Black like me

When Toni Morrison says, “This is required reading,” I listen. 

So, when I saw that imperative calling out from the cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir-cum-treatise on race, “Between the World and Me,” I obeyed. 

But I was not entirely prepared for the demands this book placed on my conscience. I was not prepared for the hard truths of Coates’ tale — and I was especially not ready to admit my place in it.  

I was also not prepared to see its premise reflected (yet again) in the violence and protests that turned Ferguson, Mo., into a state of emergency (yet again) earlier this week, when a gathering to commemorate the killing of Michael Brown turned into an extended arrest-fest in which everyone from Princeton professor Cornel West to rising social media activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie were handcuffed for their own trespassing at the Federal Courthouse. 

None of this would surprise Coates. “Between the World and Me,” borrowed from a line of verse by the 20th-century prose poet Richard Wright, is written as a letter to Coates’ son, Samori, about the experience of being Black in America. Part lamentation, part love letter, Coates’ iridescent language shimmers even as his message stirs up shudders. 

His premise is simple: To be Black in America is to have no control over your own body. It is to be physically vulnerable, endangered and constrained at all times. It is to inherit 250 not-too-distant years of “being born into chains,” a foundational injustice that precipitated a million more social and political injustices — begetting segregation and unfairness and a destructive construct of race that has divided those who are Black from “those who believe they are white.” It is to live in an “other” society, where different rules apply based on the color of one’s skin. Where a culture of the streets has emerged in which “a lifestyle of near-death experience” is the norm; a nefarious norm inextricably linked to the sins against Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Sandra Bland and on and on — adding to an endless list of Blacks whose bodies were “plundered,” as much by police who were supposed to protect them as by a system of racialized politics that pits Black lives against one another.

“It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” Coates writes. 

How familiar are these words for Jews, who have endured thousands of years of anti-Semitism and suffering at the hands of those in power? It is tempting to identify with Coates, to feel that we, too, have been there, that we understand exactly what it is to live that way. And maybe some of us do. But his story is not about us. 

Reading this soaring work was a reminder of the American history that was hinted at in textbooks but which revealed itself in full on the streets, in the backs of buses, in lynch mobs and at lunch counters. It made me see anew that no matter what Jews have been through, the summit of suffering is not ours alone to claim. And how we all too easily assume that we are the primary victims of history. We teach our children about biblical slavery, the Russian pogroms, the European Holocaust. In some essential way, to be Jewish is to identify with a long trail of suffering and victimization, seeing ourselves as the essential other, the outsider, the stranger.

How strange it is, then, to live at a time when Jews have achieved their dreams — the State of Israel! The good life in America! A time when Jews are not only victims but victors. 

And how strange it is to read Coates’ smart credo of racial invention and find some of our own history within it: “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

Tell that to Hitler! Tell the “new people” of modern America that this idea is old; that Hitler’s dream of Jewish inferiority (driven by his delusion of Jewish superiority) was as much a made-up bunch of hooey as the beloved American dream, which built itself on the whipped backs of Black people. 

But here is where Coates gets hard, allowing us first to identify, then pushing us away: “These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to become something else again.”

The implication is clear: In America, Coates believes, American Jews aren’t the Jews of history, they are white. 

When I first read this, I wanted to rage against it. I wanted to prove our righteousness, our own pained relationship to so many of the same tyrannies Coates teaches about — hatred, intolerance, discrimination, separation. But I couldn’t. To do so would undermine the core argument of his brilliant book — that these distinct cruelties are the story of Black life, that this is his unique experience of the world, his meanings, his memory, his history to pass down to his son. To rage — and defend myself — would be to participate in “the politics of exoneration” that too many times has allowed police violence to persist unchallenged. 

The Jewish thing to do, I realized, is to read and weep with Coates. To listen and lament and accept his truth as true: That because I am white, even if I did not create racial constructs or mean to condone them, I am party to an unearned privilege that has made my body infinitely safer and societally more sacred than Coates’ son’s. 

That I never thought of this before reading “Between the World and Me” means I was unwittingly, undeniably complicit in that system, the way all white Americans have been complicit. We are all Coates’ American “dreamers” who dreamed of things America told us to want without ever thinking of what it cost and who it was who enabled us to have those things. We did not create slavery, but we benefited from its legacy. And Jews know better than anyone that a people — Black, “white,” Jewish or American — can never divorce itself from the history that brought it into being.

It’s time to kick away the border “between the world and me.” Time to silence language that articulates ideas such as “the essential below.” No human being should think of him- or herself this way. 

So I offer Coates and his son an apology and an aspiration: Think of yourself as The Chosen.  

My city isn’t a tawdry reality TV show

Every few years, Salinas grabs national media headlines for the wrong reasons: Police killings of criminal suspects caught on camera. Or maybe a sensational courtroom drama like that of our local convicted murderer Jodi Arias. Each story draws the major corporate media outlets to town, eager to shoehorn some reference to Salinas native John Steinbeck into the narrative.

Maybe we look like a real-life version of a tawdry reality TV show to them.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve covered the town for more than 20 years, largely as a features writer and columnist. I also served time as an education and city reporter for two local publications, The Monterey County Herald and the Salinas Californian. Other local media outlets covering the town include the Monterey County Weekly, the NBC/ABC affiliate KSBW-TV, CBS affiliate KION-TV, and Univision affiliate KSMS-TV.

Once upon a time the juiciest national story about Salinas might have involved an E. coli outbreak linked to one of our produce giants. The town has changed, as violent crime reports in town have fed the media’s appetite for sensational headlines.

Salinas calls itself the Salad Bowl of the World, which sounds like a healthy thing, but our multibillion-dollar lettuce economy is complicated—maybe more complicated than outsiders care to understand—and our struggles are a window into California’s future.

As Silicon Valley is to software, Salinas is to lettuce: We didn’t invent the salad bar, but we introduced the world to bagged salad. We are the model for modern agricultural technology and production. There’s a 90 percent chance that bagged salad you bought for dinner was produced here. But the innovations in lettuce growing, packing, and shipping that brings you a “healthy” meal also includes a lot of unseen hands. And these hands belong mostly to Mexican migrants who make up about 34 percent of our town’s population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

What do you think happens when one of California’s richest industries conducts business in, and culls its workforce from, a highly concentrated immigrant community? You get changes of the kind that aren’t sensational – and thus are underreported if they are reported at all: the ripple effects in a community of low academic achievement numbers among English language learner students. Or the problems caused by overcrowding and high population density in certain parts of town. Or stories that get reported as something other than what they really are.

For instance, Forbes recently named Salinas the second-least-educated city in America. Media outlets latched onto the story and the study it was based on, and repurposed them as a list of the dumbest towns in the country. Among several indicators, the list factored in the number of available jobs that require a college education.

But really, how unexpected is this? When so much of your workforce is devoted to manual labor, you can bet that there won’t be a load of workers sitting on college diplomas.

When I read those lists, I saw them as a grand insult to the delicate skill and craft of our local farm laborers. 

The idea that Salinas is a dumb town is pretty inaccurate. Harvesting produce doesn’t require an advanced degree, but it’s no job for dummies. Have you ever attempted to pick a strawberry field? I haven’t, but I understand from growing up here the careful technique required not only to pick the produce gently, but also to do it at a rapid fire pace. Our farm workers move fast and efficiently. You have to be smart and know the land to be successful in the fields. Forbes didn’t have the time or just didn’t bother to report that any of this context. 

Ironically, Forbes did have time to host an agriculture technology summit in town recently. Billed as “Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit,” the conference brought together Silicon Valley and Global Ag leaders, many based here in the Salad Bowl, for breakout sessions on the booming AgTech industry. It was an invitation-only event. I mention that because it shows the contrasting sides of this town’s image. We are uneducated enough to make top 10 lists, but somehow industrially sophisticated enough to host big business think tank sessions.

In this dichotomy and others, Salinas may provide a window into the future of this state. We are a rural community steeped in Old West tradition (we host the biggest and oldest rodeo in the state). At the same time, the town is changing, with its economic and cultural divide widening by the year. And Salinas, according to a recent study, was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. For that study, professors at Brown and Florida State University created a dissimilarity index that identifies the percentage of one group that would have to move into a different neighborhood to eliminate segregation; Salinas had a 60.9 percent white-Latino dissimilarity rate, the 21st highest number in the country. Combine our modern social challenges with our old-school agricultural labor practices and our recent emergence as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and you have a town that offers a bit of everything that people relate to the California experience – sunshine, soil, and sync.

That’s part of what makes covering news in Salinas a tough gig. Everything is sneaky complex. The gang violence that generates so many local headlines isn’t the result of a reckless immigrant population, as Donald Trump would have you believe. It’s a condition that grew out of many decades of cultivating an impoverished and underserved migrant community. Yes, Salinas has poverty, but it’s also a place where rents are so high that sometimes two or three families must pack into a single apartment unit to afford a place to live and survive. During the harvest, these families can work 10-to-12-hour shifts, six days a week to provide for their children. Those children in turn sometimes suffer from the unintentional neglect of busy working parents. This makes them vulnerable to the streets.

Local media does what it can to tell these stories. Investigative journalist Julia Reynolds recently published the book Blood in the Fields: 10 Years inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang, that analyzed the emergence of one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the U.S. It also shed light on efforts from community members and law enforcement in the fight to curb gang violence. 

But for the most part, gang violence is something that is understood only on the surface by locals, and is never portrayed with any complexity by national media. And that leads to a lot of misunderstanding about the town’s image and identity. Largely, that this town is unsafe and people are in danger of violence on every corner. 

It’s tough to recover from the blow of bad media coverage every few years. (It’s certainly not good for economic development). This town is still learning how to adapt to reputational blows. People do their best to shrug it off and carry on. 

I like to keep it positive and remind my neighbors about something John Steinbeck said late in his life, right before he decided he wanted to be buried in his hometown. 

“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.”

Marcos Cabrera is the public information officer for the Alisal Union School District. He is a founding member of the theater company Baktun 12. This essay is part of Salinas: California's Richest Poor City, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and the California Wellness Foundation


How Jews are trying to make things better after Baltimore

From roundtable discussions to protests and prayers to candid talk with law enforcement officials, American Jewish communities are joining in the debate about community policing in the wake of several high-profile deaths of unarmed black men while in police custody.

Officials were short on specifics, but several told JTA that protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray on April 19 have sparked a determination to confront the tensions between police and minority communities.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella public policy body, last week called for a “new national conversation” about police tactics.

“At this critical time in our nation’s history it is abundantly clear that a conversation not only needs to be had between law enforcement and disenfranchised communities — particularly the African American community, but within our own communities,” JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow said in a statement.

In several communities, Jewish organizations with strong ties to both the African-American community and law enforcement see themselves as well positioned to help bridge differences.

In Baltimore, where violent protests led the mayor to impose a curfew on the city for several days following Gray’s death, the local chapter of Jews United for Justice appealed to its members in the legal profession to volunteer “as a legal observer, jail care, or hotline volunteer” during the protests.

In Detroit, the Michigan Round Table, an umbrella body for minorities in which local Jewish groups take part, called an emergency meeting following the Baltimore protests. Heidi Budaj, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the meeting was mainly an opportunity to share reactions to what was unfolding in the Maryland city.

“These incidents are bringing to the forefront in our discussions feelings that may have been hidden for many, many years,” Budaj said. “All of us want to resolve any issues before it turns into Ferguson or Baltimore.”

Through its various law enforcement training programs addressing bias and hate crimes, among other topics, the ADL has long forged close relations with local police departments. At its national conference here over the weekend, the ADL featured a session about police-community relations and the organization’s role in improving them.

In Detroit, Budaj said the Jewish community is also part of a coalition, Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust, that has held monthly meetings with area police about police brutality and other “touchy issues.” The group rallied members, including 14 rabbis from Baltimore and Washington, to join in protests in Baltimore on May 1.

In Ferguson, a city near St. Louis, protests following the shooting last summer of Michael Brown by a local police officer were a major catalyst for a renewed national debate about police relations with the African-American community.

“What we’re focusing on is healing what’s broken and building a St. Louis that is safe, equal and just for all,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, which helps organize an annual 9/11 commemorative concert that last year made reconciliation its focus.

The Ferguson protests also drew attention to the increased militarization of local police departments.

