September 22, 2019

Ten Years After: The Jews Remain

Recent events in the Middle East have been enough to make anyone pessimistic about the future of ethnic relations. But the situation here in Los Angeles — 10 years after the disastrous riots of April 1992 — gives some hope that racial reconciliation still has a future.

It is hard to imagine how fractured Los Angeles seemed at that time. The brutality of the riots — epitomized by the near-murder of truck driver Reginald Denny — and the wanton looting of the city sent shivers down the spine of anyone with a sense of decency.

For Los Angeles’ Jewish community as well, it was a pivotal moment. For generations, L.A.’s Jews, at least its official leadership, was allied politically with the African American community. We may have been “white,” but we were an essential part of the “rainbow coalition” that brought political power to South Central and Tom Bradley into the mayor’s office.

With the riots, the ties between Jews and the African American community changed, probably forever. For years, the two groups had, beneath the ritualized relationship between their leadership classes, been growing somewhat more apart, as Jews moved further away from predominately black neighborhoods and toward places like the Valley. Jewish merchants, who had been targeted in the 1965 riot, by 1992 had been largely replaced by Asians as the objects of class and racial conflict.

Other forces were placing a distance between the two communities. Busing had created, for the first time, a strong right-leaning sentiment among L.A. Jews, much of it in the Valley. Older Jews, particularly owners of small apartment and commercial buildings, had lined up with Howard Jarvis to back Proposition 13, a measure widely detested by the African American political community.

In the aftermath of the riots, the black-Jewish political ties became even more tenuous. The immediate political result was that Jews backed a Republican, Richard Riordan, twice against other candidates, first Michael Woo and then Tom Hayden, each of whom easily carried the black community. Many rising Jewish politicians, such as former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), reflecting a change in demography, particularly in the Valley, cemented their closest ethnic relations not with African Americans but with Latinos.

Yet although they changed, moving somewhat toward a more middle-of-the-road stance, Jews also did not do something that, in the aftermath of riots in other cities, has become all too commonplace: They did not abandon Los Angeles.

This is in sharp contrast to the experience of the 1960s and 1970s, when Jewish populations evaporated in riot-torn cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago.

According to demographer Pini Herman, the Jewish population has held steady over the past decade. This is remarkable given the fact that whites in general fled during the post-riot decade — over 270,000 in fact.

Herman says the riots probably did accelerate the already existing movement of some people to the suburban fringes, particularly places like Westlake Village. But the exiting population seems to have been compensated for by a diverse group of newcomers, ranging from Middle Eastern, Russian and other immigrants, as well as a continuing influx of Jews from other parts of the country.

Perhaps most surprising, Herman suggests, is the fact that many of the communities closest to the riots — notably Pico-Robertson — have not diminished over the past decade. In fact, he sees some increases in diverse, innercity areas, such as Fairfax and Los Feliz, over the past decade.

“There are clearly Jews who enjoy being in diverse urban areas,” says Herman, a principal in the firm of Phillips and Herman. “They have remained in the city when others left.”

This persistence has implications for the next 10 years. In many ways, at least in terms of what remains of “white” Los Angeles, Jews are in fact now arguably more important than they were a decade ago. They are now the largest predominately middle-class constituency, along with Asians, in the city.

Jews have retained their stake in Los Angeles. A group on the way out does not buy homes, build institutions from the grand — the Skirball Center, the Museum of Tolerance, Milken High — to the grass-roots, particularly the scores of new street-level shuls, if it has given up on a place.

Jews also dominate much of the current Los Angeles economy. As aerospace and other traditional “hard” manufacturing has left, other traditionally Jewish parts of the L.A. economy — from entertainment and real estate to the production of “soft” goods such as garments — have become more important.

Not surprisingly then, Jewish business moguls are increasingly critical to the city’s civic institutions. From Haim Saban to Eli Broad and Steven Spielberg, the new Medicis of Los Angeles are, as often as not, Jews.

And what of Jewish relations with other groups? The African American conflict with Jews, and particularly Israel, seems largely restricted to fringe left-wing intellectuals and the universities, which are largely the same thing. Many Jews increasingly realize that their real friends are not people like Maxine Waters, but more conservative African Americans like talk-show host Larry Elder, who has taken a strong stand for Israel.

Perhaps more problematic — and clearly more important for the future — are ties with the region’s surging Latino population, observes demographer Herman. Latinos were not initiators of the 1992 riots, but they made up the majority of opportunistic looters once the police presence was removed from their neighborhoods. “Some saw the riots as a black issue,” Herman says, “but it was also a Hispanic issue too.”

The good news is that Jewish-Latino relations 10 years later are clearly more intimate. For all his past associations with marginal Latino nationalists, failed mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa could not have been more solicitous — and probably genuinely so — to the Jewish community. Other rising Latino leaders, including City Council President Alex Padilla and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, also have close Jewish community ties.

Of course, as gadflies like Hal Netkin will point out, there are anti-Semitic, anti-Israel activists among the Latino far-left. But these figures are about as marginal as the Jewish Defense League is among the Jews — full of rage and sound bites but signifying very little.

So looking back, one has to be astonished at how much Los Angeles has recovered, not just economically but in its soul and in the relationships among its diverse people. By staying here and remaining committed to the region, Jews can be proud to say that they have played an important part in this process.