranchised and his willingness to break molds of papal opulence, Francis was named 2013’s “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine. He speaks tirelessly of the importance of inter-religious dialogue and of putting social justice before capitalism. At a press conference in Jerusalem arranged by Fuente Latina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the leader of Argentina’s Jewish community and one of the pope’s closest friends, called him “probably the most influential person in the world.” 

Soibel said that the three employees at Fuente Latina normally process 50 to 100 requests in a month. In contrast, during the Pope’s visit, the organization was providing heavy assistance to about 300 media outlets.

Fuente Latina connected reporters with Spanish-speaking experts in Israel, arranged press conferences — most notably, the one with Rabbi Skorka, who co-authored the pope’s book on inter-religious dialogue — and took them on helicopter rides across Israel.

On one such sky tour, Soibel explained the reality on the ground to reporters from Mexico and Columbia, with an emphasis on Israel’s reasoning for building the separation wall and the fear experienced by Israelis near the border. The group also touched down in Sderot to tour a police exhibit of rockets that have been fired from Gaza. “When they don’t feel they’re getting enough attention, they begin to send rockets again,” Soibel said of the terrorists in Gaza.

Fuente Latina Director Leah Soibel with a case of rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Photo by Simone Wilson

Later, the Mexican reporter wrote in an online piece for her news site, Religión Confidencial, that although the pope would observe the separation wall, in many Israeli cities he would also observe minimal separation — places where Jews, Christians and Muslims live in peaceful coexistence.

Jewish philanthropy leader Hyman said of the helicopter rides: “For journalists to look at the size of Israel and understand its nature, it lends a sensitivity to why Israel is so concerned on the existential front.”

The Vatican also pulled its weight in the battle for public opinion. The pope’s visit was the picture of balance: He ate lunch with Palestinian refugees and spontaneously stepped down from his Popemobile to pray at the separation wall in Bethlehem, which is covered in anti-Israel graffiti. On the other side of the Green Line, he laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and blessed a group of gravely ill Christian Arab-Israeli children (at the request of Israel’s branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation).

The pope also stopped for an instantly iconic photo of three very different Argentinians — the heads of Argentina’s Jewish, Catholic and Muslim communities — hugging at the Western Wall.

“He will try to balance,” Rabbi Skorka said in advance of the pope’s visit at the Fuente Latina press conference. “This is going to be his policy in his speeches and in his acts. Total balance, this is what he is.” 

But while Pope Francis tried to spread his love evenly, Israeli and Palestinian heads of state fought for the upper hand. After the pope’s stop at the separation wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjaman Netanyah steered him toward a Jerusalem memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism, so he could pray there, too. And both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas argued in their welcoming speeches that life is better for Christians under their jurisdiction.

Abbas condemned “the settlement enterprise, and daily attacks on places of worship including churches and mosques.” He also emphasized his willingness to “work together to strengthen the Palestinian indigenous Christian presence in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile, told the pope: “The rights of Christians in this state are protected. To my sorrow, that doesn’t happen in other places in the Middle East. … Palestinian terrorists not only hurt us, they also harm Christians.”

Rima Saba, an American-educated Palestinian and “staunch Catholic” from Ramallah, spoke to the Journal in the crowd at the Bethlehem rally — the pope’s only public, open-air event while in the Holy Land. “This is an international, historical moment,” Saba said. “It means a lot for Palestine and its people. This is the land of Jesus Christ, but it also carries a lot of meaning and emotion for us as Palestinians. The fact that [the Pope] chose to come to Palestine first shows he really has clarity of vision, vis à vis the Palestinian question — that we are refugees, that we have been tortured and evicted.”

An increasingly popular annual conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a project of the Bethlehem Bible College, has tried to loosen Israel’s monopoly on Evangelical Christian financial and moral support abroad.

“With every passing month, more evidence is emerging that these anti-Israel Christians are succeeding in reaching beyond the evangelical left and are influencing the mainstream,” David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel (CUFI), wrote after this year’s conference. “In particular, they are penetrating the evangelical world at its soft underbelly: the millennial generation.”

OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, author of the “¡Ask a Mexican!” column and an advocate of Jewish-Latino relations, agreed that although Israel has wooed many members of the Latino political class, it's losing them at college level: “In the Latin market in general, but especially in the U.S. and among young people, the Palestinians are definitely winning the battle.”

According to Arellano, the “brown people oppressed by white oppressors” narrative is easy for pro-Palestine groups to sell to young Latinos going through their “leftist years where they love all revolutionary causes.”

He said this stems from the reality that “the Israel question registers not a blip for Latinos — not until one side of the other comes to them with their perspective. Kind of like, ‘We’re yours, whoever gets to us first.’”

Pope Francis drives by a crowd holding Palestinian flags in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Separate polls conducted by The Israel Project and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) over the past few years have shown that U.S. Latinos, in particular, are somewhat of a blank slate when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“There’s a lack of awareness” about the region among Latinos in the U.S., Soibel said. “They have more pressing issues, like immigration, health care, economy. We know very well that Israel is down the list of things that matter personally to them.”

But as Latinos become more politically and economically empowered in America, said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at AJC, “they’re slowly but surely becoming a very influential and important group, which will have an impact on decision-making in this country. So it’s important to us that they understand what Israel is about. That they understand we are partners.”

Geraldo Rivera, a columnist for Fox News Latino, likewise pointed out in 2011 that Israel would not be a state, nor would Palestine enjoy “non-member state” status at the United Nations, if not for the Latin American voting block.

“Relations between Latin America and Israel are starting to look like a budding love affair,” World Politics Review commentator Frida Ghitis wrote in February following a wave of cross-globe visits between Israeli and Latin American leaders.

“Israel and Latin America have discovered each other — or, to be precise, a portion of Latin America has,” she added. “Latin America is increasingly falling into two separate camps, and it is one of those camps that has found an affinity for Israel.”

Speaking to the Journal at the pope’s prayer rally at Manger Square, most religious tourists from Spain and Latin America distanced themselves from the Israel-Palestine issue, refusing to take a stance.

“It’s very complicated,” said Laura Rodriguez, a Catholic visitor from Spain. “There’s no one truth about it.”

Also in the crowd was Buenos Aires politician Lidia Saya, who said she had traveled to Bethlehem with a group of 60 dignitaries, including Argentinian religious leaders Father Pepe Di Paola and Rabbi Alejandro Avruj. “The grand majority of us [Argentinians] don’t understand the conflict. The grand majority don’t have a position,” she said. However, “coming here, and having to go through a checkpoint just to get to the plaza — I can see that it’s very bad for the citizens.”

Argentinian journalist Nelson Castro interviews religious tourists from Argentina in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Carlos Boselle, also from Buenos Aires, was on a tour with around 70 Catholics from across Latin America. He said that many Israelis and Palestinians had tried to argue their position to him. Although he called the Israelis “big fanatics,” he said he understood that “Israel has its reasons” for building the separation wall. “They’re protecting their rights, too.”

Another group of sunburned Argentinians heading back through the checkpoint at the end of the day looked rather shell-shocked when all the Palestinians were pulled off the bus and examined for 20 minutes before they could continue on to Jerusalem.

According to Vann at the AJC, missing this prime era for Latino outreach could have big consequences. 

“It could go one way, or it could go the other way,” Vann said. “Because there’s a lack of information out there [about Israel], you have an incredible opportunity, if you do it correctly in a strategic way, to inform. … There’s a sense of urgency and a small window of opportunity to make a difference before Latinos truly become empowered.”

AJC, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, runs dozens of Israel tours for Latino politicians, faith leaders, culture-makers and other dignitaries. But other organizations, like Fuente Latina, have taken a more back-channel approach to reach a greater audience.

“As this area began to heat up in terms of the Arab Spring, which was widely covered by the Latino media — Syria, Egypt, ongoing issues here in Israel — there was a growing demand” for Spanish-language press resources in the region, Soibel said.

And with the pope’s visit to Israel, demand flew off the charts — opening new opportunities for Latino outreach. “When you have a journalist that is taking one stance versus another stance, it’s about making that personal connection,” Soibel added. “That’s why the language is so important.”

Israeli-Latino renaissance

Read the Spanish translation below.

One day this week, you’ll find me on a yacht in Marina del Rey along with dozens of Jewish and Latino activists, celebrities and politicians from across the Southland. Fiesta Shalom at Sea, an initiative of the Israeli Consulate, aims to strengthen the bonds between the diverse communities of Southern California and the State of Israel — community leaders, elected officials and clergy will connect with Israeli and Jewish leaders to deepen the dialogue leading to mutual understanding of the issues facing our communities. That’s why a version of this same column will appear in Spanish in La Opinion and in Hebrew-language newspapers as well.

The Jewish and Latino communities in the United States — particularly in Los Angeles — have made great strides in building bridges and forging relationships in recent years. As we look ahead to the future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the broader historical context of this very important trend.

Underpinning the re-emergence of Israel as a sovereign Jewish nation-state in the 20th century has been a rich intellectual legacy tracing its roots to antiquity. Just as the roots of the Renaissance lay in Latin and in the intellectual achievements inherited from the long-vanished Roman Empire, so too do the roots of modern Israeli society and culture lie in the revival of Hebrew and the resplendent heritage accumulated over the millennia of Jewish history.

Notably, a significant part of the latter heritage can be traced back to Spain. The “Golden Age” of Jewish history on the Iberian Peninsula during the 10th to 12th centuries saw a blossoming of Jewish creativity, exemplified by towering intellectual figures such as Maimonides, Judah Halevi and many others. Tragically, this period of relative tolerance and prosperity was later overshadowed by the Spanish Inquisition and ultimate expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492.

Not until the 20th century did the consummating act of this historical drama play out, when Latin American countries stood by the Jewish people at a critical juncture, constituting 40 percent of those countries who supported the U.N. partition resolution of November 1947, which later paved the way toward the establishment of the State of Israel. Instrumental both in the U.N. committee that proposed the resolution and in the process through which it was passed, the Spanish-speaking countries, whose forebears had long before fostered the flourishing of Jewish life and thought on the Iberian Peninsula, played a key role in supporting the 20th century reinstatement of Jewish independence.

This support did not appear out of a vacuum. It reflected an age-old heritage of shared values touching on the very core of each group’s collective psyche. Jewish and Spanish-speaking peoples have traditionally prioritized close family ties, education and the importance of maintaining cultural identity throughout the generations. Itself an immigrant society, modern Israel exemplifies what can be achieved by immigrant groups in a relatively short time. Moreover, with a strong predilection toward maintaining a robust welfare state, Israeli society has traditionally placed great emphasis on ensuring a very significant role for organized labor.

Since its establishment 65 years ago, Israel has undergone very rapid social, cultural and economic development. From a primarily agricultural economy of several hundred thousand people, we are now an OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country of 8 million, ranking among the world’s top economies in high-tech startups, innovation, competitiveness, venture capital and countless other measures of technological and economic vitality. An integral part of this process and key to its success has been an openness to new ideas and intercultural enrichment both in terms of Israel’s internal social fabric and international collaborations. We have learned much from this process and believe it to be applicable to other countries and communities around the world who face similar challenges.

This is why we are intent on mobilizing social innovations, which have proved successful in Israel in ways that can be beneficial elsewhere. We firmly believe in the mutual benefits of exchange of know-how and expertise, anchored in shared values. Like the many other democracies in the world, Israel owes a historical debt of gratitude to the United States for serving as an enduring beacon of liberty and democracy. Moreover, the diverse spectrum of social innovation in the United States is an invaluable source of inspiration for addressing similar challenges in Israel.

By the same token, collaborations in the field of social innovation have great potential to positively impact Latino and other communities in the United States. For example, educational models developed in Israel could prove to be especially useful vehicles for increasing matriculation rates and expanding social mobility, as they have done in Israel. The nonprofit health sector in Israel has also given rise to unique models that supplement mainstream health services in ways that could prove useful in America. As a place where ethnic diversity is celebrated, Israel has learned much in the domain of immigrant absorption and integration. 

Working jointly on such issues can serve as a key area for meaningful cooperation. Tellingly, such processes of intercultural enrichment have underpinned many past flowerings of intellectual and artistic achievement, such as the first Golden Age of Judeo-Spanish relations.

Thus, when Israel reflects on its relations with the Spanish-speaking world and with Latino communities in the United States, this is the overarching historical context. We wish to develop and deepen these relationships and build lasting and meaningful cooperation as a matter of renewal, harkening back to a romantic Golden Age that we not only nostalgically recall, but whose enduring intellectual and cultural legacy we continue to cherish to this day. For Israel, it is about coming full circle and expressing appreciation for having stood shoulder to shoulder with us when we most needed it and for having been party to one of the most illustrious chapters in our history as a people. It is about saying thank you, todah, gracias.

Because, after all, we are all in the same boat. 

Renacimiento israelí-latino

Se han dado grandes pasos a lo largo de los años para crear relaciones y tender puentes entre la comunidad judía y latina en Estados Unidos, particularmente en Los Ángeles. Israel y los países de América Latina también han promovido relaciones muy cercanas en las últimas décadas. A medida que miramos hacia el futuro, vale la pena reflexionar sobre el contexto histórico más amplio de estas importantes tendencias.

Promover el resurgimiento de un estado-nación judío soberano en el siglo XX ha sido un rico legado intelectual que tiene sus raíces en la antigüedad. El tejido socioeconómico, cultural y político de Israel siempre se ha visto fuertemente afectado por los valores y los tesoros culturales heredados de las antiguas mancomunidades judías. En muchos sentidos, el proceso de renovación que Israel representa nos recuerda al Renacimiento europeo. Este último surgió en Florencia en el siglo XIV en un auge de creatividad artística, científica y filosófica que fue acompañado de una transformación social y en última instancia política. Así como las raíces del Renacimiento se basan en el latín y en los logros intelectuales heredados del Imperio Romano, desaparecido hace largo tiempo, las raíces de la sociedad y cultura moderna israelí también se basan en el renacimiento del hebreo y en la resplandeciente herencia acumulada durante miles de años de historia del pueblo judío.

Vale la pena destacar que una parte considerable de la herencia del pueblo judío tiene sus orígenes en España. La “Era de Oro” de la historia del pueblo judío en la Península Ibérica entre los siglos X y XII fue testigo del florecimiento de la creatividad judía, ejemplificado en destacadas figuras intelectuales como Maimónides, Yehuda Halevi y muchos otros. Trágicamente, este período de relativa tolerancia y prosperidad quedó ensombrecido más tarde por la Inquisición española y la expulsión final de los judíos españoles en 1492. Este acto de gran dramatismo histórico no se terminó de consumar hasta el siglo XX, cuando los países latinoamericanos defendieron al pueblo judío en una coyuntura muy difícil, siendo parte del 40% de aquellos países que apoyó la resolución de partición de la ONU celebrada en noviembre de 1947, que más tarde allanaría el camino para el establecimiento del Estado de Israel. Con una actuación decisiva, tanto en el comité de la ONU que propuso la resolución como en el proceso por el cual dicha resolución fue aprobada, los países hispanohablantes, cuyos antepasados habían promovido mucho tiempo atrás el florecimiento de la vida y las ideas judías en la Península Ibérica, jugaron un papel clave para apoyar el reestablecimiento de la independencia judía en el siglo XX. 

Este apoyo no surgió de la nada. Fue consecuencia de la larga herencia de valores compartidos que habitan en el centro de la psiquis colectiva de cada grupo. El pueblo judío y los pueblos hispanohablantes han priorizado tradicionalmente los lazos familiares, la educación y la importancia de mantener la identidad cultural a lo largo de las generaciones. El propio Israel moderno, como sociedad de inmigrantes, ejemplifica lo que los grupos de inmigrantes pueden lograr en un período de tiempo relativamente corto. Asimismo, con una fuerte predilección por mantener un sólido estado de bienestar, la sociedad israelí ha hecho tradicionalmente mucho énfasis en garantizar un papel clave a las estructuras sindicales. 

Desde su establecimiento hace 65 años, Israel ha experimentado un rápido desarrollo social, cultural y económico. De una economía básicamente agrícola compuesta por varios cientos de miles de personas, ahora pasamos a ser un país de la Organización para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo Económico (OCDE) con 8 millones de habitantes, siendo una de las principales economías del mundo en emprendimientos de alta tecnología, innovación, competitividad, capital de riesgo e innumerables medidas para la vitalidad tecnológica y económica. Una parte integral de este proceso que ha sido clave para su éxito es la apertura a las nuevas ideas y el enriquecimiento intercultural, tanto en términos del tejido social interno de Israel como la colaboración internacional. Hemos aprendido mucho de este proceso y creemos que es aplicable a otros países y comunidades del mundo que se enfrentan a desafíos semejantes. 

Es por eso que buscamos promover las innovaciones sociales, que han probado ser tan exitosas en Israel, de manera que puedan ser beneficiosas en otros sitios. Creemos firmemente en los beneficios mutuos del intercambio de conocimientos y experiencia, basados en valores compartidos. Como muchas otras democracias del mundo, Israel tiene una gran deuda histórica de gratitud hacia Estados Unidos por servir como un sólido estandarte de libertad y democracia. Asimismo, el diverso espectro de innovación social en Estados Unidos es una fuente invalorable de inspiración para atender desafíos semejantes en Israel.