“To suggest we need police looking like they did in Ferguson, it’s outrageous,” Gutow said. “When you see the blue uniform of police it should be a sign of friendship.”

The expanded availability of military-grade hardware to local police departments coincided with a growing concern about counterterrorism following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. John Cohen, who until last year was a senior counterterrorism official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the war footing adopted by police departments after the attacks put community policing on the back burner.

After race riots in the early 1990s, “there really was a broad and energized movement within the policing discipline to expand local community cooperation focused on preventing crime, improving life,” said Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice in New Jersey who is helping to direct a project examining attacks on faith communities. But after 9/11, he said, “there was a shift in priorities.”

Jewish groups “benefited greatly” from the shift, according to Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community. Concerned that Jewish institutions were prime targets for terrorism, Jewish groups won significant grant money from the Department of Homeland Security — including 97 percent of all funds doled out in 2012 under the department’s Non-Profit Security Grant Program, according to a report that year in the Forward.

Goldenberg praised law enforcement agencies for the “extraordinary amount of time” spent assisting Jewish communities. A degree of militarization was inevitable, he said, to face terrorists at home and abroad.

“Police officers a decade ago were carrying 357s with six shots and rounds on heir belts, and they found themselves being confronted by adversaries with automatic weapons,” Goldenberg said. “The paradigm has changed.”

Why racial issues matter to the Jewish community

My brother-in-law is from Mexico and he jokes with his brothers about the “crime” they commit when getting in the car: they call it DWB, driving while brown. They have all been pulled over a variety of times for no apparent reason. My brother-in-law has never been ticketed in any of these police stops because he has never been in the wrong. However, it is the reality of his life, and the lives of many people of color in the United States, to be judged by his skin color.

Racial profiling has been in the news consistently for the past year. From the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, to the more recent death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, the country is in a volatile place regarding race relations and law enforcement practices. The National Institute for Justice defines racial profiling by law enforcement as targeting individuals for suspicion of a crime based on their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. This may lead officers to create a profile about the kinds of people that commit crimes, causing law enforcement to make decisions based on these profile generalizations rather than actual behaviors. Police stops are the easiest way to track racial profiling.

Research about racial profiling supports the outrage felt by so many: Amnesty International has compiled data that indicates 32 million Americans report being the victims of racial profiling. In California, many police departments, such as San Francisco, say they lack the funding and personnel to track their stop data and other information related to racial profiling. Specifically in Los Angeles County for every 10,000 residents, the LAPD stops Blacks at a rate 3,400 times higher than the White stop rate and the Hispanic stop rate is 360 times higher. The Oakland police department just released a report admitting that while Blacks make up only 28% of the city’s population, they comprise 62% of the stops made by police.


While these numbers are all shocking, why should Jews care? For Jews of color living in the United States, and for me on behalf of my brother-in-law, it is personal. For Jews as a community, however, issues of race matter because Jews know what ethnic injustice feels like. Over the course of history, Jews have experienced systematic persecution based on being different: in medieval Europe Jews were forced to live in ghettos with curfews; in the United States Jews were banned from universities; during the Holocaust Nazis methodically attempted to wipe out Jews and other “unfit” minorities; and in the Former Soviet Union, like other religious groups, Jews were punished for keeping rituals.

This does not even include the biblical story of Jews serving the Egyptian pharaoh as slaves. Whether or not one believes that the Torah is an historical document, Jews today celebrate Passover more than any other holiday, commemorating this journey from slavery to freedom. Familiarity with injustice, either directly or indirectly, should be enough for Jews to want to take a stand for those affected by racial profiling.

The familiar phrase from Leviticus 19:18 to “Love your neighbor as yourself” urges Jews to care for our fellow brothers and sisters of color. Jews have a history of working towards civil rights: Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and many others marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed at the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. Where are today’s activists? Who is upholding Leviticus 19:16 “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” amidst today’s racial profiling and deaths.

In 2001, the California penal code outlawed racial profiling. Why is it still a problem? As both American citizens and as Jews we have a responsibility to ensure that our criminal justice system actually serves to uphold just treatment for all. In February, State Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced promising new legislation, AB 953 and AB 619. AB 953 would update the definition of racial profiling and require all law enforcement departments to collect, analyze, and report data on police stops in order to identify and eliminate unjustified racial disparity. AB 619 would increase police transparency.

Jews as a religion and ethnic culture are a minority in the world and, at the same time, are generally considered part of the white majority voice. We can use this unique position to improve conditions of racial minorities: Politically, we can urge our state assembly members to pass AB 619 and AB 953 and lobby national representatives for better federal legislation.

On a more personal level, we can recognize our vital role amongst white peers and friends to inform them of these issues and treat law enforcement with respect while holding these groups and ourselves accountable for systemic and structural racism. We have a responsibility to build relationships and form partnerships with individuals and groups of color to amplify and give public strength to their voices. By doing this with humility we can underscore the fact that we are not willing to live in a place where the lives of people like my brother-in-law are considered less worthy than others.

Erin Goldstrom is a dual degree student pursuing a Masters in Social Work at the University of Southern California and a Masters in Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. 

L.A. Cancer Challenge: Running for lives of others

When thousands of racers line up at the Veterans Affairs grounds in West Los Angeles on Oct. 26, it will be to raise awareness for a devastating type of cancer sometimes linked to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are more prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews.

But it’s not breast cancer; it’s pancreatic cancer, which this year is projected to take the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans. 

Last year’s L.A. Cancer Challenge (LACC) benefitting the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research attracted 4,000 participants and raised more than $630,000. The goal of this year’s 5K/10K walk/run is to boost that figure to $750,000 or more.

“A huge part of our mission is to unite young and old through physical fitness as a way to create awareness of the disease,” said Lisa Manheim, executive director of the foundation and stepdaughter of the organization’s inspiration, Ron Hirshberg, who died of the disease. “Our event draws a lot of families and is one of the 5K races families will do together. For many of our younger runners, it is their first race and charity event they participate in.” 

The cause is a deadly serious one. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers — 94 percent of patients die within five years of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. 

“The frequency of pancreatic cancer is increasing,” said Dr. Howard Reber, distinguished professor of surgery, chief of gastrointestinal surgery and director of the Ronald S. Hirshberg Translational Pancreatic Cancer Research Laboratory at UCLA, which the foundation and annual run help sustain. 

“Right now, pancreatic cancer is ranked the fourth most common cause of death from cancers in the U.S., and in a few years will be the second most common cancer killer. While research and efforts leading to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment expended by scientists and researchers are working well to reduce the numbers of colon, prostate and other cancers, they so far are not yet able to bring the numbers of pancreatic cancer cases down,” he said.

While Manheim and Reber stress their commitment to patients from all backgrounds, the foundation’s signature event holds particularly strong meaning for members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community. Despite the fact that the causes of pancreatic cancer remain unclear, it is documented that 1 percent of Ashkenazi Jews has a defective copy of one of their two BRCA2 genes, which is associated with a three- to 10-fold increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer (not to mention increased risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer). BRCA1 gene mutations may also cause a small increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer, according to foundation officials.

Reber, however, stressed that the risk of cancer to Jews with a defective BRCA2 gene varies in different families, and is also dependent on lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, the inheritance of other cancer susceptibility genes and a certain element of chance.

The work that Reber and his colleagues at UCLA conduct is a continuation of the vision of Agi Hirshberg. When her husband, Ron, died of pancreatic cancer, she realized there were no major pancreatic cancer centers in the United States. She vowed to take this formidable fight to the next level.

“[Agi] decided to start a definitive pancreatic cancer organization with the rationale that if she couldn’t give to a pancreatic cancer organization, she would start one,” Manheim said. “She chose to partner with UCLA because it was where [her husband] was treated, close to home, and [she] could regularly meet with doctors and researchers. It’s been a wonderful partnership for the last 17 years, and the outcome of the race will hopefully set the course in the years to come.”

Reber said that the money raised by the race allows researchers to do more than just combat medical challenges posed by pancreatic cancer.

“The way the L.A. Cancer Challenge is staged brings into focus families of patients and patients who survived the disease,” he said. Money raised “benefits the patients and their families, who need all the help they can get, not only with medical care but with psychological support and other services beyond medicines and procedures.”

Online registration for the L.A. Cancer Challenge ( ends Oct. 24. This year’s race will have added features.

“We decided to add on-course entertainment to make the experience more enjoyable for those participating in the race,” Manheim said. “We have two live bands, three on-course DJs, hula dancers, a barber shop quartet and a slew of entertainers to keep up morale.”

Participants can also enjoy the event’s Fit Family Expo, which includes a main stage, Halloween zone and special displays from sponsors emphasizing fitness and maintenance of good health habits. 

Cops, race and violence

The recent death of Michael Brown has elicited strong reactions across the political spectrum—from Bill O’Reilly to Louis Farrakhan—everyone seems to have an opinion on how law enforcement interacts with young black males and the likelihood of black males being shot by cops.

In fact, despite all the opining, there simply are no good data to conclude that the use of deadly force by law enforcement unfairly targets Blacks. While Congress authorized the collection of such information decades ago, it doesn’t exist. Most of today’s discussion is based on surmise and anecdotal incidents and is impossible to generalize from.

Nevertheless, for all too many advocates, even the suggestion that Ferguson was not an open and shut case of police abuse and reflects a nationwide problem are anathema and evidence of bias in itself.

There is an assumption, in no small measure a function of America’s fraught history of police-minority relations that cops harbor suspicion and hostility towards young black males and as a result are prone to be trigger happy and more likely to shoot suspects that fit that profile. Given Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and numerous other cases over the years that conclusion has some anecdotal basis.

Yet, the reality is not only that there are no data to support that assumption, there seems to be new evidence for the exact opposite conclusion—that black suspects are LESS likely to be shot at by cops than either white or Hispanic suspects.

In a surprising conclusion to an ingenious experiment, two researchers at Washington State University have found that “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were involved.”

In the WSU experiment, the participants were asked to shoot a laser gun if he/she thought it appropriate (as opposed to prior experiments where there was a “shoot” button) as they faced a suspect in a realistic simulation of a confrontation. The experiment ran through 60 scenarios from real life encounters projected in life size videos. The experimenters controlled for variables such as suspect clothing, hand positions, threatening stance and race while providing exact data on response times, etc.

The study concluded that “participants were more likely to shoot white and Hispanic suspects than black suspects.” There was a significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned. When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 24-millesecond difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.

Clearly, the study is subject to doubters who will question the laboratory setting, the fact that the participants reflected the general population and not just police officers, etc. Nevertheless, the findings of this study are startling—the bias when it comes to shoot or not shoot seems to tilt in favor of black suspects, not against them.

This study and its precursor experiment by the same authors, Lois James and Bryan Vila, should give ardent cop critics some pause.

Also of interest from this study is that the disinclination to shoot at black suspects was among a cohort of participants who “demonstrated significantly greater threat responses against black suspects than white or Hispanic suspects.” This suggested to the authors that even though the participants “held unconscious biases associating blacks and threats” that did not translate into acting out those biases.

In fact, the authors note, that the participants’ greater fear of black suspects “could cause him or her to tend to take more time to make decisions to shoot people whom they subconsciously perceived as more threatening because of race or ethnicity. This behavioral ‘counter-bias’ might be rooted in people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial or ethnic group.”

This latter finding has profound implications beyond the police setting. The “unconscious bias” and the “implicit bias test” proponents who purport to have insight into the bigotry and stereotyping that animates us at the unconscious level (these are the new touchstones of those who argue that “society hasn’t changed, bigotry has just gone underground”) are now severely challenged. This study reveals that no matter what we may unconsciously assume (e.g. young black males are a larger threat than others) those inchoate thoughts may not promote hostile acts but may, in fact, temper our actions in a positive way.

This study, although only one, reveals, once again, how complex and fraught the field of police-citizen interactions and inter-group relations are. There are no simple answers, no obvious causal links that can be easily drawn; people are complex and their motivations equally so.

Patience, facts and more study should guide us all in this difficult area.

Thriller brings gay romance, Mideast intrigue into focus

Filmmakers in Hollywood and abroad long have been fascinated by characters representing different races, religions, nationalities or ideologies who transgress social taboos and barriers by falling in love.

