At Politicon, diversity and polarity make for entertaining (and loud) political fare

Partisan, political theater was on full display mid-afternoon on Oct. 10 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as two of the panels at the inaugural Politicon conference overlapped.

In “Independence Hall,” a panel included Democratic strategists David Axelrod, James Carville and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while next door in “Freedom Hall,” right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter debated Cenk Uyger, a left-wing activist and commentator.

Some of the louder Democrats in the crowd chortled as Gingrich talked economics, and whooped when Axelrod defended President Obama’s economic record. Meanwhile it seemed Uyger and the standing-room only crowd next door couldn’t quite tell whether Coulter was serious when she said it would have been better had the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Iraq instead of toppling Saddam Hussein and then withdrawing.

“ISIS, when they put somebody in a cage and burned him alive, we thought they were the worst monsters on earth. You say you’d like to do that on a grand scale, because that’s what a nuclear weapon does,” Uyger said to Coulter, to large applause. 

“In response to 9/11, yes,” Colter responded, “we should not have sent ground troops. We should have dropped…in retrospect, now that we know we’re in a country that can elect Barack Obama, instead of bothering to create a democracy in Iraq, which we did, and which was working beautifully,” she said, to boos. “Are we getting back to immigration, the topic of my book, and technically the topic of this panel?”

The two-day conference, which ran Oct. 9-10, attracted about 9,000 attendees, according to event organizers, and brought together some of the nation’s most recognizable figures in politics, media and entertainment, including “The Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, who performed a stand-up routine followed up by a conversation with Carville, the political commentator who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency, as well as Paul Begala, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), John Avlon, editor in chief of the Daily Beast, with Edward Snowden, who became famous for leaking classified information from the NSA, appearing via live video from Russia.

Modeled after the wildly popular Comic-Con, Politicon’s first run was a sort of cholent for the political mind. There was the good – former Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and Jay Leno-monologue writer and Democratic political consultant, Jon Macks on speechwriting; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, broadcasting his show live and interviewing, via telephone, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. There was the bad – a woman who screamed out “bulls**t!” to one of Gingrich’s points and then bragged about it after the panel. And there was the weird – ranging from the “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” slam poetry session to the cleverly and thematically cosplay-dressed attendees who got in for free.

In “Democracy Village,” the physical proximity of booths from different organizations, despite their stark ideological contrasts, created a bit of a compromising, kumbaya feel. Local conservative radio station KRLA, for example, bumped shoulders with the LGBT Republican Log Cabin Republicans, while just a few feet away were a Teamsters Local Union booth, and one for the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.

“This is really the intersection of politics and entertainment,” said Macks, who, in addition to his comedy writing, has also done debate preparation sessions with Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and has done speechwriting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others. “When politics is entertainment, when 24 million people are watching Donald Trump debate, this is a chance for everyone from your political junkies to political nerds to your issue-oriented people to everyday citizens who are just interested in finding out and having some fun.”

Did Politicon, with its variety and diversity, change minds or create some ground for compromise? Probably not, but that wasn’t really its purpose. Like any convention – whether for comic books, fashion, politics or entertainment – many, maybe even most of the attendees, were those already passionate about, and probably set in, their political and ideological beliefs. But with commentators on opposite sides of the spectrum sharing a stage, and with activists from the left and the right schmoozing and working only a few feet apart, Politicon did deliver on its slogan, “Entertain Democracy.”

Netanyahu facing challenges, criticism from Jewish liberals

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing escalating criticism and pressure from the White House, he could use some help from Israel’s erstwhile allies in the American Jewish community — especially those with sway in liberal and Democratic circles.

But several leading Jewish liberal critics of Netanyahu are working to rally American Jewish opinion against him by stepping up their condemnations of the prime minister and calling on the United States to ratchet up the pressure on Israel.

The epicenter of this liberal Jewish push is the annual J Street conference in Washington, where in a speech on Saturday night to 3,000 attendees, the group’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, accused Netanyahu of harming the U.S.-Israel relationship through “partisan gamesmanship” and called on the Obama administration to put forth the parameters for a resolution to the conflict at the U.N. Security Council.

