The rise of President Trump has sparked a new streak of activism in Los Angeles’ Jewish community that many veteran leaders say they haven’t seen in decades.
Jewish leaders in the religious, political and cultural worlds have formed a coalition aimed at denouncing what they perceive to be threats to religious tolerance, democratic values, equal rights and a free press.
Trump’s rhetoric and actions toward Muslim immigrants were the impetus for the coalition, known as Jews United for Democracy and Justice, said Rabbi Ken Chasen.
“There a uniqueness to this moment,” said Chasen, senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel-Air. “Jews understand that an attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us. People who are at risk — particularly immigrants — that is a clarion call to Jews. Our concerns about the treatment of immigrants are not partisan or political, they’re Jewish. The single most frequently repeated command in the Torah is to care for the stranger, because Jews know what it’s like to be the stranger.”
Not since the 1960s, when Jewish leaders embraced the civil rights movement and denounced the Vietnam War, has there been such a galvanizing issue as this one, Chasen said.
Jews United for Democracy and Justice has garnered the support of more than 2,000 Jewish people — including prominent rabbis and elected leaders such as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Atty. Mike Feuer — who signed the group’s organizing statement.
Jewish groups across the country have interpreted Trump’s travel bans targeting migrants from Muslim-majority countries as a call to action. For many people, the policies have evoked painful memories of the countries that turned Jews away when they tried to flee Nazi persecution.
Some in the Jewish community fear America’s reputation as a welcoming place for refugees is being irreparably damaged as Trump has ordered a temporary ban on refugees from around the world.
The Iran-Iraq War forced Sam Yebri’s family to flee Iran and into exile in the United States when he was a child in the early 1980s.
Yebri, now a lawyer and president of 30 Years After, an Iranian Jewish nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, said he understands that Americans are concerned over the Syrian refugee crisis. people seeking asylum in the U.S. should be vetted, but that doesn’t warrant Trump’s hard-line policies, he said.
“It betrays our history and values as a country to shut our doors when there are innocent people who are being persecuted,” Yebri said. “I hope the administration will strive to find the right middle ground as opposed to closing our doors and closing our hearts to folks like my family just a generation ago.”
The Jewish coalition gathered signatures recently from more than 110 clergy members, L.A. County’s entire Jewish state legislative delegation, seven current and former members of Congress, and 60 current and former elected and appointed officials, according to the coalition.
The group is focused on three guiding principles: The U.S. is a nation of laws, a nation of immigrants and “aspires to equality, respect and justice for all people.”
Zev Yaroslavsky, a former L.A. County supervisor and a member of the group’s organizing committee, said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the coalition. He said the group will stand by refugees fleeing oppression as well as immigrants in the United States who “tonight as they go to sleep fear a knock on the door.”
“This is something the Jewish community wants to speak out on,” Yaroslavsky said. “It speaks to a thirst in our community to stand up and not be silent. We know what the costs are of remaining silent.”
The vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and recent bomb threats to Jewish centers in L.A. and other cities have heightened anxieties in the faith community, said David Myers, professor of Jewish history and former chairman of the UCLA history department.
He said he fears the election of Trump has ushered in a wave of xenophobic populism not seen in decades.
“We’ve had that ilk before as candidates and prominent politicians, but not as president,” said Myers, a member of the coalition’s organizing committee. “It’s not just that’s his rhetoric; a good number of the first actions taken seem to operationalize some of this exclusionary ethos of Trump’s populism.”
Trump’s opening condemnation of anti-Semitic threats and hate crimes during his first address to a joint session of Congress in late February was welcomed, but long overdue, Rabbi Chasen said.
“It’s appreciated,” he said. “The reality, though, is that there is a mounting spate of threats to Jewish institutions all across the United States. The president needs to go beyond simply denouncing and demonstrate the desire to take action steps and send an absolute clarity of message to those who are doing this: ‘Not in our America.’ ”