Don’t muzzle the mayor

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has come in for more than a little criticism for publicly supporting Israel’s military action against the Hamas militants who dominate the Gaza Strip.

Villaraigosa, however, is right on the merits of this question and shouldn’t be deterred from speaking out in the future on issues of conscience, which is what this is.

The controversy began when Villaraigosa joined Israel’s local consul general and other civic leaders in a public gesture of support for Israel, which entered Gaza last month in an effort to stop Hamas’ military wing from launching rockets across the border into the Jewish state. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and has Israel’s destruction as its ultimate goal, has been shooting rockets across the border for years.

In that context, Villaraigosa’s statement actually seems measured, even restrained: “Every country has a right to defend itself against attacks from a foreign enemy. Every nation is obligated to beat back forces dedicated to its destruction. And Israel cannot sit silently while innocent civilians are attacked. ... During this trying time in the Middle East, I hope all people -- regardless of race, religion or creed -- will join me in praying for peace, for an end to hostilities and for a halt to violence on all sides.”


Reasonable as those sentiments may seem, they nevertheless offended some pro-Palestinian activists, as well as some representatives of the local Muslim community with whom the mayor subsequently met. “There’s no objection to the mayor having his personal views, but as the mayor of one of the most diverse cities in the nation, he has the responsibility to engage in activities that bring all Angelenos together,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Anaheim-based Council on American-Islamic Relations of California, told The Times’ Phil Willon after the meeting. “His role is not to be a cheerleader for one side. ... He ought to be on the side of justice and peace.”

Fair enough on that last point, though, since the meeting, critics have continued to insist that Villaraigosa shouldn’t have spoken at all -- or if he did, only should have expressed so-called evenhanded sentiments because he’s allegedly ill-prepared to comment on the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

None of these criticisms are on the mark. Taking them in reverse order, the fact of the matter is that Villaraigosa has frequently visited the Middle East and has a personal interest in the region extending back years. He speaks about it both intellectually and from firsthand knowledge. As far as evenhandedness goes, suffice to say that if an irredentist theocratic Mexican political faction were sitting across the border in Tijuana and lobbing rockets into Southern California, there’s virtually nothing the U.S. government wouldn’t do to stop them -- and it wouldn’t have expended years of forbearance before it acted.

There’s a long history of contention over city officials taking positions on foreign affairs. When Eamon de Valera, then leader of the insurgent and unrecognized Irish Republic, addressed what was thought to be the largest political rally in the city’s history during a visit in 1919, the city fathers’ attendance drew fire from a local Ulster Protestant group, the Lady’s Lily Loyal Orange Lodge.


There’s also a notable tradition in which the mayor acted. To take just one example, the city’s endorsement of disinvestment in South Africa was championed not only by Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, but by then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who also prodded his colleagues to go on record in support of rights for Soviet Jewry. More recently, there’s been no protest when Villaraigosa each year endorses calls for recognition of the genocide perpetrated against Armenians by the Turks.

As mayor of a city of immigrants, it’s inevitable that L.A.'s chief executive will be called on to speak on such issues. It’s important that he listen to all the city’s communities; it is not required that he agree with all those to whom he listens.

The most troubling part of this whole controversy has been the casually vulgar allegation that Villaraigosa spoke out on this issue to solidify his support among Jewish voters. Anyone who has followed the mayor’s career knows that his support for Israel is a product of his boyhood in Boyle Heights, then a diverse neighborhood where people from one ethnic group learned to respect the causes and injustices that preoccupied their neighbors.

That’s what diversity is supposed to do for people, and Villaraigosa should continue to speak the conscience his experience of this city and its people formed.