Loss for Jews if Secession Wins

The question has been posed to me frequently over the past several months: Is Valley secession "good for the Jews?"

Truthfully, it’s a difficult question to answer. Other current matters are easier to address. Is President Bush good for the Jews? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon certainly thinks so. Are the Dodgers good for the Jews? Shawn Green’s 42 home runs certainly say so.

But secession? Does it really matter for the Jews of Los Angeles whether they live in one city of 3.35 million people or two cities of 2 million and 1.35 million each?

Really, secession isn’t good for anyone. Moreover, because the promotion of division and the identification (rather than the repair) of fissures within our society is inconsistent with my understanding of the bulk of modern Jewish political practice in Los Angeles, my strong suspicion is that secession runs counter to mainstream Jewish political values.

It may be a fact that no community in Los Angeles would find itself more divided and have its political influence more diluted by secession than the Jewish community would. The Jewish community now has a more extensive presence than ever both south and north of Mulholland Drive.

Because the Jewish community is strongly represented in some Westside and Valley neighborhoods, splitting the city could divide and diminish the political heft of the Jewish community — heft that came not by accident but as the result of decades of efforts by my predecessors.

Although I understand the frustrations that are at the root of the secession debate, breaking up the City of Los Angeles is not the answer. I believe that Jewish and non-Jewish communities alike are stronger together. United, we can focus our efforts to strengthen our communities, address common problems and make Los Angeles a better place to live for everyone.

Representing people in both the Valley and Westside (and, for that matter, Hollywood, too, to give all breakup proposals equal time) gives me a unique perspective on the issue. My district spans the hillsides, including Valley Village, Sherman Oaks and Encino in the Valley, and the Fairfax-Beverly-Melrose district, Cheviot Hills, Beverlywood, Westwood, Carthay Circle, Century City and Palms on the Westside.

With very few exceptions, I know that the concerns of families on either side of the hill are the same. All want safe neighborhoods, good schools, clean water and air and less traffic. These are the concerns that my constituents share with me, and as a member of the City Council, I work every day to address them.

My Jewish constituents, in particular, have far more in common than not regardless of where they live. Recognizing that Holy Days can change priorities for city services, I have directed city departments to increase police patrols, relax parking or adjust crosswalks to ensure that congregations can safely assemble. These provisions are equally important on Pico and Chandler boulevards, and by representing both neighborhoods, I ensure that they are delivered.

On a larger scale, Jewish values, such as equality, fairness, family and community, would not be well-served in a divided city, particularly because the laws that protect them would expire after a transition period in the new Valley city.

From the beginning, the Jewish community has been stronger united than we are apart. Granted, there are differences among us and tensions that we will resolve in time. As a whole, our strength is in our union and building on the success we have had in Los Angeles.

With strong and growing temples to nurture spirituality, successful schools to teach young children and university students, powerful institutions to advocate for change and elected leaders who understand and share Jewish values, the Jewish community has done well in Los Angeles.

As a community, we have developed outstanding leaders to represent our interests. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, former Supervisor Ed Edelman and many current and former members of Congress, including Howard Berman, Henry Waxman, Jane Harman, Brad Sherman, Mel Levine and Tony Beilenson (and numerous other officeholders as well) built their careers by improving life in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities they represented. They have proven their dedication to serving the people of Los Angeles and their willingness to collaborate to solve problems.

It is unacceptable for a segment of the city to feel unfairly treated or ignored by their government. Some Valley residents’ frustration with city government has fueled the campaign for secession, and these problems and concerns must be addressed.

Still, the vast array of our shared interests and values must be prioritized to forge a long-term solution to conflicts. Rather than let the fewer issues that separate us justify breaking apart the city, we should unite as a community, with the genuine engagement of city government committed to addressing the underlying issues that fueled the secession debate.

From my experience in City Hall and working side by side with members of all communities, I know that we have a better chance for improvements for our families and communities if we work together rather than break apart.

Valley Secession: Better for Jews?

For the Jewish community, like the rest of Los Angeles, the issue of Valley secession boils down to one key question: Will we be better off after secession than we are now?

Some officials predict that secession would actually make very little difference to the Jewish community. In terms of services, secession of the Valley and Hollywood would have only a minimal effect, according to Jewish Federation representatives. Miriam Prum Hess, vice president of planning and allocations for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said that of all the agencies only Jewish Family Service would be significantly impacted.

The bulk of the Federation’s funding for 2001 — a total of $39.6 million — came from state and federal sources; only $12 million was derived from local sources, primarily from Los Angeles County. Of city and county funds combined, Jewish Family Service received the largest portion, about $1.7 million.

Jewish Family Service representatives declined to comment on the possible ramifications for the agency, but Jack Mayer, executive director of the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, said even if secession were to pass, The Federation and its agencies would find a way to continue their funding.

