Bruised but Unbroken: Remembering Khojaly

(The featured image is from my interview in the new documentary Running From the Darkness)

I can still feel their hands as they grab my arm and separate me from my brother. My body remembers the way the baton bludgeoned my skin, over and over. I still shiver thinking about the cold, how the wind and snow worked hand in hand with my captors to further torment me. It has been 25 years since I was subjected to these horrors during the Khojaly Massacre, and it is an event I can never forget.

On the night of February 25th, 1992 my hometown Khojaly, located in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, was invaded by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. That night, our village was bombed and many buildings were destroyed by shelling and fire. When I tried to flee into the forest to escape the siege, I was captured and tortured by the Armenian soldiers. My only crime was that I was an Azerbaijani living in a land that Armenia wanted to claim at all expense. The treatment I was subjected to during those days in captivity was one I do not wish on anyone. I was fortunate enough to have survived; however, hundreds of others from Khojaly, including over 300 women, children, and the elderly were not so lucky. 613 innocent civilians lost their lives that night, in what Human Rights Watch would label as the “largest massacre to date in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

For many years I tried to remove these events from my memory; I thought sharing my story would only reopen the emotional wounds that remained when the bruises of my torture faded. However, two years ago as I was perusing Facebook, I found an article about an Armenian who was receiving an award. When I realized I recognized him, it was as if I was back in that barn in 1992. The man receiving that award was the very same soldier who had ordered the countless beatings when I was their prisoner. After seeing this post, I decided it was time to speak out and tell my story. We often hear the phrase “never again” when discussing massacres such as Khojaly, and I believe that ideal can only be accomplished if survivors like me tell their stories.

While I have made a point in the past few years to tell my story, my voice is only one of many that needs to be heard to truly understand what occurred in my town. This is why I am excited and honored to be a part of a new documentary that was created by film-makers in Los Angeles to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in Khojaly. Having debuted on February 21st at the world-famous Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to a great acclaim, Running From the Darkness features survivors from the massacre providing a space for first-hand accounts of what happened that night. Additionally, experts who have written books on Nagorno-Karabakh offer insights on the conflict and why we need to hold the perpetrators responsible. While the documentary’s primary purpose is to shed a light on the horrible events of February 25th, 1992, it also portrays the strengths of modern-day Azerbaijan. My homeland, known as “the Land of Fire”, has emerged from the ashes of catastrophe as a nation that celebrates multiculturalism and promotes religious tolerance.

This documentary not only commemorates tragedy, it also serves as a reminder that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is far from over. The international community has taken note of the quagmire; organizations such as the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and NATO have all condemned the continued Armenian occupation of Karabakh. The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comprised of the United States, Russia, and France, has been tasked with negotiating a peaceful settlement to this conflict. With the mounting pressure from these organizations, I am hopeful that a resolution will emerge in the very near future so that I, and other survivors, can finally go home.


My travels with the Wong family

My experience is that those of us who believe—albeit with qualifications—in multiculturalism don’t always have the opportunity to put theory into practice.

A transplant from Los Angeles to San Diego, I lived in a confirmed bachelor’s not-so-splendid isolation, with my housekeeper, Patty, and Maltese, Toby, before the Lord smiled on me. The smile came in the form of my association with the cross-border Wong family, who have enriched my observation of multicultural families beyond seeing them at Southern California shopping malls.

My computer consultant and the paterfamilias, 40 year-old Chris, is a blend of Latino and Chinese, born in the UK where his father  served in the U.S. Air Force. Chris’ great grandfather was shanghaied in the 1800s from China to the U.S., where he worked on the railroads up-and-down California before becoming a farmer and dying at a relatively young age in Mexico. Chris’ grandfather, a trucker, mostly transported produce across America, but once delivered  a Christmas tree to Ronald Reagan. His wife, Amor, is a U.S.-born Latina, who is punctilious about good manners and whose roots in Mexico hint at the exotic, though she is unsure whether her great grandmother really was partly Jewish. 

They started successfully building a family in San Diego until they were wiped out financially by the 2008 Crash. Ever resilient, they have relocated at least for a few years in Rosarita Beach, living at the ocean for a fraction of the rent, while maintaining close economic and families ties with relatives in San Diego.