Back in the silent and barely speaking movie era of the 1920s, Jewish boys and gentile girls got together and ignored parental dismay in such love-conquers-all films as “Frisco Sally Levy,” “Abie’s Irish Rose” and, my favorite title, “Kosher Kitty Kelly” — well before such liaisons became commonplace.

It took a few more decades before Sidney Poitier could marry a WASP beauty in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Now it’s the turn of gays, with some of the best work in the genre coming from such Israeli directors as the late Amos Guttman, Yair Hochner and Eytan Fox. The latter’s “Walk on Water,” for instance, hooks up a hard-as-nails Mossad agent, who assassinates Nazi war criminals, with the grandson of his latest target.

A new entry in the genre is “Out in the Dark,” the first feature film of Michael Mayer, a Haifa native and graduate of USC’s film school who now works and lives in Los Angeles.

Meshing a political thriller with a passionate love theme, the film centers on a little-known component of the Tel Aviv mosaic consisting of Palestinian gays who have fled their West Bank villages and towns and now live “illegally” in the permissive Israeli city.

Roy Schaefer, a handsome, well-connected Israeli lawyer, meets Nimr Mashrawi, a Palestinian psychology student, in a Tel Aviv gay nightclub, and almost instantly the two form a deep personal and sexual bond.

Nimr is in the fortunate position of carrying a permit from the Israeli authorities, which allows him to study at a Tel Aviv university and travel freely between the city and his family’s home in Ramallah.

The parents of both men, already embarrassed by their sons’ sexual orientations, are even more upset when they learn about their new love interests.

Roy brings Nimr to his parents’ home for dinner, and while the elders maintain a civil attitude, afterward the mother lets Roy know how deeply she disapproves of his relationship with a Palestinian.

Nimr’s reception in his own home is considerably worse. Nabil, his older brother, is part of a small terrorist band that executes Palestinians who “collaborate” with Israelis, and he hides a cache of weapons in his home.

Although Nimr argues that “you need more than guns to build a [Palestinian] state,” his mother tells him that he has brought shame on the family, and his brother threatens to kills him.

On the Israeli side, the film’s heavy is a state security official who tries to recruit Nimr as a spy, offering the Palestinian “a lot of freedom for a little information.” If Nimr refuses, his permit to study in Tel Aviv will be revoked.

Beset by all sides, the lovers plan an escape to a European country and the outcome of their scheme forms the tense closing segment of the film.

The actors portraying Roy and Nimr are almost as different as their screen personas. Michael Aloni, who portrays Roy, is a veteran actor and one of Israel’s most popular TV stars.

Nicholas Jacob, born in Haifa, is the son of an Arab-Israeli father and an Italian mother, and the role of Nimr is his first acting stint.

Director Mayer, 40, moved to Los Angeles after finishing his Israeli army service. He has produced the documentary “Driving Men,” but for the past 10 years has worked mainly on creating movie trailers.

He became interested in the theme of “Out in the Dark” several years ago, when a friend told him about the impromptu shelters and safe houses set up by Israeli gays —mainly in Tel Aviv but also in Jerusalem — to harbor Palestinian gays facing hostility and threats in their West Bank communities.

There are no precise figures on the number of such gay refugees, but Mayer cited a 2006 study that put the total between 300 and 350. He believes the number is about the same today.

During periods of relative calm, Israeli authorities have granted some study and work permits, but these are now harder to come by, Mayer said.

Israelis involved in setting up the shelters range across the political spectrum, and Mayer said he was careful not to focus his film on the warring ideologies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is a certain bond among gays, rooted in shared experiences as outsiders, that transcend ethnic and political differences,” Mayer said.

The director, who is himself gay, likens this bond to a certain camaraderie linking Jews throughout the world, regardless of different views and backgrounds.

In general, he believes, gays in the United States and other countries are more open to racial and social differences than their straight compatriots.

Mayer, together with his co-writer Yael Shafrir and co-producer Lihu Roter, raised about $400,000 to make their film, with about two-thirds coming from Israeli sources, mainly the Israel Film Fund and television Channel 10. The remainder of the money came from the United States.

The “small film,” as Mayer terms it, has done surprisingly well. It is being shown in some 45 countries, from Europe to Taiwan and Brazil, and has won awards at 20 different film festivals.

 “I’ve paid all my investors back,” Mayer said proudly, “and that rarely happens with independent films.”

Mayer, who professes to “love thrillers,” lists a murder mystery among his future projects.

“Out in the Dark” opens Sept. 27 at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.

College and your child

The following are some of the basic postulates about America, religion, society, morality, the arts and Israel that are taught at almost every American university.


• The United States is no better than any other country, and in some important ways it is worse than many. 

• On the world stage, America is an imperialist country, and domestically it mistreats its minorities and largely neglects its poor.

•  “American exceptionalism” and overt displays of patriotism are examples of American chauvinism. 

• America is a racist country. You white students are racist — and you either acknowledge this or you are in denial.

• Non-whites, however, cannot be racist — because whites have power and the powerless cannot be racist.

• The South votes Republican because it remains racist, and the Republican Party caters to that racism.

• Women are victims — of men. Blacks are victims — of whites. Latinos are victims — of Anglos. Muslims are victims — of Christians. Gays are victims — of straights. 

• The American Founders were sexist, racist slaveholders whose primary concern was preserving their power and wealth.

• The original meaning and intent of the Constitution are either unknowable or irrelevant to today. 

• The Electoral College should be abolished in order to transform America from a republic to a democracy.

• America’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was racist and a war crime.


• God is at best a nonissue, and at worst a foolish and dangerous belief. 

• Only people who reject science believe that the universe was designed.

• Religion has killed more people than any other idea, group or movement in human history.

• Christianity, in particular, has been a malevolent force, its history consisting largely of inquisitions, crusades, oppression and anti-intellectualism. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion of peace. 

• Criticism of Christianity is therefore enlightened. Criticism of Islam, however, is a form of bigotry known on campus as Islamophobia.

• The good done by Christians in forming the Western world is not attributable to Christianity. 

• Evil committed by Christians is due to Christianity. Evil committed by Muslims is not due to Islam. 

Society and Morality:

• The reason for Third World poverty is that Western nations exploited Third World nations through colonialism and imperialism.

• The great moral conflicts are between the rich and the poor and between the powerful and the powerless, not between the good and the evil (that is dismissed as Manichaeism).

• The state is the most effective vehicle to creating a humane society. Therefore the larger the state, the more good it will do.

• Big corporations are bad. Big unions are good.

• Capitalism is rooted in selfishness and is structured to benefit the wealthy.

• Health care for profit is morally wrong.

• War is ignoble. Pacifism is noble.

• Human beings are animals, differing from “other animals” only in having more developed brains. 

• Sexual orientation is biologically determined. Gender is not. 

• Therefore, men and women, including mothers and fathers, are essentially interchangeable. The notions that married mothers and fathers are the parental ideal and that mothers and fathers bring unique things to a child are heterosexist and homophobic.

• The greatest vehicle for women’s happiness is career satisfaction, not marrying and making a family.

• The primary causes of criminal violence are poverty and racism.

• Man-made carbon emissions are dramatically heating up the planet, and this will lead to global catastrophe.

Arts and Literature:

• There is no actual meaning to a text. Texts mean what the reader perceives them to mean.

• There is no better and worse in literature and the arts. The reason universities traditionally taught Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Bach — rather than, let us say, Guatemalan poets, Sri Lankan musicians and Native American storytellers — was not that they were the best but because of Western “Eurocentrism.”


• Israel’s settlements on the West Bank are the primary cause of the Middle East conflict. 

• Israel is an apartheid state, morally little different from apartheid South Africa.

Many readers agree and many will disagree with all or virtually all of these propositions. But these are the propositions that almost every university teaches students (outside the departments of business, math and the natural sciences). 

Reporting on one study of college faculty, the Washington Post’s media reporter Howard Kurtz (himself a liberal), wrote: “At the most elite schools. … 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.” Kurtz went on to note that 84 percent of instructors were pro-choice, 88 percent of professors want more environmental protection “even if it raises prices or costs jobs” and “65 percent want the government to ensure full employment, a stance to the left of the Democratic Party.”

“The most left-leaning departments are English literature, philosophy, political science and religious studies, where at least 80 percent of the faculty say they are liberal and no more than 5 percent call themselves conservative.” 

As Chris Mooney, a left-wing writer, wrote in the HuffingtonPost: “Higher education is a liberal and secular force in our society.”

If you are a parent who agrees with these postulates, you are likely to deem college worth $100,000 or more. You feel good knowing that the university is reinforcing your values and convictions in your child during the course of the four most impressionable years of his or her life. 

On the other hand, if you are a parent who does not hold these positions, you are not merely wasting an enormous sum of money; you are paying an enormous sum of money to have a college inculcate views and values that are counter to your most precious values and ideals. What you can do about it will be the subject of a future column.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Fisher v. University of Texas: Divining the supremes on race

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the long-anticipated case of ” target=”_blank”>Bakke (1978) or the ” target=”_blank”>, a human relations think tank chaired by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.

‘Running Rabbi’ recounts chaos at Boston Marathon, vows to run in next year’s race

“It was a beautiful day. I was so excited to run and having such a good run. The crowd was unbelievable. The whole experience was amazing. It was almost magical.”

That’s how the Boston Marathon began for Rabbi Benjamin David, head rabbi at Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J. It’s not how it ended.

David, 36, had completed the marathon and was back at his hotel when the twin explosions went off Monday afternoon near the finish line. The apparent terrorist attack killed at least three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and wounded more than 140, some critically.

David was running with Rabbi Scott Weiner, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of New Rochelle in suburban New York's Westchester County. The two rabbinical school friends are co-founders of the national organization The Running Rabbis, which encourages clergy — Jewish and not — and their congregants to run. They always run for a charity and their race in the Boston Marathon raised money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

David had an additional motivation for running. Although he had run 20 half-marathons and 13 marathons, David had never run the Boston Marathon and he wanted to beat his personal best time of 3 hours, 23 minutes. After 10 months of training, he did just that, running the 26.2 miles in 3 hours, 21 minutes. Weiner was one minute ahead of him.

From his hotel room two blocks from the blast site, David explained Monday night what happened next.

“Usually at these big races, it takes a while to exit the area because you pick up the medal and your tote bag and shuffle along because you are so tired,” David said. “Getting out of the finish area took us at least a half hour. We went to the hotel, and I was about to put my hand on the door to go into the lobby when I heard a massive explosion. It was an extraordinary sound. You knew instantly that something was wrong.”

David knew what kind of wrong that was. He was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, blocks away from the World Trade Center at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Benjamin David, having finished the Boston Marathon earlier, was at his hotel room two blocks from the site of the two bombs when they exploded. (Courtesy Rabbi Benjamin David)

“In my mind, I instantly compared it to when I was in New York on 9/11,” he said. “I mean, it was a different sound. But when the first plane hit the tower, it was a sound like a sound you don’t normally hear. That’s what this was today. A sound that you don’t normally hear and your brain says, ‘Is something wrong?’ Then today when we heard the second bomb, like when there was the second plane on 9/11. Then we knew for sure that something was very wrong.

“People were running toward the scene and away from the scene,” David said. “Police were scrambling. The hardest part is that no one knew what happened, so you don’t know what to do. We thought maybe the grandstand had collapsed, or a building. I grabbed someone, and he said that two bombs went off.

“I went up to my room and put on the news,” he said. “Isn’t that strange? Here I am, two blocks from the thing, and my instinct is still to turn on the TV to see what happened. But then, from the window in my room, I could see basically everything. So the local news was on and there was confusion and speculation, and I’m looking out the window and looking right at what is being called a terrorist attack.”

Other than using the word “surreal,” David didn’t get into details about what he saw.

“You know one weird thing? They stopped the race in progress,” he said. “I heard on the news that there were supposedly 4,500 people still on the course. I wonder what happened to them. What were they told? What was it like for them, not knowing what was happening?”

Luckily, David’s family did know what was happening with him. Like most other marathoners, he had a chip on his clothes that enabled the tracking of his progress via a secure website.

“I knew that he was finished with the race, and I texted him to see how it went and he texted back, ‘Turn on the news,’ ” said his father, Rabbi Jerome David of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. “I was shaken, even though I knew he was safe. It brought back memories of 9/11 because Ben and his brother John were both very close to the Trade Center that morning and we couldn’t reach either of them. This time, at least I heard from him. But even so, it’s the same feeling. It’s worrying about your child — and I know very well that he is a grown man — but he is my child. And he was again in the middle of danger. And there was nothing I could do about it right then.”

