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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : Southland Jews : For Jews, the Hurdles Have Fallen, but Stumbling Blocks Remain

February 13, 1989|TERRY SCHWADRON | Times Staff Writer

Living as a Jew in Southern California has become acceptable.

Our Jewish community--second largest in the nation--includes South African Jews, Iranian Jews, Israeli Jews, Soviet Jews as well as those who have been here for a while. The community includes a spectrum on matters of religious observance and ethnic identification.

Jews may never decide whether they are a "religion," an "ethnic group" or a "cultural nation," but a flock of books and studies show that Jews are succeeding as never before in American society. Most of the obvious hurdles have fallen; anti-Jewish sentiment is a lot less obvious than it was for the previous generations.

Anti-Jewish college quotas have largely disappeared (although affirmative action programs for minorities sometimes are perceived as exclusionary); hotels and home sales are no longer outwardly restricted to Jews; in business, there are some Jewish heads of top corporations.

And yet, parents still tell their children that in Southern California, 1989, there is something that bothers the notion of tranquility. Parents still feel they must explain that there has been anti-Semitism for the 5,000 years that there have been Jews, that it has taken on a variety of faces and forms and degrees of virulence. Parents feel they must teach children how to deal with an ever-present sense of unease that anti-Semitism is right around the corner:

On the multi-ethnic campus of UCLA, the offices of the Jewish student newspaper, housed by the black and Latino papers, are burned, and there is anti-Jewish sloganeering.

The Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith reports the number of synagogue defacements and other anti-Semitic acts on the rise in Southern California and has warned of the emerging white-power skinhead movement.

The aborted race for mayor of Los Angeles between Tom Bradley and Zev Yaroslavsky was seen in both the Jewish and black communities as something that might flare strained relations between the groups. Behind the scenes, black and Jewish clergy have been talking about ways to reduce strain that has surfaced occasionally over remarks by Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan. Whatever might be said about success among Jews, the accepted truth among Jews, at least, is that there will be a black President of the United States long before any Jew will be elected.

The strife in Israel has split feelings among Jews beyond questions of political and financial support. Israeli politics forced an argument between more orthodox-leaning Jews and more liberal Jews about some basic questions of identity, questions that draw an emotional response because they appear to make some Jews "better" than other Jews.

Assimilation poses an almost unprecedented problem. Intermarriage, loss of identifiable ritual and a kind of popular rejection of organized religion of any sort are winnowing Jewish identity faster than any anti-Semitic campaign.

Just what are we to make of anti-Semitism here and now?

"It's not a scientific question, and you're not going to get a scientific answer," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "Anti-Semitism is definitely a topic when Jews get together and talk . . . But in our society the ultimate challenge is how to get Jews to look at 4,000 years of history, how to get people to relate positively to their Jewishness.

"The option of walking away from our identity has never been easier to attain than in the U.S.A.," Cooper said.

Contributing was Times staff writer Mathis A. Chazanov.

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