The miracle of the Wong family, which has won my indelible affection, is their six children, ages 2 through 12. Their names  (from oldest to youngest) are Genesis, Jireh, Mission, River, Liberty, and Eternity. Chris has been a lay minister for several decades, and the children are being brought up as believing but tolerant Protestants, with great mutual love—but Internet access closely monitored.

Almost four year-old Libby has mood swings as tempestuous as summer showers, and is already extremely opinionated as well as intellectually sharp. Six year-old River combines perhaps a touch of autism with an artistic streak. Eight year-old Mission plays the piano and is already “macho.” Twelve-year-old Genesis (“Juby”) has her law career mapped out.

Their parents don’t play favorites, but I can. Although I love them all, my special delight  is Jireh (from the Hebrew for “provider”), who’s a 10 year old with a sweet nature, precise vocabulary, musical talents, budding gourmet tastes, race car enthusiasm, and soccer prowess. I am trying to teach him some history—not an easy subject to teach his generation. While on a recent visit to Disneyland, he conned me into riding  with him the “California Screamin” coaster in a front row seat. I am still recovering.

Though living in San Diego, I haven’t visited Mexico in twenty years. With some trepidations about cross-border developments (about which I have written in a scholarly vein elsewhere), I have now agreed to accept the Wongs’ hospitality in Rosarita Beach.  We just returned from a Sunday jaunt on the American side to Temecula where we visited my friend, Selma Lesser (now 95 years old), whom I wrote about previously in the “Jewish Journal” and who lives on her vineyard and winery. It was my pleasure to introduce the children to the wonder, at the other end of the spectrum, of great age combined with the wisdom of experience.

Multiculturalism is all well-and-good. I telecommute as a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance is Los Angeles which promotes it. But abstract debates about the merits, pro and con, are no substitute for contact with the real thing.

Mercifully, the Wongs and I rarely discuss politics (though Jireh, I am sad to report, recently exclaimed “politics stinks!”—to which I did not have a good reply).  But we do discuss family trajectories, with my being accorded the honorary title of Tío  Heraldo. 

My association with the Wongs—an all-American as well as multicultural family—keeps alive my hope that we really do have a future worth investing in and, if necessary, fighting for.

*Born in New York but educated as an historian at UCLA,  Harold Brackman, a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal's Museum of Tolerance,  is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, forthcoming).

Malibu conference on Europe sees threats in ‘multiculturalism’

It was a beautiful Sunday in Malibu, but the 300 people gathered at a Pepperdine University hilltop building had little time to appreciate the sparkling Pacific Ocean.

The scholars, journalists and concerned citizens were there for a conference whose title could hardly be weightier or more ominous: “The Collapse of Europe, the Rise of Islam, and the Consequences for the United States.”

“We did not come here to declare the demise of Europe, whose strength is vital to the future of Western civilization,” said Avi Davis, coordinator of the June 10-11 meeting and executive director of the recently founded American Freedom Alliance, which seeks to promote freedom of conscience among people of faith.

However, Davis and most of the speakers clearly meant “to raise a red flag that in its present state, Europe is too exhausted, too uncertain of its future and too unwilling to defend its basic values against Islamic insurgency.”

Describing the conference as the most concerted intellectual effort to address this perceived danger, Davis said that the venue on the U.S. West Coast indicated that “Europeans either think there is no problem or are fearful of addressing it.”

Instead, impressive numbers of European writers and thinkers from Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria, who seek to “awaken” their countrymen, traveled to Malibu to join their like-minded American colleagues.

At just one of the 15 sessions, titled “Eurabia: Is Muslim Domination of Europe Inevitable?” the panelists included Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a native of Somalia, former Dutch Parliament member and fervent critic of Islam’s treatment of women; Henryk Broder, an influential German Jewish journalist and author of “Hurray — We Surrender,” and Dutch filmmaker Leon de Winter.

They were joined by Americans Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, and Gregory M. Davis, documentary film producer and author of “Religion of Peace?”

Among other well-known speakers at the conference were talk show hosts Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager, columnist Mark Steyn and professor James Q. Wilson of Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine University.

