When Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, came to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, the event created a schism in the black and Jewish communities that reached the highest levels of the city's political structure.
Jewish leaders wanted Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, to denounce Farrakhan for his anti-Semitic statements. African American leaders said that the mayor had long made it clear that he had no use for Farrakhan's anti-Semitism. They said they were offended that their Jewish counterparts demanded another Bradley denunciation of Farrakhan. Bradley finally criticized Farrakhan after the Islam leader continued his anti-Semitic line in Los Angeles.
My colleague Janet Clayton, now editor of The Times' editorial pages, and I covered the event--a Jewish man and an African American woman teaming up to report something that was becoming increasingly hot in the black and Jewish communities.
At the end of each day, with our story done, we would discuss the hopelessness we felt about what we were covering. We wondered how both sides could ever get past this fruitless argument to deal with the real causes of the racial tension that was growing in Los Angeles--tension that would eventually culminate in the 1992 riots.
All this came back to me when I sat down to write about a most unusual event. On Sunday, Dec. 14, Los Angeles' best-known Jewish politician, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, spoke at the Islamic Center of Southern California. He talked about American Jews and Muslims getting past the bitter debate over the Middle East so they can improve life in their hometown.
Yaroslavsky, whose district extends from the Westside into the San Fernando Valley and includes a large Jewish population, had been invited to speak at the center by Salam Al Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Marayati had been impressed by an article Yaroslavsky wrote last February in the Jewish Journal, a weekly Los Angeles community newspaper,
The supervisor wrote about his outrage when he visited the monument-style tomb in Israel of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli terrorist who shot and killed 29 Muslims as they prayed at Isaac's Tomb in Hebron.
Yaroslavsky said it was time for the Jewish community and religious leaders in Israel and here "to break the code of silence that has fostered a growing tolerance for extremist philosophies and extremist acts."
The men and women in the large meeting seemed completely absorbed as Yaroslavsky told how his nephew, an Israeli army veteran, brought him to the grave. "Let me show you something," the nephew said. "I walked up the hill," said Yaroslavsky, "and it was the tomb of this mass killer, Bernard Goldstein." Jews, he said, "don't glorify mass killers. It's not in our tradition. It's not in our background."
Yaroslavsky spoke as a deeply committed supporter of Israel. He told how his grandfather was an original Zionist, a delegate to the first Zionist conference, an important milestone in the founding of the Jewish state. His sister has lived in Israel since 1960, and her three sons served in the Israeli army.
He said he knew that he and his audience disagreed over Israel. "I am not here to talk about Middle East politics," he said. "We all have strong opinions." But we have to understand each other and "walk a mile in the other person's shoes."
After Yaroslavsky spoke, Dr. Hassan Hathout, author of the book "Reading The Muslim Mind," agreed with Yaroslavsky that Muslims and Jews, while at odds over the Middle East, shared much, including their belief in God and a history of persecution. "Every Crusade," he recalled, "started with a massacre of the Jews."
The speech was important for Yaroslavsky personally and politically. He may run for mayor of Los Angeles in three years. If he does, he'll have to cross ideological, racial and religious barriers every day, and this was great practice.
But even more important was the point he made of people having to put aside divisions, no matter how intense they seem at a given moment.
Looking back on it, I think the Farrakhan flap, while powerful in its symbolism at the time, was a side issue. Today Farrakhan moves in and out of cities with large Jewish populations without anyone but his followers knowing or caring he's there.
The Middle East issue is much more difficult, as are others separating Angelenos of different races, religions and cultures.
But as Zev Yaroslavsky and Dr. Hassan Hathout agreed, we must put them aside and make Los Angeles a less divided city, a less hostile place to live.