September 18, 2019

Hahn’s Most Important Choice

The Hahn administration, whose tenure has been marked by an often unnecessarily divisive campaign against secession, now faces a far more important decision: the choice of a new police chief. Nothing the mayor and his advisers do in the next three years will be more important to both the Jewish community and all of Los Angeles.

By choosing a strong, respected chief, our mayor could finally show that he has the moxie and vision to address what has been the most serious challenge to Los Angeles for the past half-century. With crime on the rise, and the department seriously understaffed, strong remedial action needs to be taken.

If there’s ever been a time for a “top-of-the-line” choice for LAPD chief, this is the time. It’s not just that homicides are up in Los Angeles, including the Valley. The terrorist challenge — not just Sept. 11 but the continuing assaults on cities in Israel, Europe and Asia — represents an attack on the very sense of security that underpins urbanity, and is critical to the survival of cosmopolitan minorities, such as Jews.

The terrorist assault has made the police function, in Los Angeles and other cities, even more important. Rather than simply a mission for Washington, municipal governments and most particularly police departments are actually in the front lines against terror, noted Matt Walton, founder of e-Team, a Canoga Park-based security consultancy.

Among the measures being taken, said Walton, whose firm is advising eight of the nation’s 10 largest cities, has been a strong attempt to break down the “departmental silos” that hampered both intelligence collection and response to catastrophes, such as the Sept. 11 attacks. New computerized tracking systems must make it easier to keep tabs on potentially dangerous residents.

To lead this effort, Los Angeles needs an effective and aggressive police chief. Traditional obsessions with race, union privileges and political correctness — long important to Los Angeles’ liberal Jewish elites — must be superseded by the priority of finding not the most acceptable chief, but the best chief.

Our memories of unjust, repressive regimes, most notably the czarist police and the Nazis, make us understandably wary of strong police figures. Yet historically, Jews — as an urban people — have always depended on strong security. Without this, cities cannot function, and chaos ensues, a situation extremely dangerous for exposed minorities.

From the earliest times, dating back to at least 3000 B.C.E., cities have been places with special meaning — places sacred and busy with commerce. But often overlooked is the fact that in order to enjoy the creative, openness and intense economic activity that is an age-old joy of urban life, they must also be safe.

“Throughout history, it’s not just that it’s ‘the city that sets you free.’ It’s also the city that makes you safe from the depredations of the barbarians,” observed John Kasarda, a long-time student of urban issues at the Kenan Institute at the University of North Carolina.

It is indeed no exaggeration that without providing basic security, cities would likely never have come into existence at all, or would today be the centers of our global civilization. This is particularly true for Jewish culture, which, despite its pastoral mythic origins, has, for most of its history, flourished within the relative comfort of cities.

Security was the critical element that, along with religion and commerce, created the urban culture of Mesopotamia, out of which the Hebrews emerged. In the earliest Mesopotamian settlement, temples and palaces alike stood within the inner walls; trade and commerce stayed close by in adjacent districts.

“The first buildings erected by man,” said Henri Pirenne, the great French scholar of the Middle Ages, “seem, indeed, to have been protecting walls.”

It was in Babylon, with its 11 miles of defensive ramparts, that Jews in exile developed their sophistication and much of their written culture. The idea of the codification of laws, critical to the Jewish ethic, derives as well from ancient Iraq. The code of Hammurabi–written well before the scriptures — was devised in part because an increasingly complex urban society required clear rules and regulations, and citizens willing to submit to them.

This need for security was also manifest in the choice by King David of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The walled city of the Jebusites provided the young and vulnerable Jewish state with a strategic, defensible capital.

In the Diaspora, the need for security also was manifest. Stateless and largely defenseless, Jews were particularly vulnerable to criminal bands, and required the protection of a strong state, such as that provided by the Hellenistic princes in Alexandria, or later under the Romans. Although the heroic, insurrectionary tradition often paints these rulers as villains, Jewish culture and population grew most in the strongest, most secure cities, such as Antioch, Rome and, most of all, Alexandria.

As the Pax Romana expanded, so too did the Jewish global presence. By the third century C.E., the Eternal City had become a multiethnic, million-person behemoth, complete with huge expanses of multistory apartments, complex traffic patterns and numerous, highly specialized markets — and a flourishing Jewish community.

“Rome,” wrote Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “is the citadel that has all the people of the world as its villagers.”

When this greatest of imperial cities could no longer protect its citizens from barbarian invaders or maintain order at home, it, too, eventually collapsed. Those Jews who remained in Europe clung increasingly to the small, secure castle towns that still provided a role for a minority increasingly dependent on artisanry, trade and commerce.

Ironically, arguably the greatest urban system of control and the safest haven for Jews between antiquity and modern times derived from the Islamic heartland itself. One often underestimated contribution of the Prophet Mohammed, himself a merchant from a city built on trade, and his successors, lay in their successful imposition of both peace and legal order on what had been a chaotic, violence-prone region of the world. Jews flourished throughout the Islamic empires from Spain to Persia.

Only after the 16th century, when most Islamic and Asian cultures began to stagnate, did the European, and later American, cities begin establishing themselves as the world’s uncontested centers of commerce, trade, art and finance. Jewish history — particularly with the eradication of the shtetl culture by Hitler and Stalin — now almost entirely takes place within cities, whether Paris, New York, London, Los Angeles or those in Israel.

Today, the terrorist threat threatens the primacy of these cities more than anything since World War II. Only determined vigilance can assure the essential well-being of urban areas.

The crime waves of the 1970s and 1980s pushed Jews further out of the cities; the sharp decline in crime during the mid- to late 1990s helped bring more back into the urban centers, and helped preserve existing communities from the East Valley to Fairfax.

Today, Jews from around the world migrate to places like Los Angeles, which seems a lot safer for families and commerce than Paris, London and, sadly, Tel Aviv. Our future as one of the Jewish capitals of the world rests fundamentally on having an efficient, tough and fair Police Department. No city function is more important.

This is why it is critical that Mayor Hahn step outside his usual prosaic approach and reach out for the best possible candidate. The Jewish community, which now stands as one of the critical swing groups in the city’s polity, should pressure him to do nothing less.