"An Era of Half-Witted Intolerance"

The civil rights and the human relations fields are unique in being arenas in which everyone is an expert. Having worked in this field for over forty years, I have yet to find someone who doesn't have an opinion about how race, inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations are faring.

In a diverse society such as ours, we all have experiences with other groups which entitle us to be mavens and to give expression to those feelings.

To make the field more fraught, there is inevitably an overlay of political attitudes that color people's assessment of the state of inter-group relations. Those on the left tend to paint a grim picture to spur the unmotivated into action to forge a better world. Those on the center right tend to focus on the progress that has been made in recent decades and dismiss evidence of intolerance as anomalous.

It is unusual to find a pundit who has a world view who transcends the orthodoxies of his political prism to offer a refreshing, honest and profoundly accurate assessment of trends in the world of intergroup relations, yet it happens.

The Washington Post has a superb column by Michael Gerson, former speech writer for President George W. Bush---"The Trump era is a renaissance of half-witted intolerance." It is a perceptive and revelatory assessment of how prejudice and bigotry work and how President Trump promotes an environment of intolerance.

Gerson rightfully dismisses the distraction of Trump's occasional rhetoric of acceptance of differences and tolerance. Today offered an example of Trump's sleights of hand. He pardoned an African American boxer who died in 1946, a feint towards tolerance; an act that suckers in far too people who miss the bigger picture of what Trump is causing.

Gerson makes clear that Trump's bigotry is not accidental or incidental, "Whatever else Trumpism may be, it is the systematic organization of resentment against outgroups. Trump's record is rich in dehumanization." For Trump resentment and the singling out of minorities is "an organizing principle and it has resulted in a series of radiating consequences."

Gerson explains the impact of Trump's invidious bigotry. It "has given permission for the shameful expression of shameful sentiments." And the increasing expression of bigotry has revealed the depressing silence of people who know better who ought to be forcefully rejecting the resentment and hate. It has revealed "the cowardice of a much broader faction within the GOP---those who know better but say little."

This truth is applicable beyond the GOP.

There are "civil rights" leaders in our community "who know better" yet ignore Trump's malign actions for personal or institutional reasons. Among the most prominent local apologists is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Marvin Hier. As a student of the Holocaust, he certainly knows what can happen when minorities are stigmatized and made the target of resentment by political leaders. Yet Hier simply chooses to ignore the lessons of history that his museum offers; like many leaders of the GOP, he can't seem to rush to Trump's side often enough, visibly acquiescing to his "half-witted intolerance."

Gerson asserts correctly that Trump's attitudes have also made the Republican party more xenophobic and granted permission to the fringe elements that have plagued the right for decades (McCarthyites in the 50s, John Birchers in the 60s); "Trump has not only given permission to those on the fringes; he has also changed the Republican mean to be more mean."

From Charlottesville and the neo-Nazis that Trump had trouble condemning to the fans of Alex Jones that he sidles up to, to the 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets that were sent from some 3 million Twitter handles in 2017, to the incidents of incivility and violence that fill the news nearly every day-----Trump has empowered extremists to feel unburdened and unshackled, they have truly become "more mean."

Gerson's analysis is chillingly accurate and a reminder of the dangers of Trump beyond an incompetent foreign policy, the subversion of environmental protections, the erosion of democratic norms and constitutional protections, and whatever other realm he chooses to devastate; for all its other malfeasances, the Trump era is tragically also "a renaissance of half-witted intolerance."

Ignoring Hate---Trump Style

As with so much else over the past sixteen months, Donald Trump has managed to undermine the way bigotry is treated in the public eye.

For the past few decades, it has been a bit of ritual dance that gets played in the arena of civil rights: someone makes an offensive comment or acts in an overtly insensitive way and the furies of righteousness descend on the offender. The person apologizes, claims no offense was intended and everyone moves on.

Occasionally, when the offense is particularly egregious, the offender commits to “training” or a rehab program of one sort or another (addiction, diversity training, anger management, etc.).

It has been fairly rote, yet it imparts a lesson to the larger community that bigotry and prejudice are not cost free---that there are certain norms and expectations of conduct, especially if the person is in the public arena, that he/she is expected to adhere to.     

For most Americans, it has become an axiom that bigotry and uncivil behavior is unacceptable in public life. In fact, there is some justification for the view that political correctness (delineating what is acceptable and appropriate speech/action in the realm of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious matters) has, on occasion, gone too far. “Micro-aggressions” and implicit bias constrict the limits on what is within bounds.

 If extreme sensitivity is on one end of the continuum, what we witnessed this week in the West Virginia Republican senate race---is on the other. The regression to a time of ignoring bigotry and the craven willingness to tolerate hate in the pursuit of other, “more important,” goals.

Don Blankenship, the convicted former head of Massey Energy, was a candidate for the Republican nomination for Senate this past Tuesday. Mercifully, he came in third and lost. But in his losing may have revealed more about Republican party leadership in the age of Trump than we care to know.

His campaign was an insurgent, anti-establishment one. He railed against the powers that be in Washington and the Republican party, with a special animus directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell made clear early on that he had one disfavored candidate for the Republican nomination, Blankenship, a man who had no chance of unseating the present incumbent, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Not unreasonably, McConnell calculated that a man who just got out of prison for crimes related to the death of 29 West Virginia miners in 2010 was not the ticket to retaining GOP control of the US Senate.

In response, Blankenship took on McConnell, and racism was his tool.

McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the Secretary of Transportation and is Taiwanese American (she was born in Taipei). Her father is James S.C. Chao, head of the Foremost Group, a large, New York-based shipping line, one of whose ships was found in Colombia to have cocaine hidden on board in 2014.

Blankenship repeatedly referred to McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” and then made repeated references to McConnell’s and Chow’s “China family” and the senator’s purported efforts to “create millions of jobs for China people.”

Blankenship’s use of “China people” appears to be his bizarre attempt to be politically correct by being gender neutral; but “Chinaman” or “China people” are as offensive as the “N-word” or “kike.” His defense of his use of the term was nearly comical.

What is most distressing about this incident is not that there is someone as obtuse and bigoted running for office as Blankenship---that’s not news (even if he did garner nearly 20% of the vote). Rather, what is alarming is that the powers in the Republican party failed to label Blankenship for the bigot that he is.

Trump tweeted that the “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State” [sic]. For Trump, the problem isn’t the candidate’s bigotry, or his conviction for criminal conduct, or his manifest lack of leadership skills---it’s his odds of winning. Were he a more effective bigot, who knows what the president would write?

McConnell was similarly craven in his response to Blankenship’s bigotry (even though it was his wife who was pilloried). When asked about Blankenship’s racism, McConnell said that how he would characterize Blankenship’s ads would depend on what happened in the election, “Well, we’re going to find out what happens in West Virginia tonight, and I may have more to say tomorrow.” Apparently, if he had the Republican standard bearer to deal with, the ads would be deemed inoffensive. Bigotry is defined on a sliding scale.

Both President Trump and Senator McConnell condemned Blankenship for amoral, utilitarian reasons---because he would undoubtedly lose in the general election---not because he deserved to lose due to his bigotry. A bigot wasn’t ostracized for his hate and prejudice but for his ineffectiveness.

When evaluating bigotry depends on political winds and the effectiveness of its purveyor we have reason to be troubled; were he alive, George Wallace might yet be able to make a comeback.  



A Criminal Sin

By David A. Lehrer


 From his initial descent down the escalator at Trump Tower to his absence at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Trump has displayed on an uncanny ability to dominate the headlines in the American press. What Trump does, or doesn't do, manages to suck up virtually all the media's attention relegating context, explanations, and perspectives on the flow of events to a footnote in the coverage, if any mention at all.


