The Jewish Defense League is lobbying to have Fairfax Avenue renamed in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish envoy who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps and vanished after falling into Soviet hands toward the end of World War II.
"By this gesture, everybody will know the name of Wallenberg," said Irv Rubin, national director of the group.
But the league, a maverick organization whose demonstrations against anti-Semitism have often erupted into fistfights, is in for an uphill struggle because city officials are reluctant to rename one of the city's major north-south arteries.
Several merchants along Fairfax Avenue, a major center of the city's Jewish community, also said the proposal would only result in confusion.
"It's good to remember Wallenberg because he was a really great person, but on the other hand I'm not happy about changing from Fairfax Sports Cars to Wallenberg Sports Cars," said Steve Hajdu, proprietor of two car lots near the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard.
"Fairfax is Fairfax," said Al Canter, manager of Canter's Fairfax Restaurant, Delicatessen and Bakery. "It's a nice gesture. I wish they could have picked another street, that's all."
"My gut reaction is that the people of this neighborhood wouldn't support such a change," said Dave Tuttle, executive director of Vitalize Fairfax, a nonprofit organization that is about to launch a project to spruce up storefronts and plant palm trees along the avenue.
"This is something the JDL came up with and is using as a way to further publicize their activities, but there is hardly a swelling of opinion at the grass roots," he said.
Another obstacle comes from county guidelines for street names, which rule out honoring living persons. The Soviets reported in 1957 that Wallenberg had died in 1947, but some people believe he is alive. They have mounted an effort to win his release, based on reports of sightings in prison camps and mental hospitals as recently as 1965. If he is alive, Wallenberg would be 73.
Even if the renaming proposal falls through, the idea of honoring Wallenberg or Holocaust victims may come to fruition elsewhere, said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the Fairfax area.
"It would be appropriate to do something," Yaroslavsky said, "but whether Fairfax is it, or some other street or intersection, is another question. The community will have a lot of input."
Rubin said he has gathered nearly 500 signatures supporting the name change. He said he plans to submit them to the City Council in coming weeks.
The league did not coordinate its effort to change the name of Fairfax Avenue with the Jewish Federation Council, an umbrella organization representing nearly 500 groups in the city, according to Steven F. Windmueller, community relations director. He said the federation is in favor of honoring Wallenberg but it has yet to decide on a good place to do it.
"I've been led to believe the chance of Fairfax Avenue being changed is most unlikely," he said. "As a result, it will require some effort to find a site that's acceptable to people living in the neighborhood, to the city and to the Jewish community."
Willing to Sacrifice
But Rubin said residents and merchants should be willing to sacrifice their well-known street name to honor a great human being.
"Many people don't think this should be done, but a sacrifice without meaning is no sacrifice at all," Rubin said. "Nobody even knows who Fairfax is. There is a Fairfax, I'm sure, but who is he and what does he mean?"
City records show that Fairfax Avenue was named in 1912 after Thomas Fairfax (1693-1781), a baron who was the sixth lord of Fairfax and Proprietor of Virginia Colony, where he lived toward the end of his life. He was the only British nobleman to remain in the colonies throughout the American Revolution, although he maintained his loyalty to the Crown.
A publication issued last year by Fairfax High School suggested that a developer may have named the street after a friend because of the name's aristocratic ring.
Wallenberg, a Lutheran, went to Hungary after being recruited by Swedish Jews to aid the efforts of the American War Refugee Board in Hungary, where a pro-Nazi regime was cooperating with the Nazi extermination program.
Using Swedish documents, he saved about 20,000 Jews by extending to them the protection of his government. He is also credited with persuading a German officer not to carry out a plan to wipe out 70,000 people in the Budapest ghetto.
He was arrested when the Soviet army entered the Hungarian capital in 1945.
The Jewish Defense League was founded in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, now a member of the Israeli parliament, who has been condemned by his Knesset colleagues as a racist because of his anti-Arab statements.