A friend called David’s mother, Peggy, on her cell phone.

“I was on a break from work and had just turned my phone on when a friend called and said, ‘There was a bombing near the finish line,’ ” Peggy David recounted. “I was sure he was done and I know that he usually goes back to the hotel pretty quickly. But I didn’t know exactly where he was when the bomb went off. Then his wife sent out a group text saying that he was OK.”

David’s wife, Lisa, the mother of their three young children, was tracking her husband’s progress and received an immediate text from him about his safety. That was a good thing because within hours she was aboard a plane headed for Israel on a business trip. She is associate director of camping for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp and Israel Programs.

Dr. Steve Gitler, president of Adath Emanu-El, found out about the bombing via a text from his daughter.

“She texted, ‘Is Rabbi alright?’ and I answered, ‘What do you mean?’ and she wrote back, ‘There were explosions in Boston.’ I went to and read what happened. Then I got the text that Rabbi was OK, and I posted a message on our synagogue’s Facebook page, then sent an email to the board and sent an email to the congregation so that everyone knew he was OK.”

Rabbi Richard Levine, the rabbi emeritus of Adath Emanu-El who led the congregation for more than 46 years, heard the news on KYW-1060 radio.

“I knew that Ben was trying to run the marathon in less than 3 hours and 20 or so minutes, so I thought that he was done and probably safe, but that didn’t mean he was,” Levine said. “We texted back and forth so I knew that he was OK. But I was still very worried for a period of time. You don’t want someone you care about to be in harm’s way.”

In fact, Levine thinks the timing of the bombings was deliberately set to harm as many people as possible. A former distance runner himself, Levine knows how marathons are staged.

“Sometimes in these races, they stagger the start times and have the all-star runners go first, then there is a break, then another class of runners goes and another follows,” he said. “Anyone who did some homework would know that the vast majority of runners — the average runners who are not professionals — finish the Boston Marathon right at about the time that the bombs exploded. At that time, people are crossing the finish line en masse. And these are people who run purely because they love to run and want to be part of the Boston Marathon.

“So were the bombs intentionally set to explode then? Yes, I believe so.”

If there was any blessing in this, Levine said, it was that medical personnel were at the finish line waiting for runners and they immediately helped the injured.

David’s father, who was also a runner, sees other silver linings in the day’s events.

“In a moment, your whole life can change,” he said. “You start off in one direction and then it goes in another. It also reminds you of what is important and that is family, health and friendship. I am a rabbi and lead my congregation, but I am also a father and grandfather and tonight, I needed the support of my congregants. I went to a men’s study group and an executive board meeting and was surrounded by friends and supporters. Rabbis need that, too, you know.”

His son also got the support he needed.

“On my end, people were just remarkably kind and forthcoming,” the younger David said. “My phone has not stopped ringing for seven hours. It’s been calls, texts, Facebook. Everyone knew that I was doing this race. The congregation and my family and friends have been amazingly supportive today.”

But he still had to deal with the logistics of being two blocks from a terrorist attack. And he had just run 26.2 miles. He was hungry after the race, but when he tried to get something to eat in the hotel lobby, the police came in and “kicked us out of the hotel because they didn’t want large crowds gathering. They wouldn’t let me back in, even though I said that I was a guest.”

So he went to the house of his wife’s college roommate three or four blocks from the hotel and took refuge there for an hour, he said, before returning to the hotel.

“And then again I realized that I forgot to eat,” David said. He went in search of food, encountering a “horrible” scene outside, with barricades and police everywhere. He found an open restaurant,  a Cheesecake Factory, where there was an hour wait for seating. So he took something to go and returned to his hotel room.

David described his state just hours after the attack as” feeling dazed.”

“My body is, like, exhausted. Annihilated. The marathon is so emotional and you spend so much time preparing,” he said. “God willing it goes well and it’s an accomplishment. And I do feel that accomplishment. But then, there are people who died today and they died right outside my window.”

But he also had a different view he was trying to maintain.

“Today, we saw what looks like hate and violence. But what I also saw was a day of togetherness and community and caring and support — much like the Marathon itself,” he said. “Every marathon is about celebrating the human spirit and supporting one another. It’s about people from around the country and around the world, from different backgrounds and different religions running together. That is what I will remember from today, from before the bombing and right after it.

“Tragedy reduces things to the most primal and most important factors,” he said. “Family, friends, community and what strangers need help.”

In the attacks both on 9/11 and on Monday, he said, “we will see the best in humanity come out.”

“And one more thing: I will run the Boston Marathon next year,” David said. “Nothing will keep me from it.”

East Africans, American clinch six top spots in Jerusalem race

East African runners and a U.S. Air Force captain won the six top spots in the annual Jerusalem marathon, which drew over 20,000 participants from 52 nations.

Abraham Kabeto Ketla of Ethiopia won with a time of 2:16:29.25, a new record for the Jerusalem Winner International Marathon.

In second and third place were Luka Kipkemoi Chelimo of Kenya who finished in 2:19:01.95 and Vincent Kiplagat Kiptoo of Kenya who crossed the finish line with a time of 2:20:12.60. 

In the women’s division, Mihiret Anamo Anotonios of Ethiopia took first place with a time of 2:47:26.40, setting a new record for a woman finisher. 

She was followed by Radiya Mohammed Roba of Ethiopia in second place with a time of 3:05:58.15.

Third place went to Elissa Ballas, a U.S. Air Force Captain and winner of the 2012 women's Armed Forces Marathon, with a time of 3:11:37.70.

Organizers announced they had received 1,750 international applications. 

The event, which was held for the third consecutive year, was promoted by the Jerusalem Development Authority.

There were three competitive courses: the full marathon at 42.2 kilometers (26.22 miles), the half marathon (13.11 miles) and a course of 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles.  Youth and families enjoyed shorter “fun runs.”

Jan Perry, “tough” mayoral candidate, faces challenging route

This is one in a series of profiles of the five leading Los Angeles mayoral candidates running in the March 5 election. See below for a video analysis.

Following a recent televised debate featuring the five top candidates running for mayor of Los Angeles, some campaign watchers wondered why the candidates weren’t being grilled more intensely. “It was genteel, for the most part, but I don’t want genteel,” Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote in a blog on Jan. 29. “I want hardball, not softball.”

City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who currently is running third in fundraising and in the polls,  didn’t escape his critical assessment — Lopez wondered whether she “had her eyes closed the whole time.” In fact, Perry herself registered objections to the tone of the campaign that were similar to Lopez’s in an interview with the Journal in early January.

“It’s been exceedingly polite,” Perry said, adding that she would prefer more back and forth between candidates during debates. “But some of that is due to the framework.”

This mayoral race, with a crowded field that includes two others city hall veterans who are running on their records of achievement in city government, as well as two untested outsider candidates running on similar anti-incumbent messages, presents a challenge to be heard for all the candidates, but perhaps particularly for Perry.

Perry has represented the ninth council district since 2001, but the other two city hall veterans in the race — City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel –each have raised more than twice as much money as Perry has and have picked up more endorsements from the city’s most powerful unions.

Perry’s positions on a number of key issues – abolishing the city’s current business tax and pursuing reforms to the pensions of city workers — don’t differ dramatically from Garcetti or Greuel’s stances, which only helps the two other candidates in the race, attorney and talk-show host Kevin James and Emanuel Pleitez, a young former mayoral aide and businessman, to lump all three city hall veterans in their attacks.

Perry appears to be trying to thread the needle between the two pairs. In public appearances, she presents herself as a straight-talking, experienced politician who has helped bring jobs to Downtown and to advance social initiatives that protect her numerous vulnerable constituents. She also pledges to talk tough to the municipal workers unions and other entrenched interests that frequently hold sway in L.A. city government. The result is a message that sounds like a call for modest reform by an insider who knows all too well of what she speaks.

“This is not an easy place to govern,” Perry said, sitting in a coffee shop near her home Downtown, an area of the city she used to represent until last year, when the City Council-approved redistricting plan removed it from her district. “You have to be persistent, you have to be tenacious. You have to be very, very patient. You have to listen to people.”

Perry is proud of her toughness, and of a multifaceted identity that she says makes her well-suited to lead Los Angeles, which is arguably the most diverse city in the world.

“I’m an African American woman who is Jewish who has represented a Latino district for the last 11 years,” Perry said at a forum hosted by Sinai Temple on Jan. 29. “The mayor can be the bridge-builder; I’ve been the bridge-builder, and I’ve seen the results of that, and they have been good.”

Perry grew up going to an African American church with her parents in the suburbs of Cleveland — she fondly remembers the call-and-response during services. Perry said she had difficulty with the idea of original sin, though, and explained that part of what drew her to Judaism was the religion’s being “grounded in the belief that what we do here now is the only thing that will really matter.”

So Perry, who came to Los Angeles to study journalism at the University of Southern California, eventually found her way to the Hillel at UCLA, where she studied with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller to prepare for conversion.

“What was attractive about Jan was her passion and her intelligence, and I think she carries that with her with dignity,” said Seidler-Feller said, thinking back on his sessions with Perry, about 30 years ago. “She knows the issues and she can argue the issues with the best of them.”

Perry says she appreciates when disagreements are played out in the open, and decries what she sees as the increasingly “transactional” character of city hall. Perry says she eschews exchanges of favors between representatives, and instead focuses on building citizen support for her agenda items.

“I work from the outside in,” Perry said. “I spend a lot of time on the outside talking to stakeholders, building support, building momentum, building consensus, hearing what people have to say.

“By the time I bring a project in for a vote,” she continued, “it’s been vetted, it’s been researched, it’s been documented.”

Perry has completed a number of projects during her tenure on the council, including getting 5,000 new units of affordable housing in her district. A former planning aide to former City Councilman Mike Woo and chief of staff to her predecessor in the 9th district, former Councilwoman Rita Walters, Perry said she enjoys digging into the details of a development, and she’s proud of having helped bring the Expo line to fruition. But on the campaign trail, Perry frequently talks about returning to “core services” – like street repair, public safety and zoning  — and getting the city out of other services, calling for the city to extricate itself from operating the convention center and the zoo.

Perry has a good deal of support from businesspeople in Downtown.

“Speaking for the business community we were all very happy with her,” said Selma Fisch, whose family has significant real estate holdings along Santee Alley in the Fashion District. “She works really hard, and she’s really smart.”

In January, Perry and her supporters managed to muster enough support from delegates to prevent either of the other two leading Democratic candidates from securing the Los Angeles County Democratic party nomination, and Eric Bauman, the county party chair, said it would be a mistake for Garcetti or Greuel to count her out.

“Nobody’s really paying attention to Jan,” Bauman said, “although with $2 million and [campaign consultant] Eric Hacopian and Jan’s fortitude, they ignore her at their own risk.”

Hacopian declined to speak about any specific strategies he’s using in running Perry’s campaign, but Perry – like Greuel and Garcetti – is certainly making a play for the Jewish vote, evidenced by the advertisements for Perry that have been displayed alongside articles on the Journal’s Web site,

Jewish voters, who only make up about six percent of registered voters, may end up casting as much as 20 percent of ballots between now and March 5, the day of the citywide primary election. Whether Perry can assemble enough support from voters citywide to finish in one of the top two spots remains to be seen.

But Perry, for her part, is optimistic.

“As long as I know that I’m moving in an upward trajectory, I’m pleased,” she said.

Kevin James: The still-evolving outsider runs for mayor

This is one in a series of profiles of the five leading Los Angeles mayoral candidates running in the March 5 election.  See below for a video analysis.

As the race for Los Angeles mayor heats up, many descriptors have been applied to Kevin James, one of the least-known of the leading candidates. A former radio talk show host who has worked as an attorney for 25 years, James is a fiscally conservative gay Republican. But in introducing himself to voters who will choose the city’s next mayor, James has emphasized one qualification above all: His status as an outsider.

“My opponents, they’ve been in office for over a decade; they’ve proven that their experience has failed the city,” James said in an interview with the Journal in January. “That opens the eyes of voters who are looking for new leadership.”

James, 49, has never before held public office, and he typically refers to the three leading candidates as if they were one block, holding them all – City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Controller Wendy Greuel, and Councilwoman Jan Perry – jointly responsible for a Los Angeles that is, in his view, mired in crisis.