On most issues, his musings and diatribes need little context for most people to discern their falsity-they are often blatant lies, exaggerations and mischaracterizations that are fairly obvious to anyone who is not a died in the wool trumpkin (here is an analysis of one of his "most comprehensively disproven tweets"). His now proven lies regarding payments to Stormy Daniels, his incessant  attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, James Comey, and anyone who disagrees withhim speak for themselves; no help is needed to decipher his victimized mind at play. He misrepresents reality at a rate of 6.5 untruths per day  (according to a study by the Washington Post) most of his lies are on topics that don't go to how Americans view themselves, their communities or their country. 

 What is more troublesome are his characterizations of complex issues where his untruths are harder to discern and their impact truly insidious. In particular, his negative narrative of crime in America is truly dangerous with serious and bizarre policy implications.

On the issue of crime, Trump's dystopian description of crime in America during his presidential campaign was particularly outrageous.

I'll be able to make sure that when you walk down the street
in your inner city, or wherever you are, you're not going to be shot....your child isn't going to be shot.

His constant refrain alleging rampant crime in American cities, his disdain for predominantly Black communities, his decrying of Mexican immigrants as murderers and thugs combined to gin up fear of crime across the country and provided a useful vehicle for his claim to be the savior who can keep us all safe.

His campaign rhetoric was topped off by his dark inaugural speech and the bizarre assertion that, "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

Where Trump's predecessors tried to calm fears and unwarranted anxiety (e.g. FDR's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself") this president raises illusory boogeymen to stoke fear and division.

The reality of crime in America over the past few decades is precisely the opposite of the "carnage" scenario that the president has trumpeted. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik described what is really going on,

In the city [New York] where more than 2,000 people used to be murdered each year,                             328 were killed in 2014,the  lowest tally since the first half of the twentieth century."                       (Last year, the tally was still lower.) It wasn't just New York. Violent crime fell in Atlanta,               Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, and not by a little but by a lot.

More important, the quality of life changed dramatically, particularly for the most                              vulnerable. Sharkey, studying the crime decline in six American cities, concludes,                                         "As the degree of violence has fallen, the gap between the neighborhoods of the poor                             and nonpoor has narrowed." In Cleveland in the eighties, the level of violence in poor              neighborhoods was about seventy per cent higher than in the rest of the city; by 2010,
that number had dropped to twenty-four per cent. The reduction of fear allowed much                           else to blossom: "Subway cars, commuter lines, and buses in U.S. cities filled up, as                        residents and commuters became more willing to leave their cars behind and travel to                            and from work together.. . . Fans came back to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and just                              as many began to show up for night games as for day games." The big city was revived.                            From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, the transformation of America's inner cities                      from wastelands  to self-conscious espresso zones became the comedy of our time.

The data aren't hidden, this reality is being lived by most Americans (the overall crime rate in Los Angeles is the lowest it has been since the 1950s and 60s), yet Trump has embedded this pernicious notion of carnage into the psyche of many who have become increasingly fearful. Gopnik helps explain the phenomenon (watch his recent appearance on CNN here).

Yet little trace of this transformation troubles our art, or even much of our public discourse.                    Our pundits either take the great crime decline for granted or focus on the troubles
it has helped create, like high housing prices in San Francisco or Brooklyn.                                             Even when we pay attention to the comedy, we rarely look at the cause.


This lack of appreciation is partly a question of media attention-deficit disorder:                                      if there is little news value in Dog Bites Man, there is none whatever in Dog Does Not                           Bite Man. It is part of the neutral unseen background of events, even if there had                                previously been an epidemic of dog bites. But it's hard for those who didn't live                                   through the great crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties to fully understand                          the scale or the horror of it, or the improbabilityof its end.

Not only do the media ignore what doesn't happen, there is little percentage in rational candidates questioning the claimed increase in the incidence of crime, no matter how minimal the rate. There are always victims with heart-rending stories, pointing out how anomalous crimes are wins few friends.

The media ignore the profound transformation, candidates avoid countering the hyperbolic assertions, advertisers for burglar alarm systems and security devices bombard the airwaves with commercial depicting break ins and violent crimes and all the while the numbers for those crimes remain at historic lows.

Gopnik speculates as to why we are experiencing this profound transformation,  

An epidemic of violence was resolved without addressing what were thought to                                            be its underlying disorders. We cured the crime wave without fixing "the broken                                          black family," that neocon bugaboo. For that matter, we cured it without greater                               income equality or even remotely solving the gun problem.
The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities.                                 We could end cholera-in London, they did-without really understanding how                                        cholera bacteria work. We have curbed crime without knowing how we did it,                                  perhaps simply by doing it in many ways at once. It is possible to see this as a                                         kind of humanist miracle, a lesson about the self-organizing and, sometimes,                                          self-healing capacities of human communities that's as humbling, in its way, as any
mystery that faith can offer.


Given the transformation of America that we are living through what we need is a courageous politician to wake us up to this reality, to decry the demagoguery and dissembling that surrounds the issue and acknowledge that so much of our energy, resources and fears are incorrectly targeted.

Trump is manifestly not that politician---he is a good part of the ailment, he is clearly not the cure. 

Hollywood as a Barometer of Jews' Sense of Security

A frequently ignored fact about Hollywood, its images and messages is that it can serve as a barometer of the Jewish community and its feeling of belonging in America. The invocation of potentially anti-Semitic tropes at one point in our recent history can be viewed as insidious yet  may seem innocuous and hardly raise a hair in the community at a later time.

In recent decades most minority groups and women have become more sensitive to slights, insensitivity and even “micro-aggressions”----“political correctness” prevails. In contrast, the organized Jewish community has become less touchy, less inclined to call out certain behaviors that once were viewed as toxic. As Jews have become more comfortable and secure in their place on the American scene, they seem to be somewhat inoculated from the harm that might result from jabs and pointed humor.

In the mid-1970s, Norman Lear’s production company produced a hit television comedy series, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." The program was a lighthearted look at a beleaguered heroine and her daily travails in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. In one episode, a young friend of Mary's, Loretta, who was pursuing a career in entertainment as a country western singer, gets a big break and is flown to Hollywood to appear on the Dinah Shore Show (a fictional show within the show).

While cooking sweet potato pie, Loretta describes how pleasant all the people were whom she had met since she arrived in Hollywood (from “Mr. Raskin, to Mr. Julius the hairdresser, to Mr. Schwartz” the show’s producer), she expresses surprise that “they’s all Jewish, I couldn’t believe that this is the people what killed our Lord.” This particular program was nationally broadcast on, of all days, Good Friday (the commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus).

The following Monday the calls came in to ADL offices across the country -- the community was up in arms not only about the invocation of the deicide charge and because of the timing of the broadcast during Holy Week but also because the program had become a craze  which reached an audience of millions----Mary Hartman had been on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

The fear -- expressed and implicit -- was that reminding Americans of the deicide charge, especially at Easter time, could result in hate and violence being directed at Jews in various communities across the country. A wellspring of bigotry might be tapped and be dangerous.

In my career in the Jewish community and dealing with civil rights, few events have provoked such a tidal wave of outrage.

I handled Hollywood related complaints for the Anti-Defamation League at the time and so I was charged with making representations to the producers, Norman Lear’s operation, about the broadcast.

We met with major personalities in Lear’s company at a reception for leaders of the ADL they hosted in the roof garden at Metromedia’s then new headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. We made clear that deicide was not a joking matter in general and that it was potentially incendiary when invoked during Holy Week. The producers and directors (virtually all of whom were Jewish) listened attentively and expressed their view that they thought Americans would get the humor of the dialogue and the inappropriateness of the comment. The pointed out that it was coming from a rube who was seemingly unaware of how offensive it was and that Dinah Shore’s shocked response (as well as the director’s pained expression) made the messaging clear and unambiguous.