Del mismo modo, la colaboración en el ámbito de la innovación social tiene un gran potencial de generar un impacto positivo en la comunidad latina y demás comunidades en Estados Unidos. Por ejemplo, los modelos educativos desarrollados en Israel pueden ser vehículos especialmente útiles para aumentar los índices de matriculación y ampliar la movilidad social, como lo hicieron en Israel. El sector de atención de la salud sin fines de lucro en Israel también ha generado modelos muy originales que complementan los servicios de salud masivos de este país en diversas maneras que también pueden ser útiles en Estados Unidos. Como un país donde se celebra la diversidad étnica, Israel ha aprendido mucho en lo que respecta a la absorción e integración de los inmigrantes. 

Trabajar en colaboración sobre estos temas puede ser un aspecto clave para la cooperación significativa. Claramente estos procesos de enriquecimiento intercultural han sido la base de muchos otros auges intelectuales y artísticos del pasado, como la primera “Era de Oro” de las relaciones entre judíos y españoles. 

Por lo tanto, cuando Israel reflexiona sobre sus relaciones con el mundo hispanohablante y con las comunidades latinas en Estados Unidos, este el contexto histórico general. Deseamos establecer y profundizar estas relaciones para generar una colaboración duradera y significativa como manera de renovación, evocando la “Era de Oro”, que no solamente recordamos con nostalgia, pero cuyo legado intelectual y cultural continuamos valorando al día de hoy. Para Israel se trata de completar el círculo y expresar nuestra gratitud por habernos apoyado y trabajado codo a codo con nosotros cuando más lo necesitábamos, siendo actores clave en unos de los capítulos más ilustres de nuestra historia como pueblo. Se trata de decir todah, gracias.

David Siegel serves as the consul general of Israel to the Southwest United States.

Read this article, bubala!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A voter’s eye view of the Los Angeles election

This year, for the first time, the nonpartisan Pat Brown Institute at CSU Los Angeles went into the polling field.  As poll director, I wanted our poll to illuminate broader trends in the local electorate, and to conduct it we retained Susan Pinkus, who for many years ran the Los Angeles Times’ polls. Under Pinkus’ direction, calls were made to 1,705 adults between April 29 and May 7; of those, 904 were registered voters and 674 were determined to be likely voters.

We released our poll results in two stages, on May 10 and May 13.  The first revealed that the mayor’s race between Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti has become a dead heat, with Greuel ahead by one point among likely voters but within the margin of error of 4 points. (A second poll by Survey USA for KABC TV showed an actual tie.) Perhaps the tight race will generate the kind of excitement that has been missing in the campaign thus far.  Our second set of results showed Dennis Zine and Mike Feuer hold clear leads for controller and city attorney, respectively.

In this, as in so many elections, we have focused so much on the candidates that we may have forgotten that elections are really about the voters — how various groups’ representation has changed over time and what they want to happen in their city.  

Of the likely voters in the PBI poll, 42 percent were white, 12 percent were African American, 29 percent were Latino, and nine percent were Asian American. Consider that when Richard Riordan defeated Mike Woo in 1993, whites cast 72 percent of all votes, and Latinos cast only eight percent.  Riordan’s election was the last time that a Republican had a real chance for the city’s top job, when Republican voters cast more than 30 percent of the votes.  In the PBI sample, only 13 percent of likely voters identified as Republican.  This is a Democratic town, with 56 percent of the likely voters calling themselves Democrats.  (An estimated 6 percent of the city, and a larger share of its voters, are Jewish, who are disproportionately Democratic, but their numbers were too small in the PBI poll for analysis.)

We often hear negative things about the city and about the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  We should also wonder how people feel in their own neighborhoods, because that’s their day-to-day experience.  Only 40 percent of voters polled like the direction of the city, and 22 percent approve of the LAUSD, but within this sprawling metropolis, residents are more pleased with their own neighborhoods and even their local schools, than with the “city” and the “school district.”  Voters said their own local schools are in good shape (37 percent favorable), just as they thought their neighborhoods are doing well (52 percent. This has probably been true in the past, but we have tended not to ask.

As Latinos’ numbers and influence continue to rise, they are feeling optimistic.  Nearly half (44 percent) think the city is going in the right direction, compared to only 29 percent of African-Americans, who have seen their hard-earned political gains jeopardized by a declining population share.  Latinos think that Antonio Villaraigosa has done a good job as mayor, giving him a 62 percent approval rating, compared to his overall 50 percent approval.  Latinos were much more likely to give the beleaguered LAUSD positive ratings than either whites or African-Americans.  Latinos favor giving the city’s mayor greater authority over the school district to a significantly greater degree than either whites or African-Americans.

  As a group on their way up, Latinos can see a better future in front of them, and their attitudes toward public institutions are starting to reflect that optimism.

Latinos prefer Eric Garcetti over Wendy Greuel (48-36 percent), Dennis Zine over Ron Galperin for controller (29-18 percent), and Mike Feuer over Carmen Trutanich for city attorney (31-23 percent). 

Whites are not as optimistic as Latinos about the direction of the city, but among all groups, whites are the most satisfied with how things are going in their neighborhoods (65 percent, compared to 31 percent for African-Americans and 42 percent for Latinos).  White voters support Greuel (53-42 percent), Zine (30-21 percent), and Feuer (39-23 percent).   African-Americans, whose numbers in the sample are too low for full analysis, favor Greuel by a 2-1 margin, and also Zine and Trutanich. 

The sleeper for Greuel is a growing gender gap, with women supporting her by 13 points and men backing Garcetti by the same margin.  A surge of women voters or a high black turnout might ensure victory for Greuel, just as a mobilization of Latino voters, who tend to be late deciders, would do it for Garcetti.

Among registered voters (numbering 904 in the PBI sample), crime, the city budget, and education emerged as what people worry about most.  Voters also expressed concern about traffic, the economy, streets, and jobs — essentially the bread-and-butter issues of everyday life in a big city. 

Yet not all groups have the same concerns.  Whites were more likely to list traffic than either African-Americans or Latinos, who were worried more about crime than whites.  And whites and African-Americans were more concerned than Latinos about the city budget.

What guidance does this poll hold for the next mayor? 

With all the talk about pensions and other budget issues at city hall, the next mayor will have to spend much time and political capital on quality-of-life issues that will require hard choices among budget priorities. 

The mayor can build on voter optimism about neighborhoods and local schools while trying to build confidence in the city government and in the school district.  Voters will want to see results in their daily lives, not just glossy programs that are advertised to have no costs or side-effects, only benefits.

Both candidates have been working hard to convince the electorate that no hard choices will have to be made, that it’s possible to have a fully staffed police force, nice parks, easy-to-navigate streets and lots of new jobs.  Naturally, this is not going to be true starting July 1, when the mayor takes office.  To govern is to choose.

With two Democrats in the runoff, the voters will not be able to give an ideological direction to the new mayor.  The voters will really be selecting the better leader, the person most likely to negotiate and bargain on the city’s behalf, to make the right choices among competing priorities.

Voters won’t tell the mayor whether more money should go to parks or to keep the police force at 10,000 officers, whether to support a jobs-producing development or stop it in order to reduce traffic congestion.  Nor will voters tell the mayor how to deal with the powerful forces that dominate city hall.  They may be ambivalent about giving the mayor greater authority over the school district, but they certainly will expect schools to improve under the next mayor. 

Once elected, the new mayor will hopefully trust the voters enough to make plain that choices must be made, that there is no free lunch when it comes to municipal services, that talking alone won’t make a powerful and effective mayor, and to engage the public in the process of setting priorities.  Our poll does not say whether voters will welcome that honesty.  But what our poll does show is that the voters will look to their own neighborhoods and their own local schools to see if what the mayor is doing works for them.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs and Director of the PBI Poll at California State University, Los Angeles.  Full reports on the PBI Poll on the Los Angeles City Elections can be found at


Jewish, Latino leaders gather for summit

Local Jewish and Latino community leaders convened at UCLA on Sept. 22 for “Common History, Shared Future: A Summit for Leaders of the Latino and Jewish Communities in Los Angeles,” a meeting that featured closed-door discussions on topics such as “Israel,” “The Impact of Global Anti-Semitism,” “Empowerment and Engagement in Economy, Media and Politics” and “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”

Held at UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall, the daylong event drew 60 community leaders — 30 Jewish and 30 Latino participants, representing 12 organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) organized the meeting with the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the National Council of La Raza and the New America Alliance, an American Latino business initiative.

ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind said the timing of the summit was tied to the Los Angeles mayoral race.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was unable to attend the event, steps down in 2013 due to term limits. Three of the eight candidates currently in the race are Jewish: L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, whose mother is Jewish and whose father is of Mexican descent; Austin Beutner, first deputy mayor and economic policy chief for Villaraigosa; and L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who converted to Judaism almost 30 years ago.

The Latino and Jewish communities share a connection to Boyle Heights, and coalitions between the two groups date back more than 60 years. In 1949, Los Angeles’ Latino-Jewish coalition helped elect Ed Roybal as Los Angeles’ first Latino city councilman.

More recently, Latino leaders in Los Angeles have participated in delegations to Israel; ADL and AJC programs have paired Jewish and Latino leaders in Los Angeles; and Israel’s previous consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, worked with Villaraigosa on a number of city events, including the raising of the Israeli flag outside the Israeli consulate on Wilshire Boulevard.

During a press conference that followed the discussions, Israeli Consul General David Siegel said that like Israel, Los Angeles’ Latino population absorbs immigrants and holds language and culture in high regard.

“We should embrace diversity and find pragmatic solutions to problems of mankind,” he said, referring to the Jewish-Latino partnership.

Maya Entertainment CEO Moctesuma Esparza agreed: “We both have communities that are in tremendous Diaspora. We look to build a future that is based on human values, tolerance and embracing our differences.”

Esparza said that media networks Univision and Telemundo can help increase awareness about Israel in the Latino community by offering more in-depth coverage of events there, as opposed to “30-second sound bites.”

The consensus among attendees was that the summit was productive and that another one would likely happen in the future.

“We dug deeper,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “It was not about platitudes.”

American Jewish Committee launches Latino-Jewish congressional caucus

The ongoing development of ties between the Latino and Jewish communities took a new turn this week with the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) establishment of a new Latino-Jewish Congressional Caucus. At press time, a group of mostly Latino and Jewish lawmakers were set to meet at an event in Washington, D.C., on June 14, in the hopes of furthering collaborative relationships.

“This is a natural growth of the development of contacts between Latinos and Jews throughout the decades, and particularly in the last few years,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute. “Why shouldn’t Congress reflect the continuing alliance between Latinos and Jews elsewhere?”

Despite the highly polarized atmosphere in Washington, the caucus hopes to be a bipartisan endeavor, with Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) serving as co-chairs.

AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute, which supported the establishment of the new caucus, has been working nationally, internationally and locally in Los Angeles to develop relationships between Latinos and Jews. The institute presented an award to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last October for his work in building connections between the two communities.

Sixteen representatives — mostly, but not exclusively, Latino and Jewish — have signed on to the caucus so far, and a handful of others have expressed interest. Among the confirmed participants from the Los Angeles area are Democratic Reps. Joe Baca, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Brad Sherman. Aside from Ros-Lehtinen, only one other Republican, Rep. David Rivera of Florida, has joined the caucus so far. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the only Jewish Republican in Congress, was approached but declined to take part.

Siegel Vann said she hopes that comprehensive immigration reform and foreign policy will be areas for potential cooperation. “Hopefully, in the weeks to come, the co-chairs will be able to bring members together to come up with a plan of action and identify several issues where they can work together,” she said.

Letters to the Editor: Gibson Scale, Glenn Beck, Aaron Liberman and Latino-Jewish Coalition

Great Americans vs.‘Slimebags’

The best reasons that I read The Jewish Journal are because of great Americans like Dennis Prager and David Suissa. It is nauseating to see columns by leftist slimebags like Marty Kaplan and Rachel Roberts (the doctoral student — OMG) (“Muslim Criminals, Jewish Activists,” Feb. 18). Maybe the two of them can get together and hate Israel and America together!

Laurence Gelman
via e-mail

‘Gibson Scale’ Raises Ire

Mr. Eshman owes Glenn Beck an apology for falsely accusing him of being an anti-Semite (“The Gibson Scale,” March 11). Why? Because Beck dared to quote George Soros in his own words? Or, maybe, could it be that Eshman is parroting the left wing’s view of Fox News, thus libeling Glenn Beck in the process?

David Halpern
Los Angeles

When it comes to Glenn Beck, you are either ill informed or you have an agenda! Given your track record, I am going with a big ol’ agenda. I don’t care if you hate his politics, but have the decency to be honest about that and don’t call someone anti-Semitic because you don’t agree with him. I watch Fox News daily and have listened to Glenn Beck many times. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don’t, but he is far from an anti-Semite — he is a huge supporter of Israel and of Jews! His criticism of George Soros pertains to [Soros’] politics and the means by which he uses his resources to push his political agenda — it is not about Soros being Jewish. Beck’s statement about Reform Jews was idiotic, but it was uneducated, which is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. Do you also believe anyone who criticizes the Koch brothers is religiously biased as well? Given your position of leadership in the Jewish community, don’t you feel an obligation to be truthful about such issues?

Debbie Swanson
Beverly Hills

While Rob Eshman’s points in his editorial were well taken, I suggest that it is insensitive and unnecessary to use derogatory terms such as “Crazy Town” and “nutter” to make his point.
It’s arguable that these callous and stereotypical references to a serious disability weaken credibility in a piece that’s aimed against stereotypes and discrimination.

There are many people of all cultures and beliefs who have struggled with their own or a beloved family member’s mental illness who do not find these glib references cute or amusing. 
This is the exact kind of publicly used terminology that alerts the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) StigmaBusters. This is ironic because NAMI is making the same efforts to defend the mentally ill against prejudice as Eshman is making for the Jewish people. 

The impact of an editorial can be very strong. A lot of damage can be done by insidious negative messages carried by the words that are used.
An apology would be very helpful here for what I’m sure was an unintentional maligning of another discriminated-against minority group.

Diane Rowe
Santa Monica

Rob Eshman would have us believe that he’s the perceptive “guard at the gate” when it comes to outing anti-Semitic public figures. He reveals significant blind spots however:

1) While many of us sensed that the WikiLeaks mastermind was a treasonous bad guy, Eshman several months ago was reveling in the courage of the WikiLeaks characters, while enjoying the embarrassment it caused to governments around the world. The fact that Assange is a rapist and a good old-fashioned anti-Semite should not have come as a surprise to him.

2) Eshman confuses criticism of George Soros and the Reform rabbinical establishment that falsely accused Beck of anti-Semitism as anti-Semitism itself, when it is normatively called “criticism.” Glen Beck himself has exposed anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and in the world of the far-left far more than any other figures in the media.

3) It is inconceivable that the newest inductee to the anti-Semitic hall of fame was carefully omitted Ron Schiller, the executive at NPR who met with a man posing as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, assuring him that the Zionist (Jewish) influence was minimal. Could it be that the horrible realization that NPR, the bastion of liberal media considered “home” among liberal Jews, is as horrible and even more toxic than the ranting of Hollywood psychos Gibson and Sheen?

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

You have proposed a Gibson Scale for rating anti-Semitism. I assume Gibson gets a rating of “one Gibson,” the lowest rating in your article, for his clearly anti-Semitic remarks while under the influence of alcohol. Some argue that alcohol caused him to make those remarks and therefore he is less culpable, but many others, myself included, believe alcohol merely allowed his true beliefs to be expressed by clouding his judgment of what should or shouldn’t be said to a police officer when you are a public figure.

The highest (7 Gibsons) rating was given to Glenn Beck. You cite two related examples of Beck’s anti-Semitism that earned him that high rating on the Gibson Scale. One was Beck’s “diatribes” against George Soros in recent months, and the other was when Beck “compared Reform Judaism to Radicalized Islam.” I disagree with Beck on both of these remarks but to call them anti-Semitic, let alone earning him the highest rating on the Gibson scale, is absurd.

Glenn Beck brought up Soros’ own account of his activities during WWII in Hungary when he avoided Nazi persecution by passing himself off as a Christian, accompanied a government official on his rounds to confiscate Jewish property, and, in a recent interview, denied feeling guilty about those actions.  Beck clearly meant to denigrate Soros’ integrity by bringing this up, and I disagree with his doing that because none of know how we would behave under similar circumstances, but how is that anti-Semitic?

He compared Reform Judaism to Radicalized Islam while he was commenting on the full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, taken out by a large number of Reform Rabbis, denouncing his comments about Soros. His actual comment when responding to that ad were something like Reform Judaism is more about politics than religious faith and the same is true of Radicalized Islam. Even ignoring the issue of terrorism I do not believe that is a fair comparison because while the majority of Reform Jews are politically liberal, Reform Judaism does not espouse a uniform political goal whereas Radicalized Islam does – namely the institution of a Muslim monotheistic government. Beck used an inaccurate analogy, and an obnoxious one because of the tactics used by Radicalized Islam, for which he later apologized. Beck may have a low opinion of Reform Judaism’s strength of faith, as do many Orthodox Jews, but this is not anti-Semitism.

It is obvious to me that in awarding Beck the highest rating on the Gibson anti-Semitism scale of anyone else mentioned in your article you were motivated more by Beck’s political beliefs than any hint of anti-Semitism. I beg you not to descend into the same foul intellectual territory into which many liberals have descended when they accuse anyone who criticizes the politics of President Obama of being a racist.

