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Two Powers Passing in the Night

Can Latinos and Jews form an alliance?

March 25, 2001|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and at the Milken Institute. He is the author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape."

In the neighborhoods and marketplaces that comprise 21st-century Los Angeles, two ethnic groups predominate: Jews and Latinos. Although others, including Asians, Africian Americans and Anglo Gentiles, play important roles, these two groups shape the social, economic and cultural contours of the city. Yet, to date, the two communities--one long established, the other ascendant--have had remarkably little to do with each other politically. Can they combine to create a post-ethnic politics in the city?

Jews reign over many of the most dynamic parts of the city's economy, from Hollywood to real estate, from cyberspace to the garment business. They are well-represented at both the elite and grass-roots levels of L.A. business. Jews, whether from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, boast among the highest entrepreneurship rates of any group in the city's ethnic mosaic, according to Cal State Northridge demographer James Allen; nearly half the Los Angeles Business Journal's list of richest Angelenos are Jews.

Latinos represent the city's grass-roots future, from its aspiring working class to a rapidly growing middle class. They are the city's emerging majority; their ownership of small businesses has exploded, increasing nearly fivefold since the 1980s. They constitute the majority of new home buyers in many Southland communities. Few can deny that, ultimately, Latinos--their music, their cultural values and po-litical sensibilities--will reshape the essence of Los Angeles in the new century.

Unlike Jews and Gentiles, or African Americans, Jews and Latinos share little history or mythology. For the most part, their contacts have been opportunistic. Jews have employed Latinos in garment factories, as maids and gardeners and serviced them as customers in a host of enterprises from Whittier Boulevard to Santee Alley and Pico-Union.

The rise of a significant Latino middle class has broadened the groups' peer-level contacts; intermarriage is more frequent. But these two communities still live largely in separate worlds. Jewish-Latino relations are characterized not so much by an ethnic "schism" as by something between indifference and incomprehension.

"Most Latinos in the general community don't know anything much about Jews," says Jose de Jesus Legaspi, a Mexico-born developer who works mostly in heavily immigrant neighborhoods. "There's not much of an effort to learn about each other."

This lack of contact is reflected in politics. Despite often forced attempts to develop a "dialogue" between the two groups' political and economic elites, there is little to suggest a crossing over of one group to another. Prospects of creating anything like the black-Jewish alliance of the Tom Bradley years seem dim.

One reason lies in the Jewish community and its changing political orientation. Given their economic hegemony, this should be a time for Jews to assume unprecedented political power, but, if anything, notes veteran political analyst Arnold Steinberg, Jewish influence is waning, and the community's political voice is increasingly divided.

Some of this is the result of demography and migration. Outmigration to the urban periphery--particularly to Westlake, Agoura and Calabassas--has diminished the number of Jewish voters. Once as high as 20% of the city's electorate (1993), Jews may account for as little as 14% this year, estimates Steinberg.

It's not just a matter of numbers, however. Jews have lost their historical ideological orientation. For much of the 20th century, the L.A. Jewish community struggled for and ultimately helped engineer, financially and intellectually, the liberal Democratic takeover of what had long been a basically conservative Protestant town. Today, there is no strong Jewish political leadership, like the old Waxman-Berman machine, to spearhead a Latino-Jew alliance. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is the only bona fide regional Jewish politician. "You have movement of Jews economically and socially," says Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles, "but not politically. There are really no new significant Jewish leaders."

In part, this is because much of the growth of the Jewish population stems from arriving Russians, Iranians and other Middle Easterners. They do not share the social democratic traditions common among decendants of turn-of-the-century immigrants. Many of these newcomers are, if anything, more conservative, as are significant numbers of second- and third-generation Jews. Assimilation among native-born Jews has made them less receptive to traditional social democratic values. "There aren't many Jews left who remember working in sweat shops," says Steinberg.

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