The incident stood in sharp contrast to an eerily similar incident some twenty years later. The response across the country to the later broadcast was as different as one might imagine.

In 1996 or 97 the then new "The Daily Show"—pre-John Stewart---aired a segment about the Orthodox Jewish tradition of kaparot -- the High Holidays' ritual of grasping a live chicken, circling the carcass around one's head while reciting prayers to metaphorically transfer sins to the chicken. The Daily Show "news" item -- broadcast a day or two before Yom Kippur -- showed the ritual taking place in Jerusalem with a young hasid swinging the chicken while explaining the symbolism. Host Craig Kilborn then commented that "Jews used to swing young Christians, instead of chickens, before they got too expensive."

Unlike Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, there were a few isolated complaints coming in to the ADL about the humor. Some callers from disparate parts of the country, but no groundswell, no wave of indignation, no fear that anti-Semitism might result from the oddly timed attempt at humor.

The forces at play were manifold---entertainment had become more atomized; we weren’t all watching the same few channels. But there was also a difference in tone from those who complained---less anger and angst. Jews had become increasingly successful  and the community felt empowered by the increasing acceptance of minority religions, races and ethnicities, the demographics of America were changing at warp speed. The societal change in attitudes towards what constitutes an “offense” was dramatic and palpable in a mere twenty years.

When I received a copy of the videotape of the program I was prepared to go after Comedy Central---the home of The Daily Show---daring to invoke the “Blood Libel” charge on the eve of Yom Kippur seemed like an egregious act of insensitivity, if not rank anti-Semitism.

I watched the broadcast (having never seen the program before) and realized that a good deal of the humor of the show was in poking fun at minorities (racial and ethnic) and other unusual targets and that the entire “mockumentary” had a light touch. I realized that Jews couldn’t demand an exemption from being the butt of humor; Jews had come of age. They were not a disadvantaged minority that needed special protection from jokesters and satirist. The overwhelming majority of Americans wasn’t going to believe the Blood Libel because of a joke on The Daily Show---they got the humor.

Polls of Americans’ attitudes towards Jews and bigotry reflected the change that I had seen in the response to Hollywood. Polls in the 1960s and 70s found anti-Semitic attitudes among Americans hovered around a third of the public, by the mid-90s that percentage was down to a historic low of 12% of the American public.

I filed no complaint, there was no meeting with network execs there was no cause for concern, the community and its leaders felt unthreatened.

There are few instances in the past two decades, with the possible exception of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ in 2004, that have generated broad scale reactions of outrage and concern similar to what I witnessed in prior decades. Today, the majority of Jewish civil-rights groups’ complaints regarding insensitivity and anti-Semitism in the media appear to be centered on foreign broadcasts from Egyptian and Pakistani TV to European broadcasters---they offer a context and make American transgressions seem tame by comparison.

Times and attitudes have indeed changed.

Celebration, Commemoration and Disappointment By Dr. Michael Berenbaum* and David A. Lehrer

This year it has been an odd holiday season for many Jews. The joy of our celebrations has been marred by disappointment as we ponder the holidays’ themes and their implications for the world around us.

Our commemorations of suffering and slavery and then freedom ought and are meant to resonate in our activities in the real world.

As we celebrated Passover, we are instructed to feel as if we, ourselves, were slaves in Egypt. [Deuteronomy 24:18, “Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from your slavery”]. The Passover Seder had us metaphorically re-experience the exodus—we consumed its symbols (the bitter herbs of slavery and Matzah, the unleavened bread eaten while fleeing) to make dramatic and personal the challenges and the implications of the journey from slavery to freedom.

The eight-day Passover festival has been supplemented by contemporary Jews with three more commemorations on the Jewish calendar, the first addition in more than a millennium.

Today we recollect the Holocaust, the annihilation of six million Jews with Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). One week later Jews observe Israel’s Memorial Day and the sacrifice of its soldiers who defend the right of the Jewish people to be free. It is followed immediately by the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day – this year its 70th.

Most Yom HaShoa commemorations reference the indifference of the world to Jews and Jewish refugees. As the man who would become Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, said in 1937 (eleven years before the creation of the state) the world was then divided “into places where the Jews could not live and places where they cannot enter.”

In the context of celebration and commemoration, with four holidays whose themes intertwine around freedom, moral responsibility and action we witnessed the prime minister of Israel reneging on an agreement with the United Nations. A pact that would have provided refuge in Israel, Europe and Canada to thousands of Africans who have sought asylum in Israel from persecution and violence and who face the threat of death if they are forced to return to their homelands.

Israel is a sovereign state that has the right and obligation to take care of its own, thirty-nine thousand refugees in a nation the size of Israel is not without issues; but the arrangement with the UN and other nations including Canada, Germany and Italy was a viable and fair resolution to the crisis. Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled the agreement within hours of endorsing it at the behest of right wing allies.

It is difficult to square our traditions and religious admonitions with the expulsion of desperate immigrants into a world where not only their freedom may be denied, but also their lives taken.

Some will commemorate the Holocaust today to largely teach that the “whole world is against us and only an empowered Jewish people that can defend itself will offer security and safety.” That is one lesson that can be drawn from the tragic events of seventy-five years ago; but surely not its only one.

The Holocaust is also a story that happened to a distinct people that has become a shared universal paradigm which speaks to human conscience. It ought to inspire active moral values, enlarge the domain of human responsibility, elicit compassion, and command respect for universal human rights and dignity. That was the core of the Jewish message transmitted by the survivors and by those millions of others who have become witnesses to their witness.

That message ought to be reflected in Israel, envisioned as a beacon to the world, a place that would not only give substance to Jewish nationalism and chauvinism but also to Jewish values. Values that reflect the Biblical injunctions on how to treat the stranger and the sojourner.  Having been history’s “wanderers” we should comprehend the real-world impact of ignoring the Bible’s noble commands.

Those values were diminished by the Prime Minister of Israel and those who pressured him to abrogate the agreement he had reached to resettle the thousands of African refugees.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu was not alone in diminishing history’s lessons and values. For on the very day that coincided with Easter and Passover the President railed against our strangers and sojourners. He demeaned foreign born children in our midst who have lived in America and are American in every sense of the term, save their citizenship papers.

Our holidays are marred by leadership who have ignored the lessons of history and the season and acted in ways as our tradition decried.

* Dr. Michael Berenbaum, is the Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at American Jewish University.

Time for a Reality Check

The Forward

American Jews Need To Stop Crying Anti-Semitism — And Start Standing Up For Liberal Values

By David A. Lehrer                                                                                                            March 30, 2018

These can be trying times for American Jews. The ADL recently released data showing a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents since 2016 — and not just from white supremacists, either. Louis Farrakhan, head of Nation of Islam, continues to spew anti-Semitic remarks every chance he gets.

This has led many Jewish organizations to condemn anti-Semitism, contrary to what Jonathan Weisman wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, entitled “Anti-Semitism Is Rising. Why Aren’t American Jews Speaking Up?” Weisman argues that Jewish leaders here in the U.S. “have been remarkably quiet, focused instead, as they have been for decades, on Israel, not the brewing storm in our own country.”

Weisman is wrong about American Jewish institutions and their leaders. They have consistently called out anti-Semitism on the left and the right. But he is right that Israel has been asking us to use our leverage to fight their battles.

Several major Jewish organizations, and the Israeli government itself, would have us believe that part of the upsurge in anti-Semitism in this country comes from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. They have asked that significant energy be expended by American Jews in countering BDS, a suggestion that many groups are following with passion. At the recent AIPAC policy conference, counteracting BDS was one of just three major policy points the attendees would press on their representatives in Congress.

