Lily Chen went to the Jewish Federation Council meeting this week to strike a bargain.
"What do you want from us?" asked a member of the audience.
The first Chinese mayor in the history of the United States smiled. "A lot," she replied.
Chen, the former mayor of Monterey Park and now a City Council member, wants to form an Asian-Jewish coalition, an affiliation that would give Asian-Americans an opportunity to learn from Jews how to make an ethnic community into a powerful political force.
Admittedly, Chen said, such a coalition would initially have little to offer Jews but the gratitude and support of the growing Asian community, which is just now becoming stabilized in this country.
Timely for Jews
"Collective energy, collective strength, is something we don't have. Asians are far from being sophisticated lobby groups like the ADL (Anti-Defamation League)," Chen told the small gathering of Jewish community leaders, lawyers and educators in Covina.
Despite a lack of political sophistication, the Asian community represents a timely and beneficial ally for Jews, said Doug Stone, director of the Jewish Federation Council's Eastern Region.
"Particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, in small cities, we need all the friends we can get," Stone said. "I'd like to remove the barrier of the unknown. They don't know us, and we don't know them."
More important, he added, the Jewish population in this country is declining while the Asian population is steadily growing. "Politically speaking," Stone said, "the Jews need to ally themselves with other large minority groups."
'Asians want to know how they can have their piece of the pie.' --Lily Chen This week's meeting was designed to lay the groundwork for just such an alliance between the two groups.
According to Chen, there is an urgent need for the Asian community to exert political pressure. "There are over 1 million Chinese in this country," she said, "and never in this country has a Chinese-American served in Congress." It is in this area above all others, she said, that Jews can be the most helpful.
"You have experienced so many devasting things. We need to know the do's and don'ts," Chen said. "How can the Asian population have a stronger voice? How can we learn to advocate our needs and aspirations and desires? We have much to learn from you. Asians want to know how they can have their piece of the pie."
An evolution has taken place among Asian immigrants, Chen said. "We are no longer sojourners" who left homelands with the hope of returning some day. "We are here to stay. We're here to be a part of America."
In presenting her request for Jewish support and guidance, Chen drew upon the similarities of both races. "We both place high values on family, education and individual achievement. We both have also left our countries trying to adapt in troubled economic and political times."
Chen also pointed to the recent formation of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the first political action committee to represent Asians, as proof that the community is ready to become a political influence.
After her speech, Chen candidly summed up what Asians need to know in order to be effective in the political arena.
"How do you translate your money into political clout? That's what we need to know," she said. "The Chinese always say, 'Look at the Jews, they're united.' The Jews have translated their convictions into action."