Ben Ami’s remarks came days after another harsh Netanyahu critic, Peter Beinart, called for the Obama administration to “punish” Israel on several fronts — including by backing Palestinian “bids” at the United Nations and denying visas to and freezing the assets of Israeli settler leaders. Beinart also urged American Jews to ensure that Netanyahu and members of his Cabinet are met with protesters at Jewish events.

While more establishment liberal and centrist Jewish organizations show no signs of writing off the prime minister or endorsing such aggressive steps, some have expressed concerns about Netanyahu’s 11th-hour campaign tactics — specifically his vow that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch and his urging supporters to counter the “droves” of Arabs coming out to vote.

Leaders of the two largest religious streams in American Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements, both issued statements last week condemning Netanyahu’s comments about Arab-Israeli voters.

“Because we proudly and unreservedly continue our unflagging support for the State of Israel, its citizens and its values, we must condemn the prime minister’s statement, singling out Arab citizens for exercising their legitimate right to vote,” the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement Thursday. “It is incumbent upon Jews around the world to denounce the prime minister’s divisive and undemocratic statement and we do so here.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called the statement “disheartening” and a “naked appeal to his hard-right base’s fears rather than their hopes.”

For his part, Netanyahu moved quickly post-election to contain the damage from his pre-election remarks, holding interviews with several U.S. media outlets in which he insisted that he remains committed to a two-state solution but circumstances do not allow for one because of Palestinian intransigence and ongoing turmoil across the region.

Netanyahu said his Election Day appeal was meant not to suppress Arab voters, who he claimed were being mobilized by a “foreign funded” get-out-the-vote operation, but only to inspire his own supporters.

In a sign that Netanyahu was seeking to send the word out beyond his conservative base, the prime minister not only did an interview with Fox News, but talked with two leading liberal media outlets, MSNBC and NPR.

Several mainstream centrist organizations — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League — were quick to embrace Netanyahu’s post-election insistence. AIPAC criticized the Obama administration for having “rebuffed” the prime minister’s efforts to put relations with the United States back on track.

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S.,” AIPAC said. “In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East.”

Such statements signaled strong support for the prime minister, but they also underscored the extent to which influential American Jewish groups see support for a two-state solution as a key strategy for calming U.S.-Israeli tensions. Israel’s support for two states has served as a central rhetorical point for mainstream pro-Israel groups that have long argued that Israel is more willing to sacrifice for peace than its Arab counterparts.

Yet even as Netanyahu sought to defuse the controversy over his remarks, reports suggested that the makeup of his emerging coalition could keep U.S.-Israeli tensions boiling on several fronts.

The first party he invited into the government was Jewish Home, which rejects a Palestinian state. Another likely coalition partner, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, who recently said that disloyal Arab-Israelis should be beheaded. The coalition government is also likely to include include haredi Orthodox parties, whose rejection of non-Orthodox streams has been a cause of tension with U.S. Jews for decades.

Netanyahu’s outgoing government, in place since January 2013, was the first in decades to keep haredi parties in the opposition. Tensions had been higher between Israel and the U.S. Jewish leadership during Netanyahu’s previous term, from 2009 to 2013, due to concerns over treatment of women by haredi government officials and the non-recognition of non-Orthodox movements.

Unless Netanyahu attempts to forge a national unity government — something both he and the opposition Zionist Union have already counted out — he will need the 14 seats of two haredi parties to secure a safe majority. If history is any indication, the haredi parties will vigorously oppose the introduction of civil marriage and increased recognition of and funding for the Reform and Conservative streams.

Jews looked past worries to embrace Obama

For some Jewish voters, the strangeness of Barack Obama was like a recurring dream: unsettling and then settling in, and then, suddenly, revelatory.

Ari Wallach described breaking through to elderly Jews in Florida who had resisted voting for the son of the man from Kenya, the tall black man with the middle name “Hussein.”

“It wasn’t only his policy on Israel and Iran, on health care,” said Wallach, whose ” target=”_blank”>Great Shlep,” an effort to prod young adults to get their Jewish grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama. “His biography feels so Jewish, it feels like an Ellis Island archetype. People felt more comfortable when I talked about where he came from, it resonated so deeply surprisingly among older Jews.”

For months, polls showed Obama languishing at about 60 percent of the Jewish vote, a critical chunk short of the 75 percent or so Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) garnered in 2004. But exit polls from the Tuesday election showed Obama matching those results, garnering about 78 percent of the Jewish vote against 22 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his Republican rival.