Steven Novom

J-Street Zionists?

My family and I once were dues-paying members of Rabbi Rosove’s religious Temple (“Why I Support J Street,” March 11). No more. While I respect the good rabbi in many aspects, his position on J Street has led me to wonder.

As a retired engineer who still is involved in consulting, serving on the board of an engineering society and editing an international engineering newsletter dealing with technical matters and challenging issues, I take issue with Rabbi Rosove’s basis for support of J Street, and have discussed the matter with him in the past. Like so many others who are blinded by ideological aspirations regarding Israel’s existence — and certainly mean well — he fails to face reality, fails to accept the facts that stare us in the face, and perhaps most importantly, fails to understand that the way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by dealing with the root cause, not just the apparent symptoms.

As an accomplished engineer in my area of specialization, I look for facts — not rhetoric, not wishful ideological thinking. In this case, the facts were quickly spelled out for me by a Muslim friend (we sometimes play poker together) who at one time was in the diplomatic service of Jordan. I quote him more or less accurately: “From the time I started school, I was taught that the land where Israel exists is Arab land — all of it.” Interestingly, similar words were told to me by a Muslim woman audiologist several years earlier. The solution, then, to the conflict is not a matter of how much more Israel must give up to the Palestinians, but to stop the teaching of such ideas (brainwashing) to Arab/Muslim children.

But we need to go further. There is a problem here at home also — and likely throughout the country. I found that my granddaughter, in 8th grade here in the L.A. area, was being taught that the Jews “took away the homes of the Palestinians” when the state of Israel was established in 1948 — with no further meaningful elaboration. How many of these children will go on to college, bearing this image in their minds?

I checked the book from which they were being taught.  Everything was factual — but it omitted significant information that would have provided a more proper, and more honest viewpoint.

George Epstein
Los Angeles

While the articles and letters on J Street try to paint J Street as a mainstream organization, we can state they are primarily a leftist organization, and put up a thin veneer of Israel tolerance. You left out the divestment debate that J Street felt was appropriate to hold at their “Zionist” conference. As time goes on, and their Palestine pipedream isn’t realized, we will see them make the easy transition to join their leftist anti-Zionist comrades-at-arms.

S Z Newman
via e-mail

Heaps of Hoop Pride

What a feeling of Jewish pride to read about a young man named Aaron Liberman, who just happens to be an outstanding basketball player on an outstanding basketball team, Valley Torah! Did I really say that a school named Valley Torah has an outstanding basketball team (”Aaron Liberman: Finding balance between faith, basketball,” March 1)? I certainly did!!

Led by Aaron Liberman, Valley Torah went on to defeat Bishop Diego in the Southern Section 6AA championship game and won the Southern Section championship — the first ever for an Orthodox Jewish school. Aaron is not a one-man team; he has a lot of support from his brother Nathaniel, Yosef Grundman, Arynton Hardy, Nathaniel Cohen, et al!!

With all that being said, I close with “Go Get ’Em Valley Torah!!!”

Harvey M. Piccus

More Latino-Jewish Bridge-Building

Because “The New Power of a Latino-Jewish Coalition in L.A.” (March 11) is also blossoming in our synagogues, I was stymied by Jonah Lowenfeld’s observation that “it seems easier for these communities’ leaders to support one another’s unique political priorities than it is for them to identify the priorities that their communities share.” On the contrary, I have found that my work as a rabbi has yielded the exact opposite. Whether I am lunching with LAUSD teacher Orinio Opinaldo or convening with Yvonne Mariajimenez of Neighborhood Legal Services on stemming foreclosures in Los Angeles, one thing is clear: We do have common interests that are not hard to identify. Lowenfeld is right in saying, “Building relationships requires conversations like these.” But it is imperative that these conversations begin at the grass-roots level, not only on a leadership level. Temple Beth Am’s partnership with OneLA ensures that I, along with my congregants, nurture meaningful relationships with Latinos across Los Angeles on a weekly basis, beyond the periodic meetings of high-level leaders. And that is why a Westside rabbi continues to lunch with an East side elementary school teacher.

Susan Leider
Associate Rabbi
Temple Beth Am

Regarding your cover story on the Latino-Jewish Coalition in Los Angeles, please allow me to add one more vital component to this collaboration. In 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was accompanied by city engineers (Carol Armstrong) and members of the Los Angeles Federation (Evan Kaizer) to sign a collaboration between the Yarkon River Authority and the Los Angeles River.

This historic event was the impetus for our school, Abraham Joshua Heschel, to officially adopt a section of the Los Angeles River where we will host the Yarkon River Kiosk, which includes informative signage honoring this collaboration between the two cities. We will also include interpretive signs in both Spanish and English to teach visitors about our shared cultural and ecological heritage of the river.

Within this year, under the auspices of The Trust for Public Land, our students will be planting native species to provide a park along the banks of the Los Angeles River for residents who live in low-income housing and whose children currently only have asphalt driveways for their recreational outlet. We are excited to have the opportunity to work alongside our neighbors and use the river as our conduit for this partnership.

Thank you for providing this important story in your March 11 edition.

Kathy Reynolds
Science Teacher
Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School

Using Darfur for Own Purposes

David Suissa’s article on hypocrisy (“A UN Resolution Against Hypocrisy,” March 11) is a good example of its topic. People who are concerned about Darfur are concerned about Darfur. They would not utilize Darfur to accomplish another objective, in this case U.N.-bashing for reasons unrelated to Darfur. As long as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur can be of use to Suissa in this way, would he really want it to stop?

I should add in passing that the premise of the article, which is that the U.N. is unconcerned about Darfur and doing nothing about it, happens to be false.

Daniel O’Hearn

This is the forth week (or the fifth) that David Suissa comes up with an article that shoots straight to the core of the issue (“A UN Resolution Against Hypocrisy,” March 11).

Some years back I was lucky enough to hear Bat Yeor talking about the EU. She called her speech “The Palestinization of the EU.” She gave it a new name, URABIA.

A few months later she might have called the U.N. UNRABIA as a result of the ongoing Palestinization of this organization that became a branch of the Arab League working on destroying Israel.

This is where the tragedy is. The U.N. is not defending and protecting all people but is working hard on killing a legitimate democracy, a member of the UN who, for some reason, became a beacon to refugees — real refugees — from Africa. No Arab country accepts them. Some actually shoot them.
Sadly, our representative is no friend of Israel, and while she vetoed the last try to demean Israel she added her own ugly words where she let the world know that she actually agrees with the idea of slapping Israel’s face.

In my opinion it is time to send the U.N. home. It does little good and it spends money on the wrong people in the wrong places — our money.

Batya Dagan
Los Angeles


In his letter to the editor, “Examining the Jewish Position on Unions” (March 11), Michael Rosenberg is correct to note that the vast majority of American workers “have fewer days off, pay more for their benefits, are paid less… [and] see their 401(k)s dwindling.” But he focuses his ire in the wrong direction.
The whole debate about the compensation of public servants – the teachers, firefighters, police, and office workers who make our society possible – misses the point. (In fact, Wisconsin public-sector employees make 4.8% less than their private-sector counterparts.) The questions we should ask ourselves are: Why is the middle class pitted against the middle class in a scramble to secure an ever-shrinking slice of the economic pie? And why is state after state – California included – in a headfirst race to dismantle the social safety net, erase pathways out of poverty, and shrink the middle class?

There was a time in America when business and government recognized that a strong middle class, created by good wages, fair benefits, and yes, collective bargaining, helps power our shared prosperity. As union membership began to shrink in the 1980s, so has the standing of the American middle class. Unions are human institutions, they are not perfect. But to blame them, and their members, for our economic ills is to create a diversion while the real antagonists slink out the back door.

Elissa Barrett
Executive Director, Progressive Jewish Alliance

Stop Glorifying All Acts of Terrorism

I am a peace activist with LA Jews for Peace, and I accept David Suissa’s challenge and am ready to sign his statement that condemns “glorification of terrorism and Jew-hatred that permeates their [Palestinian] society, and begin immediately to teach the benefits and compromises of peaceful co-existence” (“Behind the Itamar Murders,” March 13). In fact I go further than Suissa: I call for Israelis to stop glorification of terrorism such as the reverence paid to Baruch Goldstein who murdered 25 Palestinians at prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. I call on Israelis to stop teaching hatred of Palestinians so that Israeli soldiers learn to treat Palestinians as human beings so they will no longer commit war crimes like the Goldstone Commission documented they did during the 2008-09 Gaza bombardment.

Finally, I call on Israeli leadership to teach the benefits and compromises of peaceful co-existence so they never again allow an opportunity for peace to pass them by as they did by ignoring the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative and refusing to accept the compromises offered by Palestinian leadership as documented in the Palestine Papers.

Jeff Warner
Los Angeles

What About Libya?

As the turmoil in Libya continues week after week, The Journal has decided to show nothing of this on its cover — why? By contrast, when the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt erupted, with their still unpredictable outcomes, The Journal’s cover reflected these great changes. With in-depth articles inside. Then you veered sharply back to local issues for the past few weeks. Are you waiting to see how it all turns out in Libya? Are you undecided, like Obama? Have you received criticism over your focus on the turmoil in the Arab world? Do you think it won’t impact Israel? Or are you saving Gadhafi for your Purim cover? 

Happy Purim, to all of us.

Bob Kirk
Los Angeles

Eminent Domain in Transit Planning, Clarified

Perhaps Professor Reich was missing my point in regard to eminent domain (Letters, March 4). The point within the context of my Metro article (“Just What is Jewish Mass Transit?” Feb. 25) was “the end doesn’t always justify the means” and that eminent domain should not be used as a shortcut to blow off valid local concerns. Eminent domain should be a last resort and not a foregone conclusion. As Professor Reich points out, as a councilmember, I am clearly aware of the principles of eminent domain and am willing to use it in appropriate circumstances, generally as a last resort and if there are no other viable options. When it comes to placement of the Century City subway station, Santa Monica is clearly a viable option, even if politically powerful developers may have their own reasons for preferring something else.

Of course, eminent domain isn’t the only way to acquire property for park-and-rides. There are multiple possibilities and one of the options being discussed with Metro is an expansion of one of my City’s own parking facilities to accommodate Metro riders. While I do happen to have an inherent problem with bait-and-switch tactics and revisionist history per se, far from putting the brakes on an expansion of regional transport, I’m looking for ways to expand the utility of the subway to allow Westside residents to actually be able to take advantage of it. As it is currently planned, the extension is essentially a “one-way” subway to bring people into and out of the Westside with insufficient real access to the network for the actual residents of the region. Let’s not forget that a public transportation system is not just about ridership, it’s also about access. If we’re going to rethink the way we get from point A to point B, let’s both do it for the right reasons and do it right. 

As for the issue of eminent domain, the interesting and unanswered question in regard to the Century City alignment is whether, how and in what way one public agency (Metro) can exercise eminent domain (in the form of an easement) over another government entity (the School District). This is clearly not the same as a taking from a private individual or company and I’m not sure if there is “a long tradition in American constitutional law and urban planning” regarding this specific issue.

John Mirisch
via e-mail

The new power of a Latino-Jewish coalition in L.A.

On a Shabbat afternoon in February, state Sen. Alex Padilla spoke on a panel at Young Israel of Century City (YICC), a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. The event was co-organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Padilla knew what message he was expected to deliver. The panel’s trilingual title — “Israel at lo levad! Israel ¡No estas solo! Israel, you are not alone!” — made that clear.

Padilla, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley in California’s state Senate, talked mostly about his two trips to Israel. He first traveled there in 2003 when he was president of the Los Angeles City Council on a trip sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. His went again on an AIPAC trip for Latino leaders in December 2009.

When it came time for questions, a white-haired man in a gray suit raised his hand. “How can we make sure that Latino youth don’t get incorrect information about Israel?” the man asked. A second man wanted to know why Israel isn’t more widely recognized — in all communities — as a democratic society that upholds liberal values.

Responses to these questions came from all over the room, not just from those on the podium. Even YICC Rabbi Elazar Muskin, from his seat in the front row, mentioned a program aimed at improving Israel education among the city’s Latino youth.

Among the 100 or so people in the sanctuary — most of them men, most of them in suits — Karra Greenberg stood out, and not only for her shoulder-length blond hair and her stylish yet modest green patterned dress. Unlike those who wanted to hear Padilla express his unequivocal support for Israel, Greenberg, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA, asked what motivates the panelist’s friends and family.

Her question was simple: What can the Jewish community do to build an alliance with Latinos?


As the Latino population and its political influence have grown, the number of Jewish groups across the country working to build and strengthen Latino-Jewish ties has increased as well. The New York office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) held a meeting last week for Latino and Jewish leaders, and AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute is planning a national Latino-Jewish leadership summit for 2012. In addition, in San Antonio, Texas, former mayor Henry Cisneros and local Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg are organizing a strategic dialogue between about 80 Latino and Jewish leaders later this month.

Since last December, leaders from some of Los Angeles’ most influential Jewish organizations have been meeting, coming together on two separate occasions with their Latino community counterparts. The exact outcome of this organizing effort is still to be seen, but it could lay the groundwork for an unprecedented level of Latino-Jewish cooperation.

In Los Angeles, Latino-Jewish relationships are not new. The communities’ leaders often point to the election of Ed Roybal, Los Angeles’ first Latino city councilman, supported in large part by Jewish and Latino voters in 1949, as the first great victory of the Latino-Jewish alliance. Some even credit the intercommunity connections with staving off a wider explosion of tensions in 1998, after the state Senate primary between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon got particularly nasty.

Even so, the number of efforts by Jewish organizations in Los Angeles to “reach out,” to “build bridges” or to otherwise connect with Latinos has soared in recent years. There are projects that create curricula about Israel for teachers in the city’s Catholic schools, whose students are predominantly Latino. There are Spanish-language courses about Judaism for Latino Pentecostal pastors. For years, film producer and civil rights activist Moctesuma Esparza has worked with Jews on various projects, including his effort to increase and improve the representations of Latinos in film and TV. Bilingual pro-Israel programs regularly take place in Latino-dominated Evangelical churches, and dozens of Latino leaders from the L.A. area have taken part in leadership delegations to Israel.

In just the past two years, Los Angeles’ most prominent Jewish groups have led the effort:

In October 2010, the AJC’s six-year-old Latino and Latin American Institute presented the third annual Gesher Award to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Gesher is Hebrew for bridge; the award honors Latino leaders who work to build bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities.

The Latino-Jewish roundtable, an initiative of the local office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was founded in 1992. The roundtable has held 13 separate events in the past two years, including a 2009 seder focusing on immigrant experiences and a celebration of Sukkot and other autumnal festivals in 2010. Most recently, in January 2011, 25 members of the roundtable participated in a daylong trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2009, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Consulate General of Israel co-sponsored Fiesta Shalom, a celebration of the 61st anniversary of Israeli independence in the formerly very Jewish — and now overwhelmingly Latino — neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

High-level representatives from each of these groups — ADL, AJC, Federation, AIPAC and the Israeli Consulate — have been involved in the latest round of meetings between the Jewish and Latino leaders.

No agenda for these meetings has been made public, or perhaps even agreed upon internally. There have been talks about the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral election and about this year’s redistricting process, but the primary focus of the meetings has been to plan a citywide Latino-Jewish leadership summit in Los Angeles this fall.

“It’s going to be a convening of leaders and organizations,” said David Ayón, senior fellow at The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. Ayón, who has been the most active Latino advocate for the Latino-Jewish summit, hopes that it will encourage leaders from both communities to “[get] to know each other’s agendas and for the purposes of discussing what we want from the next mayor of Los Angeles.”

Those on the Jewish side of the table were, without exception, reluctant to speak about these discussions on the record.

“We want to have meetings of substance, meetings where we can talk about the issues openly and honestly. We all agreed that the best way to do that was to have these meetings held in private in one another’s confidence,” said AJC Los Angeles Regional Director Seth Brysk.

Brysk is working with ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind to set the course for future meetings. Susskind emphasized just how undefined the agenda is. “It’s been a really ad hoc, really organic thing that’s been developing,” Susskind said. “It is so inchoate right now.”


Since its founding in 1982, more than 5,000 people from around the world have taken part in an AJC Project Interchange seminar, including a group of prominent journalists from across Latin America, seen here in the Old City of Jaffa in February 2010. Each participant costs AJC $4,500 to $5,000.

Perhaps most unclear is the degree to which these conversations are about Israel.

ADL, AJC and Federation have multifaceted missions that include both Israel advocacy and Jewish intercommunity relations in Los Angeles. The Israeli Consulate and AIPAC, on the other hand, are much more specifically focused on maintaining one international relationship — the one between the United States and Israel.

“AIPAC is a 501(c)(4) corporation,” said Steven F. Windmueller, a professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who served as executive director of the Community Relations Committee of Federation from 1985 to 1995. He was referring to AIPAC’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit that can actively lobby government. “They’re not in the traditional community relations business,” he said.

Windmueller has written extensively about Latino-Jewish relations in Los Angeles but was neither aware of nor involved in the current talks.  “If they [AIPAC] and the Israeli Consulate are seated at these meetings, then Israel must be the agenda,” Windmueller said.

