A One-Woman Picket Line

The photo shows an African American woman on the picket linewith striking supermarket workers, a portable microphone in one hand and theother holding a placard proclaiming in large letters, “Jewish Labor Committee.”

The woman is Cookie Lommel, and she is the new executivedirector of the Jewish Labor Committee’s (JLC) Western region.

These days, Lommel can be found weekly picketing thePavilions market in Sherman Oaks, bringing along doughnuts for the strikers.

When Lommel applied for the job, she brought along twoenthusiastic letters of reference. One was from the chairman of the board ofThe Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the other from the consul generalof Israel. The references were hardly needed.

“Cookie was head and shoulders above every other applicant,”said Michael Nye, JLC president.

The JLC describes itself as “the voice of the Jewishcommunity in the labor movement and the voice of the labor movement in theJewish community” — and neither role is becoming any easier.

The U.S. labor movement has traditionally been among Israel’sstrongest allies and remains so, but during the past year, anti-Israel andpro-Palestinian voices have become louder. At last year’s California AFL-CIOconvention, a resolution was introduced and passed in committee to condemn Israelfor its — purely fictitious — bombing of the Palestinian trade unionheadquarters.

Nye, a delegate as secretary-treasurer of the CaliforniaFederation of Teachers, went into action, phoned his contacts on theresolutions committee, made sure they showed up and had the resolutionrescinded.

Within the Jewish community, with its large and vocalorganizations, sizable staffs and a core of well-heeled supporters, JLC doesnot rank as a power player. Lommel runs what is essentially a one-person officeon an annual budget of $70,000 –  $30,000 of which comes from The JewishFederation and the rest through an annual fundraising event and membershipdues.

Veteran labor lawyer Jack Levine believes that the communityis moving to the right politically and identify less and less with the goals ofthe labor movement.

The JLC’s California membership is only around 400, but “itspower has never been defined by numbers, but by its network of influentialpeople, particularly in the American, European and Israeli labor movements,”said Kenneth Burt, a Sacramento-based union official, who is writing a book onthe Jewish labor movement in California.

Both the national JLC office in New York and the Los Angelesbranch were established in 1934 to alert the United States to the rising dangerof Nazism and fascism and to rescue European labor leaders and intellectuals,both before and during World War II. On the West Coast, Max Mont was the JLCexecutive director for approximately 40 years, until his death in 1991, and “hewas the heart and soul of every piece of progressive legislation during thatperiod,” Levine said.

Lommel represents a third generation of leadership. She wasborn in Cleveland of African American and Native American ancestry and may evenhave some Jewish connections .

However, her interest in Israel was awakened in early 1991,when she learned about Operation Solomon, the final, massive airlift ofEthiopian Jews to the Jewish State. She went to Israel to see for herself andwrote articles about the newcomers for black publications, but she wanted to domore.

In 1993, she organized Operation Unity to bring black andLatino high school students from the inner city to Israel and expose them tokibbutz life. Enlisting the help of her many contacts in the entertainmentindustry, as well as  politicians, educators and religious leaders, shereceived enough financing to take four groups, each composed of 15 youngsters,to Israel.

“Most of them knew nothing about Jews, except some negativestereotypes,” she said. “After the trip, an African American boy, and that wasfairly typical, said to me, ‘On the kibbutz, they accepted me as me, not assomeone who might snatch their purse.'”

Since returning, Lommel and her Young Ambassadors of Harmonyhave spoken regularly in public schools and churches and in connection with aphoto exhibit about their experiences.

In her new role as JLC executive director, Lommel’s mainpriority is to enlist younger members in her organization, especially among thethousands of Jewish union members working as teachers, social workers andengineers, in addition to those on newspapers and in public service and in theentertainment industry.

She has also become one of the most effective pro-Israel speakersin California, talking about her experiences before multiracial audiences atuniversities and telling them, “I have never been accepted in America as I wasin Israel.”