While the “Eurabia” panelists did not give up Europe for lost, their indictments of the Continent’s alleged spinelessness and inaction in the face of escalating Islamic immigration, birthrate and militancy pointed to grave dangers ahead.

According to statistics presented in the conference source book, there are now 6 million Muslims in France, 3 million in Germany and 1 million in both Spain and Holland.

A main culprit in the eyes of most speakers is “multiculturalism” taken to an extreme, in which the self-labeled “victim” is always right, and any criticism of Islamic beliefs or demands is politically incorrect.

“It is a fallacy of multiculturalism that all cultures are equally valuable and must be preserved,” Hirsi Ali declared.

“Whether Muslims will take over Europe will depend on how far we let them go,” Broder observed. “But most [Europeans] don’t know what to do. They prefer capitulation to action.”

Such inertia is due to Europe’s loss of confidence in itself, various speakers agreed, and in a later session, Claire Berlinski, author of “Menace in Europe,” blamed two main factors. One reason is the catastrophic bloodletting of the two world wars; a second is “the death of Christianity,” Berlinski said.

“Christianity gave a framework to European life, and nothing has replaced it,” she said. “Today, less than 10 percent of Europeans are Christian believers and more British people know about Britney Spears than Jesus Christ.”

A recurrent analogy at the meeting was between European appeasement of Nazism in the 1930s and the current lack of resolve to confront radical Islam.

Judging from the question-and-answer exchanges, audience members warmly agreed with the speakers’ viewpoints or found them not forceful enough, but organizer Davis rejected labeling participants as right wing or intolerant.

“We have been occasionally attacked as neocons or even racists, but that is simply not the case,” he said. “This is an academic conference, and we have both liberal and conservative participants.”

“Criticizing another religion is a sensitive issue, but we must break this taboo when our values and traditions are under assault,” Davis emphasized. “We are absolutely committed to freedom of conscience and inquiry.”

The American Freedom Alliance and its associated Council for Democracy and Tolerance plan a follow-up conference in November in Washington, D.C., focusing on the political and legal aspects of the European situation.

Next April or May, a further meeting is expected to be held in a European capital.

For more information, visit

L.A.’s Jews and other minorities: oh, how we’ve danced!

In Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the world, we Jews have grappled long and hard with our sense of place in America. Ultimately, having found our “place in the sun,” we have forged meaningful relations with many of the communities that make up this complicated goulash.

Earlier this year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that Jews are the most admired religious group in America — more than Catholics, Muslims and Evangelical Protestants. Jews received a favorable rating of 77 percent, compared to Catholics’ 73 percent, Evangelicals’ 57 percent and Muslims’ 55 percent. Unfavorable ratings for Jews are at 7 percent, Catholics at 14 percent, Evangelicals at 19 percent and Muslims at 25 percent.

An American Jewish Committee (AJC) study in 2005 found that American Jews exceed all other identifiable religious and ethnic/racial groups in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, mean years of schooling, years of higher education of spouses, prestige level of jobs, household income and net worth (and these are just a few of the measures).

Another AJC study revealed that the trend lines for Jewish acceptance and success are clearly aiming upward. Over the past 30 years, Jews with four-year college degrees increased from 39 percent to 61 percent, occupational “prestige” increased from 46 percent to 52 percent, self-identification as “upper class” increased from 10 percent to 20 percent, self-identification as being “above average” in income level increased from 41 percent to 51 percent, and self-evaluation as having been raised in an “above-average income” home sky-rocketed from 24 percent to 52 percent. According to every measure of success since the 1970s, the trends are consistent and favorable.

Jews are a forceful presence in academia — not only on faculties and in student bodies, but also in the highest levels of administration (from Williams to UCLA to Harvard). Jewish studies centers have proliferated and numerous non-Jews take classes with them. Jews in the corporate arena have headed not only DuPont but also Bank of America and too many other Fortune 100s to name. In the political world there are two Jews on the Supreme Court, two female Jewish senators from California, and more than a minyan in the Senate. There have been Jewish governors in states from Vermont (Kunin) to Hawaii (Lingle) and an Orthodox Jew was a major party nominee for vice president of the United States with virtually no negative questions being raised about his religious affiliation.