Wallach credited the campaign’s late-campaign blitz of Jewish communities, joined by groups like his own, for converting the candidate from stranger to standard bearer for a Jewish ethos.

It was an uphill battle, starting with rumors that Obama was a hidden Muslim, that he wasn’t a genuine, born American. The subterranean campaign soon burst through semi-legitimate and then legitimate forums; Obama was not a Muslim, these conservatives and Republicans said, but he might have been raised a Muslim and later had radical associations.

The ” target=”_blank”>reject the RJC ads, said it was vindicated.

“Tonight, American Jews resoundingly rejected the two-year, multimillion dollar campaign of baseless smears and fear waged against him by the right wing of our community,” J-Street’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in a statement. “Surrogates and right-wing political operatives in our community stopped at nothing in their efforts to sway Jewish voters against Obama. With exit polls showing Barack Obama’s share of the Jewish vote equal to 2004 levels, it is absolutely clear that their efforts failed.”

Some Democrats said McCain, once popular among Jews because of his willingness to reach across the aisle, hurt himself in the community by choosing the deeply conservative and relatively inexperienced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

An American Jewish Committee poll commissioned in September found that 54 percent of American Jews disapproved of the Palin pick, compared to just 15 percent who disapproved of Obama’s decision to tap Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

But Obama’s appeal to Jews might have been most deeply rooted in shared values, said Mik Moore, Wallach’s partner in

“Folks just wanted to be with us, with the more progressive candidate; it’s where their heart is,” he said.

Just Joking Around

Being a right-winger nowadays may seem like no laughing matter, but there really are conservatives with a sense of humor. Even ones who tell jokes professionally. Even Jewish ones. And some of them appear at “Right to Laugh,” a comic showcase staged most recently at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills earlier this month.

But are they funny? You decide:

“If God had known all his chosen people were gonna turnout socialist, he would have left all our [rear ends] in Egypt…. Jews may have been the Chosen People once, but somewhere between Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy, I think God gave up. At this point, it’s between Christians and Muslims….” — Julia Gorin

“How do I understand a liberal? I take a conservative, then I take away reason and accountability.”

“I’m a Jew and an American, so I have so many reasons to dislike the French…. We bail this country out every 30 years…. They helped us during the Revolutionary War, and they’ve been milking that … but wasn’t that right after the French and Indian Wars…? The last war France won was led by a 12-year-old girl.” — Keith Barany

“I heard that ‘Republicans are the daddy party’ and ‘Democrats are the mommy party….’ Well, folks … mommy is no longer with us. We Republicans are now single parents. There is now only the grown-up party and the kiddy party…. Once you understand Democrats are children, you understand everything you need to know about them…. Why Democrats are children: Children and Democrats have a very rich fantasy life … a hard time differentiating between fantasy and truth…. When you don’t believe in truth … your job becomes to indoctrinate others, to undermine other people’s belief in truth…. That’s why they don’t like intelligent design — they don’t like intelligent anything.” — Evan Sayet, presenter of “Right to Laugh”

Fans include Jim Gilchrist, founder of The Minutemen. “Jack Benny … and Jackie Gleason were conservatives,” he asserted. “I don’t really have an appreciation for the irresponsible liberal [comedians] because they tend to be risqué, insulting and offensive.”

Another enthusiast is David Horowitz: “Howard Dean is an unintentional laugh riot…. The stance of conservatism is to see irony…. So of course, the conservative viewpoint is compatible with comedy.”

He added: “Comedy is often the compensation of the victimized, excluded and oppressed…. Who’s more persecuted in the laugh culture and literary culture than conservatives?”

For more information, visit

Fervent Political

How does a Jewish community journalist cover such a non-Jewish election?

Non-Jewish, I mean, in the sense that the recall battle isn’t being fought over issues that are especially important to Jews. Nor does there seem to be many Jews involved, except as potential voters and as contributors.

When I came to Los Angeles in 1970, politics seemed much more Jewish, even though the issues were not directly relevant to the community.

Jewish politics were largely Democratic and involved much more than raising money. Politics were a game played by street Jews, as well as by the Hillcrest crowd. Rich, poor, working class and middle class loved the intrigue, the meetings, the resolutions, the camaraderie, the endless cups of coffee, the drinks — the life of politics.

