Lessons From Israel
Natalie, a 17-year-old from Ethiopia, looks forward to serving as an army paramedic and dreams of a trip to California. Mikhail, an 18-year-old from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, reflects on his decision to leave his friends in a crowded Tel Aviv nightclub one hour before the arrival of a suicide bomber.
Elsa, an 83-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor, cherishes a sacred Hebrew scroll rescued by her late husband from a burned-out Italian synagogue, while he served in the British army in World War II. Yuri, a former Soviet human rights activist turned hard-line Knesset member, sees parallels between a Soviet system that sought to crush dissent and a terrorist leadership that seeks to kill innocent civilians.
While most of the images of Israel presented to the American public are of military conflict, a recent mission to Israel sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which included City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, City Council President Alex Padilla, Cesar Chavez Foundation President Andres Irlando and myself, revealed something very different. We saw a multiethnic democracy full of citizens, with jaw-dropping stories of survival, demonstrating incredible resilience.
Halfway around the world, we encountered a small nation confronting many of the same challenges we face in Los Angeles and returned convinced that increased contact between Los Angeles and Israel can facilitate the solution of many complex problems at home. Some examples:
Like the United States, Israel must cope with ongoing, massive influxes of immigrants from diverse places such as Ethiopia, Russia, South America and even Brooklyn.
Israel’s absorption centers and social service agencies must do more than accustom these new Israelis to a new language and society. They must ensure that the first generation of immigrant offspring are ready to do their patriotic duty in the military — and do it well — beginning at age 18.
While our country often does not quickly enable young immigrants and their children to reach their full potential in society, Israel jump starts its startlingly diverse immigrants on their way to meaningful citizenship. Somehow, it succeeds.
The debate over diversity in America can often seem abstract. Not so in Israel, where families such as Natalie’s and Mikhail’s live side by side. Israel’s very survival as a nation depends upon the recognition of new, diverse groups and the legitimacy of their civic participation.
For example, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was born in Tunisia; our trip’s security escort, Eyal, was born in Israel to an Iraqi father and a Polish mother.
Things are far from perfect, and the challenge of creating a discrimination-free society (particularly for the 20 percent Arab Israeli minority) in a time of war remains daunting. Nevertheless, the multiethnic Israel we experienced upends the United Nations’ infamous, now-rescinded resolution equating Zionism with racism and instead offers much for us to emulate.
Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, both modern, bustling seaside metropolises, face similar challenges in urban redevelopment.
Just as investors grew leery of South Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 riots, real estate interests have shied away from the largely Arab town of Jaffa during the latest wave of terror.
Both cities face similar challenges to empower private investors to find opportunities and to ensure that residents participate meaningfully in planning their own futures. Collaborative initiatives, such as the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership allow us to share insights gained from programs such as L.A.’s Project Genesis.
The last three years have seen a tenfold increase in terrorist violence directed at innocent civilians in Israel, and the country has adapted with a new security regime. Israel has implemented meaningful security measures at high-risk locations, enhanced coordination between the public and private sector and leveraged intelligence and experience in screening efforts at airports.
Interestingly, along with increased vigilance has come a determination to reject paralysis — families and workers still lead productive and social lives.
Unfortunately, American cities such as Los Angeles will have to follow Israel’s lead and be smarter, better coordinated and more proactive as the threat of radical terror in the United States grows more acute in the coming years.
My colleagues and I left Israel struck by the diversity and resilience of the Israeli people. At the same time, we came away with lessons to confront the challenges of Los Angeles, where 18-year-olds too often pick up guns to fight against each other rather than for their country.
Obviously, Israel faces many difficult security and political issues. Still, Jews and Latinos represent so much of the strength and diversity of Los Angeles, and observing the struggles and successes of another land of immigrants redoubled our commitment to make Los Angeles succeed for everyone.
Jack Weiss represents the fifth district on the Los Angeles City Council.