My career as a professional in the L.A. Jewish community has spanned almost 30 years. Over those decades, as a participant in Jewish community leadership, I watched and celebrated the transformation of the reality of Jewish life while also observing the community’s self-perception gradually, if reluctantly, keep pace — almost as if acknowledging that positive news would bring about its end (e.g., invoking the evil eye, ayn horeh). But reluctant though it may be, there has been a dramatic shift in status and self-perception, and that shift has radically altered how we relate to other ethnic groups and to our own leadership.

In order to understand the shift that has occurred, it might be illuminating to trace what has happened over the past 30 years and to look at where the community and its leadership are now and where we should go next.

Jews and blacks. Jews and Latinos. Jews and Muslims. To be a Jew in Los Angeles is to be in constant relationship with the other ethnicities and religious groups that make up the complex fabric of the city.

It is also crucial to realize that, despite the dark exhortations of some of our East Coast leaders, the outlook for American Jewry here is bright and sunny.

When I joined the staff of the local Anti-Defamation League office in 1975 as its western states counsel, the community was focused on the security of Israel and the increasing economic clout of the Arab world, the impact of the Arab boycott of Israel overseas and, domestically, the rise of “Third World” antagonists on college campuses, the continued vitality of the Ku Klux Klan and various right-wing extremist groups that were enjoying a rebirth.

Jews were insecure about their incipient rise in America’s corporate structure, which was reflected in the enormous amount of attention accorded Irving Shapiro’s becoming the chairman of DuPont in 1973 — the first Jew to head a Fortune 100 company. It hadn’t been all that long since the civil rights laws of the 1960s initiated the transformation of the corporate suite. The doors that had been opened a decade earlier resulted in a Jew being elevated to CEO of one of America’s blue-chip companies, a powerfully symbolic and significant milestone for the American Jewish community.

Because of our still-lingering level of discomfort at the time, we retained a certain level of defensiveness. An off-color remark on a late-night talk show, a dim-witted sitcom episode, or a politician or preacher’s errant comments became targets for swift and unambiguous condemnation. Very few slights were too minor to be ignored or allowed to go unanswered. We were, after all, a disadvantaged minority with a tortured history of discrimination that was only beginning to harvest the fruits of a free and open society. We were still in the shadow of the Holocaust and hadn’t yet adjusted to our dramatically improving status.

The insecurity that prevailed in the 1970s and ’80s frequently colored our dialogues with other groups. Whether black-Jewish or Latino-Jewish interactions, those relations seemed to be shaped by the memories of the “grand coalitions” formed during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s and animated by the notion that as an aggrieved minority we needed allies for protection against potential bigotry and hate from the white Christian majority. Frankness and recognition of frequently divergent interests were often sublimated in favor of efforts to sustain a united front.

During those years, the community leadership’s efforts at “outreach” often ran counter to what Jews perceived as their real, everyday concerns. In Los Angeles, no single issue demonstrated the gulf between what the Jewish “Joe six-pack” wanted and what leadership pursued than that of public-school busing. Jewish organizations, virtually unanimously, endorsed the transfer of tens of thousands of kids across Los Angeles, while the parents of kids in public schools were divided — at best — and permanently alienated from their community organizations — at worst.

A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews

It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”

I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.

Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”

Must I?

To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.

But still.

Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”

Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.

“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”

Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.

“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”

One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”

I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.

He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.

I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.

Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.

My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.

“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”

Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Who’s to Blame for Terror?

Like many hothead progressives around the world, I preach antiracism, teach multiculturalism and recognize the United States to be a politically and culturally imperialistic society.

Proper revolutionary that I am, I have no problem with guerrilla warfare against oppressive regimes, and I fully recognize that "terrorism" can be a political term used to invalidate the violent behavior of one group and justify that of another.

One might say I’m an all-around, groovy radical. And yet, I’ve got a major problem with compassion for Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli citizens.

Sure, progressive folk cluck in sympathy when the leg of an Israeli girl flies clear across a pizzeria or when the spine of an Israeli boy gets sliced by shrapnel. This sound of distress, however, often is accompanied by an undertone of accusation: It is Israel’s fault, the narrative goes, that these tragedies happen; by creating Palestinian desperation, Israel has created Palestinian terrorism.