The Latino leaders, many of whom have traveled on leadership delegations to Israel sponsored by one or more of the five Jewish organizations involved, disagreed.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and a veteran of Latino-Jewish dialogue, hoped that the agenda for these talks would center on the prospects for a city on the West Coast rather than on the future of a certain country in the Middle East. “What can Latino and Jewish leaders in Los Angeles agree on in terms of the future of our city?” Vargas asked. “And what can we do together to improve life in Los Angeles?”

Catherine Schneider, Federation’s senior vice president for community engagement, has also been involved in these meetings. Federation, Schneider, said, has “a strong commitment to the Jewish community and the Jewish future, a strong commitment to the State of Israel, and a strong commitment to the City of Los Angeles.” No single issue trumped the others, Schneider said, but neither could any one issue be left out of the conversation.

“If the story runs, ‘Jewish Community Engages Latino Community Just on Support for Israel,’ ” Schneider said, imagining a possible headline. “It’s not true, and it could be damaging.”

Latinos, Jews to Join in Historic Boyle Heights Celebration

The Jewish and Latino communities will join Sunday at Fiesta Shalom, celebrating their joint past, present and future ties and the achievements of the State of Israel since its independence.

A combination of street fair, live music and dance, food booths, interactive workshops, exhibits, children’s activities and a few rousing speeches, the fiesta will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and play out, appropriately, in front of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.

It was at the historic synagogue that the Israeli flag was hoisted for the first time in Los Angeles on May 15, 1948, the day after the Jewish state declared its independence.

For nostalgia buffs, there will be a one-time return of Canter’s Deli, a Boyle Heights institution before it moved west to Fairfax.

Stressing Jewish/Israeli and Latino connections will be Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sheriff Lee Baca, Israel Consul General Yaakov Dayan, LA City Councilman Jose Huizar of Boyle Heights and John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

For the first time, the Jewish Journal and the Spanish-language daily La Opinion have jointly published a bilingual English-Spanish insert in their May 15 editions, with both publications looking toward future collaborations.

Planning for the fiesta started last year, shortly after Dayan took up his diplomatic post in Los Angeles and advanced the idea in a meeting between Huizar and Gil Artzyeli, the Israeli deputy consul general.

“As a Latino growing up in Boyle Heights, I know very well about the community’s storied Jewish and Latino histories,” Huizar said. “Fiesta Shalom gives us the unique opportunity to come together to celebrate these two cultures that have been so influential in making Boyle Heights the vibrant community that it is today.”

Boyle Heights evolved into Los Angeles’ largest shtetl in the five years following World War I, when the city’s Jewish population rose from 19,000 to 45,000, and remained predominant until the late 1940s.

Before the Jewish exodus westward after World War II, Boyle Heights boasted 27 synagogues and shtiebels. The Breed Street Shul, formally Congregation Talmud Torah, was the jewel in the crown and is now being restored, after years of neglect, at the initiative of the Jewish Historical Society.
In those earlier days, Brooklyn Street, the main thoroughfare, was lined with stores advertising their wares in Yiddish, and the “official” Jewish bordello stood at the corner of First St. and Boyle Ave.

As a growing number of Latinos, as well as African-Americans and Asians, moved in, Boyle Heights became a vibrantly diverse community, as Rosalie Turrola, a high school counselor and life-long resident of Boyle Heights, recalled.

“I remember everyone lighting candles on Friday nights, and I loved the potato pancakes,” she told The Journal. “I had a nice neighbor who always called me ‘a shayne maidele’ [a pretty girl].”

Fiesta Shalom has a couple of historical antecedents. In 1894, Max Mayberg organized the first Fiesta de Los Angeles, featuring a carnival and parade, to make the city’s multi-ethnic citizenry forget the economic miseries of the 1893 Depression.

In the late 1940s, the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center in Boyle Heights pioneered the Jewish community’s outreach to other ethnic groups through the Friendship Festival, which brought together 12,000 “Mexicans, Japanese, Negro and Jewish youths in a cooperative venture,” wrote historian George Sanchez.

In its modern incarnation, Consul General Dayan said, “Fiesta Shalom will, we hope, send the message of unity and mutual support between communities and Israel from Los Angeles to the entire United States.” The Jewish Federation’s Fishel noted that “the festivities in Boyle Heights celebrate the many community projects that are strengthening bonds between the Latino and Jewish communities throughout Los Angeles.”

Among the sponsors of Fiesta Shalom are the Israeli consulate and tourism office, Jewish Federation, El Al, Jewish Journal, Canter’s Deli and various Latino organizations and officials.

There is no admission charge for the event at 247 N. Breed St. For location, directions and parking spaces go to

Latino Radio Show Stirs Concern Over Views on Jews

On a Los Angeles FM radio talk show, the following aired recently:

A caller identifying himself as Mohammed said, “I believe that so-called Israel should be annihilated totally, wiped off the map … I hope that Iran has the gall to nuke and exterminate them so they go back to Europe.

“And as long as there is one Palestinian man, woman or child, there will be no peace in Palestine … as far as I’m concerned, so-called Israel should be exterminated from the face of the earth. That’s my personal opinion. They have no right to exist….”

Augustin Cebada, the show’s host, did not interrupt or argue. He let Mohammed finish, then said, “OK, maybe those are your opinions, and there’s probably a lot of people out there who agree with you. We have free speech in this country….”

Cebada later took a call from Dan, who objected to what he’d just heard: “When a caller calls with that kind of hatred, that kind of Nazi rhetoric, that Israel should be wiped off the map, that’s what fuels the fire, and you people did not respond by saying, ‘This is the kind of hatred we don’t need.’ And that’s what’s fueling the hatred, isn’t it?”

This time, Cebada cut the caller off, saying: “There’s a lot of hatred in your voice, Dan, in your tone. This program offers a forum so people can express what they’re feeling….”

KPFK, Pacifica Foundation’s longtime, Progressive, listener-supported L.A. radio station, aired that exchange on Jan. 7, 2009, on a Wednesday night bilingual talk-show called, “La Causa” (“The Cause”), which has a mix of English and Spanish.

The show is presented as a forum on issues important to Latinos, one of many community-minded shows the station offers. But this one has a particularly sharp edge: It excoriates what it identifies as police oppression and harassment of Latinos and advocates for “Aztlan” — a separatist Chicano nation to be carved out of territory Chicano militants claim was illegally seized by European colonists. Aztlan would be created in place of what is now a large part of the American West and Southwest.

Cebada, co-host Rafael Tlaloc and their callers draw parallels between Latinos in the United States and Palestinians in the Middle East: Just as American descendants of Europeans “should go back to Europe,” so, too, the descendants of European Jews in Israel should leave the Middle East and go live in Europe.

Though it presents itself as a program by and for Latinos, “La Causa” spends a lot of time on the subject of the Middle East, all of it fiercely critical of Israel. Referring to the recent military actions in Gaza, the show’s hosts characterize Israelis as perpetrators of “genocide,” “massacre,” “slaughter,” “war crimes,” “ethnic cleansing” and “atrocities.”

Cebada and Tlaloc have said Israelis are “acting like Nazis.”

A sampling of recent comments on “La Causa”:

“Rahm Emanuel is a Trojan Horse making sure that Obama does not push for peace in Palestine that would free the people of Gaza.” Emanuel was “forced” on the Obama administration by “certain interest groups.” (Dec. 17, 2008)

“Israel controls the media here; Jewish AIPAC controls the media, so the only real news we can get is from Al-Arabiya….” (Jan. 7)

“The U.S. doesn’t get to see the horrible things taking place [in Gaza], bombing of schools and hospitals. [Israelis] kill a lot of children; they don’t care….” (Jan. 14)

“This whole thing about Israel being a democracy is a farce. Total BS….  A charade….  And our tax dollars pay for the slaughter.” (Jan. 14)

“[Gaza] is total imprisonment, a concentration camp…. The Nazis would have been envious of the Israelis at this time….” (Jan. 14)

Cebada did not respond to repeated requests from The Journal for an interview. He has said on air that he’s 46 and has been a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. (The LAUSD has no record of anyone with the name “Augustin Cebada” ever having worked as a teacher or in any other capacity.)

Photos and audiotape of Cebada from a 1996 appearance at a July 4 pro-Chicano rally in Westwood can be found on the Internet. Dressed in a Brown Berets uniform and presenting himself as “information minister” of the group, Cebada told his listeners, “We [Chicanos] are not going to be pushed around…. We are the majority, and we claim this land as ours….”

In recent months, Cebada has been active in the Echo Park Neighborhood Council. A local newspaper, the Eastsider LA, compared the council’s January meeting to the “Jerry Springer” show. The meeting came to order then almost immediately fell into “total disorder,” according to the report, with “insults and threats” flying back and forth between Cebada and Jose Sigala, who was there representing Councilman Richard Alarcón.

The height of the chaos came when Cebada “banged on a hand-held drum” and called Sigala a “fat, bald-headed Mussolini.”

Cebada uses the same kind of rhetorical flourishes on “La Causa.” California’s governor is called “Arnold Schwarzenazi,” and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a “groveling, sniveling lapdog.”

When referring to Israel, Cebada usually calls it “that semitheocracy, so-called democracy.” He tells his listeners that Arab citizens of Israel can’t vote. (They can and do: More than 50 percent voted in the recent Israeli election.) He says that only Jews can enter the Israeli Defense Forces. (There are non-Jews in the IDF.)

The show’s hosts would likely argue, as many do these days, that being against Israel is not the same as being against Jews. Others would counter that anti-Zionism, in its current form, is a socially acceptable cover for anti-Semitism. Whatever one’s view, the hosts of “La Causa” blur this distinction.

They use Zionist, Jewish, Israeli and even Ashkenazi interchangeably, as when they say, “The Israeli people, the Jewish people” or mention the relationship between Villaraigosa and “the Zionists,” when the reference is clearly to Jews in Los Angeles.

At times, “La Causa’s” hosts talk about Jews in disparaging ways when discussing situations that have no connection to Israel.

On Feb. 4, Cebada said, “Well, supposedly Jewish interests control the media in this country, there’s even a book written by a Jew that says that Jews control Hollywood … the media’s controlled by Jews, so we only get the news they want us to hear.”

The hosts regularly call Bernard Madoff “that Jewish scam artist.” Villaraigosa is constantly excoriated for supporting Israel and for “dancing around with a yarmulke on his head,” apparently referring to the September 2007 Chabad telethon, when L.A.’s mayor danced the hora while wearing a kippah.

On Feb. 4, a caller named Jeremy asked the hosts why they “keep repeating this line about Villaraigosa dancing around with a yarmulke on his head? Why is that a cause of consternation for you?”

Tlaloc answered that Villaraigosa was elected “on the backs of Mexicans and hasn’t done anything to help them. Instead, he’s gone to Israel and is complicit in the genocide that’s happening in Gaza.” Jeremy again asked why the yarmulke bothered them so much, and Cebada abruptly ended the phone conversation.

KPFK was founded in 1959 as the second radio station of the Pacifica Foundation. According to its Web site, KPFK is “blessed with an enormous transmitter … [It is] the most powerful of the Pacifica stations and indeed is the most powerful public radio station in the Western United States.”

There is no public record of how many listeners “La Causa” attracts. One KPFK host told The Journal that he suspects that not even KPFK knows for sure. What is known is that KPFK’s transmitter on Mount Wilson and another in Santa Barbara give the station a wide FM reach.

KPFK does not get money from advertising. It receives some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is partially supported with government funds, and from its listeners, as well as foundations. It normally has three fund drives each year.

The station’s official mission statement says that it seeks to promote “a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; [and] … to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.”

“La Causa” would not be the first KPFK show to test the boundaries of the station’s stated mission.

In early 1992, a 30-hour marathon, “Afrikan Liberation Weekend,” drew a response from the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] after an on-air host accused Jews of being major perpetrators of the slave trade and Jewish doctors of inventing AIDS in order to infect blacks.

In 1994, the ADL, Hillel Foundation and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture charged two other KPFK programs, “Freedom Now” and “Family Tree,” with making “slanderous and anti-Semitic attacks.” The host on “Freedom Now” accused the ADL of, among other things, founding the Ku Klux Klan.

In the Los Angeles Times, David Lehrer, then-ADL regional director, is quoted as saying, “We hope that KPFK and Pacifica will fulfill a positive and constructive role in our community and not be a vehicle for the dissemination of hate.”

KPFK’s general manager at that time, Clifford U. Roberts, cancelled the two programs, saying that they “were using language … counter to our mission.”

So the question remains, do the sentiments expressed on “La Causa” represent a larger disconnect between the Jewish and Latino communities?

Gustavo Arellano, author of the nationally syndicated column, “¡Ask a Mexican!” and a host of a KPFK show called, “4 O’Clock Tuesdays,” acknowledged that there’s “always been an anti-Semitic subconscious streak in the minds of Hispanics, and we can thank the Torquemada-era Catholic Church for hardwiring that into our minds. … But I don’t think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbates it.

“Most Latinos care much more about politics in their home countries or in the United States than what happens in the Middle East,” Arellano said, adding, “I’d say, through an informal survey, that most Mexicans don’t like Israel’s actions against Palestinians, but they also don’t approve of [Palestinians’] suicide bombings or anti-Semitic bile. Unlike Cebada … most Latinos can distinguish between Judaism and the military actions of Israel.”

Many in the Jewish and Latino communities have worked to create bonds between the two. Among those is Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee’s [AJC] Latino and Latin American Institute, who works to forge political alliances with the Latino community, especially when dealing with domestic issues like education, health care and education. She believes relationships between Latinos and Jews have “gotten better” as a result of outreach by AJC, as well as other Jewish organizations, including the Israeli government.

Siegel Vann acknowledged, however, that at recent meetings of the Congreso Latino (Latino Congress), which brings together leaders of national Latino organizations, she’s felt a change in attitude. She said that “the atmosphere has been a little more radical … in terms of U.S.-Venezuela relations and the Middle East.”

Arturo Carmona, executive director of COFEM — a Mexican American organization that provides the Latino community with public policy advocacy, as well as educational and cultural programs — said that among Latinos, especially during the last few months, the Middle East has been “talked about at home among families. You see pictures of people dying in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and we talk about it….”

Carmona, whose organization works cooperatively with ADL, said that what’s needed in the Latino community is a “greater awareness of the issues. Otherwise, I sense that people form negative opinions about [Israel].”

Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, said that many Latinos “think there should be a broader dialogue among the various players in the Middle East…. They want to make sure that the Palestinian side is heard…. In other words, let’s have a fuller and more balanced discourse.”

KPFK is decidedly and proudly progressive, but when other KPFK programs take Israel to task, they seem careful not to criticize the Jewish community or to imply — as callers to “La Causa” repeatedly do — that there are Jews hatching nefarious plots aimed at world domination.

Over the years, KPFK has been a strong advocate of minority rights, women’s rights and other liberal causes. Not surprisingly, the station has had many Jewish subscribers and listeners, like Sara Elena Loaiza.

Loaiza is both Latina and Jewish and has spent much of her life bridging the two communities through Latino Consultants, which she founded in 1995 to represent a wide variety of Latino clients and interests. Asked to listen to back episodes of “La Causa” on KPFK’s Web site, her response was that of someone who felt betrayed by an old friend.

“It’s disheartening because we’re supporters of KPFK,” Loaiza said. “We’re supporters for a lot of reasons — for their environmental coverage — they’ve got a lot of interesting programs we’ve supported in the past.

“But [“La Causa”] crosses a line. It absolutely does,” she said. “While I understand that this program is trying to be as raw as possible, it’s hurtful…. It’s like, ‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing. This is KPFK and I’m hearing this?’”

City Voice: Yaroslavsky takes on developers in push for affordable housing

In defending middle-class neighborhoods, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is taking on an issue that reaches to the heart of Los Angeles’ ethnic, political and class divide.

All those matters are involved in a dispute over a new city development ordinance that eases restrictions on big residential buildings in such areas. This ordinance was passed to meet the requirements of a 2005 state law ordering cities to allow more dense development to create housing.

The question of preserving middle-class neighborhoods while also building affordable housing affects a huge part of Los Angeles, from the dense and impoverished Latino neighborhoods of Central Los Angeles to middle-class Jewish areas in West Los Angeles and the western San Fernando Valley. It includes the Jewish neighborhoods of Fairfax and Pico-Robertson as well as multiethnic Venice, long targeted for heavy development.

Yaroslavsky, once a Los Angeles city councilman, surrendered his role in city affairs when he was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1994. As a council member, he had been co-author of a successful ballot measure that scaled back development in residential areas. The measure, Proposition U, co-sponsored by the late Councilman Marvin Braude and passed in 1986, was a successful effort to outmaneuver the land developers and their lobbyists who, then as now, have huge clout at City Hall. The measure reduced density by limiting the size of many business and residential projects. Supervisors don’t have power over development within cities, so Yaroslavsky’s election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should have taken him out of the game.

But in 2005, the Legislature passed and the governor signed the measure designed to stimulate housing construction. It did this by telling cities to put aside zoning and other planning limitations if developers agree to include some low- and moderate-priced apartments in their projects.

Los Angeles and other cities were required to implement the state law with their own municipal ordinances.

Even though he was a supervisor with no jurisdiction over the matter, Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles resident who has retained a strong political following in the city, stepped into the negotiations over the proposed implementation ordinance. He persuaded City Council members to modify the proposal. The council and Yaroslavsky agreed on modifications designed to limit teardowns of apartments in residential neighborhoods and other steps to preserve such communities.