There were big street rallies on Fairfax Avenue. Los Angeles Jews got into shouting arguments over what was happening in Sacramento. On the Westside and in the West Valley, the Berman brothers and Henry Waxman organized the community block by block, synagogue by synagogue, club by club.

Roz Wyman had risen from such clubs, all filled with Jews, to become a member of the Los Angeles City Council in 1953 at the age of 22. "We were involved all over the place," Wyman, still active in Democratic politics, told me recently.

Today, Israel draws much of the community’s political energy. And while "the Jewish community is very attuned to social issues, it is not as much as before," she said. "There is active participation, not as great but still participation."

I discussed this the other day with Paul Kujawsky, president of Democrats for Israel of Los Angeles, as we sat in the sunshine at the Starbucks at Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen, just north and west of the flatland Westside neighborhoods, where middle-class Jews once spent many hours walking precincts, stuffing envelopes and getting ready for a trip to Sacramento or Fresno for the state party or California Democratic Council convention.

"I think the passion for politics is lessening, not only among Jews but every one else, after the ’60s, Watergate and the whole litany, there is a great cynicism," he said

Kujawsky made an intriguing point: Jews once strongly identified with the Democratic Party because of "self-interest. The Democrats were an urban liberal party, and that was us. We no longer identify with a party that is interested in handing out goodies to interest groups."

I think there’s more to the story:

The "Jewish vote" is shrinking. Secularization means that fewer young people identify themselves strongly with the religion or with issues that energized their parents and grandparents.

In addition, the issues that drove Jewish politics have lost their steam. Jewish politics were shaped by left-wing activism, the Depression, World War II and Franklin Roosevelt. Jews retained memories of the Depression, the war and the GI Bill that sent them through college and made possible the purchase of their first home. A commitment to public education was also a factor, diminished by Jewish abandonment of public schools.

The civil rights movement shaped the old Jewish politics. Fresh from the virulent anti-Semitism of the ’30s and ’40s, Jews were enthusiastic participants in the African American drive against housing and job discrimination and for voting rights. The collapse of the coalition left many Jewish activists embittered.

As the old civil rights coalition collapsed, Jewish political thought became sharply divided. The neoconservative movement drew much of its energy from Jewish intellectuals. Neoconservatives scorned those who favored the old liberal and economic policies. And they excoriated anyone who did not agree with their hard-line policies on the Mideast.

Finally, there is the evolution of politics from mass participation to mass media. Grass-roots organizing — door-to-door visits, rallies, coffees — once dominated politics and required a lot of volunteers, like Wyman, to run the show.

How will this impact the Jewish community’s impact on the recall?

With Jewish interest in politics, particularly state politics, declining, Gov. Gray Davis can’t waste a vote. He needs a huge Jewish turnout. He’s been going at it from the top down, a chilly presence smiling his way through Jewish contributors’ events. But, like a white politician trying to sing gospel songs in a black church or attempting Spanish in Boyle Heights, he just doesn’t have the rhythm.

Davis’ fight is an uphill effort, and tracking it is a great job for a Jewish community journalist. True, there are no directly Jewish issues. But what Jews do in the recall, while possibly not decisive to the outcome, is an important chapter in the political evolution of our community.

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

Recall Quandaries

How will California’s Jews vote in the Gray Davis recall? Will this long-standing Democratic community stay with the incumbent, support a Democratic alternative or be drawn to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger? What are the political orientations of California’s Jews?

The Jewish political stance in America has long been distinctive. Jews are significantly more Democratic and liberal than other whites. Two recent polls, by Ipsos/Cook and Gallup, confirmed this long-standing situation, showing a very large edge for Democrats over Republicans among Jews. Jews have also had an outsized impact on politics through remarkably high levels of participation. With 6 percent of the Los Angeles city population, for example, Jews cast 18 percent of the vote in mayoral elections. With 3 percent of California’s population, Jews represent an estimated 5 percent of the state’s registered voters.

The foundation of Jewish political participation was laid in New York City a century ago. New York’s Jewish precincts generated a left-of-center politics that flowed easily into the mayoralty of Fiorello LaGuardia and the New Deal presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1930, nearly half of all American Jews lived in New York state. New York City was the cultural and political center of the American Jewish community. It was here that American liberalism was born, and almost died in the interracial conflicts of the 1960s.