Clearly, Palestinians are suffering, and their situation must be remedied — the sooner the better. The question is, who was responsible for creating their situation and who is accountable for remedying it?

The Arab world is called just that for a reason: Beginning in the Arabian Peninsula about 1,300 years ago, Arab Muslims launched a brutal campaign of invasion and conquest, taking over lands across the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout the region, Kurds, Persians, Berbers, Copts and Jews were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of death and in the name of Allah.

Jews were one of the few indigenous Middle Eastern peoples to resist conversion to Islam, the result being they were given the status of dhimmi — legally second-class, inferior people. In the best of circumstances, Jews were spared death but forced to endure an onslaught of humiliating legal restrictions — forced into ghettos, prohibited from owning land, prevented from entering numerous professions and forbidden from doing anything to physically or symbolically demonstrate equality with Arab Muslims.

When dhimmi laws were lax and Jews were allowed to participate to a greater degree in their society, the Jewish community would flourish, both socially and economically. On numerous occasions, however, the response to that success was a wave of harassment or massacre of Jews instigated by the government or the masses.

This dynamic meant that the Jews lived in a basic state of subservience: They could participate in the society around them, they could enjoy a certain degree of wealth and status and they could befriend their Arab Muslim neighbors, but they always had to know their place.

The Arab-Israel relationship and the current crisis occur in the greater context of a history in which Arab Muslims have oppressed Jews for 1,300 years. Most recently, anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world in the 1930s and 1940s.

Jews were assaulted, tortured, murdered and forced to flee from their homes of thousands of years. Throughout the region, Jewish property was confiscated and nationalized, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time.

Yet the world has never witnessed Middle Eastern and North African Jews blowing themselves up and taking scores of Arab innocents with them out of anger or desperation for what Arab states did to the Jewish people.

Despite the fact that there were 900,000 Jewish refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we do not even hear about a Middle Eastern/North African Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel absorbed most of the refugees. For decades, they and their children have been the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, with numbers as high as 70 percent.

To the contrary, Arab states did not absorb refugees from the war against Israel in 1948. Instead, they built squalid camps in the West Bank and Gaza — at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt — and dumped the refugees in them, Arabs doomed to become pawns in a political war against Israel.

Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Lebanon funded assaults against Israeli citizens instead of funding basic medical, educational and housing needs of Palestinian refugee families.

In 1967, Israel inherited the Palestinian refugee problem through a defensive war. When Israel tried to build housing for the refugees in Gaza, Arab states led votes against it in U.N. resolutions, because absorption would change the status of the refugees. But wasn’t that the moral objective?

Israel went on to give more money to the Palestinian refugees than all but three of the Arab states combined, prior to transferring responsibility of the territories to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Israel built hospitals and educational institutions for Palestinians in the territories. Israel trained the Palestinian police force.

And yet, the 22 Arab states dominate both the land and the wealth of the region. So who is responsible for creating Palestinian desperation?

Tragically, the Arab propaganda war against Israel has been a brilliant success, laying on Israel all the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem. By refusing to hold Arab states accountable for their own actions, by feeling sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers instead of outrage at the Arab propaganda creating this phenomenon, the "progressive" movement continues to feed the never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East.

Loolwa Khazzoom is the editor of “The
Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern
Jewish Heritage” (Seal Press), and she is an Israel correspondent for the Jewish
Telegraph Agency. You can find Khazzoom on the web at

Multiculturalism at Work

Among those who care about public education, “multiculturalism” is one of today’s favorite buzzwords. But at the Community School, a magnet campus that falls under the auspices of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the concept of multicultural education has been in place for 25 years.

It all began with the Airdrome Plan, a visionary project that brought together Jewish- and African-American families in what has been billed as the LAUSD’s first attempt at voluntary neighborhood integration.