With those modifications, the Los Angeles City Council recently passed and the mayor signed the ordinance implementing the state law. Under the ordinance, the city permits a builder to go 35 percent over zoning limits if 11 percent of the units are set aside for low-income residents or 30 percent are moderately priced.

But Yaroslavsky still was not satisfied. He objected to giving developers permission to build larger structures if they include low- and middle-income units. This, he said, was a bonus for developers. “L.A. doesn’t need to offer development bonuses allowing taller and bigger buildings” to create more affordable housing, Yaroslavsky wrote in a Sunday Opinion article for the Los Angeles Times. But with the state law and the city ordinance implementing this practice firmly in the books, there doesn’t seem much Yaroslavsky can do now, short of starting an initiative campaign.

His entrance into the fight has prompted speculation that he is interested in running for mayor, an office he sought years ago when he was in the council.

CityBeat’s Alan Mittelstaedt asked Yaroslavsky about the speculation after the supervisor discussed the development controversy at Emma Schafer’s Public Affairs Forum, a monthly gathering of political and government insiders.

“If I were running for mayor, you’d know about it.” Yaroslavsky said. “Most of the talk about me running for mayor has been emanating out of City Hall from people who are trying to marginalize some of these policy issues by reducing them to political tiffs when, in fact, they’re substantive policy issues. I’m not going to keep my mouth shut when I see my neighborhood affected by what the city does. And as a former city councilmember, I’m not going to sit back quietly and watch 20 years of my work product dismantled without a fight. This has nothing to do with running for office.”

Advocates of more affordable housing say the state and city laws are needed by neighborhoods such as Pico-Union and MacArthur Park just west of downtown Los Angeles, where Latino immigrants, some here illegally, crowd into old apartments and live in incredibly bad conditions. Those walking from Langer’s parking lot to the restaurant for a pastrami sandwich may not know they are passing through one of America’s most densely packed slums.

These same advocates say the council’s decision to ease development restrictions will make affordable housing available throughout the city. Some Pico-Union and MacArthur Park residents could then afford to move westward or into the San Fernando Valley.

This possibility complicates the dispute, however, bringing in issues of race and class.

Although the demographics of parts of Los Angeles, such as the San Fernando Valley, are changing, much of Los Angeles remains segregated by race and income. Building low-income units in West Los Angeles and the West Valley would change the pattern. Poor Latino immigrants could move into Fairfax and Pico-Robertson.

The politically correct news media and political community do not mention this aspect of the dispute, but it’s important.

But it is also important to consider the desires of middle-class L.A. residents to preserve neighborhoods that are part of the fabric of Los Angeles.

This dispute will be a big factor the city election in 2009 when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to seek a second term. Right now the mayor is playing both sides of the issue.

He favors more housing construction, especially of the affordable kind. He’s developer friendly, approving of the commercial and residential units that were going up around the city at a brisk rate before the credit crisis slowed construction.

But Villaraigosa has also become an advocate for neighborhoods and has worked hard to strengthen his ties with Jewish communities around the city.

I would be surprised if Yaroslavsky runs against him. He can remain supervisor until 2014 when term limits force him out. Supervisors run virtually unopposed. Why give up a low-stress job for the heat of the mayor’s office?

But Villaraigosa, even without strong opposition, will have to contend in his re-election campaign with the powerful forces shaping the dispute over neighborhoods and development.

Immigration: Time to share the heavy lifting

Three years ago I was unloading some 50-pound bags of landscape pebbles from the trunk of my car when I felt a four-inch blade of molten steel jab into my lower

back. Middle age had officially arrived, and my doctor ordered the permanent closure of Eshman Lifting and Schlepping, Inc. It was time to find younger men with stronger backs to do my dirty work.

That’s how I met Luis.

Driving out of Home Depot with more bags of rock and soil, I pulled over, and a dozen day laborers rushed to my window. I motioned to Luis and another guy, and they scrambled inside. We exchanged names, then I went back to listening to NPR — a Weekend Edition interview with the singer Neil Sedaka about his new album of Yiddish melodies. Halfway through Sedaka’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mamme,” Luis, who was sitting in the front seat, turned to me.

“I always thought his voice had a feminine quality,” he said.

I don’t know what I expected, maybe just some thoughtless muscle by the side of the road, a Latino golem. But I was stunned.

“I didn’t know he was Jewish,” Luis went on. “He must be Sephardic.” Luis, it turned out, was studying music theory at a community college. He had left southern Mexico years before, worked at a traveling circus in the United States and Canada, and eventually landed in college, where his goal was a degree in something called neuro-computer science, or, as he explained it, “the interface between the brain and computer technology.” He was also a student of religion.

Raised Catholic, he became a devout evangelical, then studied Judaism, and now, at 40, had settled into regular Buddhist meditation.

Luis was my first illegal alien, and his presence in my life forced me to rethink every aspect of a debate that never seems close to being either rational or resolved.

One thing Luis’ biography made clear to me was that if he was the first illegal immigrant I willingly and knowingly employed, he certainly wasn’t the first from whom I benefited. Furniture stripping, gardening, moving and storage, hauling, food service — these are just a few of the jobs Luis has worked, so employers could keep the prices to us consumers lower.

Every single one of us, from CNN’s resident border guard Lou Dobbs to Mitt Romney and his I-could-have-sworn-they-were-Swedish landscapers to Luis himself, benefits from illegal labor in our daily life, at the very least by paying less for myriad goods and services.

But I also know that one anecdote does not good policy make. Proponents of harsher anti-immigrant measures might point out to me that not all of the nation’s 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants have clean records, study neuro-computer science and know that Neil Sedaka is a Sephardic Jew.

They make up 6 to 7 percent of the prison population (not 30 percent, as Patrick Buchanan claims). They burden social services like schools and health clinics.

Perhaps most damaging is that these immigrants take jobs that unskilled Americans could otherwise take, helping to create a permanent underemployed, undereducated class of Americans. Early this decade, as the unemployment rate of 18- to 64-year-old natives without a high school education rose from 10 to 14 percent, it fell from 9 to 7 percent among their foreign-born counterparts.

So what is a humane, nonhysterical, mutually beneficial approach? What policies can American Jews support, given their awareness of the good that hard-working outsiders can bestow and the dangers that xenophobia can wreak?

Last week, in an address to the Pacific Council on International Policy, Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, outlined one set of solutions. Castaneda — the son of a German Jewish mother and Mexican father — said that any deal must take into account the pull of economic opportunity in the United States and the push of poverty and poor social policy in Mexico.

Mexico should agree to enforce its southern border, a thruway for migrants from Central America; stop people from leaving the country illegally; reward those who stay with better benefits; penalize families whose members emigrate; and provide development and job opportunities to those who stay.

The United States should agree to better enforcement at the border and with employers, a tamper-proof ID system and an expansive guest/temporary worker program. Two-thirds of immigrants prefer to come and go, Castaneda said, working for American dollars but living in Mexico. Tighter border controls under the Clinton administration only served to lock illegal immigrants in, not keep them out.

Finally, the United States needs to create a simple and expedited path to citizenship for the 12 million or more Mexicans and others in the country today. Just 4 percent of the population, they will eventually be assimilated into the fabric of the country — a country that over the last decade, I might add, they helped build.

Castaneda, who is also the author of “Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants” (The New Press, 2008), pointed out that Americans seem to favor a humane and sensible approach. Two Minuteman-approved presidential candidates, Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, were quickly deported from the ’08 race. Sen. John McCain, the Republican with what Castaneda calls “the most sensible and generous” point of view, is so far his party’s front-runner.

The Jewish community needs to be loud and supportive of such moderation. We can’t leave all the heavy lifting to Luis.

Better late than never, Theodor Herzl, children reunited in death; Ex-N.J. Governor McGreevey’s Isra

Theodor Herzl, Children Reunited in Death
Two of Theodor Herzl’s children were reinterred in Jerusalem after decades of debate. Hans and Pauline Herzl, who died in 1930 and were buried in France, were laid to final rest alongside the Zionist visionary at the cemetery that carries his name in Israel’s capital. Theodor Herzl, who launched the modern Zionist movement and wrote “The Jewish State” a few years before dying in 1904, had expressed the wish to be buried next to his children. But Israeli authorities, after reinterring Herzl himself in 1949, were reluctant to do the same for Hans and Pauline given the controversy over their deaths. Pauline died of a drug overdose in what might have been a suicide, prompting her brother to shoot himself. Hans’ conversion to Christianity shortly before his death further stoked religious opposition to his burial in Israel. But rabbis recently ruled that Hans had disavowed Christianity before dying, and that Pauline’s demise was a result of mental disturbance.
“Having brought in the remains of Pauline and Hans, we are completing the mission and achieving historical closure,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the burial ceremony.
Ex-N.J. Governor McGreevey’s Israeli ‘Lover’ Denounces Book
An Israeli who was James McGreevey’s declared love interest attacked the former New Jersey governor’s memoir. McGreevey, who stepped down in 2004 after declaring he was gay, published a memoir this month titled, “The Confession.” In it, he details an affair he said he had with Golan Cipel, an Israeli whose appointment to serve as homeland security adviser in New Jersey raised eyebrows. But Cipel, who says he is straight and suffered sexual harassment by McGreevey, issued a statement attacking the book as a “pack of lies.”
Cipel said: “I strongly hope that the gay community rejects this obvious and shameless ploy from a man who has engaged in acts of deception, sexual violence and intimidation.”
Latino Jews React to Miami Radio Caricature
Hispanic Jews in Miami formed a group to monitor Spanish-language media for anti-Semitism. The establishment of the Hispanic Jewish Initiative comes after Jews said they were offended by Goldstein, a Jewish character on the top-rated 95.7 FM show, known in English as “The Morning Hijinks,” local media reported. A Web page, until recently linked to the show, depicts a black character, Al Jackson, with the mug shot of a man whose lips balloon from his face. In place of a photo for Goldstein is a Nazi eagle and swastika.
The group, created under the state chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, will monitor and address other concerns of Florida’s Spanish-speaking Jewish population.
Israel Unmoved by Irish Boycott Call
Israel’s education minister downplayed an Irish call for Israeli academics to be boycotted. In an open letter published by the Irish Times newspaper earlier this month, 61 local academics urged their country, as well as the European Union, to impose a moratorium on ties with Israeli educational institutions until Israel “ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.”
The letter also deplored Israel’s “aggression against the people of Lebanon” during the recent war against Hezbollah. Israel’s education minister, Yuli Tamir, said she would meet the Irish ambassador to discuss the boycott call but played down its importance.
“At this time, I don’t see a real danger to Israel’s academic ties, though any boycott is despicable and we have to make sure it is lifted,” she told Army Radio.
Four Men Charged In Norway Synagogue Attack
Norwegian police charged four men in the shooting attack on an Oslo synagogue. The men were initially charged with vandalism Sept. 21, but the charge was upgraded to organizing an act of terrorism, an offense punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Police said one suspect was Norwegian, and the others had different backgrounds. They declined to provide more information about the suspects. However, Norwegian news outlets have reported that one suspect was a 29-year-old Norwegian of Pakistani origin who had been held briefly in Germany in June on suspicion of planning an act of terrorism against the soccer World Cup. No one was hurt in the Sept. 17 incident.
Czechs on Security Alert During High Holidays
The Czech Republic went on high alert for a terrorist attack during the High Holidays. The government announced the alert in the early hours Saturday and said it would continue for some time, with no specifics given. Czech officials noted that the Czech alliance with the United States in its war on terror might have made it a target, but there was also media speculation that an attack was planned to coincide with Rosh Hashanah. A government spokesman reportedly hinted that the alert was connected to the arrest of four men charged with shooting at an Oslo synagogue last weekend. Norwegian authorities have said the men were plotting to blow up U.S. and Israeli embassies in other cities. Thousands of additional police are present in the streets of Prague and are particularly noticeable near Jewish sites, such as synagogues and the Jewish community headquarters.
Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

More West Los Angeles Shootings Leave Residents Outraged

Dotted by temples, community centers and parks, the largely Orthodox Jewish Crestview neighborhood and its adjacent areas in West L.A. don’t seem to be a typical battleground for gang bangers. But residents say that is exactly what it’s become.

Little more than a month ago, Crestview’s peaceful aura was shaken by a drive-by shooting that left at least a dozen bullet holes in the second story of a duplex on Wooster Street, which neighbors said they believe is inhabited by a gang member.

The ball dropped again last week when three fatal shootings occurred in a three-day period in La Cienega Heights (LACH), the neighborhood just south of Crestview. On July 11, 16-year-old Hamilton High School student Ana Interiano was shot in the head on her way home from summer school near Robertson Boulevard and Cadillac Avenue, succumbing to her wounds later that evening in a hospital.

Two days later, two young Latino males were killed by gunfire just blocks away.
Outraged residents of Crestview, La Cienega Heights and its neighbor to the south, Reynier Village, have been spurred to action since last week’s bloodshed. They gathered Monday in Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church to discuss the escalating violence with representatives from the LAPD, City Council and mayor’s office.

“We will not stand for it anymore. We will not live in fear. We are having to exit one way out of our neighborhood to avoid certain areas,” said Connie Collins, president of the La Cienega Heights Community Group.

Although the Jewish presence in the area has increased in recent years, the area east of Robertson Boulevard in West Los Angeles remains a hodgepodge of races and religions. Its lingering pace of demographic change has failed to root out gang violence — residents suspect gang members still reside within the neighborhoods. They also believe the poor standards maintained by landlords in local apartment buildings have contributed to the problem.

At Monday’s meeting, residents demanded that the city engage in prosecuting nuisance landlords who have failed to reign in rowdy tenants.

“We do not feel that the city is willing or has the resources to partner with us in the manner that is needed to stop this problem. We need prosecutions. We need landlords to understand that they must uphold community standards to stop our children from being killed,” Collins said.

Residents also volleyed questions at LAPD Capt. Carol Aborn Khoury, demanding to know why the department has not diminished crime in the area despite the many specific reports on gang activity logged by residents.

Collins said she knew of at least six that had occurred in the La Cienega Heights in the past four years, including last week’s three. However, police were unable to confirm an exact count of homicides by the time The Journal went to press.

In March, an off-duty Culver City police officer was shot in the jaw by gang members in Crestview. Residents say the area suffers from constant graffiti tagging and is a favorite loitering place for gang members.

According to a neighborhood press release, “Residents of LACH are chased by gang members, told they cannot park in their personal driveways or parking space because they are now owned by gangs, regularly hear gunshots, have bullets flying into their homes, witness drug deals, have resorted to making citizen arrests, wisely select the streets on which they walk and drive, are selling their homes at a rapid rate, and continuously live in fear.”

Police Capt. Khoury estimated that five to six gangs consider the three neighborhoods to be their turf, but noted that new gangs are constantly forming and replacing one another.

Although she assured residents that the department’s gang unit spends the majority of its time in La Cienega Heights, in addition to deploying 80 percent of its additional resources to the area since the surge in crime six weeks ago, Khoury identified the real problem as the shortage of police officers across Los Angeles. She said the LAPD does not attract enough qualified applicants to fully staff all of its sectors.

She implored the neighborhoods to take the initiative despite the efforts of the police.

“The solution to the gang problem is not arrest and prosecution,” Khoury said. ” We have lost the gang battle if that is what we’re working with. I can tell you we cannot have successful prevention and intervention programs without a holistic approach with the community, the business community, parks, recreation, schools … everybody has to be fully involved in trying to find a place for these kids to be other than out on the streets congregating … that’s going to lead to criminal behavior.”

‘Little Flower’ Could Help Antonio Bloom

Dear Antonio,

I imagine you are enjoying the hoopla surrounding your election. As the first Latino chief executive in more than 130 years, it may be tempting to bask in the warmth of a great ethnic triumph.

But don’t enjoy it too much. Los Angeles does not need a symbol or an icon; it needs a mayor, one who can be both decisive and effective. We need less rah-rah and more Fiorello La Guardia.

I point to the former mayor of New York, in part, because you have said he is a particular hero of yours. He was also an icon of my own family. After all, he was one person who could unite the politics of my grandmother, a socialist, with those of my grandfather, a Republican businessman.

You should be able to relate to La Guardia, who also came from groups — he was part Italian, part Jewish — previously underrepresented in New York’s long Irish-dominated political system. He was not a tall man, hence his nickname “The Little Flower,” but to be fair to you, he was not quite as handsome as you.

La Guardia made people forget their ethnic and political divisions, because he approached his job not as an ideologue, but as someone who wanted to get something done. La Guardia was seen by some as an old-fashioned Teddy Roosevelt progressive, by others as a left-leaning New Dealer and even as a closet socialist — but first and foremost he was a builder.

“There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets” was one of his favorite truisms.

Politics to La Guardia was basically a means to help people, and turn the city he loved into the most efficient, most livable and humane giant metropolis in the world. To him, that meant not scoring political points but building parks, freeways, air terminals, housing and port facilities. After serving as mayor from 1933 to 1945, he left New York, without question, the greatest, richest, most important city on the face of the planet.

The key lesson is how he achieved these things. For one thing, he had no patience for those forces who stood in the way of progress.

He hated and defeated the inefficient old Tammany Hall system, which extracted bribes and kickbacks in exchange for contracts. The machine La Guardia faced and defeated makes the petty shenanigans alleged to have occurred under Jim Hahn seem like a church bingo game.