Yet serious academic studies have found over and over that Israel’s booming, diverse economy is not vulnerable to a consumer boycott. A significant number of Israeli exports are in high demand, a trend that seems likely to continue, and most consumers would be unable to replace them or unwilling to stop consuming them altogether. BDS is clearly an issue, but it is not one of the top tier issues confronting the Jewish community — either here or abroad.

The study found that overall support for the Jewish state in the US is at the highest level ever recorded, at 64 percent (the same as it was in 1991 and 2013). In stark contrast to these numbers, Gallup found that support for the Palestinian cause was at just 19 percent.

The bulk of the increase in support comes from Republicans, with a rise in support for Israel from 59 percent in 2001 to 87 percent in 2018). But support also rose among Democrats (from 51 percent to 59 percent).

Amazingly, no one seems very interested in these positive results. It’s odd. When a competing study came out of the Pew Research Center a few months ago showing declines in support for Israel among Democrats, there were scores of op eds written about the crisis.

Perhaps organizations are wary of data that counter the narrative propounded by far too many domestic Jewish organizations and the government of Israel itself of a hostile world arrayed against the Jewish state, or of nefarious forces undermining support for Israel in hidden corners of the internet and on campuses.

Those threats do exist. But when it comes to Israel, they are apparently having limited success, as even 65 percent of 18-34 year olds support Israel.

Attitudes towards Jews in the U.S. are favorable as well. Pew studies over years of polling have documented not only Americans’ support for Israel but Americans’ profound admiration of Jews in general.

Despite neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews with not replace us” and Louis Farrakhan spewing hate in Chicago, Jews are the most admired religious group in America.

Major Jewish organizations need to digest the Gallup data and recognize that the greatest threat to Jews both at home and in Israel comes from within us, from our failure to embrace and sustain liberal values and ethical behavior that has long been the hallmark of Jewish life. With support among Americans at an all time high for Jews and for Israel, American Jews need to feel liberated to speak up for “liberal norms” and principles both domestically and in Israel, in the knowledge that there is a bedrock of support for Israel and American Jews in the body politic.

When the principles of rejecting bigotry, debunking conspiracy notions and protecting a free press are in jeopardy we need to speak out.

Under threat of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, we understandably felt that we needed to be circumspect and circle the wagons. But with support for Jews and Israel higher than ever, it’s time for a reckoning. It’s time for the organized Jewish community to stop acting like a threatened minority and start acting like the successful, admired group that we actually are in America.


Conspiracies Suffuse the White House

Donald Trump has been obsessed with “fake news,” it is his go to excuse for facts he dislikes, for accusations he prefers to ignore or for assessments of the world that don’t comport with his.

In an unparalleled example of Freud’s projection theory, Trump constantly accuses news outlets of falsifying facts while he lies at an unprecedented pace.  His veracity is no longer an issue; as The New York Times’ Bret Stephens observed (and most thoughtful people realize), “truth for Donald Trump is whatever he can get away with.”

But there is a darker side to his inability to distinguish between truth and fiction and his lying about things for which there is demonstrable evidence---he tolerates and promotes insidious conspiracy theories that are truly dangerous. He seems unable or unwilling to recognize conspiratorial lies that posit hidden hands and mysterious manipulators pulling strings behind the scenes. Conspiratorial outlooks have been exploited for centuries to threaten and harm minorities, the weak and the unpopular. From Blood Libel to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from periodic allegations of “immigrant” crime waves to common assertions of  Black voters engaging in widespread fraud-----conspiracy theories have predictable, if not inevitable, targets.

Trump accepts conspiracy theorists with open arms.

During the campaign he had no compunction about praising Alex Jones ("Infowars"), one of the worst and most widely watched internet-tv extremists. Jones is not a run-of-the-mill political loon, he asserts, among other nonsense, that 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sandy Hook elementary school murders and the Boston Marathon bombings were all “false flag” operations perpetrated by the federal government. The list of his bizarre musings is virtually endless.

He is the kind of unstable and extreme character that any respectable candidate with even a modicum of good sense would avoid at all costs. Not candidate Trump; during the campaign he appeared on Jones’ program and told Jones, “Your reputation is amazing, I will not let you down.”

Trump didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand what distinguishes mainstream political actors---liberal, moderate and conservative---from dangerous extremists; their disregard of facts, reason, civility, data and the absence of a capacity to compromise. Not only doesn’t he reject them—he embraces much of their modus operandi. For Trump----any viewpoint, if it suits his purpose, is as good as another---accuracy, verification, documentation are manifestly irrelevant; all opinions are potentially useful, no matter their pedigree or inaccuracy.

And this pernicious view of what is acceptable in our political lexicon pervades the views of those close to Trump---he’s not the only sloppy thinker.

The wacky views of his briefly serving National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn and his son (who was to be Flynn's chief of staff) are well documented and were precursors of what was to come.

Gen. Flynn was known among his staffers for “Flynn facts”---“his habit of making assertions that are not based in fact.” “Flynn facts” and a son with the intellectual vacuity to believe that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of a Virginia pizza joint posed no hurdle to their appointment to positions of responsibility in the Trump regime. But for the criminal activity of Flynn senior, they would likely both be serving today in some of the highest positions in our government.

With the Flynn history known widely, it should have come as no shock that the president’s son, Donald Junior, has no greater capacity to distinguish absurd conspiracy notions from facts than his father or Flynn junior.

In the aftermath of the horrific murder of the students in Parkland, Florida Trump Junior had no compunction about “liking” a tweet promoting the absurd assertion that one of the surviving students, an articulate spokesman for gun control, was in fact a fabrication of “the mainstream media.” He “liked” another tweet promoted by a right-wing radio host that intimated that the Parkland youngster was part of a plot to protect the kid’s father, an FBI agent.

The Trump junior tweet is so telling not only because it confirms the familial penchant for absurd assertions but also because it comes from an individual who knows that every one of his keystrokes is being watched by the press, by critics and by those who will evaluate what he chooses to say or not say. He is not an idle social media user out to entertain a few friends. Nevertheless, knowing that he is in a fishbowl, he couldn’t resist expressing his support for truly insidious and groundless conspiracy notions.

As I wrote in late 2016 when the Flynn Junior story first broke,

This is about “reasoning” that accepts fantasy as fact and is willing to suspend intellectual rigor.

What is so troubling about believers in and trumpeters of “fake news” is their obvious abandonment of reason, discernment and good sense. The absence of intellectual honesty in failing to demand evidence and factual corroboration before repeating illogical conspiracy myths suggests a susceptibility to other forms of sloppy thinking and the willing vilifying of opponents. An ominous proclivity for those concerned about bigotry, civility, and a functioning government.

It has become clear in the more than thirteen months since Trump took office, that his lack of intellectual rigor, reason and discernment (as echoed by Trump Junior) reflect a rot in this administration that seeps down from the Oval Office to countless corners of the bureaucracy.

Conspiracy theories that flourish in this kind of environment undermine and threaten minorities and our society’s most vulnerable and are amplified by a complicit commander-in-chief.


Reason on Campus

This week UCLA's chancellor, Gene Block, issued a strongly worded statement regarding the planned speech of a political extremist on campus.

The speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a British born former Breitbart reporter who was an ardent Trump supporter with connections to the alt right. His modus operandi is to provoke and prod and generate as much notoriety as possible. He has relished campus invitations where he could rail against political correctness and minorities and bask in the controversies and confrontations that follow.

His penchant for pushing folks' hot buttons has caused him serious problems. In 2016 he was banned from Twitter for "inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse of others." In a 2016 podcast interview he defended pedophilia.