Airdrome Street, a few blocks south of Pico Boulevard, is a nondescript residential thoroughfare that starts in the vicinity of Beverlywood, then wends its way east through Pico-Robertson toward the Fairfax district. Along a one-mile stretch of Airdrome sit two public elementary schools: Canfield Elementary is just west of Robertson Boulevard; Crescent Heights Elementary lies between La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. Back in 1971, at a time when school desegregation had become a pressing local issue, the population of Canfield was virtually all white, and heavily Jewish. Crescent Heights, meanwhile, was almost 100 percent black.

This state of affairs was unacceptable to parents like Clive Hoffman. Hoffman, born and reared in South Africa, felt that his own formal English-style education was inadequate for someone destined to live in the modern world. As he puts it, “I wanted my children to have an experience that was broader than the 3 R’s in a multicultural environment.” He and other like-minded Jewish parents in the Canfield neighborhood joined with African-Americans from Crescent Heights in proposing that the two schools merge.

The original plan was a radical one: it called for all youngsters from the two neighborhoods to attend kindergarten through the third grade at Canfield, then move to Crescent Heights for the upper grades. It also put forth the principle of “parent governance,” giving moms and dads the authority to hire faculty and chart the direction of the combined school. This first proposal, which was vigorously opposed by a group of Canfield “concerned parents” fearful about property values and a possible negative impact on their children’s education, was rejected outright by the school board. A second plan, in which a smaller group of students would be voluntarily merged on the two school sites, also met with defeat. It was at this point that supporters of the Community School concept found Alan Friedman, a pro bono attorney, and began preparing a lawsuit against the LAUSD.

Circa 1974, a landmark judicial ruling introduced cross-town busing as a way to integrate the schools of Los Angeles. In this charged political climate, the Community School finally gained approval as an autonomous entity on the two campuses. The Community School began with 120 children, all of them there voluntarily. From the beginning, there was an on-site expert in multiculturalism who helped the children understand their own ethnicity and that of others. In those early days, when 90 percent of the white students came from Jewish homes, the Jewish experience was an important part of the curriculum at every grade level. Jewish holiday observances were studied; the school put on seders and Purim carnivals. Older children studied the Holocaust, which led to spirited classroom discussions of the correlation between genocide and slavery.

As the Community School’s reputation grew, it moved to a site at the rear of Louis Pasteur Jr. High School. In 1977, it became a district magnet school, open to children from all over the LAUSD. Integration mandates stipulate that 40 percent of its students must be white, and 60 percent must represent a combination of other minority groups. Today, the school has 360 students, representing roughly equal-sized white, African-American and Asian contingents, along with a smaller Hispanic group. About 40 percent still come from the immediate neighborhood, and a sizable number are still Jewish. A waiting list of more than 600 is a testament to the school’s enduring popularity.

Some things haven’t changed. The school still embraces a multicultural curriculum, and parents still gather at town hall meetings to hire faculty and make policy. Under Principal Pam Marton, the Community School has found ways to incorporate a variety of cultures. In the past year, students have used an in-depth study of dance as a way to delve into the daily lives of Mexicans, Koreans, African slaves and the Chinese who built the railroads. Though the Jewish experience has been somewhat crowded out by other elements in the curriculum, students still visit sukkahs, and explore Jewish holiday observances. In December, the annual holiday program blends Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa celebrations. When the fifth graders study immigration, Jewish children are encouraged to share their family stories.

Thanks in part to enthusiastic parental involvement, the Community School can boast an impressive list of accomplishments. Last year it was named a California Distinguished School for 1998-2001. It is one of 36 schools in the nation to participate in a flagship program of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Transforming Education through the Arts. Its brand-new playground was built in part through a grant from the Anne and Kirk Douglas Foundation. Parents raise $75,000 a year to give their children enrichment opportunities on campus.

A recent event, complete with entertainment and a dinner prepared by the parents, honored the school’s founding families. Clive Hoffman, for one, is “absolutely ecstatic” that the school has grown and flourished. He’s proud, too, that after 25 years it is “still based upon our model, the model of parent governance.” For Hoffman and his family, the Community School was a special place that pulled two communities together and gave children a broader outlook on the world around them. Hoffman describes his two daughters, both long-ago graduates of the Community School, as having “spent their lives working in multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic settings. They feel totally comfortable in all kinds of surroundings.”