In New York under La Guardia, Harper’s Magazine reported in 1936, “good government is measured by getting a good deal for the money.” The city was well-managed, and civil servants were expected to be exactly that — people who served the public.

La Guardia expanded the bureaucracy in New York, but also drove it in a relentless and driving way. He “set standards” for city employees, notes Fred Siegel, professor of urban history at Cooper Union, and would tolerate only the fullest effort. Time-servers, incompetents and sycophants — standard issue in many city bureaucracies — had a rough time under The Little Flower. Some of them called him Mussolini, but in New York, the trains really did run on time.

Herein may lie your biggest challenge. Most people agree with you that government needs to do important things that will mean jobs and better lives for all Angelenos. But as Siegel points out, today’s civil servants and their unions have achieved such power in many big cities, Los Angeles included, that they have become the de facto government.

Your opportunity then lies in finding a way to reinvigorate the city government — particularly after the torpor of the Hahn years — so that it might achieve things people in this city really need. The biggest problem may lie not in your opponents, but your closest friends, the public employee unions and the left.

Your old friends on the left and among union activists will be pressuring you to be the herald of a new “progressive” era. Get on the talk shows, lambaste the Bush administration, take stands on every issue from gay marriage to Iraq.

At City Hall, they will push you to adopt the kind of symbolic legislation — extensive living-wage legislation, inclusionary zoning, tougher regulations on industrial and other businesses — that will make the Westside leftists feel good, but could also accelerate the flight of jobs, particularly blue-collar ones, out of town. Many of your friends, particularly in the teachers union, will plead with you to block any really significant change in the schools that imposes standards on students or teachers.

Then there is the siren song of Chicanismo, something you have moved decisively away from. There will be those who may urge you to be a pinup poster for Latino power — suited for the Democratic Party’s purposes. This will alienate many of the other L.A. ethnicities, like Jews, Asians and African Americans, who showed they are not afraid of a Latino mayor, but may not be as enthusiastic about having someone running City Hall who thinks of being Latino as his primary vocation.

Particularly important will be to reach out to Los Angeles’ increasingly disengaged white middle class, particularly in the Valley. It may have been great to see high turnouts on the Eastside, but you need to worry about the near record low turnouts in places like the West Valley. You will need these people to stay in Los Angeles, consider sending their kids to public schools and keeping their businesses here.

Fortunately, there are some examples to emulate. Maybe you should chat with former mayors like San Antonio’s Henry Cisneros and Denver’s Frederico Pe?a, who became Latino power brokers well before you. Today, both are widely remembered in their home towns not as “Latino” mayors, but as effective ones who helped turn their cities into progressive, successful and economically healthy communities.

But finally, perhaps the greatest inspiration can be found in the example of The Little Flower, who combined compassion with competence and charisma with common sense. If eight years from now, they call you the La Guardia of Los Angeles, all of us will be very sorry to see you go.

Best wishes,

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of “The City: A Global History” to be published by next month by Modern Library.

Back to Breed Street

“Boyle Heights was the Ellis Island of Los Angeles,” said City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa at the Breed Street Shul Open Day on Sunday, Aug. 22. “And this shul was the mother of all synagogues.”

But the “mother of all synagogues,” which opened in 1923, was abandoned by its few remaining congregants in 1996, and left to molder away — unused and unprotected from the elements — in Boyle Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood.

Until now.

In 1999, the nonprofit Breed Street Shul Project, Inc., a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California (JHS), took over the building and started raising money to restore it to its former glory. On Sunday, JHS opened the shul doors for an informal open house, so that more than 125 former Breed Street Shul members, curious Westside Jews and the current Boyle Heights community could come and see the renovation progress for themselves.

With its exposed brown brick façade and decorative concrete archway moldings, the exterior of the shul remains as imposing as ever, but the interior looks simultaneously haggard and fresh. Though cleared of the graffiti and debris that accumulated over the years, there is still much work to do. The wooden floors are cracked, split and uneven. The pictures painted on the walls — of the signs of the Jewish calendar, of a tree of life — are peeling away, leaving behind only remnants of their former beauty. The doors of the ark are broken and open, revealing shelves covered with dust and debris. The ceiling was recently restored, and it covers the sanctuary with a domed mint-green canopy. The stained glass windows are also being restored. Though most of them had not been refitted for the open day, leaving empty frames along the wall, they will mounted back into their frames in the coming weeks.

“We have a need to raise between $3 million and $5 million for the full rehabilitation of the [shul],” said Robert Chattel of Chattel Architecture Planning and Preservation, who is the vice president of both the Breed Street Shul Project and the JHS. Chattel has been working to restore the synagogue for 19 years, including working to get restoration grants from various government and private organizations.

“I think raising that money is within our capabilities,” he said. “We are a completely volunteer organization and we have already raised $1.1 million through state and private sources, and we have demonstrated through the care we have taken in this first phase of work that we can do this kind of work, and well.”

But once the shul is completely rehabilitated, it is unclear what the building will be used for. Although it will maintain the name “Breed Street Shul,” it will no longer operate as a synagogue, since there is not a local Jewish community to support it.

“It will always have a museum component — some kind of interpretative display of photographs and other materials that will describe the [Jewish] community in East Los Angeles, but that will always be a secondary function,” Chattel said. “But we are not intending to have just static museum displays. The primary use of the building will be a participatory, multipurpose facility for the current residents of Boyle Heights.”

Chattel said the project is in discussions with the Los Angeles Music and Art School and Cal State Los Angeles about how they could possibly use the facility.

Most of the people who came to the open house were not current Boyle Heights residents (although there were at least three members of the Boyle Heights Community Council in attendance) but both young and old Westside and Valley Jews, some of whom had been members of the Breed Street Shul when it was still operational. Many brought their cameras along to photograph the shul, and parents pointed out the salient features of the restoration to their children.

“I can tell you how important [this building was] for sense of community,” said Dr. Allen Levine, a professor of psychology at Valley City College who lived in Boyle Heights in the 1940s and ’50s. “I recall sitting there on holidays with my father and grandfather, the B’nai Akivah youth group [I was a part of] that met on Saturday afternoons, and the games and Israeli dancing that we used to have.”

“I feel a combination of nostalgia and sadness to see the decline of the building and the vandalism and to face the fact that a community had moved on,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what they will do with it, but I do hope they would keep it closed on Saturday. The religious practices here have very long and deep roots — why abandon them and make them into something different?”

For Chattel and the other members of the Breed Street Shul Project, the shul represents an opportunity for the Jewish community to help others.

“We see this as an opportunity to build bridges between the Jewish community at large and the Latino community,” Chattel said.

For more information, visit .

Latino Group Sues Over District Lines

If the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) gets its way, state Senate elections scheduled for March will be postponed until June, and California’s newly redrawn congressional districts will be re-redrawn.

MALDEF has filed a lawsuit challenging congressional and state Senate districts in the San Fernando Valley, Southeast Los Angeles and San Diego. The suit claims that lawmakers, in their attempt to create "safe" districts for incumbents, have divided Latino communities to prevent them from joining to elect new Latino representatives. According to MALDEF, this division of communities violates provisions of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees the right to representation for "communities of interest."

The congressional districts challenged in the lawsuit are held by two Jewish representatives, Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista). Maria Blanco, an attorney for MALDEF, says, "I think this has been kept at the level of the Latino voters. Our focus isn’t so much about who the incumbent is."

Some in the Jewish community see it differently.

"What MALDEF is essentially trying to do is remove two Jewish members of Congress and replace them with two Latino members. They’re trying to shove all the Latinos in an area into one district so a Latino can win the primary. Berman’s been a champion of Latino legislation for 30 years. They want to replace him with someone whose last name sounds like theirs," says Jewish community activist Howard Welinsky.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum also takes issue with the claims underlying the redistricting challenge. "The district that Howard Berman serves is a very mixed area. He has shown himself to be an effective representative of a mixed community. The MALDEF lawsuit claims Berman is not an effective legislator because he’s not Latino. I don’t think a Jew can be represented only by a Jew, or that a Latino can be represented only by a Latino."

Dissenting voices in the Jewish community are careful, however, to distinguish between the MALDEF lawsuit and Latino leaders in general. As Welinsky says, "We can’t paint this with one brush; virtually every Latino member of the Legislature voted for the reapportionment. Current Latino elected officials have been very supportive of Israel, as have African American elected officials, for that matter."

Gov. Gray Davis and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg are among the state officials named in the suit, because of their roles in passing the new district lines. MALDEF is not challenging the Assembly districts, which Hertzberg attributes to "the meticulous and open procedures we used throughout the process" of redistricting. Unlike the state Senate and the congressional delegation, California’s Assembly did not hire political consultant Michael Berman (brother of Rep. Howard Berman) to craft the new districts.

Amadis Velez says the lawsuit has nothing to do with potential rivalries between Jewish and Latino candidates. Asked about the goals behind the challenge to Berman’s Valley district, MALDEF’s redistricting coordinator answers with a question: "Let me ask you, do you see this conflict between Jews and Latinos? Because I really don’t see a conflict. With few exceptions, I think Jews and Latinos have worked pretty steadily toward common goals.

"If you look at the district, it doesn’t speak to the needs of Jews or Latinos. It speaks to the needs of incumbents. It’s just not a matter of the ethnicity of the representatives."

MALDEF has asked that state Senate elections scheduled for March 2002 be postponed until June to allow potential candidates time to campaign, and that a panel of judges redraw the districts to include undivided Latino communities. The Central District Federal court in Los Angeles scheduled a temporary restraining-order hearing for Wednesday, Oct. 31, to determine if elections should be postponed. And if MALDEF loses? "There’s always an appeals process," says Velez.

Though all involved are anxious to avoid the appearance of Jewish and Latino conflict, the issues raised by MALDEF’s lawsuit hit a sore spot for some. "For a minority that’s always been a minority, to say you shouldn’t bother to serve your community unless you represent an area where you’re in the majority basically says Jews should get out of politics," Greenbaum says.

Television Jews: How Jewish Is Too Jewish?

The new television season is upon us. African American and Latino groups are making the expected protests about the lack of people who look like them before and aft of the camera, and the Jews are — as usual — adding up their TV IQ on the fingers of one hand.

If there aren’t many “brothers” out there, there are even fewer “Members of the Tribe,” and those that are there are not particularly Jewish Jews, if you know what I mean.

Take 40-something, newly divorced father “Danny,” played by Daniel Stern. In CBS’ new series, Danny looks like he’s Jewish, sounds like he’s Jewish, but his live-in father is played by Polish American Robert Prosky, and his kids Sally and Henry come across as just, well, kids.

Ah, but wait, Danny is described in the program notes as “adapting to his single life one neurotic step at a time.” Neurotic is television-speak for Jew — just like “New York” as an adjective means “Jew” in the Midwest.

The whole subject makes the producers of the show, which, by the way, is set in that hotbed of neuroses, Portland, Ore., a trifle nervous. “It’s implied,” one of the show’s producers told The Journal. “It’s not an overt kind of thing. You don’t get it rammed down your throat. It’s not about his Jewish life — it’s about his life.”

Actor Daniel Stern himself, however, seems more relaxed about the idea of playing a Jewish man with a thing about basketball. “I was happy to be Jewish on the show,” he said. “And I like sort of putting it out there. And I want to put it out there in a sort of funny way. I thought that might be something that I hadn’t seen.”

That’s because he hadn’t seen the pilot for “Inside Schwartz” (see below). Adam Schwartz is also Jewish and a basketball nut. It’s not implied — he tells you that right off the bat, even though he’s played by non-Jew Brekin Meyer.

“I want to be the first Jew to win the slam-dunk contest,” Schwartz declares in the pilot episode. His more realistic dream is to become a sports announcer. Even if he hadn’t told us, we’d know he was Jewish, because his sidekick is a perfectly marvelous young Jewish woman played by Miriam Shore, who is ready and waiting for him to make his move on her. (We know she’s Jewish because she’s smart-mouthed and quirky.)

Executive Producer Stephen Engel says he wasn’t sure how the network would react to a show built around a Jewish character. And he wasn’t the only one.

“My father called while I was doing the show,” Engel said. “He said, ‘You know I don’t interfere in your work, but this show you’re doing, are you sure about the title? You know Schwartz is a Jewish name. I don’t know how the rest of America [is] going to respond to this.'”

Of course the central joke only works if the character is Jewish. Jews and sports — an oxymoron, right? And that was the point, as far as Engel was concerned.

“I like to consider myself a fairly good athlete,” he said. “I’m not a professional yet, but I haven’t given up hope. But there are Jews across America in sports. One right here in right field in Los Angeles.” (For those not into sports, that would be Dodger Shawn Green.)

Jason Alexander, one of the Seinfeld crew — the most successful Jews-who-dare-not-speak-their-name in TV history — is playing a Tony Robbins-style guru in ABC’s “Bob Patterson.” Patterson may or may not be Jewish — but he is kind of a lovable jerk. If in a future episode we find out the name used to be Futterman, be prepared to cringe.

Mike Binder, however, former stand-up comic star and creator of HBO’s “Mind of the Married Man,” is undoubtedly Jewish, although it’s never stated, and he’s married in the show to a gorgeous blonde Englishwoman, played by Oxford-educated Sonya Walger.

Binder grew up in a Jewish community in Detroit, and made a 1993 movie about his summer experiences at the Jewish Camp Tamakwa in Ontario (“Indian Summer”). He even wears a Tamakwa sweatshirt in one scene in the new show. But the character is just another narcissistic, sports- and sex- obsessed American male. And you don’t have to be Jewish to be that.

On the other hand, Max Bickford, professor of history in CBS’ “The Education of Max Bickford,” doesn’t know from sports. His is the ivory-tower world of old European white males to whom scholarship and love of the past is life.

And while he’s staggering under the pressure of apathetic students and political correctness, he’s doing it (from the evidence of the pilot, at least) as a slightly over the hill, all-purpose ethnic. So — is he Jewish?

“I think so, yes,” says Bickford’s alter ego, Richard Dreyfuss. “He’s got an edge; he’s a curmudgeon. The way I keep describing him is Walter Matthau, but shorter.”

He’s also the most potentially interesting of the ‘Jewish’ characters on this season’s new shows, if only because Dreyfuss is noted as that rare Jewish actor who enjoys being Jewish on screen: think Moses Wine, ace detective in “The Big Fix,” Duddy Kravitz, and even Meyer Lansky.

But since this is essentially a serious show, well written and dealing with intelligent issues, just hold your breath that it will enjoy a long run. Even if it is, don’t expect Bickford to deal with his Jewishness. Having an overtly Jewish character as the lead on a drama is still seen in Hollywood as a surefire way to cut yourself off from the American mainstream viewer.

Serious shows with Jewish content have a history of wiping out before you can say, “Nielsen, Shmielsen.” Remember “Brooklyn Bridge,” Gary David Goldberg’s loving tribute to his Brooklyn bubbie? Or how about “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” in which Rosie (Sharon Gless) answered to a kippah-wearing, public-defender boss played by Ron Rifkin? Neither lasted long.

Comedies have a longer shelf life. Jewish humor on television is the one thing that has been accepted with open arms by the rest of America — witness “Seinfeld.” Because, whether they know it or not, just as Jewish music became Tin Pan Alley, Jewish humor, as filtered through the Catskills, Hollywood and Las Vegas, is now American humor.

Bob Hope once quipped, “Hollywood is the only town where they give up matzah balls for Lent” — a line written by one of his many Jewish writers. The point being that everyone in Hollywood is Jewish, whether they were born into it or not. Hollywood has been shaped by Jewish culture — by now that’s a sociological truism — but the only place you’d know it on television is in comedy.

From “Seinfeld” to “Mad About You” to “Dharma and Greg” to “The Larry Sanders Show,” Jewish humor has infiltrated popular culture. On television, Jewish humor is the Trojan horse sneaked into the living rooms of non-Jewish America to acquaint them with the fact that Jews are pretty much like them, only more so.

“Northern Exposure,” for example, worked because America identified with its hero — a nice Jewish doctor (Rob Morrow) plunked down in small-town Alaska, where he was the least weird of the bunch. “Picket Fences,” created by Irish American David E. Kelley, introduced the conniving Jewish defense attorney played by Fyvush Finkel. (Kelley’s in-joke was that Finkel’s character bore the WASP-ish name of Douglas Wambaugh.) In one episode, he was called before a beit din to answer charges that his sleazy behavior was damaging his people’s good name.

Ironically, Kelley wrote the episode after receiving letters complaining that Finkel’s character perpetuated the stereotype of the shyster lawyer.

HBO’s “Larry Sanders Show,” which told the truth about so many aspects of American television, also warned about the perils of being too Jewish. In one episode, Larry’s sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) became a born-again Jew, and insisted on wearing a kippah on the show. Larry’s creator, Garry Shandling, noted his favorite line in that episode was when a Jewish network executive said it was OK for him to be Jewish because, unlike Hank, “he was behind the camera where the audience couldn’t see him.”

Larry Gelbart, one of the funniest comedy writers today, says of Jewish humor, “I think it’s our cultural heritage to find some relief from intolerable situations with laughter. To use it as both a sword and a shield, as an offensive and defensive weapon against those who are being hostile to you.” It seems that in a more dangerous and difficult America, the rest of the country increasingly wants to borrow the weapon.