He argued that sexual relations between thirteen-year-old boys and adult men or women can 'happen perfectly consensually', because some 13-year-olds are, in his view, sexually and emotionally mature enough to consent to sex with adults; he spoke favorably both of gay 13-year-old boys having sex with adult men and straight 13-year-old boys having sex with adult women. He used his own experience as an example (Wikipedia).

Needless to say, many of his speaking engagements were cancelled, he lost his position at Breitbart and a book contract evaporated after his "unusual" views became widely known.

His plan was to address the UCLA Republicans on the topic of "10 Things I Hate about Mexico." Early this week the young Republicans voted to cancel their invitation---stating that their "leadership was polarized."

There is little doubt that Yiannopoulos was not coming to UCLA to offer a travelogue about Mexico or a thoughtful critique of Mexico's political, social or intellectual communities. Rather, he seemed intent on living up to his reputation---as the Los Angeles Times wrote this week--- a "rabble-rouser."

In the wake of the decision to cancel, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued the kind of statement that, in my more than four decades in the civil rights field was all too rare. A firm explanation of the university's values, an acknowledgement that the students could invite whom they want (i.e. no censorship) but that a speaker like Yiannopoulos was coming primarily to "insult, demean and spark outrage.... not to engage in reasoned discussion."

Over the course of my career I have had occasion to speak to chancellors and university presidents beseeching them to speak up when bigots, neo-Nazis, David Duke types or other intolerant extremists---left or right wing---came on campus. The aim was not to ban them but to let the campus community know how antithetical bigotry and hate were to the principles of civil debate and reasoned discourse.

More often than not, administrators were reluctant to speak up for fear of provoking a militant backlash from the rabble-rousers and their friends. One prominent university chancellor informed me, "I'm not going to comment about it if I can't prevent it from happening." An odd notion of how education and moral leadership occurs.

It is especially refreshing to see an academic leader neither accede to demands to ban unpopular speakers nor be silent in the face of extremism and bigotry. It is a very fine line to tread and Chancellor Block seems to have done it in this instance. Tolerance of differing ideas is not the antithesis of having and expressing a moral position.

Block wrote,

Free speech and intellectual debate, even when uncomfortable, are critical for thriving communities. And yet some speech, although legally protected, is intended primarily to insult, demean and spark outrage among members of our community.

Recently a student group invited an outside speaker to give a talk on campus. The title of the talk referenced what the speaker "hated" about Mexico - a country with deep ties to our city, our state and our nation. This is also a country that is an important part of the heritage of many Bruins. The expression of disdain did not appear to be an attempt to engage in reasoned discussion, but rather a move by the speaker to gain notoriety through a mean-spirited, racially tinged publicity stunt. This kind of tactic and his rhetoric are totally contrary to our values. I was grateful to learn earlier today that the sponsoring student group decided to cancel the event.

As a prominent university, we will continue to be a target for such provocateurs. I hope we will all continue to resist such provocations and further nurture our campus culture, which values ideas over hatred.

Block's letter is especially timely. Today's Wall Street Journal has no fewer than two articles (here and here) about the challenge of promoting open intellectual inquiry in today's campus environment.



Community Advocates 'Very Valuable' Work

For nearly two years, Community Advocates (Joe Hicks and I) produced Kitchen Table Conversations for KCET (the then lead PBS station in LA) and its Life & Times broadcast hosted by Val Zavala. We produced nearly fifty segments in which advocates for opposing positions on tough issues would debate each other around my kitchen table.

The topics ranged from immigration to racial profiling from a border fence to a "dying middle class;" although the programs aired in 2006 and 2007 the issues seem as current today as then.

The experts ranged from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dan Neil to celebrated author Reza Aslan to UCLA law Professor Richard Sander, LA Times reporter Henry Weinstein to activist Najee Ali. Nearly ninety experts, all civil, articulate and well informed.

Our aim was to offer viewers an opportunity to hear experts explore a difficult issue in more than the usual soundbites offered on commercial tv during fast-paced and increasingly visually oriented newscasts. Our hope that viewers would appreciate the thoughtful discussions.

Apparently, they did.

This week a partner of Community Advocates on the public radio side of the media, Larry Mantle of Airtalk, interviewed our KCET partner, the treasured Val Zavala, on her retirement after thirty years on air at KCET. During the opening minutes of the dialogue, the following exchange occurred,

airtalk at 30.jpg

Larry M: I have so many different highlights of things you've done over the years. Your Kitchen Table Conversations---different perspectives, left to right, really got into local issues. You hear that all the time on national stuff but to hear that on local issues; people who respected each other, who weren't yelling at each other---that's something we try to do here on Airtalk. I find that very valuable.


Val Z: That was a wonderful chapter. That was David Lehrer of Community Advocates and Joe Hicks, God bless his soul, who passed now. We literally shot it in David's kitchen and we brought people from opposite sides and put them down and the idea was that people are honest when they are hanging out in a kitchen and so if we can create that atmosphere we can create a little bit more open and honest dialogue between different sides of various issues.

Community Advocates tried something innovative in fostering honest, engaging and vibrant debates for the public on complicated issues...and it worked. If after ten years, two of the leading broadcast journalists in Los Angeles cite those programs as "valuable...a wonderful chapter...a more open and honest dialogue"---then we succeeded.

An Evening Not to Miss

Don't miss what promises to be an informative and exciting evening----the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin in conversation with former congressman Mel Levine and former supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy.

In partnership with Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ), Temple Israel of Hollywood, Valley Beth Shalom, Stephen S. Wise Temple, and the Jewish Journal we are presenting the third in our series of no-charge Community Conversations on The Challenges of Trump's America.

Ms. Rubin is an incisive analyst, with a rapier sharp pen, whose works appears in the Washington Post and increasingly frequently on MSNBC. She is a confirmed conservative (her column is entitled the Right Turn) yet she is a leading voice in the NeverTrump movement.

Please RSVP here.


Colorblindness Succeeds in California

Why reopen the affirmative action debate, when the current system is working for everyone?

The Wall Street Journal                                                                                  January 22, 2018

For 40 years, the debate over “affirmative action” in college admissions has seemed to play on loop. Each side airs the same arguments over and over, with the same passion. Yet there is ample evidence that what actually works to move disadvantaged students up the socioeconomic ladder is the colorblind admissions system in California’s public universities.

The affirmative-action debate ignited with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The justices ruled that explicit quotas—setting aside a certain number of seats for students of different races—were unconstitutional, but they allowed schools to take race into account as one factor in admissions. (I co-wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on Allan Bakke’s side when the case was before the state Supreme Court.)


In 1996 voters approved Proposition 209, an amendment to the California Constitution: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.” Because of Proposition 209, California’s public universities have used colorblind admissions for two decades, although they actively consider applicants’ socioeconomic status.

The results have been a stunning success. Last year the Equality of Opportunity Project conducted a nationwide longitudinal study to find which colleges were doing the most to help poor students succeed. Of the top 10 ranked, five were California public schools. Among America’s elite colleges, the University of California, Los Angeles, enrolled the highest share of low- and middle-income students (19%). In the University of California system, 43% of the freshman class admitted in 2016 were the first in their families to attend college, and 37% had family incomes under $47,200 a year.


This colorblind admission system nonetheless produces college classrooms that are a fairly accurate cross-section of California’s racial and ethnic diversity. In 2017 admitted freshmen throughout the UC system were 34% Asian, 33% Latino, 24% white and 5% African-American. In the Cal State system, the figures were 47% Latino, 20% white, 16% Asian and Filipino, and 4% African-American.

For comparison, California’s high-school seniors are 52% Latino, 24% white, 11% Asian and Filipino, and 6% African-American. And of course not all seniors qualify for admission to a university, let alone the UC system.