"We’re a service delivery organization, so we would work with whatever government structures are appropriate," Mayer said. "The organization of the Jewish community is not dependent on the organization of the City of Los Angeles.

"We work with elected officials throughout the area and would continue to have strong and positive relationships with elected officials, no matter how they are organized. Even in the Valley Alliance we work with a number of different cities: Calabasas, Burbank, all the way to Thousand Oaks. We’re not limited in that sense," he said.

Most community leaders agree that the Valley secession’s primary impact on the Jewish community would be more psychological and political than financial. Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, has spent the past year participating in a special task force of the Council of Religious Leaders (CRL) exploring the moral issues surrounding secession. He said it doesn’t take a genius to see that secession will not be helpful to the Jewish community.

"I happen to live in the Valley and work in the city and get to travel all around, and this is a very big issue," Diamond said. "It is already hard for people in the Conejo and San Fernando valleys to feel a part of the greater Jewish community. This is part of life in Los Angeles, that we do not seem as unified as the Jewish communities of Chicago or Detroit or Baltimore.

"It troubles me because there’s an intrinsic bond between Jews all over the world and if a Jew living in the San Fernando Valley doesn’t feel a connection to a Jew living in Hancock Park, let alone Argentina, we’ve got real problems," he said.

Diamond said there are some positive effects of raising the issue of secession.

"In our seminars, studies and investigation over the past year [the task force has] learned there are a lot of disenfranchised people out there and to bring that to the fore is very important," he said. "First, people feel they do not have the access to decision making in their community. Second, some people have the erroneous belief that this is a bunch of rich, white people wanting to break away from the poor city, and that is not true. One of our most enlightening days was a tour we took of Pacoima and parts of Van Nuys, where we saw there were real areas of need in the Valley."

Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who along with Diamond is serving on the CRL task force, said another factor to consider in examining secession is its effects on relationships between Jews and other minorities on both sides of the hill.

"Politically, secession would dilute the power of the Jewish community both in their representation in the city and in the Valley. It would really impel the Jewish community to form broader coalitions with a variety of groups," Henkin said.

The need to establish such coalitions could make for an interesting shift in the political landscape, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University Fullerton who specializes in racial and ethnic politics.

"The Jewish community is like the Latino community geographically, in that they both straddle the north-south divide with the Latinos on the Eastside and in the East Valley and the Jews on the Westside and in the southwest Valley," Sonenshein explained. "Not everyone is divided that way; the African American community, for example, is not. But Latinos and Jews are likely to be the pivotal voters in how the decision is made."

Sonenshein said what may also be at stake is the broader role Jews have played in government in Los Angeles.

"Even during the Riordan period, the Jewish community remained very active at City Hall and still is today," he said. "But if we actually had secession carry through, it would have a whole different dynamic."

Longtime Los Angeles City Council Member Ruth Galanter has had to fend off two secession attempts in her district, one in Venice and one in Westchester. She said that if people in the Jewish community are committed to improving their relationships with non-Jews, they are better off working as a cohesive whole.

"To the extent that anti-Semitism exists, it doesn’t make sense to be separate," noted Galanter. "It’s better to be part of one large community and reach across the greater Los Angeles community to build relationships."

Galanter also said that if the Jewish community wants a more representative government, secession is not necessarily the way to go.

"There is a rhetorical bandwagon out there crying that the government [in the City of Los Angeles] is not responsive, but that is not necessarily true. Council members spend all day long responding to things in their district," she said. "The danger in the kind of rhetoric I’m hearing is that it just obscures the issue of learning to be close to [the representatives] who can fix things in your neighborhood."

But former Assemblyman Richard Katz, a secession supporter, disagrees.

"If we have more districts representing fewer people, those areas that are more Jewish might have better representation because we have always had a disproportionate number of Jewish people on the City Council," he said.

Overall, it is difficult to predict the effect of secession on the Jewish community of Los Angeles. In many ways, the current situation in Los Angeles reflects the split within our community itself, between those in the city and those in the Valley areas. As embodied in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Valley Alliance, that "split" has been successful only to the extent both sides recognize that they are on the same team.

"I think it strengthens the community to have people from different parts of the community with different perspectives," said Mayer. "The Federation weaves us together."

Were the city of Los Angeles to discover a similar common denominator, perhaps secession would be unnecessary. But the polls paint a different picture: the latest numbers from a Los Angeles Times survey this month show 55 percent of Valley residents in favor of secession and other areas of the city almost evenly split on secession. Clearly, many Valley residents do feel that they would be better off as an independent city.

In the next article in this series, The Journal will explore whether the Jewish community’s feelings reflect those of Los Angeles overall.