“We have a jobs crisis, we have a budget crisis, we have an infrastructure crisis, an education crisis, a transportation crisis, a public safety crisis, a corruption crisis,” James said in his opening statement at a candidates’ debate held at Congregation Beth Jacob in early January. “In short, we have a leadership crisis.”

James, who grew up in Norman, Okla., is one of two candidates among the top five without a personal or familial connection to Judaism (“I have searched my family tree far and wide,” he said with a smile). He presents his resume as having prepared him well to become the leader of America’s second-largest city.

As a litigator and entertainment lawyer in the private sector, James said he developed negotiating skills that L.A.’s next mayor will need. James also pulled a stint in the public sector, as an assistant U.S. attorney in L.A., and he makes frequent mention of his work in the nonprofit sector, as a volunteer officer on the board of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) for six years in the 1990s.

“We had a $20-million-a-year budget,” James said of APLA, adding that that Hermosa Beach’s budget was roughly that size at the time.

James said he realized he wanted to run the city of Los Angeles not through an epiphany, but rather as a goal that developed over time.

“It’s easier to point out the problems,” James said of his years hosting a late-night show on KRLA. “Offering solutions is harder, and I always wanted to focus on offering solutions, too.”

Listeners encouraged him to run for office, James said, and now he’s working to win over enough of the electorate between now and March 5 to make him one of the top two finishers in the city’s non-partisan primary election.

An ABC News poll released on Jan. 16 showed James with support from 12 percent of likely voters, tied for third place with Perry and trailing Garcetti and Greuel, who had 26 and 18 percent, respectively.

“I’m tied in polling with the millionaires in the race, if you will,” James said on the day that poll was released. “That’s a good place to be for a first-time candidate, for an outsider in this race.”

Greuel’s campaign dismissed the ABC News poll as “bogus,” and released its own poll showing Greuel leading the pack, with 20 percent support. In that poll, James had 7 percent support from likely voters.

Neither outcome would propel James into one of the two top spots necessary to move to a final runoff, so to win he’ll have to convince a lot of voters in a short time with not a lot of money. As of mid-January, he had just $48,000 in cash on hand, far less than Garcetti’s $3.5 million, Gruel’s  $2.9million, and Perry’s $1.2 million. A fifth candidate, businessman and former mayoral aide Emanuel Pleitez, has $320,000.

James does have the backing of an independent Super PAC, which is funded in large part by a conservative billionaire from Texas. That group recently released a video advertisement that takes aim at the three incumbents, presenting them as beholden to public sector unions and positioning James as an outsider and potential reformer of City Hall.

As James’ candidacy has advanced – he’s well-funded enough to get invitations to every major debate, including the Jan. 26 televised debate on NBC 4 – journalists and others are paying closer attention to things he wrote and said during his years as a conservative pundit.

At a recent debate among the mayoral candidates hosted by the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, James was asked why he hasn’t talked more about the “illegal alien crisis” on the campaign trail, a subject he addressed on multiple occasions as a radio host.

And during a debate between the candidates for Los Angeles City Attorney in January, former Assemblyman Mike Feuer posed a sharp question to Greg Smith, another candidate for the city’s top lawyer spot, asking why Smith gave the maximum allowed donation to James, whom Feuer described as “an extreme, right-wing, Tea Party candidate.”

James has addressed Tea Party rallies in the past, and in the interview said he agrees with Tea Party positions on “some fiscal issues,” but he suggested some in the Tea Party would disagree with his support for same-sex marriage.

“Given my position on those social issues, I don’t think that I’m accurately described as a Tea Partier,” he said. “But if you want to talk about their concern for waste of federal money, of state money, of city money, then, yes, we’re going to align on those issues.”

As for immigration, James told the Journal his position has evolved, particularly after he participated as a volunteer lawyer at a naturalization workshop in 2010 sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“I do think it’s fair to say that over time, I have certainly become much more familiar with a number of differing sides of the issue,” James said.

James presents his changing ideas as an asset, evidence of his desire to keep learning about the residents of the city he hopes to lead. As a radio host, James spent more than a year visiting approximately 60 different neighborhood council meetings across Los Angeles, hearing residents complain about public safety, zoning, education and sanitation, among other subjects. He came away from the experience with a deep appreciation for the work of the neighborhood representatives and disappointed not to have seen more council members come to those meetings.

“What’s been frustrating about the City of Los Angeles and our elected leadership,” James said, “is they seem to have stopped wanting to learn about the city.”

Congressional races to watch

The following are descriptions of eight congressional races of particular Jewish interest, plus four others featuring potentially viable Jewish contenders.

Top eight congressional races to watch:

U.S. Senate:

Hawaii — Mazie Hirono (D) vs. Linda Lingle (R)


Linda Lingle, the former Hawaii governor now running for the U.S. Senate, attending the United Chinese Society Banquet in Honolulu, July 2012. Photo courtesy of Linda Lingle Campaign

Strongly Democratic Hawaii is tough turf for Republicans, but picking up a Senate seat in President Barack Obama’s birth state would be a real coup. And the GOP found a strong candidate in the state’s Jewish former governor, Linda Lingle. Still, Lingle has an uphill fight against Rep. Mazie Hirono in the race to replace retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat.

Nevada — Shelley Berkley (D) vs. Dean Heller (R)

With control of the Senate on the line, both parties are betting on Nevada. Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is Jewish, has been trailing incumbent Dean Heller in the polls, but only by a few points, and the race is considered a toss-up. Heller, a former congressman, was appointed to fill the seat last year following the scandal-induced resignation of Sen. John Ensign, a Republican. Berkley, who has strong union ties and is known as an Israel hawk, is a political nemesis (and former employee) of casino mogul and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Berkley’s Senate campaign faced a setback this summer when the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into allegations that she had used her office to benefit her husband’s business interests.

Ohio — Sherrod Brown (D) vs. Josh Mandel (R)

Ohio is the frontline in the fight for the White House, and it’s also a battleground in the struggle for the Senate. Republicans tapped state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a boyish-looking Jewish former Marine and Iraq War vet, to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown, a champion of organized labor and a favorite of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Brown has been ahead in the polls, usually by single digits.

U.S. House of Representatives:

California, 30th District — Howard Berman (D) vs. Brad Sherman (D)

Sherman v. Berman

Reps. Brad Sherman, left, and Howard Berman, both Democrats, are pro-Israel congressmen vying for the seat in California’s 30th District.

This is the race that Democrats and supporters of Israel wish weren’t happening. The fierce redistricting-fueled fight in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley pits two veteran pro-Israel incumbents against each other. Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a key player on immigration and intellectual property issues, enjoys the strong support of California’s Democratic congressional delegation, elected officials and Hollywood machers. But Sherman is an aggressive retail politician and has represented much more of the new district than Berman. Sherman beat Berman by 10 points in the nonpartisan primary that sent the two Jewish Democrats to their general election face-off and enjoys a 13-point lead in a newly released poll.

Florida, 22nd District — Lois Frankel (D) vs. Adam Hasner (R)


Democrat Lois Frankel and Republican Adam Hasner, both Jewish, are squaring off in Florida’s 22nd District, which has been redrawn to make it substantially more Democratic.

The race in this South Florida district, stretching along the coast of Broward and Palm Beach counties, pits two Jewish politicians against each other. Lois Frankel, who previously served as mayor of West Palm Beach and in the state legislature, is stressing health care issues and trying to tie her opponent to past Republican Medicare overhaul proposals. The district, which had been represented by Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West, a Republican, was redrawn to make it substantially more Democratic. Adam Hasner, a former majority leader in the state’s House of Representatives, abandoned a foundering campaign for the GOP Senate nomination and entered the congressional race after West decided to run in a neighboring district. Hasner, who ran for Senate as a staunch conservative and is an abortion-rights opponent, is stressing the importance of working across the aisle in his congressional campaign. Frankel is regarded as having the edge in the race.

Illinois, 10th District — Robert Dold (R) vs. Brad Schneider (D)

First-term Rep. Robert Dold has been active on Middle East issues, but he had some big shoes to fill. He won the congressional seat vacated by fellow Republican and now-Sen. Mark Kirk, who had been a leader in efforts to support Israel and sanction Iran. Dold now faces a two-pronged challenge with a redrawn suburban Chicago district that is more Democratic and a strong opponent who has a long history of involvement in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. Brad Schneider, a management consultant, has been involved with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Chicago’s Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee. Dold is stressing his support for abortion rights, some gun control measures, stem cell research and civil unions for gay couples. Observers see the race as leaning toward Schneider.

New Jersey, 9th District — Bill Pascrell (D) vs. Shmuley Boteach (R)

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach may be a serious long-shot to unseat incumbent Rep. Bill Pascrell in this heavily Democratic northern New Jersey district, but he’s also one of the GOP’s more colorful candidates. Boteach, who bills himself as “America’s rabbi,” kept himself in the spotlight for years by starring in a reality TV show, befriending celebrities such as Michael Jackson and writing books with such titles as “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery” and “Kosher Jesus.” Pascrell had handily won a redistricting-induced intra-party primary against stalwart pro-Israel Rep. Steve Rothman. The primary featured some ethnic tensions when an Arab Pascrell supporter questioned the loyalties of local Orthodox synagogue presidents who had urged Jewish Republicans to change party registrations so they could vote for Rothman. In the general election, Boteach has tried to paint Pascrell not only as insufficiently pro-Israel but also as insufficiently supportive of Arab aspirations for freedom.

New York, 1st District — Tim Bishop (D) vs. Randy Altschuler (R)

Randy Altschuler is considered to be the best bet to add a second Jewish Republican to join Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP’s House caucus. He is facing a rematch with Rep. Tim Bishop, who beat him narrowly in 2010 in the Long Island district. Bishop has attacked Altschuler for being the co-CEO of a firm that helped companies outsource office work overseas. Altschuler’s campaign has emphasized his candidate’s more recent work as chairman of an electronics recycling firm as an example of creating green jobs in the United States. Political observers see the race as tilted toward Bishop but consider it competitive.

Other House races of note with Jewish contenders:

California, 47th District:

Alan Lowenthal, a Democratic state senator, is favored to win in this new congressional district spanning parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Florida, 9th District:

Former Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat, is a verbally combative liberal who was defeated in 2010 and looks set to return to Congress in a strongly Democratic Orlando-area district.

New Jersey, 3rd District:

Democrat Shelley Adler is running against incumbent Rep. Jon Runyan, a Republican and a former pro football player who in 2010 unseated her now late husband, John Adler.

Rhode Island, 1st District:

First-term Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat, is in a tough fight to hold on in a solidly Democratic district after embarrassing revelations about severe budget problems in Providence, where he had previously served as mayor.

Australian sprinter Steven Solomon advances to 400-meter finals

Australian sprinter Steven Solomon qualified for the Olympics 400 meters final with a second consecutive personal best time.

Solomon, 19, who only took up professional sprinting in 2009, finished third in his semifinal heat on Sunday in London, but his time of 44.97 was good enough to advance to Monday’s final. He was seventh among the eight qualifiers

With the top two qualifying automatically for the final, the former Maccabi soccer star had an agonizing wait to see if his time was good enough to make the final.

“I’m absolutely stoked,”  Solomon told the media after the race. “I came into the race really nervous. I really wanted to make the final. I really believed in myself and when I crossed the line, I saw that I had broken the 45 [second] barrier.

“Two personal bests in two days. I am just really looking forward to the final and giving it absolutely everything I have for myself and my country.”

Solomon’s coach, Ukranian immigrant Fira Dvoskina, was elated as she watched the race live in Sydney.

“We talked yesterday on Skype and I told him what mistakes he made when he ran the heat and he said he’ll fix it,” she told JTA. “He ran 44.97—I cannot believe it.”

Dvoskina said his goal is to run 44.80 in the final, but she is not sure that’ll be good enough to win a medal.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Australia has not had a male 400 meters runner in the Olympic final for a very long time. He is one of the top eight runners in the world.”

Harry Procel, a Maccabi Australia veteran who is in London at the Olympic Stadium with the Solomon family, told JTA that Solomon “did brilliantly to win his heat.”

“He ran a beautifully controlled race and handled the pressure with aplomb,” Procel said.

A day earlier Solomon, in his Olympics debut, won his heat to reach the semifinals in a time of 45.18, also a personal best. He defeated the defending Olympic champion Lashawn Merritt, who pulled up with a hamstring injury, and finished eighth fastest in the seven heats.