These figures for minority admissions in the UC schools exceed many of the targets they had set before Proposition 209. Since 1996, Latinos as a share of enrollment have grown from 14% to 33%, Asians from 28% to 34%, and African-Americans from 4% to 5%. Whites have declined from 41% to 24%.

This diversity has been achieved while maintaining the quality of California’s public universities. The latest college rankings from U.S. News & World Report list UCLA and UC Berkeley as tied for the top public school in the country. Four other UCs (Santa Barbara, Irvine, San Diego and Davis) are among the top dozen.

These results should be heralded far and wide, but there is an almost willful resistance to examining the data. In the California Legislature, the Latino and black legislative caucuses sent a letter to 2018 gubernatorial candidates asking them to say whether they think race should again be considered in college admissions—a result that could be achieved only by repealing Proposition 209. Three of the leading candidates endorsed the idea.

A campaign to reinstate affirmative action would inject an incendiary racial element into this year’s election. Other than riling up the caucuses’ political bases, there is no compelling argument for seeking to resurrect racial and ethnic preferences. The push is guaranteed to split the Democratic Party—not to mention the public—and generate a needless and divisive debate. Today’s colorblind system is working well for all Californians—rich and poor, minority and white—and is a model for the rest of the country.


Bigotry in Context---The Dangers of Trump

The media "sh*tstorm" is perpetual. Donald Trump has managed to suck up the media oxygen virtually 24/7. If it isn't his "sh*thole" comments about much of Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, it's his tweets about compromises in Congress or his unrelenting dismissal of opponents with derisive diminutives.

The media has little choice but to report, analyze and comment on the daily distractions. What the media should do, but usually don't, is put Trump's actions and words into perspective. Admittedly, there is little precedent for the narcissistic self-aggrandizing occupant of the White House---what president has come close to his performance and personality? Historians suggest that he is truly sui generis. But an effort should be made to educate Americans as to what might transpire were his prescriptions to be enacted. 

There are historic precedents for the kind of jingoistic, ethnocentric bigotry that has emanated from this administration regarding immigration and its implications---short term and long term---are pretty ugly.

For starters, we should all be reminded----as the Bible admonishes----to never forget from whence we come, "remember that you were slaves in Egypt"(Deuteronomy 15:15).  

We were almost all immigrants at one point in the not too distant past. The kind of hostility and simple-mindedness that Trump (and his attorney general) have demonstrated should chill every thinking American. But the impact is attenuated by the historic ignorance that abounds.

A partial curative emerged today from one of the bulliest pulpits in the land short of the White House---The New York Times. Bret Stephens, the Times' Pulitzer Prize winning columnist has a brilliant column reminding us all that bigotry, fear, lies and distortions are nothing new in the immigration debate. In fact, virtually every one of the "America First" tactics of the Trump administration has been employed before against different sets of immigrants---what's new is the administration's ability to reach tens of millions with their hate and lies.

The target cohort that Stephens chose as an example of historically similar nativism is Jewish immigrants to the US of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  

Not unlike today's targets (El Salvadorans, Iranians, Haitians, et al.) Jews were decried as purveyors of crime (the NYPD police commissioner falsely asserted that half of all

crime in New York City was committed by Jews); Jews were viewed as socially undesirable ("social discards") as compared to northern Europeans (sound familiar?); Jews were attacked as "moral cripples" "reeking of the ghetto" who were unprepared for citizenship, and on and on.

The list of accusations from a century ago is extensive and the ring of familiarity is chilling. What Stephens brilliantly does is ask the question, what if the bigots had prevailed? What would America be missing if those of supposed "genetic inferiority" had been denied admission, if the restrictionists had prevailed?

A question that our historical perspective allows us to answer. A media bound to today's headlines can't ask what would America be missing if we pulled up the gangplanks and closed our ports of entry. We have only history as a guide, and it suggests that Trump's ethnocentric fears are insidious foolishness.  

Yet imagine if the United States had followed the advice of the immigration restrictionists in the late 19th century and banned Jewish immigrants, at least from Central Europe and Russia, on what they perceived to be some genetic inferiority. What, in terms of enterprise, genius, imagination, and philanthropy would have been lost to America as a country? And what, in terms of human tragedy, would have ultimately weighed on our conscience?

Today, American Jews are widely considered the model minority, so thoroughly assimilated that organizational Jewish energies are now largely devoted to protecting our religious and cultural distinctiveness. Someone might ask Jeff Sessions and other eternal bigots what makes an El Salvadoran, Iranian or Haitian any different.   

Stephens' piece is powerful and right on target. Today's bigots see the world through their distorted prism, it takes reason, logic and some historical context to counteract their warping of reality.  

Bravo Bret, an important piece that should be mandatory reading in every home in America! 


Despite a Year of Anxiety, a Note of Hope






As 2017 comes to a close, the weariness and exhaustion generated by the Donald Trump presidency seem everywhere. Dinner conversations inevitably come around to dreary discussions of Trump’s latest tweets, his disregard for democratic norms or his fantasyland distortion of demonstrable facts. Family gatherings have a pall cast over them as people contemplate three more years of disarray and mendacity.

It is easy to be depressed and assume the achievements of past decades — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — on issues of tolerance and intergroup relations are being undone by a president who has no shame in targeting minorities and the most vulnerable in overt, insensitive and mocking ways.

Despite Trump, I remain hopeful that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If one steps back a bit, it seems that America has banked enough goodwill and broadly inculcated notions of tolerance that the body politic can withstand the fevered emanations from the Oval Office.

The vote in Alabama is one indication that even in the reddest of states, Trump’s act is wearing thin. His disdain for the norms of modern American modes of conduct helped sink the Roy Moore candidacy. Despite Trump’s entreaties, some 350,000 to 400,000 Alabama evangelicals did not show up at the polls this month to support Judge Moore in his bid for the Senate.

Evangelicals are the core of Trump’s support. If they are seeing through his pseudo-religious veneer, many others will, as well.

Despite his distancing of himself and his office from minority groups and his assault on them during his campaign and since his election, Americans haven’t forgotten what work remains on the intergroup front.

In summarizing a recent poll, the Pew Research Center said that “growing shares of the public say more needs to be done to address racial equality and see discrimination against Blacks as an impediment to this.”

Sixty-one percent of the public (81 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans) say the country needs to continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with whites. Support for that proposition among Democrats is at a high mark since 2010 and within 3 points of the Republican high of support from 2015. The Trump effect hasn’t blinded Americans to the work that remains.

Even on the local level, racial groups get along, despite the Trump effect. A study earlier this year by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles found that 76 percent of Angelenos believe that “racial groups in Los Angeles are getting along well.” That compares with 37 percent in 1997 (five years after the riots), 48 percent in 2007, and 72 percent in 2012. Angelenos have equaled the most positive assessment of race relations at any point in the last 25 years.

In terms of particular groups in L.A., African-Americans think we are getting along “well or somewhat well” at 73 percent, Asians at 79 percent, whites at 81 percent and Latinos at 72 percent.

The barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context.

These findings, though taken early in the Trump presidency, suggest that groups can distinguish between the rhetoric of a president who cares not a whit about whom he ostracizes, condemns or harms and the real world. They have figured out that their lives are independent of the show in Washington, D.C. Even Latinos, a particular target of Trump, have a positive assessment (at 72 percent) of how we are getting along in L.A.

On a more global scale, there is reason for optimism. In a post-Trump election interview posted on Vox, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”) warned about getting too concerned with the headlines of the day and the media’s “given wisdom.” The fact is that well-established trends and attitudes transcend the vagaries of one election.

“More generally,” Pinker said, “the worldwide, decadeslong current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice — and more importantly for the future, that younger are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.

“It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. [Seth] Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes
and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.”

