Gavin Newsom has run in four statewide elections, and I have voted for and against him. I have praised and criticized Newsom, both in these pages and elsewhere. But he deserves credit for two actions that may provide a tremendous opportunity for California’s Jewish community and represent important steps forward for the relationships between ethnic, racial and religious communities.
Neither Newsom’s creation of a Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education nor his signature on legislation that authorized a California Commission on the State of Hate guarantee anything. But both have the potential to facilitate positive change for the state—if Jewish leaders and their counterparts in other underrepresented communities recognize the possibilities that they offer for regenerating inter-community partnerships.
The heightened levels of political, cultural and societal friction between the Jewish community and other minority groups have become increasingly worrisome. Simmering tensions over Israel and the Middle East and domestic policy matters such as ethnic studies course requirements are signs of how much these once-robust relationships have withered. This reflects a broader rupture between American Jews and other pro-Israel advocates from an emerging anti-Zionist and often antisemitic movement on the political left (mirroring equally noxious sentiments among right-wing nationalists) that is in dire need of repair.
By creating these two committees, Newsom is equipping the California Jewish community with two valuable tools to help repair those damaged bridges. The Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education is the result of legislation sponsored by State Senator Henry Stern (D-Calabasas). The California Commission on the State of Hate was authorized by Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s (D-Santa Monica) bill. Bloom’s legislation will construct a framework to monitor and address hate crimes, and Stern’s project can build on and expand existing efforts that relate the horror of the Holocaust to the present-day experiences of marginalized groups.
In tandem, Stern’s and Bloom’s work creates a common ground for Jewish and other minority community leaders.
In tandem, Stern’s and Bloom’s work creates a common ground for Jewish and other minority community leaders. There was a time when Jewish organizations devoted immense amounts of time and energy to fostering this type of mutual understanding, but such efforts have become sporadic. Coordinated state-level platforms with the imprimatur of the governor’s office should provide a shove in the right direction.
Both new entities will include Jewish members, but will also have seats for representatives from other demographic communities. This increases the likelihood of cross-community cooperation toward shared goals, rather than what has too often become a zero-sum contest in the struggle against oppression.
The timing for the two new commissions is especially beneficial, given the experiment in ethnic studies education looming in California. I’ll write more next week about how public school requirements for students to learn about ethnic, cultural and religious legacies can still become a valuable addition to the curriculum, rather than a flashpoint for further division. But for now, discussions set up in the spirit of inclusion can be a constructive process.
Unfortunately, the debate over ethnic studies has been largely framed as a contest in which rivals are pitted against each other to claim prime victim status. The result has been a series of unpleasant confrontations between advocates for the four most commonly defined minority groups and other communities who believe that their heritage should also be part of this experience. Major challenges remain before the ethnic studies requirement takes effect, but this pair of collaborative endeavors to examine and discuss both the atrocities of the Holocaust and the outrage of contemporary hate crimes will dramatically increase the likelihood of success.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www.lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 PM.