His previous best of 45.52 had come three weeks ago at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. Based on the performance, Athletics Australia had selected Solomon, the captain of the junior soccer team at the 2009 Maccabiah Games, ahead of veteran John Steffensen, a black sprinter of South African descent who alleged racial discrimination. It sparked a bitter race row in which Solomon was unwittingly in the middle.

McCain condemns Bachmann for claim of Muslim Brotherhood agents in U.S. gov’t

Sen. John McCain took to the Senate floor to condemn a suggestion by Rep. Michele Bachmann that the federal government has been penetrated by Muslim Brotherhood agents.

A letter sent last week to inspectors general of several federal agencies by Bachmann (R-Minn.) and four other Republicans in the House of Representatives suggested that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has made “deep penetration” into the federal government and that those agencies should launch an investigation to uncover the influence of the group’s agents.

Among the suspected “agents” named in the letter was Huma Abedin, a deputy chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and wife of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former House member from New York who had to resign after tweeting lewd photos of himself to a 21-year-old woman and lying about it. The letter asserted that three of Abedin’s family members are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood and that Clinton’s office has “taken actions recently that have been enormously favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood and its interests.”

“It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Bachmann told the St. Cloud Times, a Minnesota newspaper. “It appears that there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency.”

Cosigning the letters were Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Louie Gohmert, (R-Texas), Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.).

At the Senate on Wednesday, McCain (R-Ariz.) called Bachmann’s claims “specious and degrading,” according to reports.

The first Muslim-American elected to Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Fla.), said in a statement that if Bachmann “has sources for this type of information, she owes it to the country to reveal them to the proper authorities, but definitely not this way. If she doesn’t have this type of information, she should not be whipping up fear and hysteria about a very important matter.”

Gingrich, bowing out, thanks Adelsons

Newt Gingrich, bowing out of the race for the Republican presidential nod, thanked Miriam and Sheldon Adelson for helping to sustain his campaign.

“We share a combined concern about the Middle East and a combined concern about American security and the survival of Israel,” Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, said Wednesday in remarks that effectively handed the GOP nomination to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Gingrich held the lead in the first caucus state, Iowa, but a barrage of negative ads by pro-Romney SuperPACs—fundraising bodies not officially affiliated with a candidate—crippled Gingrich, who vowed retribution. He and his supporters would later run negative ads against Romney. Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who dropped out of the race last month, narrowly won in Iowa.

Gingrich recovered in substantial part because of $25 million funneled by the Adelsons to SuperPACs backing him, but ultimately could not catch up with Santorum or Romney.

“While they weren’t directly associated with the campaign, it would be impossible for me to be here and thank everybody without mentioning Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who singlehandedly came pretty close to matching Romney’s SuperPAC,” Gingrich said in his remarks.

Gingrich and Adelson have been friends since Gingrich’s term as House speaker in the mid-1990s, coming together because of shared thinking about Israel and skepticism of the motives of the Palestinians, along with a shared antipathy of labor unions. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino mogul, has clashed repeatedly with unions.

Adelson defended Gingrich when he drew criticism from Romney for saying the Palestinians were not a people.

Adelson reportedly has assured the Romney camp that he will now direct his efforts to backing the presumptive nominee.

Romney’s only remaining rival, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), has virtually no chance of challenging him in the delegate race.

20 years after the L.A. Riots: Where are we now?

On April 29, 1992, the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American man, triggered riots in Los Angeles that resulted in more than 50 dead, thousands injured and some $1 billion in property damage.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, The Jewish Journal invited to our offices nine prominent L.A.-based civil rights activists. We asked them to reflect as a group on two questions: Are we better off than we were 20 years ago? Could what happened in 1992 happen again here?

The result was an often-heated 90-minute conversation that vividly demonstrated the passions that the riots and the issues they raised still evoke in this city.

Panelist photos by Dan Kacvinski. Connie Rice photo courtesy of the Advancement Project.

Arabs boycotting Adidas for sponsoring Jerusalem race

Arab states launched a boycott against Adidas over its sponsorship of last month’s Jerusalem Marathon.

The boycott of the sports apparel manufacturer was announced Wednesday in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, following a meeting of the Arab youth and sports council of ministers, the French news agency AFP reported.

“All companies that have sponsored the marathon of Jerusalem, including Adidas, will be boycotted,” Saudi Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, chairman of the council, said Wednesday.

The route of this year’s marathon took runners through parts of eastern Jerusalem.

Faisal also announced that next year, marathons would take place in several Arab countries under the banner “Jerusalem is Ours.”

Opinion: The myth of the Iranian-American Jew

This one’s for our children — the teens and 20-somethings who were born in this country or who’ve lived here most of their life, who have no memory of Iran except what’s been passed on to them or what they’ve constructed with their imagination. The kids who speak Persian with an accent or not at all, crack up at the way their parents pronounce their w’s and th’s, become wide-eyed and incredulous when they discover that we grew up without frozen yogurt, nonfat milk and broccoli. And who, more and more these days, find themselves having to define and defend that tangled nexus of nationality and religion, of likeness and singularity, of being and becoming that is their Iranian heritage.

I am speaking, of course, of the uproar within the Iranian community in reaction to a certain reality show over the past few weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but it pains me to see our young people cringe and shudder at the thought of what the rest of the country is going to think of us after having seen this show. They’re in a strange predicament, these children of hyphenated parents. Iranian-American. Iranian-Jew. Iranian-American-Jew. Already, they’ve had to walk the tightrope from one component to the other every hour of every day. But for too long they’ve also had to endure the harsh judgment of Los Angeles’ larger society, fight negative misconceptions, shrug off the myth of what Iranian-Americans are like because they feel they have little power to change it. Why else would they be so hurt and offended by the pitiful portrayal of a handful of Iranians on a less-than-second-rate television show?

Once upon a time, an army of rich, spoiled and ill-mannered Jews, having exhausted all the sources of glee and merriment in Iran, sat around and hatched a plan to conquer the idyllic city of Beverly Hills, destroy its library and public schools, and lay waste to adjacent Westwood Corridor and Sinai Temple. One bright summer day in 1978 they packed up all their jewels, cash and “attitude,” traveled some 7,581 miles, and descended en masse onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of said city. Overnight, they evicted, expelled and dislodged the rightful owners of Beverly Hills by paying too much for their land, paying all cash, opening short escrows. The natives who weren’t forced to sell by outsized offers sold anyway, perhaps out of fear of the jewel-slinging Jews and their all-night displays of libertinism on Shabbat.

Sound familiar? It didn’t start with the TV show; it started more than 30 years ago, within the “native” American community of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

Having planted their flag onto the “natives’ ” land, these Iranian Jews set out to expand their sphere of influence by infiltrating the four pillars of Beverly Hills’ community — the schools, synagogues, professional offices and Neiman Marcus. They spoke Persian to each other even when there were “natives” around. They invented shallowness, materialism, large houses and questionable business practices, and kept it all to themselves. All those unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street who rip off their own clients, the homeowners and real estate speculators who developed and built Brentwood Park and Holmby Hills, the international fashion houses and clothing stores that charge the equivalent of a midsize car for a wallet or a blouse — they must all be Iranian Jews. So must all the women prancing around this city with fish lips and Brazilian buttocks. And all the Americans who, no matter where they are in the world, speak English and expect everyone else to understand.

I shouldn’t have to, but I feel I must clarify that the above is, indeed, a myth. As with all myths, it has a kernel of truth buried somewhere within: Yes, a handful of Iranian Jews came to this country with a lot of money, though that’s hardly a crime; a few of their children own BMWs and drive too fast; a few come across as, or really are, impetuous and unpleasant.

But there are infinitely more rich, obnoxious, BMW-driving “natives” in this city than there are Iranians of that sort, and no one’s going around resenting their presence and blaming them for all the ills in the country. The difference is, when one of the “natives” commits a wrong, we blame him. When an Iranian commits the same wrong, we blame them all.

Sound familiar? It’s like what the world has done to Jews through the ages, except in this case, many of those wagging the finger and perpetuating the myth about the frightful Iranian-American Jew are — alas — “native” American Jews. At best, this is divisive and unhelpful.

So I’m here to tell you, lest it goes unsaid, that the real story of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles is vastly different from the one that’s being told — on television and off.

The real story is that by far the great majority of Iranian Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and in the ensuing decade were anguished and traumatized refugees escaping the very real threat of extinction in a homeland where their roots stretched back thousands of years. Most got away with only the proverbial shirt on their back. What money they had made in Iran was the result of decades of hard work and ingenuity; whatever part of it they managed to bring to the United States, or to make here, helped contribute to the health and vibrancy of this economy.

The real story is that nearly no one, not even the most fortunate, was spared emotional loss and psychological hardship in the turmoil of migration. From the owners of the closet-size stalls on Santee Avenue who worked seven days a week selling quinceañera dresses, to the wives who took a job for the first time in their life because their husband couldn’t find one, and the children who were sent here alone to become the ward of a sibling, an aunt or a Jewish charitable entity — just about every Iranian here has earned whatever living he’s managed to make. To this day, most of them are not rich — not by Los Angeles standards. They don’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Pico-Robertson, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Northridge. Their kids don’t go to private school; they work nights and weekends, take loans to finance their higher education. That they manage to get into Ivy League colleges and succeed in medicine and art and law and technology puts the lie to the idea that they live and breathe to party, drink and spend their parents’ money.

They’re a splendid bunch, these young people who know, perhaps better than many “natives” of their generation, what a gift it is to wake up every day under the American sky. They take little for granted. They’ve learned to appreciate the salient parts of each piece of their identity and to tolerate the rest. That’s a gift they’ve been blessed with and a cross they’ll have to bear. But this other cross — being singled out as “foreign” by their fellow Americans, held to account for the flaws and failures of others, having the good in them overlooked and their faults magnified — this is a burden they’ve neither earned nor deserve.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Ethiopian immigrant is top Jewish finisher in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon

Ashrat “Assaf” Mamo is such a common sight when he pounds the pavement in Jerusalem that he’s on a first-name basis with city bus drivers who, he said, always “ask me about the marathon and encourage me.”

On Friday, Mamo, a 27-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, became the first Israeli to cross the finish line in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon, coming in 11th with a time of 2:33:12. David Cherono Toniok, of Kenya, won the race in 2:19:52, breaking the course record. Ethiopian Mihiret Anamo Antonios was the female winner, with a time of 2:48:38, and Moran Shabtai, with 3:38:35, was the first Israeli female finisher.

In an interview at the finish line in Sacher Park, Mamo told JTA he had expected to do better after completing a personal best time two months ago, with 2:22:32, in the Tiberias Marathon in northern Israel. But Mamo, wrapped in warming foil, appeared happy to have been Israel’s top finisher even though the country’s best marathoners did not participate.

“Jerusalem is the holy city,” Mamo said. “It is my home court.”

More than 14,000 runners from 52 countries competed in the event, which was launched just last year. The route takes runners through the walled Old City, past the president’s residence and up to the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hanoch Shahar, participated in shorter versions of the race’s 26-mile course.

In the lead-up to the race, runners had spoken about the capital’s notorious hills as the most likely impediment to posting good times. But weather conditions for the race—rain and hail fell through the morning and the the sun only periodically poked through thick clouds—heaped on additional challenges.

Mamo, for whom this marathon was his eighth, said he blocked out the distractions of familiar neighborhoods and the kaleidoscopic lures of the Old City during the course’s brief foray there, staying focused on his running and continually checking the pace on his running wrist watch.

Mamo left the northern Ethiopian city of Tigry for Israel in late 2000 along with his father, who has since passed away. He lives in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood and is unmarried.

The slight Israeli with silver braces and a winning smile works as a contractor repairing car windshields. He described himself as a traditional Jew who attends synagogue only on High Holy Days.

Toniok said he was thrilled that, as a religious Catholic, his first ever marathon win came in Jerusalem. He expressed mild disappointment that the event did not start in the Old City, but said that he hoped to visit the following day before returning to Kenya on Saturday night. He lives in Eldoret, which is where the country’s legendary long-distance runners also reside and with whom he trains.

“I’m very happy because most Christian people [back home] learn about Israel but don’t have the chance to visit,” Toniok said. “I know about King David. I am King David of Israel because I won the Jerusalem Marathon.”