The good news this season — yes, there is some — is that with “The Nanny” and “Suddenly Susan” (the JAP stereotypical Vicki may have been married to a decent sort of rabbi, but she was definitely cringe material), having passed into the lucrative afterlife of syndication, parodies of spoiled shopaholic Jewish women on primetime television have given way to spoiled shop-a-holic Italian women on “The Sopranos.”

And despite rumors to the contrary, the girls on “Sex and the City” can’t possibly be Jewish: Carrie only shops retail, Samantha is a nymphomaniac, Miranda is too thin, Charlotte is married to the only Scottish doctor on Park Avenue, and they’re always picking at a salad and getting tanked on cosmopolitans at lunchtime.

In short, Jewish viewers are likely to find this season as unsatisfying as countless others. As in real life, Jews on television this year are still married to, or dating, non-Jews. It cuts down on interesting sources of conflict, according to the writers, if two characters both celebrate Chanukah and know the difference between a matzah ball and kreplach — as if the writers never noticed the surfeit of conflicts within the Jewish community.

And there are still many Jews who, while they have Jewish names and look Jewish, never identify themselves as such. But, of course, we’ve never heard of that in real life, have we?

Buenos Di­as and Shalom

The moment Naomi Rodriguez entered Caffe Latte on Monday morning, she encountered a woman in distress — an elderly Jewish woman overwhelmed by the realization that she had missed a doctor’s appointment. A concerned Rodriguez took a moment to reassure her.

"It’s going to be okay," said Rodriguez, in a soothing tone that put the woman at ease.

Perhaps this was an omen. Early this year, Rodriguez was hired as community affairs specialist for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. In a new role created for her, Rodriguez is the liaison for the State of Israel to the Latino community. Rodriguez advises the consul general and the deputy consul general of Israel in matters pertaining to Latino politics, commerce, and culture.

"Everyone has apprehensions when you’re applying for a new job," Rodriguez said over breakfast. "But the Israeli Consulate immediately made me feel part of an extended family. There was an instant connection."

Consul General Yuval Rotem is impressed with his new hire. "Naomi is very committed, very devoted and diligent," she said. "She understands politics within the Latino community."

"He was very progressive in his thinking," Rodriguez said of Rotem. "He said, ‘I need a Latina to help us outreach.’ He wanted diversity in the consulate. I was the second non-Jew he hired."

Rodriguez was equally impressed by Rotem’s desire to reach beyond the Jewish community through diplomacy.

"In my opinion, these next years are all about coalitions," Rodriguez said.

Even if Antonio Villaraigosa does not win the mayoral election, there is no doubt that this is a fertile time for Jewish-Latino relations in Los Angeles.

"Ever since I came over here a year and a half ago, I really thought we need to broaden the agenda of the Israeli Consulate," Rotem said. Rotem and Rodriguez are very aware that both Latino and Jewish cultures share emphases on family, community, tradition and religion.

They have already brought Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to a La Opinion editorial board briefing. Two weeks from now, Israeli President Moshe Katzav will meet with Latino leaders. The same will happen when the Chile-born Gadi Baltiansky, spokesperson for Ehud Barak, hits town.

"We will work together with the consul of Mexico on joint ideas how to bring Latinos and Jewish people together," Rotem said.

Rodriguez was born in Victorville to Mexican-American parents. The beginning of her childhood was idyllic. She grew up on a ranch, where her neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Roy Rogers.

"Dale Evans used to babysit me," Rodriguez said of the singing cowgirl, who passed away earlier this year.

Rodriguez’s parents, devout Christians, ran a small shelter for troubled East L.A. youth on their property.

Then her family was rocked twice by tragedy. When Rodriguez was 3, her father was killed by a drunk driver while leaving church. Then, when she was 10, Louis, her older brother, who had become the patriarch of the family, fell asleep at the wheel while on his delivery job. He died the day before his wedding. He was only 22.

No longer able to support her family, Rodriguez’s mother moved her children to Riverside, Rosemead and Azusa.

Now 25, Rodriguez brings more than seven years of public service experience to the consulate, having worked for State Senator Gloria Romero when she represented the 49th Assembly District and for City Councilman Nick Pacheco.

Even Rodriguez’s undergrad years at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) were marked by accomplishment. She beat out three male rivals for student body president at a campus of 30,000 students. As CEO and president of Associated Students, Inc., Rodriguez oversaw a budget in excess of $22 million, supervising more than 200 employees. Somehow, Rodriguez managed to slip in a year studying international politics at Nottingham Trent University in England.

"She’s a superstar, and I’m her number-one fan," said Dr. Robert Maxson, president of CSULB. "I’m in my 20th year, and she is one of the finest students I’ve ever come across."

At a recent Associated Students banquet, she was surprised with a scholarship named in her honor.

Rodriguez has worked a sexual assault hotline on behalf of L.A. Women’s Center since her early teens. Come July, she will also sit on the YWCA’s board, and she has been selected by the prestigious HOPE (Hispanas Organized for Political Equality) program, an intensive internship that engages Latinas in social action efforts.

For the consulate, Rodriguez is organizing cultural exchanges, such as a celebration at Tamayo’s, a landmark East L.A. restaurant dedicated to artist Rufino Tamayo, in September, which is Hispanic Heritage Month. She is also planning an October delegation of 20 prominent Latino leaders to visit Israel. Invitations have been extended to David Lizárraga, CEO and president of Telacu; the heads of Telemundo and Univision; and Jonathan and Dolores Sanchez, owners of Eastern Group Publications, whose publications include the bilingual Eastside Sun, originally a Jewish-owned Boyle Heights paper. Later, a Jewish delegation will visit Mexico.

When and if she finds the time to pry herself from her full plate of work, Rodriguez pursues dancing, a lifelong passion. As a child, she performed with Mickey Rooney’s Talent Towners. Rodriguez recalled that it took three auditions to make it into the dance troupe. She didn’t quit, and her persistence then, as it has since, paid off.

Diversity of Dizzying Dimensions

When voters cast their ballots for mayor in next week’s primary, they may be electing to that office the first Jew, the first Latino or the first woman.

There are 15 candidates on the April 10 ballot, but only six are considered serious contenders. In a reflection of Los Angeles’ diversity, two — Wachs and businessman Steve Soboroff — are Jews; former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra are Latinos; and two — City Attorney James Hahn and state Comptroller Kathleen Connell — are Anglos.

With no candidate expected to get a majority in the crowded primary, the two top vote-getters probably will compete in a June 5 runoff.

All are veteran politicians except for Soboroff, who has never run for public office and is trying to use that to his advantage. "A Problem Solver, Not a Politician" is the phrase used on his bumper stickers, campaign literature and TV commercials.

At 52, Soboroff has made a great deal of money as a commercial developer of shopping centers, malls and retail chain stores. His wealth reputedly stands at $10 million, though he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview that the figure is lower.

Soboroff has committed $687,000 out of his own pocket to his campaign, supplementing $2.9 million in outside contributions.

He will need all that and more, mainly for television commercials, by primary day. If he makes the June 5 runoff, he will have to spend at least another $3 million, according to political analysts.

Not to worry, though. "I’ll spend whatever it takes to become mayor," Soboroff says.

So far, there have been some 40 debates among the six candidates. The debates largely have been devoted to issues rather than personal attacks, except for some bitter exchanges between Soboroff and Wachs, whose mutual dislike is palpable.

The front-runner at this stage is Hahn, with Villaraigosa closing in fast, followed by Soboroff. As the only Republican in the race, Soboroff is counting on the support of white voters, especially among conservative middle-class residents of the populous San Fernando Valley.

There are no assurances that he will attract the most Jewish voters. A vast majority are Democrats, and although the mayoral race is supposedly nonpartisan, they may vote for a more liberal contender.

On the other hand, Jews who prefer to vote for one of their own probably will back Wachs, who is a veteran of 30 years of city politics and enjoys a considerably higher profile in the Jewish community than does Soboroff.

Wachs, who is among the more conservative of the candidates, had been expected to be one of the strongest entrants but in fact is far back in the field, according to polls.

No one is billing the contest for runner-up — and a spot in the runoff — as a Latino-Jewish confrontation, but the possibility of such a face-off points to the emerging political realities of America’s second-largest metropolis.

A generation ago, Jews played a substantial role in Los Angeles politics as financial backers and campaign strategists, but they shunned the limelight, and few ran for elected office.

The situation has changed drastically: Jewish politicians today are omnipresent in Los Angeles and in California as a whole.

The area of Sherman Oaks is illustrative. Close to the boundary between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley, Sherman Oaks is part of the Los Angeles municipality and has a strong, but not predominant, Jewish presence.

Counting from lowest to highest office, a Sherman Oaks resident could have a Jewish city councilman, county supervisor, state assemblyman, U.S. congressman and two U.S. senators.

The Jewish political domination is not as pronounced in other districts of the city. Relative to their proportion of the population, however, Jews are vastly over-represented in Angeleno politics, particularly given the demographic changes of the last decade.

Latinos, primarily of Mexican descent, have become the single-largest ethnic group in Los Angeles, making up 42.5 percent of the city’s almost 3.9 million inhabitants. Jews, whose numbers are stable, represent about 10 percent.

African Americans make up close to 11 percent but are about to be overtaken by Asian Americans, according to just-released figures from the 2000 census.

Jews still lead all other groups in voter participation and financial donations, but Latinos, until now relatively dormant on the political scene, are beginning to flex their muscle.

The current mayoral election, especially a potential Soboroff-Villaraigosa contest, is an omen of things to come as a new generation of Los Angeles-born Latinos demands its share of the political pie.

So far, the political competition between Jews and Latinos has been muted and nonconfrontational, and leaders in both communities are working to keep it that way. One sign is the increasing number of programs Jewish organizations direct toward Latinos, hoping to create bonds similar to those that linked Jews and blacks during the civil rights struggle.

Villaraigosa is a prime example of the upcoming generation of Latino leadership. A young and very personable politician, he grew up in the then-heavily Jewish area of Boyle Heights. He likes to say he was a potential delinquent and rarely fails to credit his Jewish high school teacher for turning him around.

Villaraigosa enjoys considerable support in the Jewish community. Two of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in Los Angeles — developer Eli Broad and television mogul Haim Saban — are among his prominent backers.

Building Bonds

Think of the American Jewish and Latino communities as two longtime friends who have just decided to get more serious.

After years of dialogue — mostly at the local level — top organizations and leaders met in Washington, D.C., last week at the first national Jewish-Latino summit to discuss the development of a common agenda and ways to strengthen the alliance between the two groups.

But even those involved with the summit admit that the issue of bilingual education looms as a potential problem for closer ties between the two groups.

The Jewish community — organized, wealthy and politically savvy — and the Latino community, the fastest-growing minority group in America, need each other to help push their common legislative priorities, leaders say.

The two communities already have worked closely on a number of legislative issues, such as civil rights enforcement, immigration policies and hate crimes legislation.

A joint declaration of principles discussed at the summit is being circulated among Jewish and Latino groups, according to Dina Siegel Vann, Latin American Affairs director for B’nai B’rith International, which co-sponsored the summit.

The declaration calls for fair portrayals of Jews and Latinos in the media, strengthening of public education, support for Israel, increased aid to Latin America and economic empowerment for minority communities.

Groups attending the conference included the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the United Jewish Communities, the National Council of La Raza, the New America Alliance and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The conversation between the two communities was long overdue, said Maria del Pilar Avila, executive vice president of New America Alliance, an organization of Latino business leaders that also helped organize the summit.

"Together, we are stronger," del Pilar Avila said, noting that a joint Jewish-Latino task force will develop a plan of action within the next two months.

A national survey of Latino-Jewish relations released at the summit showed a number of areas of commonality between the communities, such as support for stronger anti-discrimination laws.

But one striking difference was that nearly one-third of Jewish respondents to the survey do not support bilingual education at all, while almost two-thirds of Latinos said they strongly support it.

That divergence could become a barrier between the two communities, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based group that focuses on relations between Jews and other ethnic groups, which conducted the survey.

Siegel Vann said that despite the Jewish respondents’ answers in the survey, Jewish organizations by and large do support bilingual education.

Schneier believes education will be the primary issue the two communities can rally around. In addition, he said, areas of disagreement ultimately will energize and help the Jewish-Latino relationship by forcing them to discuss their differences.

Some 500 respondents from each community were interviewed for the survey. The Latino sample was far younger — fully half under the age of 40 — than the Jewish group, almost half of whom were 55 or older.

Other survey findings include:

Forty percent of Jewish respondents are strongly opposed to President Bush’s faith-based initiative, while 40 percent of Latinos support the plan;

Three-fourths of the Jews and half of the Latino respondents said the Catholic Church did not do enough to help Jews during the Holocaust;

Approximately one-third of both Jews and Latinos think there is anti-Semitism in the Latino community, while 36 percent of Latinos — and just 20 percent of Jews — feel there is anti-Latino sentiment in the Jewish community;

Half of the Latino respondents said they were unaware of how Jews were treated during the Spanish Inquisition;

Two-thirds of Latino respondents said schools do not teach enough about the Holocaust, a higher percentage even than among the Jews (55 percent);

Twenty percent of Latinos believe U.S. policy is too supportive of Israel.

The summit showed a commitment by national groups to develop the communities’ relationship and a willingness to learn from the ongoing local dialogues, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who spoke at the summit.

A number of local efforts are under way to bring the two communities closer.

For example, the Detroit Jewish Initiative matches the Jewish community with the Community Health and Social Services Center and the Detroit Public Schools on projects to improve the health of Detroit’s Latinos.

In Chicago, the Alliance of Latinos and Jews, developed in 1994, focuses on areas of common concern such as business and economic development, immigration, education, and social and cultural affairs.

National organizations now will push local people to model successful programs, Saperstein said. The Religious Action Center, for its part, will step up its efforts in coalition-building, local social services and intercultural programming, he said.

Protest for Labor Rights

For the past four years, the predominantly Latino hospitality and housing employees at the University of Southern California have been fighting for a written guarantee of job security. Now, union leaders representing the workers have turned to Jewish leaders to support what they consider a call for justice.

The labor dispute began in June 1995, when the contract between USC and Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union expired. Since then, USC has refused to renew a contract under terms that would preclude the possibility of hiring subcontractors, which union leaders see as a threat to the 360 workers’ job security. A rolling hunger strike on behalf of the workers, now termed “The Fast for Justice” began in May when Local 11 President Maria Elena Durazo fasted for 11 days. The fast has since been picked up by Los Angeles religious and political leaders.

In response to the protests, Phil Chiaramonte, Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services, said that USC has no intention of replacing union workers with subcontractors, but would like to reserve the right to hire subcontractors should the university need to meet unexpected economic and market changes.

“We have indicated more than once that we have no current plans to subcontract those positions,” he said.

In fact, the university, the largest private employer in Los Angeles, has implemented programs to ensure job comfort and stability. Computer, math and ESL courses have been created for the staff. USC arranges for summer job placement for its employees at Universal Studios during the park’s peak season, as work diminishes at USC during the summer. Longtime employees have sent their children to USC on remitted tuition, a benefit the workers cherish for the opportunity it gives their family for higher education.

Many USC hospitality and housing workers agree that they have been treated well. That is why Alex Rivera, one of the more vocal union members, is all the more concerned that he and his fellow workers may lose their jobs.

Rivera, head waiter to USC President Steven Sample and waiter supervisor, has worked at USC for 32 years. He distrusts university officials when they say they will honor their jobs in the event that they hire subcontractors. He cites an episode two years ago when janitorial workers lost their jobs to subcontractors even after university officials claimed that would not occur.

At one of the university restaurants, employees on the job were quick to echo Rivera’s concerns. It was a slow day, but Miriam Siegler was reluctant to speak when managers were around. She says many workers are too intimidated to protest. Some who demonstrated at last year’s commencement were temporarily suspended which, according to officials, was justified since they did not report their absence from work.

“It’s hard when you’re poor and you have to fight with people who are really powerful,” Siegler said.

Jewish leaders who have been known to support labor causes in the past have joined with the union to bring more power to the side of the workers. Jewish support peaked last week on July 22, Tisha B’av afternoon, when about 150 Jewish leaders and Latinos united in front of the historic Breed Street Shul located in the heart of Boyle Heights to support the USC workers in their struggle for job security.

The gathering coincided with Tisha B’Av, to mark the continuation of the Fast for Justice and to commemorate the similar struggles of Jews and Latinos.

At the event, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, Rabbi Aaron Kriegel of Temple Ner Maraav, Rabbi Marvin Gross of the Jewish Labor Committee and West Hollywood Councilman Paul Koretz pledged their commitment to the workers’ cause. Many of these same leaders were active in pressuring the management of the Summit Hotel Rodeo Drive to settle a labor dispute with employees last year.

Irv Hershenbaum of United Farm Workers, Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, Eric Gordon of the Workman’s Circle and Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, spoke of their natural sympathy with members of the Latino community. Their parents and grandparents were also hard-working immigrants, many of whom settled in East Los Angeles, in search of a better life for themselves and their families, they said.

“The Jewish community has a long and proud history of being active in the labor movement and having an investment in Boyle Heights where many of the lowest-paid, least secure workers at USC live and raise families today,” said Scott Svonkin, a Koretz aide and Jewish activist who helped coordinate the event.

