Nostalgic old-time activists in the Jewish and African American communities like to recall the brave days of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s, when they joined hearts and bodies to battle discrimination and segregation. With much of the good fight won, the two ethnic groups drifted apart. Frictions arose in the 1980s over affirmative action, later over the perceived anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam, and more recently over often-opposing perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Which explains why Cookie Lommel sees herself as a one-woman bridge between the two groups, intent on reversing the estrangement she thinks is based more on mutual ignorance than hostility. Last year, Lommel was named executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee’s Western region; she’s believed to be the first African American of either gender to run a Jewish organization.
Her friend Joe R. Hicks has seen numerous African American and -Jewish dialogues wax and wane during the last decade. Hicks, an African American, noted that the outreach comes mainly from the Jews..
“When I was with the Black-Jewish Leadership Forum, which broke up in the mid-'90s, I was sometimes the only black face around the table. All the others were Jewish,” said Hicks, the former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Committee and now vice president of Community Advocates, a privately funded organization focused on race relations.
Lommel brought unique qualities to her job, according to Michael Nye, JLC president and secretary-general of the California Federation of Teachers. . “She combines a great many strengths and skills ... and she has great contacts in the different communities,” Nye said. Indeed, Lommel is a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and is joining the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
Lommel, 44, was born in Cleveland to African American and Native American parents. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked as a reporter and editor for entertainment industry publications and was an entertainment commentator for CNN. She’s written several biographies for young adults, with Johnnie L. Cochran and Arthur Miller as two of her subjects, and is the author of “The History of Rap Music, African-American Actors and Black Filmmakers.”
Her involvement with Jewish causes began in 1991, when her interest was piqued by reports about Operation Solomon, the final massive airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She decided to see for herself, by going to Israel, and wrote about her experiences for black publications.
“I was struck by the contrast in the treatment of my own ancestors in this country and the welcome extended to those black Jews in Israel,” she said during a recent interview in her cluttered midtown Los Angeles office before she joined pickets outside a Beverly Hills Von’s Pavilion. She was a regular on the grocery workers’ picket line during the long strike.
While in Israel, she was particularly impressed by the communal living on the kibbutzim among Jews of different backgrounds, and in 1993 she launched Operation Unity. Her plans called for taking groups of black and Latino high school students from the inner city to Israel for two months to live on a kibbutz. Using her contacts in Hollywood and among politicians, educators and religious leaders, Lommel raised enough money to send four groups of 15 students each and some of their teachers.
“Most of the youngsters knew nothing about Jews, except for the usual negative stereotypes,” Lommel said. “After the trip, one Latina girl told me, ‘I met Jews who don’t have a lot of money,’ and an African American boy said, ‘On the kibbutz, they accepted me as me, not as someone who might snatch their purse.’ These were fairly typical comments.”
Lommel also shared their positive impressions, noting “I have never been accepted in America as I was in Israel.”
As the JLC’s executive director, Lommel adheres to the organization’s motto -- “the voice of the Jewish community in the labor movement and the voice of the labor movement in the Jewish community” -- and says neither role is becoming easier.
America’s labor unions have been among Israel’s strongest supporters, but during the last year anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian voices have become louder. During a recent California AFL-CIO convention, a resolution was introduced, but ultimately rejected, to condemn Israel for the bombing of the Palestinian trade union headquarters. (The bombing never happened, says Nye, who was a convention delegate.)
JLC was founded on both coasts in 1934 by mostly Yiddish-speaking, European-born socialists, and though its leadership passed to an American-born generation after World War II, it always has had an unabashedly liberal agenda. JLC has never had a large membership, and in terms of size and resources it ranks well down the list of large Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, a city with about 550,000 Jews.
Lommel runs what is essentially a one-person office on an annual budget of $70,000, of which $30,000 comes from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the rest from an annual fundraiser and dues paid by about 400 California members. However, JLC’s “power has never been defined by numbers but by its network of influential people, particularly in the American, European and Israeli labor movements,” said Kenneth Burt, a Sacramento-based union official who is writing a book on the Jewish labor movement in California.
The supermarket strike took up much of Lommel’s energy, but now she is refocusing on her priority for the JLC. “There is a perception that not too many Jews are still in labor unions, but that’s wrong. I want to enlist the thousands of young Jewish union members working as teachers, social workers and engineers, on newspapers, in public service and the entertainment industry.”
As the director of a liberal organization, Lommel also must confront whether the well-established Jewish community and its leadership still are listening to progressive voices. Veteran labor lawyer Jack Levine, for one, fears that the Jewish Federation, the umbrella organization for the organized Jewish community in L.A., is becoming more conservative and identifying less with the aspirations of the labor movement.
“The Jews here have forgotten that their parents and grandparents were immigrants,” said Louis Senensieb, a JLC vice president.
John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation, and former Rep. Mel Levine believe this view is an oversimplification.
“Obviously, the Jewish community of 2004 is not the same as it was in 1984,” said Fishel. “We are bigger, we are more spread out and we are more diverse in our ideologies and religious practices. We are not driven by our donor base, but we are consensus-driven. To represent such a diverse constituency, we cannot speak out publicly on all issues.”
In this environment, Lommel wants to build a coalition, “first among different ethnic labor groups, and secondly among progressive organizations within the Jewish community.”