Santorum’s Southern sweep mars Romney’s front-runner status

Rick Santorum swept two Southern states in Republican primaries, complicating Mitt Romney’s status as front-runner and all but burying Newt Gingrich’s chance for the nomination.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who emerged from last place in polling as recently as December to become the conservative challenger to Romney, scored 33 percent of the vote in Mississippi and nearly 35 percent in Alabama. Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, finished second in both states, with 31 percent in MIssissippi and 29 percent in Alabama. Romney was third with 30 percent in Mississippi and 29 percent in Alabama.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) came in a distant fourth in both races after barely campaigning in either state.

Romney, who during the campaign has tried to shuck his reputation as a moderate, had campaigned hard in a bid to prove he could win in conservative Southern states. The former Massachusetts governor is leading substantially in delegates, but his path to the nomination has been far from smooth as conservative candidates continue to mount substantive challenges.

Gingrich had suggested that if he failed to win in Mississippi and Alabama, his campaign was in trouble, predicated as it was on winning Southern states.

If Gingrich leaves the race, campaign watchers will look to see who his main backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, decides to support. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, twice salvaged Gingrich’s campaign with huge cash infusions; Gingrich and Adelson have been friends since the 1990s, in part because they share hard-line pro-Israel positions.

Romney has the backing of much of the Jewish Republican establishment, having attracted the bulk of Jewish donors and advisers. His appeal to Jews is based partly on his moderation and ability during his governance of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 to appeal to liberals and independents.

Additionally he and his wife, Ann, have referred in talks to Jewish groups to their Mormon faith, likening themselves to Jewish Republicans who have pushed for prominence in a party that still draws much of its support from a Protestant base.

Both Santorum and Romney have battered President Obama for what they depict as his hostility to Israel and his fecklessness on dealing with Iran, and both say that they will repeal much of the heath care reform package passed by Obama.

Some of Santorum’s domestic policies, including statements suggesting that a “Jesus guy” is most suitable for the presidency, have alarmed some Jewish groups.

Perry set to drop out of presidential race

Rick Perry reportedly is dropping his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee.

CNN and The New York Times reported Thursday that the Texas governor will announce later in the day his decision to bow out; a news conference reportedly is scheduled in South Carolina.

Perry, a staunch backer of Israel who has longstanding ties with leading Republican Jews, surged in the polls when he announced his bid for the GOP nod last August, but he dipped following a number of poor debate performances.

After lagging in the Iowa and New Hampshire tests, he had hoped to rally in South Carolina, which goes to the polls on Saturday. The polls, however, show Perry trailing in the conservative state.

Perry’s exit would narrow the race to four candidates—front-runner Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Reuters reported that two Perry campaign sources said he is likely to endorse Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Gingrich, an ex-congressman from Georgia, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, are expected to battle for Perry’s evangelical and social conservative backers.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who tied with Santorum in Iowa and won in New Hampshire, is currently leading in South Carolina polling.

Bachman pulls out of GOP race

Michele Bachman pulled out of the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination after finishing sixth in the Iowa caucuses.

“I ran as the next steppingstone, the passing on of the torch of liberty,” said Bachman, a Minnesota congresswoman, in a speech to supporters Wednesday in Iowa.

Eight votes reportedly separated first-place finisher Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, from Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania in Tuesday’s caucuses. They each took about 25 percent of the vote to 21 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Bachman garnered about 5 percent of the vote.

In June, Bachman was considered a front-runner for the GOP bid following the first debate involving the hopefuls.

She supported continuing U.S. aid to Israel, calling Israel “our greatest ally,” and spoke fondly about her time volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel.

On Election Day, Jewish Dems face challenges

Several Jewish Democratic incumbents are fighting for their political survival as Americans head to the polls.

Lawmakers under threat Tuesday in a midterm election cycle that has seen a conservative/Republican resurgence include U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), John Adler (D-N.J.)  and Steve Kagen (D-Wis.).

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) appears set to lose his bid to win New Hampshire’s open U.S. Senate seat, as does Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher , a Democrat.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) looks like she has beaten back a challenge from Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard.

The results may open up new leadership opportunities in both houses.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, is poised to become majority leader should Republicans retake the House, as is anticipated.

If Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) loses a hotly contested battle to conservative Tea Party-backed Republican Sharron Angle, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is likely to run for party leader in the Senate, where Democrats are expected to maintain their majority.

Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad

Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.

“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).

Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.

For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.

But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.

Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.

An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”

After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.

Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.

The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”

Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.

This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.

The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.

Hope breeds strength

PARIS — “It was invisible, as always,” begins Theodore White’s classic “The Making of the President, 1960,” describing the mysterious process by which millions of voters combine to make their most important political decision.

This time, it was visible.

The crowded lines at the polls, the frenzied communications on the pathways of the Internet, the huge crowds at political rallies revealed this to be an election like no other. Most of the time history just happens and we see it in the rearview mirror. This time history happened right in front of our eyes.

The Democratic Party that has won a mandate to govern the White House and the Congress is a party transformed. In the Roosevelt and Truman years, the Democrats were the party of the working class, of the urban and rural areas, and Jewish voters, among many others, were enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions. But the issue of race had to be glossed over because a party of Southern rural whites could not be racially progressive.

In the 1960s, the Democrats had to choose, and they chose the side of racial equality, supported by Jews, who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement that forced the hand of national Democrats.

The party paid a steep price for that choice, as white voters in the South and many whites outside the south deserted the Democrats for a rejuvenated Republican party that clearly placed itself on the side of whites. After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, has received more than 50 percent of the popular vote — Carter got 50.1 percent — and Republicans have dominated presidential elections. (Bill Clinton managed to win twice without breaking 50 percent of the vote.) How to hold onto white working voters and minority communities in the same party became the agonizing task of a party that hoped to provide health care and other progressive economic policies. Meanwhile, the African American militancy of the 1960s and the apparent softening of support for Israel in some corners of the left opened up serious rifts within the Jewish community, concerns that would reemerge in Obama’s run for the presidency.

When this campaign started two years ago, no one anticipated that not only would Democrats finally overcome their painful standing in a presidential election, but that the candidate who would do it would be African American. In fact, history suggested that to be, perhaps, the least likely option. The expectation was that it would take another Bill Clinton, a white candidate who could walk comfortably in both racial camps, to solve the problem. And that maybe Democrats could hold their industrial base and the Northeast and West Coast to squeak out a victory, with one or two more states added in.

Instead, Obama obtained more than 52 percent of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964. He redrew the political map with victories in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. The most dramatic moments came with his victories in Pennsylvania, and the big fish, Ohio. These blue-collar states, with lots of conservative Democrats, were seen as difficult for Obama, but he won them both. White suburban voters helped Obama win, a significant shift from the days when suburbs helped Republicans beat the urban turnout, and Jewish voters undoubtedly helped Obama turn Florida blue.

The Republican Party, and particularly George W. Bush, helped make this historic election possible. Certain of their dominance of national politics, Republican leaders came to believe that if they simply stuck together and mobilized their conservative base, that the feckless Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue to recede as a threat. Having taken control of the White House in a disputed 2000 election, the Bush team moved to enact their program with discipline and contempt for Democrats. Inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, they came to believe that they could do whatever they wanted. Victory in the 2002 congressional elections appeared to them to be evidence that the strategy was working. The result was the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion set in motion the forces that led to the 2008 watershed.

As weak, demoralized and disorganized as they were, Democrats nursed a grudge that grew into a burning rage against the Bush administration. They could not agree, however, on how to fight back. The Iraq war divided Democrats between the Howard Dean wing of the party that wanted to fight against it, and the Clinton wing that had succeeded by narrowing the differences with ascendant Republicans and hoping to win narrow national victories. Dean proposed a 50-state strategy to put the party into every state and to concede no state. He could not win the party’s nomination in 2004 and instead became party chair where he tried to get the strategy going. When the Democrats finally openly opposed the war in 2006, they won a major victory in congressional elections.

Meanwhile the deterioration of the Bush administration, its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the slowing economy eroded the re-elected Bush’s popularity. His has become the most unpopular presidency since polling began. Obama challenged the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, with his early opposition to the war. That issue, and his decision to implement Dean’s strategy by competing for delegates in red states, catapulted him to a shocking upset of Clinton for the nomination of his party. Yet Obama could not easily crack Clinton’s base among women, Jews, older voters, and Latinos.

Republicans had every reason to believe that they could beat Obama. As an African American candidate, he could directly embody the racialized images of “otherness” that they had so successfully glued to the Democrats. But they ultimately discovered that the “base” strategy that had won the 2002 and 2004 elections would not work in 2008, just as it had failed in 2006. The base strategy cost them the suburbs. It cost them blue-collar voters. It cost them Latinos. It cost them a generation of young voters. It cost them women. And it also cost them Jewish voters. No one understood that black turnout in the south would be so large as to put several red states into play.

The problem with building a party around white racial resentment is that the spigot cannot easily be shut off. Bush, Karl Rove and John McCain all understood that the future of the Republican party rested with the immigrants who had come from Hispanic and Asian nations. The conservatism within those groups could make them natural Republicans. That was the Republican hope for a long-term majority, and it was a pretty smart plan. But the base that Bush and Rove had fed so long turned on immigrants, just as they had earlier turned on African Americans. The Bush-McCain immigration plan that might have built a bridge to Hispanics died, and McCain was forced to renounce his support for his own plan to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. The result? Obama and the Democrats reaped a massive harvest of Latino votes in the Southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. McCain, the candidate whose image of moderation made him the best choice for the Republicans in a tough year, had to hew the party line as that line became unpopular on issue after issue.

Certain that white, working-class voters would be driven by culture and race to support Republicans, the White House dithered as the economy slid. To the end, McCain stuck to traditional Republican economics, downplaying the crisis and calling for trickle-down economics. Instead, there would be red meat for the culture wars. Joe the Plumber would symbolize the white guy who fears that his tax dollars will go to some vaguely described “welfare” program. It probably did work with some voters. But many other cross-pressured, older white Democrats in the industrial states seem to have ultimately decided that while Democrats may sometimes act like latte-drinking goofballs, they at least ought to get a chance to do something about the economy. That probably blunted some of the much-feared Bradley Effect.

The social conservatism symbolized by a rigid pro-life stance caused heartburn for Republicans among suburban voters, with women, and ultimately with Jewish voters. Jewish women are the most pro-choice group in the electorate, and Jews tend to be on the most tolerant end of most measures of social liberalism. One could almost hear moderate Jewish voters crying out to Republicans to send them a real moderate, a Dick Riordan, an Arnold Schwartzenegger, a Nelson Rockefeller for those with a longer memory. Instead, Republicans sent them the message that Democrats would weaken Israel — don’t worry about those other issues. The Sarah Palin nomination may have been the final push for wavering voters. The relentlessly anti-intellectual Palin was hardly the ideal candidate to appeal to Jews.

It was Obama, of course, who took this situation and turned it into an unlikely victory. If Iraq was his road to the nomination, the economy was his road to November. As the war receded as the decisive issue for the fall election, the economy turned out to be the monster one. As a first time African American candidate, Obama had to run a near-perfect campaign. Many Americans had never had the chance to vote for a black candidate, and voters are extremely cautious about the new and the different. In the debates, Obama showed steadiness and maturity and easily won all three. The comparison between the vice presidential picks of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could not have been clearer. The Wall Street collapse tore the ground out from under the McCain campaign, and the race did not change much from then until the end. Obama’s organization turned out to be a thing of beauty, and it has replaced the rickety, amateurish Democratic Party organization with a 21st-century version that actually works.

The mood of celebration that has greeted Obama’s victory belies the hard days ahead. The nation expects answers on the economic crisis and also hopes that Obama, inexperienced in foreign policy, will show the steadiness at the helm that he demonstrated in his presidential debates. Pre-election polls showed that Jews had in the main overcome their initial suspicions of Obama to reach more than 70 percent levels of support, but many want to be sure that their decision to take a chance on the new guy over the well-known older guy was well founded. That means close attention to Israel and its defense, even in a period when domestic economic matters are likely to dominate the new president’s agenda.