Jewish outcry comes at a time when USC enjoys improved Jewish relations. In the past decade, USC has reached out to Jewish alumni and increased it’s number of Jewish faculty to approximately one third.

In a statement forwarded to the Journal, USC trustee Kenneth Leventhal accused union leaders of manipulating public opinion to gain strength at the bargaining table. “As a Jew and as a USC trustee, it saddens me and sickens me to see the union attempt to link a sacred Jewish fast day with this dispute,” Leventhal said.

“We, the members of the Jewish community, give notice to President Sample that we have waited long enough,” said Kriegel, who is participating in a boycott call to Jewish donors to halt donations to USC until an agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, negotiators are working to resolve the issue. Possible solutions include consulting with the union before the university subcontracts or ensuring the right of the university to subcontract on condition that current workers are given first preference.

Forging a Common Future

Allies or adversaries? That is the question confronting Jewish and Latino political leaders as they assess the current and future relations of their communities.

Some legislators, such as Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, disagree that Jews and Latinos are at cross purposes politically. Hertzberg points to elected officials such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, a Latino who drew substantial support from the Jewish community.

“The issues that mean so much to Jews, such as education, resonate with Latinos,” Hertzberg said. “I think they see we have a common heritage as immigrants and in places like Boyle Heights, although we don’t live and work and socialize together as much as we have in the past.”

According to statistics from the Los Angeles County Children’s Planning Council, Latinos make up more than one-third of the population of the San Fernando Valley, versus 20 percent of the Westside area (including Santa Monica and West Los Angeles). Most Valley Latinos reside in the area’s northeastern region, including San Fernando and Pacoima, while the Valley Jewish population continues its shift westward.

On the economic front, statistics from the recent Jewish Federation demographic study show a median household income of $52,000 for Jewish families, while the median household income for Latinos as of 1990 was just more than $27,000 (according to a county profile). The county profile also shows 53.5 percent of Latinos employed either in sales/clerical positions or as operators or laborers, with about 11 percent employed in the professions; more than half of Los Angeles Jews hold professional occupations.

Then there is the language disparity. For many Latino immigrants, such as Mary Ballesteros of La Opinion newspaper (who moved to the Southland just eight years ago), Spanish remains their primary language. Thus, Jews — at least those who cannot speak Spanish — and Latinos find themselves communicating at a basic level, if at all.

A few organizations, such as VOICE (an immigration assistance and citizen education group) and the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC), have long worked at bridging the communication gap between Jews, Latinos and other minorities.

“Jews have successfully transitioned from being outsiders to being leaders in government and business,” said Scott Svonkin, a member of the VIC and chair of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). “We have a wealth of experience to share, and it is in our best interest as a minority to help the Latino community succeed by forging a genuine partnership with them.”

“The relationship [between Jews and Latinos] is relatively new, and it doesn’t come from the same place, historically, as black-Jewish relations,” said Barbara Creme, director of the Valley JCRC. “We need to approach this from a different perspective and realize it takes time. The black-Jewish relationship took time to evolve, too, and I think the biggest problem we face is people’s lack of patience.”

To help develop and nurture the Jewish-Latino relationship, Creme last year created the Hispanic Jewish Women’s Task Force with the assistance of Margaret Pontius, community services coordinator of the Guadalupe Center in Canoga Park; Virginia Rafelson of Los Angeles BASE (Basic Adult Spanish Education); and Rayna Gabin, field deputy for City Councilwoman Laura Chick.

Pontius, who supervises a wide range of social-service programs at the Guadalupe Center, said that she found it interesting to compare the different perceptions each group has of the other.

“In the Hispanic community, everything depends on class; they tend to see everyone who is not black or Hispanic as rich and, therefore, don’t want to have anything to do with us,” she said. “I don’t think Jews have an accurate picture, either; they think all Latinos are like their cleaning lady, that they don’t have degrees or are professionals, they don’t care about their kids going to good schools or about art or travel. Both sides tend to lump people together unfairly.

“This group [the task force] has been a real eye-opener for all of us. After a time, each side sees we have the same problems with teen-agers or aging parents or even domestic violence. At that point, it begins to be about women sharing, not Jewish women or Hispanic women or Asian women, but just women.”

Heartbreak Hotel?

Left, an anti-union poster evoking Nazism that upset labor andJewish communal leaders, such as Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels (above)who spoke at a pro-union press conference at the hotel. Also picturedis state Sen. Tom Hayden, just left of the podium.

The Miramar Sheraton Hotel is one of the jewels of Santa Monica.It sits astride a full block on Ocean Avenue and looks west, over thePalisades and the blue Pacific. Inside, there are lush gardens, aluxurious swimming pool and tanned guests who look as if they areemblems of Southern California.

The hotel is where President Clinton has often stayed duringvisits to Los Angeles.

And the Miramar Sheraton is the only Santa Monica hotel that isunionized.

But, alas, Eden is beginning to falter: Hotel officials recentlyentered into conflict with Local 814 of the Hotel Employees andRestaurant Employees Union. According to some, they have attempted tointimidate workers, most of whom are Latino, into voting “no” for theunion in an upcoming decertification election.

One of the hotel’s tactics has set off alarm bells not only amongunion representatives but among leaders of the Jewish community.

Last week, according to critics, a 3-by-4-foot color posterdepicting a union organizer as a Nazi was posted beside the employeetime clock. The cartoon figure had military garb, a Hitlerianmustache, black riding boots, a union armband and pockets stuffedwith greenbacks. The character is pointing to a blackboard upon whichthere are slogans in Spanish, such as “Pay dues to the union.”

The hotel representatives, of course, see no connection betweenthe figure and the Nazis, let alone Hitler.

Not so, say several Jewish and Santa Monica civic leaders. Lastweek, a group of them angrily marched into the hotel and across theexpanse of marble floor, stood in front of the reception desk. Theydemanded to speak to someone in charge. Among the demonstrators wereRabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom; Rabbi Jeffrey Marx ofSha’arei Am: The Santa Monica Synagogue; Rick Chertoff of the JewishLabor Committee; Richard Bloom of Friends of Sunset Park; SantaMonica City Councilmember Michael Feinstein; peace activist JerryRubin; and a dozen others.

The somewhat befuddled young woman behind the reception desk onlysmiled nervously and said that she didn’t know anything about theissue. An impeccably coifed young man then sternly stated that thevisitors were impeding his guests and that they would have to move.Finally, two policemen arrived but were soon satisfied that thevisitors were peaceful.

The demonstrators then carried on a press conference in the humiddrizzle outside the hotel, making indignant statements to the media.

The confrontation didn’t seem to shake Comess-Daniels, who spokeof the biblical mandate to protect the worker.

Marx said that the poster trivialized the Holocaust and flew inthe face of the Jewish history of union organizing.

The poster “surpasses the normal sleaze we see associated withthese kinds of campaigns,” Feinstein said. “I am offended as a humanbeing and as a Jew.”

In a written statement, hotel officials denied the charges ofintimidation and refuted the claim that the cartoon figure was meantto resemble a Nazi. They called that allegation “ridiculous,offensive [and] untrue.”

“However, for anyone in the community who found this imageoffensive, we apologize,” the statement says.

The Journal was unable to reach hotel general manager BillWorcester, but he told the Los Angeles Times, “The real issue is, doour employees want to continue to be represented by Local 814?”

For Gail Escobar, who is Jewish and a waitress at the hotel’supscale Grille restaurant, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Escobar, 35, who grew up in Santa Monica, said that she was hiredby the hotel two years ago, when she needed more income to supporther 5-year-old son, Kevin. She was drawn to the Miramar Sheratonbecause the union ensured her full health benefits, which recentlyproved crucial when her husband required major eye surgery.

Escobar joined the union’s organizing committee this past springto help workers keep their benefits and a bargaining voice. But shesaid that she has been unnerved by the tense, mandatory anti-unionmeetings she has had to attend with the other employees. (Worcestertold the Times that the meetings were “informational only.”)

“If we lose the union, I’m almost 100 percent sure they’ll fireme,” the waitress said. “I’ve been way too vocal.”

But Escobar and the other employees at least enjoyed one coup lastweek. After the rabbis’ press conference, the hotel took down theegregious poster.

The union vote took place on Oct. 1, after The Journal went topress this week. Also as The Journal went to press, CongregationKehillat Ma’arav was planning to go ahead with its High Holidayservices at the Miramar Sheraton. There was not enough time to changevenues, a source said.

Revitalizing Our Past and Future in Pico-Union

Among these earlier settlers were many Jewish families, who, notinterested in joining the growing ersatz shtetl up in Boyle Heights,built their graceful homes in the tony new district.

“That area was for the more affluent families — it wasn’tworking-class like Boyle Heights,” says Steve Sass, president of theSouthern California Jewish Historical Society. “It was the place forthe acculturated and upwardly mobile.”

Among those attracted to the area were Asher and Hanna Hamburger,who owned the city’s first department store — the Hamburger People’sStore, along 8th and Broadway — and the Morris Cohen family, thecity’s first garment makers and whose descendants later founded theveritable fountainhead of the California sportswear industry, Cole ofCalifornia. The district also saw, in 1909, the construction of theoriginal Sinai Temple, Los Angeles’ first conservative synagogue,and, in 1928, Kolting House, the Hamburger family-financed home forJewish “working girls.”

Today, few Jews live in this area, now widely known as Pico-Union.Most of the residents are Latino working-class families, many fromCentral America. Many of the old homes and buildings still exist, butlargely because economic progress and investment long ago passed bythis district. The synagogue is now a Presbyterian church, and theold Hamburger Home still services poor people, but under non-Jewishauspices.

Although the Jewish residents and places of worship havedisappeared, Jews remain involved, both directly and indirectly, inthe economic life of the struggling district. Many Pico-Unionresidents work in Jewish-owned garment factories either in theimmediate area or nearby in the fashion district. And, of course,Langer’s, the landmark delicatessen, still serves up the traditionalspecialties from its location on Alvarado and 7th.

But the Jewish involvement extends far beyond borscht andshmattes. After seeing many of their friends die in the 1973Yom Kippur War, two Israelis, Jerry and Ron Azarkman, left thePromised Land for the arguably safer climes of Southern California.Not knowing much about Los Angeles, they started selling electronicsgadgets — the business they had done back in Israel — door to doorin Pico-Union.

“I didn’t know English or Spanish,” says Jerry, from his officesat the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Union Avenue. “But I felt verycomfortable with Spanish-[speaking] people because they wereimmigrants too. They were welcoming and warm.”

Being from the “Holy Land,” he says, was a big help with many ofPico-Union’s devoutly Christian residents. Slowly, the Azarkmansbuilt a major retail operation, offering credit — much like some ofthe earliest 19th-century Jewish Los Angeles merchants — to theLatino customers, who often could not get any from mainstreambusinesses. By the early 1990s, their company, La Curacao, had becomeamong the largest retailers in the district.

Not that it was easy. In the 1992 riots, which devastated much ofPico-Union, La Curacao burned to the ground, along with millions ofdollars in merchandise. The Azarkmans considered pulling out, butthey decided to rebuild. “One thing that swayed us,” Jerry Azarkmansays, “is that we couldn’t leave our employees.”

So instead of retreating, the Israeli businessmen advanced,eventually purchasing the two office towers on Olympic (they have alarge La Curacao showroom on the bottom floor) and opening a secondfacility in heavily Hispanic Panorama City. Today, the two storesdraw more than 100,000 credit-card-carrying customers. They now enjoysome of the highest per-square-foot sales in Southern California.

But the Azarkmans’ dreams for Pico-Union extend beyond La Curacao.With their Olympic towers as their base, they dream of turning thearea into something of a “Little Central America,” much along thelines of the adjacent and sprawling Koreatown. In this effort, theyhave enlisted many Central American consulates, lawyers and businessgroups, including the El Salvador Chamber of Commerce.

Gena Levy, longtime president of the El Salvador Chamber, saysthat there are several Jewish businesspeople in her group. For onething, she reminds us that, in the years before the Holocaust, ElSalvador accepted upward of 35,000 European Jews, saving them fromthe concentration camps. In the ensuing generations, many of theserefugees became prominent Salvadorans in commerce, the professionsand the arts. But with the turmoil that struck El Salvador in the1970s and 1980s, some of these Jews migrated again — this time, toLos Angeles.

Today, these merchants, along with the Azarkmans and Jewishgarment manufacturers , are playing an important role in turningaround Pico-Union. Signs of progress may be rarely noted in thepress, but local business people recognize them — less graffiti,improved homes, new markets and shops.

Jews throughout Southern California, notes Sass, should realizethat they, too, have a “stake-holder interest” in the revitalizationof a district so intertwined with both our own past and our city’sfuture.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the PepperdineInstitute for Public Policy.

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Disney, Boycotts and the Hollywood Elite

It’s hard to feel sorry for the Walt Disney Company, a multibillion-dollar mouse-forged empire that seems to own a part of most children’s hearts, including that of my own 2 1/2-year-old. Yet, in recent weeks, the venerable Burbank entertainment giant has been subjected to two major boycotts, one from the right-leaning Southern Baptists and the other from Latino media activists.

Why target Disney? To a large extent, notes the Anti-Defamation League’s David Lehrer, it’s simply a reflection of that company’s success. “Disney is a big target because it’s big and successful,” he says. “It’s an easy place to get attention if you go after it.”

Yet there may be something more serious lurking behind these boycotts, Lehrer and others suspect — a revival of the traditional concerns among various groups about “Jewish control” of the means of mass communications. Disney might be less exploitative and venal in its product line than the rest of Hollywood, but its leadership comprises some of the most visible and powerful Jewish figures in the industry (not the least of whom is Chairman Michael Eisner).

Although this linkage between Hollywood and Jews is rarely spoken of in press releases here, Lehrer says that it is once again a regular staple in the somewhat snide British press. More ominously, however, the Southern Baptist boycott comes from the very organization that last year openly advocated the mass conversion of Jews from their faith.

“Southern Baptists don’t talk about Jews; they talk about the Walt Disney Company,” says Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “But in the back of their mind, they are thinking about Jews in the entertainment companies.”

Rudin is no stranger to the religious right, having worked assiduously to improve relations between conservative Christians and mainstream Jewish organizations. He points out that the Southern Baptists have become increasingly hard-line in recent years on issues from homosexuality and abortion to the conversion of non-Christians. In the process, he adds, they have lost thousands of members and much of their grass-roots support. Many Southern Baptists, including those around Orlando, Disney’s Florida hub, have distanced themselves from the boycott.

But Rudin suggests that the boycott does also reflect a legitimate complaint — that Hollywood, and its largely Jewish leadership, is guilty of a kind of “elitism,” particularly when it comes to the views felt in the “flyover zone” between the coasts. “It’s a bigger issue about control of the culture by elites, and the Jews are part of it,” Rudin says.

If this is true of Southern Baptists, much of the same can be said of the other boycotting group, the National Latino Media Coalition. Like other non-Jews in the entertainment media, many Latinos have felt excluded in their access to jobs, particularly in upper management at the studios. Many of them complain that the Hollywood elite sees only stereotypical roles for Latinos in the media, even though they live adjacent to the largest Hispanic community north of Mexico City.

“All we see are the stereotypes,” says Alex Nogales, chairman of the coalition, which has won the support of such prominent figures as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. “We have been people selling oranges under the freeway, the nanny, the gardener, the gangbanger. That’s what we seem to fit into.”

Nogales and other Latinos in the media believe that many Jewish executives, including Eisner, have become socially isolated from the diverse and complex multiracial Los Angeles that exists around them. Certainly, this is not only a Disney problem; Steven Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw, once said that she wanted to move to New York to be in a “more diverse” city. One wonders whether she, and many other Hollywood types, ever sojourn east of La Cienega Boulevard.

This reflects a troubling tendency among Hollywood executives. Many of them may live in Los Angeles, the world’s most diverse major city, but are not of it. Instead, they cling to ethnic mentalities nurtured in the predominantly black-and-white environments of 1960s Chicago, New York or Boston of their youths. If they seek to open themselves to other influences, it tends to be more oriented to African-Americans, who have made huge strides into at least creative parts of the business.

“A lot of Jews have forgotten what it’s like to be a newcomer and have obstacles put in front of them,” Nogales says. “They have become so isolated — the Eisners and that type — they are now excluding others, just as the Jewish immigrant was once excluded.”

Although somewhat hyperbolic, Nogales’ assertions cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic. For one thing, Nogales is married to a Jew and sends his kids to a Jewish summer camp. His concerns should also be those of our community: After being perhaps too solicitous of non-Jews in the days of the Mayers and the Warners, the Jewish Hollywood elite and others must face the fact that there is a growing chasm between the entertainment industry and large parts of its audience, as can be seen in repeated congressional hearings and in the growing movement to control and label Hollywood content.

This chasm represents an important issue that Jews, both inside and outside of the entertainment industry, will need to address among themselves in years ahead.

Not that the boycotts of Disney will do much to advance that discussion within our community or with outsiders. Although they work as publicity stunts, the two boycotts will likely fail to keep Baptist or Latino parents from their appointed rounds, taking their children to Disneyland, Disneyworld or to see “Hercules” at Hollywood’s El Capitan. What is needed instead is a more comprehensive dialogue between the entertainment moguls and their audience — both in the “flyover zone” and here in the heart of increasingly Latino Los Angeles — that addresses these complex issues in a less confrontational and more thoughtful way.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and author of “Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.”