If you want to see the dark clouds on the horizon, there are plenty. The next three years will continue to be very rocky. The nightly news will stream awful stories and troubling facts. Yet, the barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context. By most measures we and the world are doing better than we ever have, if not as well as we might.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., which is chaired by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

Light at the end of the tunnel.jpg

The Moment of Truth—No More Excuses


While pundits debate whether the president is truly unhinged or playing a wily game of diversion, there is one realm in which the jury of rational thought has returned its verdict— Trump is a manifest threat to our norms of civil conduct and the values thatsafeguard minorities.

In his unrelenting sanitizing and elevating of bigots and extremists and his repeated racially and ethnically stereotypic comments and musings he has shown that he simply doesn’t understand or care that what he often says or does provides aid and comfort to hate and haters.

Those deplorable traits were on shocking display this week.

As one who has monitored and countered extremists and hate organizations for over forty years (from Gerald L. K. Smith in the 70s, to David Duke and the Klan to Louis Farrakhan) I can assert from personal knowledge that there has been no one in the White House in recent history that has been so willfully blind to or purposefully encouraging of haters and the causes that bigots pursue.

Unlike any president in recent history, he has blurred what has been a clear demarcation between political flamethrowers/ bigots and those who were within the accepted political lexicon of what was increasingly more tolerant America.

Over the past fifty years, in almost every instance of political extremism, rank lies, and the targeting of minorities the purveyors have been ostracized and made pariahs by our political and societal leadership. From Klan Grand Dragon Duke running for the Senate in Louisiana (as a Republican) to Klansman Tom Metzger running for theAssembly (as a Democrat) in California to Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz opining on African Americans to countless others in the public eye (e.g. Michael Richardsand Mel Gibson) who made comments that even hinted at racial, religious or ethnic animus—they were shunted aside swiftly, and as a matter of course, by leaders and opinion molders at every level.

But with Donald Trump all bets are off.

He is tone deaf to bigotry, how else to explain using a racist term ABOUT Native Americans while ostensibly honoring World War II Native American heroes-–in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson no less. He didn’t get it or he didn’t care or he was dog-whistling to his base, either explanation is unacceptable and deplorable.

He cares not one wit about whether he legitimizes haters and promotes messages that are not so subtle calls for violence and bigotry. How else to explain his tweeting crazy, incendiary anti-Muslim videos this week that originated with foreign neo-fascistgroups. Outfits that crave the “legitimacy” and attention that comes from being cited by the president of the United States? When called out by British PM Teresa May for his bizarre tweet (“wrong,” she wrote) he doubled down and admonished her (“don’t focus on me”) for daring to criticize his conduct. He can’t be shamed, not even by our closest ally.

This week his pathological need for praise led him to tweet about a website (magapill.com) that had lauded his record as president but is also the home to bizarre conspiracy theories that include “Luciferian rituals”, the Knights Templar and Jesuits. According to the website, the conspiracies are run by “Overlords” from “Bloodline Families” including the aristocracy and royalty, the papacy, and the banking families, etc. —dog whistles that are manifestly crazy and potentially incendiary.

There was a brief period of time in which one might have made excuses for Trump—he wasn’t a politician, he didn’t quite get what being a candidate for president (much less president) was all about, he was hooked on Twitter and got (gets) carried away. But the time of accepting rationalizations for the abnormal and inflammatory is over.

There simply is no legitimate explanation for his bigotry, his invoking and publicizing haters and his inability to perceive or care about the impact of his words.

There are debates to be had about taxes, Obamacare, policies towards North Korea, etc. There is no legitimate debate to be entered into about sanctioning and tacitly endorsing bigots and bigotry—that ship sailed decades ago.

Decent people—Republicans, Democrats and independents—have an obligation to distance themselves from this bigot and make clear that this conduct must end.

He is a dangerous, unhinged man with awesome power who can do serious damage to civility, tolerance, acceptance and diversity in our society. His conduct is insidious and corrosive of the accomplishments of generations of well-intentioned leaders and civil rights advocates—it is, simply put, intolerable.





Political pundits David Frum and Peter Beinart participated in “The Challenges of Trump’s America,” a panel discussion held Sept. 26 at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and moderated by Rabbi Ed Feinstein.

Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, spoke about the intense reaction he has received for his prediction that Trump would lose the presidential election and the importance of political involvement to create change. His forthcoming book, “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” focuses on “Trump as a system of power.”

“Donald Trump as a personality is a combination of the disappointing, the dysfunctional, but he is just one man,” Frum said. “The United States is a giant bureaucratic state with all kinds of checks and balances and rules and regulations, and the question is, how much harm can one man do? The question isn’t to ask, who is he? … The question is, what happened around him? How is this system of power possible in a constitutional republic, and how is it enabling it?”

Beinart, a contributor to The Atlantic, a senior columnist at The Forward and a CNN political commentator, discussed the impact of Trump’s presidency nationally and internationally.

“It is very significant that Donald Trump is the first American president since the 1990s who does not publicly support the two-state solution … and has therefore liberated [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu to no longer publicly support the two-state solution, either,” Beinart said. “That, I believe, is going to have profound long-term implications. Once we permanently foreclose the possibility [for] millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank under Israeli control but without citizenship and democratic rights, we have planted a bomb underneath the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”

Beinart called out Trump for bigotry and asked for unity among Jews and Muslims in the wake of rising prejudice.

“The anti-Semitism is frightening, but we have to be careful not to become narcissists,” he said. “The anti-Semitism that is rising does not have powerful members of the White House and of the United States Congress egging it on. The anti-Muslim bigotry that is emerging in the Trump era is entirely different than the anti-Semitism cause; it has the active support of some of the most powerful politicians in the United States. [Trump] goes after soft targets; we are not a soft target. Muslims are a soft target, and that’s why we must stand for them.”

Frum ended the presentation on a lighter note, emphasizing the importance of being proactive.

“I’m not an optimist by nature, but I’m determined in the Trump years to be an optimist by conviction,” he said. “The thing I resent about the question ‘What do you think will happen?’ is that it makes me a spectator. I’m a citizen and a participant and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know what I’m going to do.”

— Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

Rabbi Marvin Hier, Alex Jones and Donald Trump


The month since Trump’s inauguration has been fascinating. One can watch “leaders” of the Jewish community engage in cost-benefit analyses to determine whether they should embrace, ignore or condemn Donald Trump as he bungles his way forward.

On the national scene, it appears that the ranks of the courageous have been led by the Anti-Defamation League’s (my former employer) Jonathan Greenblatt. He has shown no patience for the insensitive acts, attitudes, and language of the Trump folks regarding Muslims, African Americans and Jews. He has calculated that being honest with his constituents outweighs having briefings by machers in the administration or headline speakers at fundraising dinners.

He must also have concluded that objecting to Trump’s vulgarity is not outweighed by the influence he might hope to have on administration Middle East policy in the 3 years and 11 months ahead. He rightly concluded that ADL would just be window dressing in a White House that is unlike any other with its “global nationalist” agenda.

On the other hand, there are the Jewish organizations who have managed to rationalize Trump’s domestic malfeasance and extremism with the apparent hope that they will retain access and influence with the crafters of America’s Middle East policy. They have sold out their domestic principles in the hope that they will be able to assist Prime Minister Netanyahu.

As columnist Bret Stephens noted in Time Magazine, about his conservative colleagues who sidle up to Trump and his folks,

This is supposed to be the road of pragmatism, of turning lemons into lemonade. I would counter that it’s the road of ignominy, of hitching a ride with a drunk driver.    

Among the ride hitchers are Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Center is ostensibly concerned with civil rights and our domestic agenda but it can’t admit the Trump connection to extremism and bigotry.