In the inside-baseball world of politics, Obama’s election probably means a complete shift from one set of Jewish foreign policy advisors for another. Neo-conservatives, a number of whom are Jewish, comprised a core block of Bush’s advisers, and they were a major force in pushing the war in Iraq. As the war went bad, they drifted from the White House to media punditry and other perches. Quite a few gravitated to the McCain campaign, which in that sense campaigned to the right of the Bush White House — which had begun in its late days to quietly walk back from its own unilateralism in foreign policy. McCain’s loss means that they now have to fight for their place in their own defeated party rather than sitting in the seat of power. Their most prominent political ally, now that McCain has lost, is independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who now has to find his own place in a Senate where Democrats no longer need his vote to have a majority.

Obama will bring to the White House old hands like Dennis Ross and Jewish Democrats in the Congress with a different view of foreign policy than the neo-conservatives. How this new foreign policy team operates may not be a central concern for American voters as a whole, but it will certainly be closely watched by Jewish voters and organizations.

New presidents face their first political test in the congressional elections that follow two years after their initial election. In 2010, voters will render their first verdict on Obama’s presidency and his party’s performance. This cycle is a sobering reminder that in a democracy voters only give you the chance to prove yourself, not a blank check. The Republican party, soon to have a bitter internal debate about its future, will be a formidable competitor once again if it can open its doors and its minds to the same winds of change that drove them aground for now.

From my temporary perch in Paris, where I not only talk to lots of people from all walks of life, but collect news from around the world, I can tell you that the global interest in this election has been phenomenal. The raw excitement and expectation that has been set off in recent weeks by the possibility of Obama’s election has been transformational. It is, for me, a reminder that the world has only the greatest hopes for America. In Paris, any discussion of the U.S. election draws a standing-room-only crowd, and it is quite entertaining to hear people discourse about what is going to happen in North Dakota or to debate whether or not there is a Bradley Effect. I think that the often-opaque American political system has now, for the first time, become understandable around the world because of the intensity of the event.

The French now understand that Obama’s election will set off a long overdue debate about the status of minority communities within their own nation. Why, people are asking, are there not more minority members of the national legislative bodies? Would France elect a president of African origin? Nothing is going to be left untouched by these historic events. One of my students, who is black, flew to America to campaign for several days last week, and he told me that if Obama wins he is going to get active in French politics and maybe run for office.

When all is said and done, this is still a time for celebration. Racial divisions do not go away just because of an election, but we might think of these issues in a different way, and sometimes that is how intractable problems become tractable. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said memorably “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Obama’s victory gives his party a chance at the helm, but more importantly, it has tapped into a rich vein of hope too long hidden by the false confidence of cynicism. For Jewish voters, the decision to give Obama a chance is an important one. If he can fulfill those expectations, some of the ill will that is rooted in recent decades may lose its sting.

Hope is not always rewarded, but it is the one thing that generates the strength to face the worst of problems, and it is therefore the one thing we cannot do without.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.

But he’s a Muslim!

It made me think of my own family.

Having coined “O’Bama” for the Irish working-class values that Joe Biden brings to the Democratic ticket, MSNBC motormouth Chris Matthews called his family in Pennsylvania — where Scranton-born Biden is known as the state’s “third senator” in some quarters — to ask whether now they’d be voting for Obama.

“But he’s a Muslim!” That’s the reply Matthews told his viewers he got.

The Matthews clan is not alone. Going into the Democratic National Convention, depending on which poll you read, somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of American voters thought that Obama is a Muslim. A Newsweek poll found that 26 percent thought he was raised as a Muslim (untrue), and 39 percent thought he grew up going to an Islamic school in Indonesia (also untrue).

I’m not shocked by Americans’ ability to think untrue things. After all, under the relentless tutelage of the Bush Administration and its media enablers, nearly 70 percent of the country thought that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in planning the Sept. 11 attack.

In fact, if you told me that double-digit percentages of voters believe that Jewish workers were warned to stay home on Sept. 11, or that the American landing on the moon was faked, or that every one of the words of the Bible is literally and absolutely true, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. It might make me think about the downsides of universal suffrage, the challenges facing public education, the limitations of “fact-checking” as a corrective to Swiftboating, the coarsening of public discourse, the devolution of news into entertainment, the risks to democracy of Rovian demagoguery — stuff like that — but it wouldn’t make me question the methodology of the polls.

On the other hand, “But-he’s-a-Muslim!” does raise the issue of whether people lie to pollsters when they’re embarrassed to say what they really think. This argument — called “the Bradley effect,” after the Election Day disappearance of the lead that Los Angeles’ African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, had held until then in the gubernatorial campaign — says that the percentages that black candidates get in polls should be discounted by the reluctance of no small number of white voters to admit that race is a factor in their choice.

Race, of course, is already an issue in this presidential election, though it has largely been discussed via the proxy issue of ideology — black ideology, and ’60s black ideology in particular. It’s way more comfortable to ask whether the Obamas’ membership in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church, and whether the thinking in Michelle Obama’s senior-year college thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” are evidence of their now-concealed belief in black separatism, black power and black liberation theology, than it is to interrogate our nation’s melting-pot self-image, or to figure out why our prison population and our intractable economic underclass are overwhelmingly African-American.

The Muslim issue is a way to talk about race without talking about race, and without having to squirm about saying that race is not an issue. To enough voters that it matters for the outcome of this election, Muslims are as other, if not more so, as blacks. A Muslim running for president of the United States may just as well be the Manchurian Candidate, with al-Qaeda, the Palestinians, the Saudis, your-Islamic-bad-guys’-name-here, playing the role of the brainwashing North Koreans nefariously plotting to plant one of their own in the White House.

It’s entirely conceivable that the McCain campaign’s harping on Obama’s alleged “elitism,” his popularity in foreign crowds, is their way of hitting low notes meant to resonate with his otherness. They can’t very well come out and call him a Muslim or directly question his patriotism in their ads, but when they charge that his foreign policy is a gift to the Iranians, the Russians or the terrorists, they are deploying the same tactic that labeled John Kerry as “French” — that is, as a national of the weasel country that opposed the pre-emptive war in Iraq.

I don’t know whether the family that Chris Matthews comes from, despite their kinship with kitchen-table Catholic Joe Biden, is fastening on “But-he’s-a-Muslim!” as a surrogate for their discomfort with his race; in their case, maybe race plays no part at all. But it does make me wonder what my own parents, may they rest in peace, might be thinking about this election.

Though lifelong Democrats, they were not among the Jews who joined arms with the civil rights movement. Though their relatives were killed by Cossacks just because they were Jews, they saw no irony in judging others just because of their religion or their race. Philip Roth, another kid from the Weequahic section of Newark where I grew up, was reviled for telling goyim about some of the values held in our ‘hood that our clan thought best kept private, so it will come as no surprise, though it is no less discomfiting to recall, that in the four-family houses on the block where I was raised, the word shvartze was not used merely to name a color.

I wonder how my parents would be dealing today with the dilemma I imagine Obama would pose for them. I suspect that the Muslim thing would be weighing as much in their thinking as the black thing. I suspect that my protestations — it is factually untrue that Obama is or was a Muslim — would be met with clucking condescension toward my naivete. For them, in the contest between voting for a Democrat and voting for Obama, I’m pretty sure it would come down to the Is-he-good-for-Israel? thing. And I can’t imagine that the secret-Muslim belief I posthumously, perhaps unfairly, impute to them would make it a no-brainer for them to vote, as they always had done before, a straight Democratic ticket.

If this election remains as tight as it is today, its outcome will once again turn on how the undecideds break. (Yes, there is a chance that an unprecedented youth turnout, or an unprecedented black turnout, or an unprecedented formerly-nonvoter turnout, will change that calculation, but that would be, well, unprecedented.) That same Newsweek poll saying four out of 10 voters believe Obama went to a madrassa also said that 85 percent of undecided voters are non-Hispanic whites and that nearly 80 percent of those undecideds do not have a four-year college degree. In other words, demographically, they’re like my parents. I would like to think that the free press is equal to taking the “But-he’s-a-Muslim!” urban legend off the table for those voters. But if Chris Matthews can’t do that for his own parents, I don’t yet see how that’s going to happen for anyone else.

Marty Kaplan, who worked for several Democratic presidential campaigns, now holds the Norman Lear endowed professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He blogs @

How to judge judges on judgment (election) day

It’s the evening before Election Day, and Morton and Ethel Voterstein sit down after dinner to decide how to mark their ballots.

They know whom they want for president, as well as for U.S. and state senators and representatives. It’s a bit tougher to decide on the state and local propositions, but with a little study and the recommendations of trustworthy political leaders and organizations, the job gets done.

However, when it comes to the list of Superior Court judges elected by countywide vote there is sheer bafflement. With rare exceptions, the names are unknown and so are their records of service.

With a twinge of conscience or frustration, the Votersteins skip the page. At best, they take a stab at marking some of the races based on gut instincts, which have little to do with judicial performance and integrity.

What to do? The Journal turned to a few experts for advice. One was Judge Joseph Wapner, who served on the bench for 20 years before retiring and re-emerging as the television star of “The People’s Court.”

“Every election, I get calls from around 15 people asking my advice on how to vote in specific judicial races,” said Wapner, whose son, Fred, is a current judge.

For people who don’t have a judge for a buddy, Wapner suggests first to check the assessments of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, which rates judicial candidates as extremely well qualified, well qualified, qualified and not qualified on its Web site.

Wapner also recommends checking out the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which coves the courts and legal profession.

Veteran political analyst Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, acknowledges that down-ballot races are usually a tough call.

For one, judicial races are officially nonpartisan and candidates cannot list political affiliations, thus eliminating one common guideline. However, determined voters can check the Los Angeles County Democratic or Republican parties for their partisan endorsements.

For another, candidates have only two or three words to designate their occupations on the ballot.

“It’s an advantage if a candidate can put down ‘prosecutor’ or ‘law professor’ but ‘attorney’ is a negative,” Welinsky said.

People generally don’t like to admit it, but left with no other criteria, they will vote for candidates whose last names seem to put them into the voters’ own ethnic group, be it Latino, Asian or Jewish.

There is also likely to be a gender bias at work, Welinsky said, particularly in races for County Central committees of the two major parties.

“If a husband and wife with the same last names both run for a spot, the woman will generally come in way ahead of the man,” he said.

This phenomenon was particularly noticeable in 1992, “the year of the woman,” when Californians elected both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate. Welinsky believes that 2008 may be another such year.

Hal Dash, president of Joe Cerrell and Associates and a longtime political consultant, agrees that ethnic identification can play a strong role in voters’ choices, saying, “People tend to vote for their own.”

He is managing the campaign of Hilleri Grossman Merrit and advises her and other Jewish candidates to put their Jewish connections on their Web sites and talk to The Jewish Journal.

Edward Sanders and Carmen Warschaw, two savvy political activists, also agree that ethnicity plays a role in the voting process, but neither would cast a ballot for a less-qualified candidate just because he/she is Jewish.

“I think most voters try to be fair, but personally, if I don’t know anything about any of the candidates, I won’t vote for either,” Warschaw said.

What motivates voters is a matter of immediate concern to Tom Rubinson (photo) and Cynthia Loo, who are facing each other in the runoff for Superior Court Office 82.Rubinson is a criminal prosecutor in the district attorney’s tom rubinsonoffice and Jewish, and Loo is a Superior Court referee presiding over juvenile delinquency cases and Chinese American. On their respective Web sites, the two approach the question of their ethnic backgrounds differently.Rubinson makes no mention of Jewish affiliations or endorsements, telling The Journal that he considered his religion “too personal. I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to mention it.”

However, during the interview, he spoke at some length about celebrating his bar mitzvah in Jerusalem; his current family membership at Temple Israel of Hollywood, where he initiated a havurah group for parents with young children, and his support of the Guardians, who aid the Jewish Homes for the Aging.

By contrast, Loo listed seven Asian American organizations among her endorsements. She emphasized that ethnic identification shouldn’t be a key reason to vote for a candidate but made note that Asian Americans are vastly underrepresented in the federal judiciary.

Loo seemed more concerned about having to list her professional title on the November ballot as “referee,” although she performs the same functions as a judge.

“I am afraid that most people think of a referee as a guy who runs around in a striped shirt,” she said.

Speaking to The Journal, Loo noted that she feels a general and personal relationship to the Jewish community.

“Both of our people put a high value on education and family,” she said, adding, “I used to be married to a Jewish man. He is a really good guy and we’re still close friends.”

For information on the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s evaluations, visit