During and after World War II, Jews began to migrate in significant numbers to the growing Sunbelt. Florida and California were the most favored destinations, as the Jewish population of New York steadily fell. According to the American Jewish Yearbook, there were only 123,000 Jews in all of California in 1930; by 2002, there were 999,000. In 1930, only 13,402 Jews lived in Florida; by 2002, there were 620,000. By 2002, there were almost as many Jews in Florida and California combined as in New York state.

Now, instead of occupying one corner of America, Jewish voters have become a major bloc in three critical states with large numbers of electoral votes. In the 2000 election, these three states cast 112 electoral votes; in 2004, they will have 113. Only 270 electoral votes are required to win the White House. Bill Clinton won all three states in 1996. In 2000, Jewish voters in Palm Beach County essentially elected Al Gore president, only to find their votes recorded for Patrick Buchanan because of the notorious "butterfly ballot."

In California, most Jews have retained their Democratic loyalty. Los Angeles Jews became a critical element of the Tom Bradley biracial coalition, and majorities of California’s Jewish voters supported Democratic candidates at city, county, state, and national levels. With pro-Israel centrists Bill Clinton and Gore at the top of the Democratic ticket, this connection blossomed into massive support. Today, no Democratic presidential candidate can afford to ignore the fundraising base of Los Angeles Jews.

But this loyalty is not absolute. There are plenty of Jewish Republicans and even some Democrats who are drawn to what they see as George W. Bush’s pro-Israel stance. Jewish voters, East and West, have always been willing to support truly moderate and socially liberal Republicans (not the pretend, rhetorical moderation of Bush) against specific Democrat candidates who are more to the left and whose affinity for Israel’s survival and opposition to anti-Semitism is not firm and clear.

When times are tough, when there are threats like street crime or terrorism, and when the Democrats are seen as moving too far out of the mainstream, the party can lose too many Jews to be seriously competitive. Or, as Earl Raab, co-author of "Jews and the New American Scene" (Harvard University Press, 1995), once put it, "If you scratch an American Jew, you will find a Democratic voter. The complicating news today is that if you scratch somewhat deeper, you will not always find a liberal."

Democrats cannot take Jewish voters for granted.

What does this mean for the recall of the beleaguered Davis? If Davis cannot hold Jewish voters, he will have a hard time staying in office. Based on his ideological centrism, and the right-wing roots of the recall, Davis should have a chance to hold the support of many Jewish voters. The two potential candidates who could threaten Davis among Jews, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, have stayed out of the race. But Davis has the complex task of dealing with a growing Democratic leadership shift toward Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the Democratic alternative if the recall passes. And then there is Schwarzenegger. If he captures the hearts and minds of Jewish voters, he will be formidable.

Riordan, though, would have been more likely than Schwarzenegger to win over Jews. Riordan won half of Jewish votes when he ran against liberal Democrat Mike Woo for mayor in 1993 in a time of post-riot despair and economic downturn. In 1997, running against the even more liberal Tom Hayden, Riordan won more than 60 percent of Jewish voters. Riordan is a resident of the Westside, pro-choice on abortion, the sort of "Rockefeller Republican" with whom Jews have been comfortable.

Arnold has some of that Riordan appeal. Jewish voters are not immune to the huge unpopularity of Governor Davis. Like Riordan, Schwarzenegger is a comfortable, socially active Westsider. Both are married to strong and active Democratic women. Schwarzenegger appears to be a social liberal, although many of his views remain to be clarified.

But the same persona that appeals to many alienated voters — the glamorous outsider with vague ideas and catchy phrases — is not particularly well suited for reaching highly attentive, extraordinarily well-informed Jewish voters. Schwarzenegger’s cavalier mistreatment of Riordan in the announcement of his own candidacy may not go unnoticed among active Jews. If Schwarzenegger’s media buzz begins to trail off in coming weeks because of an inability or unwillingness by the candidate to address tough policy issues, watch for it to happen first among Jewish voters.

Getting Jewish voters to support a shift in party control of the governor’s office less than a year after an election will be no easy task. Schwarzenegger may have all the excitement right now, but if he relies on his celebrity status to make his case, Jewish voters may ultimately stick with Davis, vote for a Democratic alternative, or both.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993). His column for The Journal will appear monthly in this space.