When the White House proclamation on Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to mention Jews, Rabbi Hier facilely excused the egregious omission as a “rookie mistake.”

When issues arose about Trump’s repeated failure to condemn anti-Semitism, Hier was uncharacteristically mild, “he’s made a couple of mistakes…he should have spoken up sooner.”

Those of use familiar with the Wiesenthal Center know that vigorously opining on anything that even hints at anti-Semitism is what the Center is best at. They have no compunction about claiming that anti-Semitism is alive and well (see my op/ed here).

This week I authored an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times opining that Trump’s “too little, too late” condemnation of anti-Semitism doesn’t begin to deal his “world view and conduct [which] are the swamp from which bigotry and hate emerge.” Afterwards, I was interviewed by KNX Radio.

The broadcast piece had Rabbi Hier as the counterpoint offering that “it’s ridiculous to postulate the notion that Trump is an anti-Semite.” After all “he loves his daughter who is a convert to Judaism and his son-in-law who is an Orthodox Jew….”

Of course, that was a feint. Neither my Times piece nor responsible critics have alleged that Trump personally is “anti-Semitic;” perhaps his psychiatrist and his confessor know what he really believes, but for the rest of us, his actions and attitudes are what matter, not his subconscious.

By his actions and words he has reflected an indisputable hostility towards Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, and, as of this week, segments of the LGBT community. And that same hostility is a threat to Jews—-intolerance against one group tends to be reflected in bigoted views towards others—-the cognitive tools of tolerance are absent. As the noted historian of anti-Semitism, James Carroll, wrote in The New Yorker this week about Trump and the link between bigotries,

In fact, our temperamental President is bigotry’s cliché. Even the cult of white supremacy on which his movement depends has its origins, too, in the positive-negative structure of the Western imagination, a structure erected in the first place to keep Jews in their place 

Trump’s greatest danger lies not in his endorsing American pogroms or venal hate, but in his tolerating and advancing those who do.

He has demonstrated a disturbing inability, or unwillingness, to distinguish between acceptable, rational political discourse and hate and extremism. While he unhesitatingly attacks the media as “the enemy of the American people” he has no compunction about normalizing, sanitizing, praising and hiring bigots and extremists—-apparently they are NOT the enemy of the people.

One of his “buddies” is an internet troll who is manifestly unhinged, Alex Jones. A vile extremist who proudly proclaims that he speaks on the phone to Trump and hopes to soon have White House press credentials is [according to The New York Times] the conspiracy-theorizing, flame-throwing nationalistic radio and internet star who’s best known for suggesting that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was “completely fake”….. 

His nuttiness, as one might expect, spills over into anti-Semitism: “Cause let me tell you, the Emanuels [Rahm, Ari, et al.] are mafia. And you know I was thinking, they’re always trying to claim that if I talk about world government and corruption I’m anti-Semitic, …..it’s not that Jews are bad, it’s just they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States. They run Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.

…..I mean it’s like, if being against Jews that are weirdo Nazi collaborators and gangsters makes me anti-Semitic then fine.. [Emphasis added]”

Any politician with an ounce of sophistication, let alone the president of the United States, would steer clear of anyone with Jones’ record and reputation. But Trump has appeared on Jones’ radio program and commented that, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” As noted above, Trump talks to Jones periodically; he doesn’t find Jones’ abhorrent views disqualifying.

Trump also has on his staff as a deputy assistant, Sebastian Gorka, who, when he lived in Hungary (from 2002-2007), had “close ties to Hungarian far right circles, and in the past has chosen to work with openly racist and anti-Semitic groups and public figures.” He proudly wore the lapel pin of the Nazi collaborationist regime that ruled Hungary during the Holocaust to a Trump inaugural ball. He has termed recent criticism of the White House omission of Jews from their Holocaust remembrance declaration “asinine.”

The president is clearly unable or unwilling to distinguish between normal political actors and flame throwing bigots and extremists who fertilize the agar of hate. He has hired extremists and consorts with crazies and in the process legitimizes bigotry and radicals.

Rabbi Hier notwithstanding, whether Trump’s daughter or son-in-law are Orthodox Jews, devout Presbyterians or atheists doesn’t alter the fact that Trump’s inability to parse haters and extremists from mainstream political discourse is a threat to our democracy. That distinction is what makes American democracy so durable, the extremists remain isolated and ostracized on the fringes. To the extent that they are legitimized, they poison our politics.

Rabbi Hier’s museum documents the rise of extremism in Nazi Germany, he ought to know that those who consort with bigots and extremists become their facilitators and virtually indistinguishable from them.

David Lehrer co-founded Community Advocates, Inc. after 17 years as Director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League, where he served as counsel for 11 years prior.

Impressive Successes in Moving Up the Poor


President Trump continued promoting his dystopian vision of America in his inaugural speech on Friday,

The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

…..Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

At least on one front, education, his vision of the poor being left behind and “trapped” with few avenues for upward mobility is being disproved by data that are just emerging.

This blog has written (and published op/eds) numerous times about the success that many of California’s universities—public and private—have had in admitting, nurturing and graduating socio-economically disadvantaged young people (Trump’s “struggling families”). The data that we didn’t have was how these students did after they graduated—was a college education a vehicle for upward mobility, or a salve for guilty consciences?

Well, the answer seems to be that a college education is changing the direction of kids’ lives and fortunes—especially poor kids. This Sunday’s New York Times will have a column by David Leonhardt in which he analyzes a study just published by The Equality of Opportunity Project with professors from Stanford, Brown and Harvard. They gathered data from virtually every college in America (including data on kids who didn’t graduate) and looked at the socio-economic status of admits when entering the university and their earnings after college. The study found that “working class colleges” are,

deeply impressive institutions that continue to push many Americans into the middle class and beyond – many more, in fact, than elite colleges that receive far more attention.

To take just one encouraging statistic: At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. These students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.

The successes that the study chronicled, and Leonhardt reported on, are nationally based. But in California, in general, and Los Angeles County, in particular, the success and accessibility of elite universities and “working class” colleges is truly jaw-dropping. Our institutions are doing an impressive job of moving the disadvantaged up the ladder.

UCLA stands out as the model of accessibility and mobility. Its median parent income is the lowest among the nation’s elite universities ($104,900) while its percentage of poor students (i.e. coming from families that make $20,000/year or less) is the highest in the country. And perhaps the key measure—it ranked number one among 63 elite universities in the “overall mobility index“—the likelihood that a student will “move up two or more income quintiles” after leaving college. It does all this while avoiding racial and ethnic preferences and maintaining its status as a world class academic institution with an international reputation.

Not to be outdone, USC is ranked 4th nationally among elite universities in the “overall mobility index.”

If a student doesn’t qualify for a UCLA or a USC, there are in California—and especially in LA County—multiple alternative opportunities for moving up. The study found that the Cal State Universities in Los Angeles County alone advance more students from the bottom fifth of income distribution to the top three fifths of earners than all the Ivies, University of Chicago, Duke, MIT and Stanford combined. The Cal States in LA County moved up 1,531 students from the class born in 1980, while the Ivies plus moved up 535.

Cal State LA is among the most successful colleges of all kinds nationwide in moving students from the bottom forty percent of earners to the top forty percent of earners, while Glendale Community College had among the highest upward mobility rates of any school in the country—no matter the school’s ranking.

The significant fly in the ointment, and the irony of President Trump bemoaning the “young and beautiful” being deprived of knowledge, is that public institutions of higher education are being funded less and less. As Leonhardt points out, “state funding for higher education has plummeted. It’s down 18 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, since 2008.”

We’ll soon see how much he truly cares about “the struggling families all across our land” and “the mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” when offered evidence that they can move up the ladder of economic success but it won’t happen without funds to maintain and sustain those “ladders” across the country.