Community relations is an art form. And when it comes to the public affairs agenda of the Jewish community, communications management requires a mastery of intrigue and information. Nowhere was that mastery more evident than the Los Angeles Community Relations Committee (CRC) from 1934–2007, where I served as director from 1985-1995.
Originally established as the B’nai B’rith Committee by attorney Leon Lewis in 1933, the CRC set out to protect Jews and advance the interests of the Jewish community. Following World War II, the CRC began operating as a department of the Jewish Federation until 2007, when it was disbanded.
During its 74-year existence, the LA CRC was remarkably resourceful, cutting edge and controversial, especially in its early work battling the Nazis, fighting communists and waging a broader war against anti-Semitism.
Fighting Against Nazis
The political environment of the 1930s and 1940s posed competing and dangerous challenges to the Jewish community — in part as a response to Hitler’s rise in Germany, but also in connection with the anti-Semitic and anti-communist sentiments prevalent in America. The original mission of the Community Committee, then, was dedicated to “combatinganti-Americanism.”
Historian Shana Bernstein noted that CRC members were “largely middle class, but Hollywood figures supported the organization.” They included studio heads, department store executives, local judges and prominent local Jews whose connections proved valuable for the work of the LA CRC. These relationships allowed the CRC access to Jewish professionals who could provide background information for news stories, films and propaganda ads and to counter misinformation. CRC also maintained close connections with government officials, especially with members of Congress.
From 1934–1947, the CRC’s work was regional in scope, while maintaining its various national connections. Using its resources to infiltrate and expose pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups, the LA CRC provided federal authorities with the information it received. By maintaining detailed records, the CRC employed the information it acquired to expose Nazi agents and their LA supporters, identify high-profile anti-Semites and bring to the public’s attention to Communist sympathizers and pro-Soviet front organizations in Los Angeles. For example, the CRC provided background information for a November 16, 1937 article in the LA Examiner that revealed pro-Nazi plans to murder prominent Jews in the film industry.
The CRC developed a series of action steps that permitted it to respond to Nazi propaganda and monitor pro-German activists’ behavior:
- Work with core veterans’ organizations, clergy organizations, labor groups and business associations in identifying and removing Nazi sympathizers.
- Assist anti-Nazi groups in preparing resources and providing critical federal, state and city officials with background information.
- Convene public meetings with high-profile Hollywood actors and writers as presenters and participants.
- Work with undercover agents to take detailed, coded notes when infiltrating Communist groups and anti-Semitic organizations operating in Southern California.
- Provide information on organizations and individuals involved in pro-Nazi and pro-Soviet activities in the LA area to the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
- Uncover efforts by pro-Nazi sympathizers to secure the election of officials who were seen as friendly to Germany.
The Fight Against Nativist Anti-Semitism and Other Discrimination:
The Jewish community was simultaneously battling the far right (Nazi-allied groups and others) and the extreme left (pro-Soviet factions and other socialist-based organizations), but home-grown anti-Semites also operated in the Los Angeles area. One such group was the Civilian Army of Blue Coats, a 1937 organization dedicated to fighting the red invasion. Another was the America First Committee, which directed its efforts towards keeping America out of World War II as it waged its campaign against the Roosevelt administration and America’s Jews, whom they saw as defenders of the war against the Nazis.
As the CRC documented, many the organizations supporting an “America First” ideology adopted a set of anti-Semitic tropes and actions, such as linking Jews with communism, promoting the conspiracy of Jews holding power, diminishing Jews as humans, portraying Jews as threatening Christianity and America, claiming that Jews were seeking to get America into a war with Germany only to protect European Jewry, boycotting radio stations, films and press that featured prominent Jews and creating media fronts to carry pro-Nazi propaganda.
But the CRC was particularly effective in creating and funding front groups to act on its behalf in combating its assorted enemies. One such group was the League for Human Rights, which offered counter-propaganda to defend minorities and educate the community on civic diversity. Similarly, the Council for Civic Unity delivered public messages, took collective action and mobilized public opinion to reduce prejudice. The CRC also created the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (1936),the Better Understanding Foundation (1937) and the American League to Combat Anti-Semitism (1939).
By the end of the first 20 years of its operation, the LA Community had “defeated” the Nazi presence in Los Angeles, effectively responded to the “communist menace” operating in Southern California and tackled the deeply embedded nativist anti-Semitism within the community.
Under the extraordinary leadership of Leon Lewis and his successor, Joe Roos, the CRC helped transform this city, changed the Jewish public affairs agenda, and established the Committee as the voice for Jewish public affairs for the LA Jewish community. They mastered communications: creating a high profile agenda, using media connections to promote key stories, mobilizing the community around shared public concerns, engaging high-profile figures to deliver critical messages and building coalitions to advance the CRC’s core interests.
A Lasting Legacy
But the work didn’t stop in 1947. If the CRC’s first years were primarily fighting Nazis and Communists in Los Angeles, then its next twenty years (1947-1967) were devoted to advancing civil rights and building relationships with ethnic, racial and religious elites in Los Angeles.
In cooperation with the LA County Commission for Interracial Progress, for example, the CRC identified properties and neighborhoods with restrictive covenants and individual housing discrimination cases. During this period, the CRC brought to the attention of the Commission business establishments that refused to serve particular clienteles. The CRC further built relationships with its Urban Affairs Commission, which sponsored intergroup dialogue programs with leaders from African American, Latino and Asian American communities.
In more recent decades, the CRC began to look abroad. Its Commission on Soviet Jewry was instrumental in bringing public attention to the human and religious rights abuses Russia directed against its Jewish population; it sent delegations of Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to the Soviet Union to meet with Refuseniks (Jews who had been denied visas to leave). And the CRC’s Commission on the Middle East effectively advocated for Israel by sending key political and ethnic personalities to Israel on CRC-sponsored missions and by providing informational programming to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
But CRC never lost its local focus. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles in 1987, the CRC, with other Jewish agencies, coordinated a special interfaith program. Following the 1992 Rodney King riots, the CRC helped sponsor a city-wide rally, “Hands Across Los Angeles,” a 10-mile-long human chain that symbolized peace and unity in the wake of unrest. Prominent Israeli and American leaders were invited to address the CRC’s monthly meetings, speak to its New Leaders Project and appear before the Los Angeles community at various rallies, conferences and special programs.
CRC never lost its local focus.
In its prime, the LA CRC was the largest local community relations entity in the United States. Its focus only grew, as it examined appropriate civic, historic and ethnic studies’ textbooks being considered by California’s school districts and focused on the cults and missionaries threatening Jewish students.
During the 1990s and through the early years of this century, CRC critics charged that it was taking up policy positions on domestic issues and Israel-related matters that were seen as not representing the shared political interests of the community. But the CRC was seen as acting “too independent” of the Federation, and was dissolved in 2007. Other factors for its dissolution included budgetary issues around the time of the Great Recession and the growing partisan divide amongst Jews around Israel and domestic policies.
But now, in 2020, Los Angeles is the only major American Jewish community without a community relations structure. Even though there are deep political divisions within our own community, it is imperative to have a central organization representing Jewish interests. In times like today, a period of great social and racial unrest, the Jewish community needs to be seen as being collectively responsive to the challenges facing our community, such as the increase in anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and racism.
In its long and illustrious history, the CRC galvanized the community around shared and essential concerns. It can and must do so in the future.
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, in Los Angeles. Between 1985-1995, Steven served as the Director of the Los Angeles Community Relations Committee.