For many of Southern California's Jews, as for other groups in our multiracial mosaic, the riots and their aftermath shattered many comfortable assumptions about their place in the region. Long accustomed to their secure and influential niches, segments of the Jewish community are struggling to adjust to an altered and racially charged urban landscape.
In the last few months, they have watched with horror as some longtime allies in the African-American community condoned a violent urban uprising. They have also seen themselves embroiled in bitter disputes with blacks and other minorities, notably Latinos, over court-sanctioned reapportionment that could result in a gradual diminishment of their political influence.
Although their community is highly diverse, ranging from devout Chasidim to secular Russian immigrants to fourth-generation L.A. families, many Jews regard these growing tensions with sadness and unease. Still, they remain largely loyal to such liberal values as equality under the law, toleration and social justice.
Indeed, these values have been reinforced by Jewish experience in California. Since the earliest days, Jews have enjoyed a somewhat charmed existence, compared with the difficulties suffered elsewhere in the diaspora. In the earliest days of the state, German-Jewish settlers attained remarkably elevated positions in the frontier societies of San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its lack of social barriers and great economic opportunities, California, as one mid-19th Century observer put it, seemed "the Jews' earthly paradise."
By the end of the 19th Century, Jews owned many of California's leading department stores and controlled prominent financial institutions. They had won election to Congress, to the Board of Supervisors and to city government, voted in by largely Gentile constituencies. Later on, another wave of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, virtually created two of the region's key industries--fashion and entertainment.
Even now, increasingly multinational and multicultural Hollywood remains influenced by Jewish sechel (smarts) in the form of producers, directors, agents and financiers. Jews are also well represented in civic life, well above their percentage of the population. In one of the most remarkable developments, three of the four major party candidates for the two U.S. Senate seats in California are Jewish.
Perhaps more important in this era of declining Anglo populations in urban regions, the Southern California Jewish community has grown in numbers. Boosted both by a large in-migration from the East as well as emigration from Israel, Iran and the former Soviet Union, the Jewish population of Southern California--which, in 1920, had fewer Jewish residents than Buffalo, N.Y.--has expanded over the past two decades by more than 150,000. At 600,000, it is the second largest Jewish community in the worldwide diaspora.
Until the riots, the Jewish community, in general, felt comfortable with its standing as a member, along with Gentile liberals and African-Americans, of the dominant local political alliance. But the anger and alienation engendered by the riots have done much to splinter the coalition and, with it, the patina of security that had formerly enveloped the community.
This change has been barely noted in the local media, which has chosen to focus on prominent liberal Jews, such as Police Commission Chairman Stanley Sheinbaum and a few leading rabbis. But among the highly diverse Jewish rank-and-file, as among a majority of blacks and Latinos, talk is less about minority rage than such gut issues as getting more police protection, organizing self-protection associations or simply moving out of town. This is especially so in areas--Fairfax, North Hollywood and Pico-Robertson--where less affluent Jews are concentrated.
"The closer you were to the riots, the more you care first about public safety," observed Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, a liberal rabbi who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. "The liberal leaders have the links to the press but the vast majority of people do not feel poverty can be an excuse for lawlessness. The people who try to incite fear have successes largely in leaving behind fear and resistance."
Many Jews, claims David Lehrer, western states director of the Anti-Defamation League, identified with the Korean merchants who, like Jewish store owners in Watts more than 25 years ago, saw their businesses go up in flames. The targeting of Korean-owned stores, Lehrer suggests, only served to fuel Jewish anxieties about their relations with African-Americans, tensions that have been building since Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan came to town several years ago and top African-American leaders refused to denounce his anti-Semitism.
The riots may have further weakened the region's longstanding black-Jewish alliance, a critical element in the election of such prominent figures as Mayor Tom Bradley. "The black and Jewish communities are like two ships passing in the night," one prominent Jewish political figure observed sadly. "The relationship has never been worse. There's very little in common left."
At the same time, the desire of other minorities, notably Latinos, to seek greater political representation will result in the reordering of the region's political agenda, possibly at the expense of concerns shared by most Jews. In the least, Jewish political representation at the county, state and national levels will probably diminish as courts reallocate districts on the basis of population shifts.
Yet there is some positive long-term potential for a Jewish role in the city. For one thing, notes Rabbi Max Vorspan, senior vice president of the University of Judaism, the riots may serve to shift Jewish attention away from their near obsessive self-involvement--reflected in elaborate Holocaust memorials and concerns over Israel--to the larger perspective of the importance of their role in Southern California.
"Psychologically, we have refused to accept the responsibility of being the most prominent and influential white community in the city," believes Vorspan, who is also a leading historian of the region's Jewish history. "We have the best neighborhoods and are the best educated, but we feel more comfortable in maintaining a minority mentality. We have to act more like leaders in the overall community."
Vorspan suggests such a radical reassessment of a Jewish role in the city means more than mimicking the Anglo elite's traditions of noblesse oblige. Jews, as a group, perhaps more than other Anglos, possess a vested interest in maintaining Los Angeles as a highly diverse and cosmopolitan community. Throughout their history, Jews have flourished most in multicultural world cities, from ancient Babylon and Alexandria to modern-day Paris and New York, where tolerance is the currency.
Similarly, Jewish culture cannot survive in an atmosphere marked by ceaseless racial discord and threats of violence. Faced with the prospect of living in a "Third World city" ruled by racial and political radicals, many Jews--their concerns ignored, their lives and business threatened, vilified as exploiters--would feel compelled to leave.
Despite numerous and well-intentioned efforts by the established, older leadership, preventing an exodus will almost inevitably fall to a generation of younger Jewish activists. Now in their 30s and early 40s, they are products of Los Angeles' increasingly multiracial economic and political milieu. A generation further removed from the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel, they naturally place greater emphasis in developing the Jewish role here at home.
One example of this new, California-centered Jewish activism, known as the New Leaders Project, focuses on establishing closer linkages not only with African-Americans but also with the ascendant Asian and Latino communities. But to be effective, groups like the New Leaders must go beyond the liberal platitudes of the past.
"Jews are much angrier about the riots than the official dialogue would have us believe," suggests Leaders' co-founder Robin Kramer, who served five years as chief of staff to City Councilman Richard Alatorre. "But even now there's a desire to play a meaningful role in this town with all the other groups. People need to see that we're committed, too."