September 17, 2019

The L.A. Image

The best thing about David Lehrer’s firing as head of the local Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been the local reaction, which has done more to awaken Los Angeles’ Jewish leadership than anything in recent memory. The worst thing about Lehrer’s firing: That the ADL’s New York leadership thought it could get away with it, and, sadly, it probably will.

Over the past decade, Los Angeles’ leadership — not confined to Jews — has become all too willing to allow others to dominate its civic life and even perception of itself. The process started in the late 1980s, when the local economy began to feel the impact of the post-Cold War defense build-down and the takeover of the Republican Party by Texans.

Cast adrift by the first Bush and global events, Los Angeles also deconstructed itself. The once confident notions about Los Angeles’ eventual emergence as "Capital of the Pacific Rim" — and notions of equalling or surpassing New York as the center of global capitalist civilization — dissipated. The 1992 riots devastated our bland confidence, particularly in the Jewish community, that we could make multicultural democracy work in a way that our East Coast counterparts never could.

Los Angeles’ Jewish community, particularly its intellectual and media elites, contributed to this destructive pattern. Radical Los Angeles-bashers, like the now widely discredited Marxist author Mike Davis, found welcome audience and many well-wishers among the Jewish elites. Hollywood cooked up endless images of Los Angeles as dystopia for national and global audiences ("Grand Canyon" being arguably the most effective).

The contrast with the largely Jewish media crowd in New York couldn’t be greater. Movies, television and magazine pieces portrayed a revived New York as a kicky, cool place for the Gen-X crowd; the "Age of Seinfield," ironically produced in Studio City, probably did more to restore the city’s luster with the mass audience than anything else. New York was hip, while Los Angeles remained a dystopic, cartoonish "City on the Edge." Real Jews, the smart, sassy and soulful ones, lived in Manhattan, not Manhattan Beach.

Media and corporate power helped Gotham with promoting this shift of image. New York under Rudy Giuliani brilliantly promoted its resurgence, with the help of a largely compliant local and national media, mostly based in New York. Meanwhile, Los Angeles lost its bid to become a serious nonentertainment media center. The Financial News Network, once based in Los Angeles, merged into New Jersey-based CNBC. Fox may have kept entertainment and sports in Los Angeles, but placed its more critical, and highly successful, news operation in Gotham.

In contrast, Los Angeles increasingly had no real media voice on the national stage and, by early in the century, no major outlet to call its own. Even the Los Angeles Times, the historic power center of the region, had become a unit of the Chicago-based Tribune Co., a valued but ultimately subordinate satrapy of a vast media empire. The Daily News, its erstwhile rival, remains under the rule of a Denver-based media mogul with no demonstrable nonfinancial interest or vast ambitions for the region. Even our alternative weeklies, New Times and the L.A. Weekly, are part of national chains.

Largely at the mercy of unsympathetic national media managers, most of them in New York, Los Angeles only slowly managed to shed its hell-on-earth image. Although the economy recovered, and political order was restored by the leadership of Richard Riordan, the city seems to fail in capturing the imagination of the new generation. In contrast, the arts, music and publishing in New York, San Francisco and even Seattle enjoyed powerful boomlets. In business, Wall Street resurged, and Montgomery Street thrived by financing the rise of the information economy. In contrast, Los Angeles hemorrhaged Fortune 500 companies, and even its hot start-ups, such as Earthlink, tended to get gobbled up by firms elsewhere.

In this environment, Los Angeles’ ethnic, economic and political culture produced few notable leaders. Here, Lehrer was a bright exception. In contrast to the defensive and bureaucratic leaders who dominate the national and local Jewish establishment, Los Angeles-based Lehrer was outward looking, articulate and courageous. He became arguably the only prominent Jewish leader in Los Angeles whose voice was heard not only among the various Jewish communities, but in the other portions of this amazingly diverse community.

So how could Abe Foxman think he could eliminate this one shining star? In large part, suggests longtime community activist David Abel, precisely because Los Angeles now lacks the media, political and economic power to make itself felt in the concrete canyonlands of Gotham.

"The fact that Foxman felt he could get away with it," Abel suggests, "says a lot more about Los Angeles than it does about David [Lehrer]. I can’t imagine a Los Angeles-based organization doing that to one in New York."

Is it because they hate us? Or do they simply not really care? Its probably the latter. Los Angeles is not important enough anymore to New Yorkers to hate the way they did back in the 1980s, when Los Angeles seemed to epitomize the "wave of the future." It’s not even deserving of whacks from the likes of Woody Allen.

Back in the 1980s, New Yorkers worried what the L.A. media was up to. Now, Foxman probably feels he can easily survive anything the Los Angeles Times or this newspaper say about Goliath’s slaying of our David. After all, who cares, as long as it doesn’t make waves at the New York Times? Oddly enough, Sept. 11 and its impact on New York has, if anything, made the city even more self-centered than usual.

"I don’t think Los Angeles figures in much at all in the mind of New York these days," suggests Fred Siegel, an urban historian at Cooper Union well- acquainted with the Jewish communities on both coasts. "Los Angeles shows up, but it’s not very important."

In this context, how the ADL board here and the Jewish community respond may say much about how Los Angeles "figures" in future, not only in our community, but overall. If the board kvetches, squeals and then acquiesces by choosing a replacement for Lehrer, it will have earned the contempt that Foxman and the other New Yorkers clearly feel for our city. We will have, by our weakness, once again accepted colonial status.

On the other hand, if board members stand up and refuse to accept the encyclical of the national ADL’s self-professed "pope," they will have struck a powerful blow for regional self-respect –not just for L.A. Jewry but for the whole city and the future of its civic culture.