Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has a Jewish mother, a father of Mexican heritage, and an Italian last name. He is also a Progressive Democrat who publicly and proudly professes love for Israel.
In other words, Garcetti packs quite a mix.
The mayor was in Israel this week leading a five-day American Jewish Committee Project Interchange bipartisan delegation of five US mayors. Though he has been in Israel twice before, this was his first time since becoming in 2013, the first elected Jewish mayor of Los Angeles, a city boasting the second largest Jewish population in America.
Garcetti’s first time in Israel, he recalled in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, was in 1987, as a 16-year-old high school student interested in seeing how Ethiopian Jews, who had arrived to Israel on Operation Moses in 1984 were being absorbed.
He had worked for their benefit, traveling to Ethiopia on behalf of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jews after Operation Moses. Garcetti said that the delegation was made up of doctors and people to assist them, and their mission was to provide medical help to Jews – mostly women, children and the elderly – who were unable to make the arduous trek to Sudan in 1984 and be a part of the first airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“We would sneak from place to place because of the Marxist regime there, and open up suitcases full of medicine that we happened to have as tourists,” he said.
Garcetti made another trip to Israel in 2007, but said his current visit was particularly important, coming at a time where “there is such division, confusion and partisanship creeping into what should be an eternal relationship, and for me a central part of my identity.”
Garcetti’s name was bandied about early on as a possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, but in January he decided not to join an already very crowded race. He has solid Progressive Democratic credentials, and has not, however, ruled out a potential presidential bid in the future once his mayoral term ends in 2023.
“Has Israel lost the Democrats?” he was asked.
“I would not overstate it, but yes, it should be a concern,” he replied. “As a Democratic Jew, I think it is incumbent upon us to have dialogue with a new generation of leaders who may not know history. But I wouldn’t overstate things and say that Democrats suddenly don’t support Israel.”
At the same time, Garcetti acknowledged that Israel has become much more of a partisan issue, saying that both Israel and the US have made it so. He said that as a Jew and a Democrat he views himself as a bridge.
“You might hate Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], but you can love Israel,” he said. “Or you might hate [US President Donald] Trump, but you can still see the importance of this [Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu],” he said.
BOTH ISRAELI and US politicians should “be interfering less in each other’s domestic politics,” he said, adding that respect for that principle has been important in keeping the Israel-US relationship strong. Without drilling down into specifics, he said that now there has been “a breaking through of that barrier for short-term victory.”
Asked whether Netanyahu’s full embrace of Trump – calling him as recently as Tuesday evening the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House – is something that could end up hurting Israel when the Democrats retake the White House at some point, Garcetti said, “People’s memories are short, and in a year or two – when there are new regimes and new leaders – things can change. But I do think that this [the Trump-Netanyahu relationship] has enabled this to be less about two nations, and more about two people.”
Garcetti said that having the Israel-US relationship now being seen primarily through the prism of the Trump-Netanyahu relationship does not “inherently have to hurt,” acknowledging that there have been “good things” that have come out of the relationship “that, as a Jew, are good to see.”
“I am not critical of the president on all things,” he said. “I am an American first, and a Jew as well, before I am a Democrat. But I believe in my values, in my politics; I will praise good things that happened, but will not be shy about condemning things. If I love Israel, as I do, I need to make sure that you don’t have to fit a Trumpesque profile to feel that this is an okay position to have.”
Garcetti said he feels “absolutely” comfortable loving Israel from inside the Democratic Party. As to comments about Jews and Israel made by firebrand representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, he said sometimes he believes that what was said was antisemitic and must be condemned, but that other times what was said was being manipulated to fit an agenda. Tlaib’s comments this week about Israel and the Holocaust, he argued, fell into the latter category.
THE LA mayor took Trump to task for saying in March that Democrats have become an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish party.
With comments like that, Garcetti said, the president “is not just describing what he sees – he is very conscious of that – he is trying to win votes. That should be off-limits for Democrats as well as Republicans.”
Those types of statements, he said, “are offensive to me as a Democrat and as a Jew, because if I want to play that game, there are plenty of things that you can point out that he has done or said or enabled. But I would never do that because this is an area I think should be non-partisan.”
While the mayoral delegation was originally scheduled to meet with Netanyahu – it did meet with President Reuven Rivlin and a number of Israeli mayors – the prime minister, who is in the middle of coalition negotiations, canceled at the last minute, citing scheduling problems.
Garcetti said that he would have liked to ask Netanyahu what the prime minister could do to help those American Jews – who are of a different “political stripe” – defend Israel.
“This is not a criticism, not an attack, but there are certain things that – eyes wide open – are tough in this [emerging] coalition for Jewish leaders who are not necessarily far Left, but are part of the mainstream of American Judaism, to defend back home,” he said.
Though Garcetti did not spell out what he was referring to, there was a great deal of criticism in the American Jewish establishment of Netanyahu’s role in enabling the merger before the last elections of Bayit Yehudi with the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party.
Asked what he thought Netanyahu could do to make defending Israel easier for some American Jews, Garcetti replied: “Politicians will often do what they have to do. You have to put a coalition together with 50% plus one, but there should be a recognition of the consequences of who you dance with.”
And more than just a recognition of consequences, he said, there should be some accommodation – if certain decisions are being made to form a coalition – to counter narratives taking hold, such as that Israel is becoming more extremist.
“Leadership,” he added, “is also making sure that even with coalition partners, do you let people run wild, or do you push back?”
Later in the interview, the mayor had some other thoughts on leadership.
“You can’t be a good leader if you don’t have time to reflect, if you don’t grow spiritually,” said Garcetti, who is involved in Los Angeles with both the Reform Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and at Ikar, which describes itself as a community “working to reanimate Jewish life, to reengage text and tradition not only so that we find personal meaning and connection, but also to help us decipher what it means to be a human being in the world today.”
As with any elected official, Garcetti said, “Your life gets taken over by appointments, by the velocity the position demands. Judaism is like punctuation for me. It is comma to pause and reflect, a period to stop and think, an exclamation to celebrate, and a question mark to kind of ask. And to me, that is really critical.”