The Donald Sterling saga and its implications for Jews

Jews were perceived members of elite white majority which exploited black workers and tenants, for owning substantial properties in black neighborhoods.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the sad and distressing saga of Donald Sterling and his racial rants continues to unfold, the impact of his abhorrent misconduct on Jewish communities in Los Angeles, Israel and around the world mandates close examination.
Relations between American Jews and their African American counterparts should be probed with even more delicate precision.
There is little which can be added to the volumes of articles, columns, broadcasts and other media releases which have berated Sterling’s comments incessantly since the story first broke.
However, there is a noteworthy excerpt in Sterling’s conversation with his alleged mistress which sets it apart from other remarks which were, in and of themselves, brazenly demeaning towards blacks.
In fact, some of his comments were deemed mild in comparison to utterances attributed to Sterling which surfaced during a class action against Sterling initiated by the US Department of Justice several years ago, wherein he was quoted as brandishing blacks as “stinking” and “breeding vermin” in his description of tenants in apartments which he owned, that prompted his policy to exclude them.
In his conversation with his girlfriend V.
Stiviano, he chided her for associating with blacks like Magic Johnson and ordered her not to bring black people to Clipper games.
The Sterling outburst looms as a setback for relations between the Los Angeles Jewish community, which numbers around 800,000, and its African American neighbors, who comprise a sector of around 1,000,000.
From a historical perspective, relations between the two have been considered amicable, although at times they were severely tested and became somewhat strained.
It is clear that Jewish business and spiritual leaders universally lent their active support to the civil rights movement and to African American organizations like the NAACP.
Moreover, many of the freedom riders in the South during the early 60’s were Jewish, and several dozen rabbis marched with Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Washington, DC and elsewhere.
Still, Jews were perceived as members of an elite white majority which exploited black workers and tenants, and were often singled out since they owned substantial residential income and commercial properties in black neighborhoods.
During the riots which followed the infamous Rodney King trial in 1992, many Jewish establishments were set ablaze or otherwise destroyed. In the more than 20 years which have elapsed since then, a sense of harmony has evolved between the two ethnic blocks, due in part to the opportunities provided to blacks in the entertainment industry, where many of the prominent filmmakers are Jewish.
The specter of a Jewish billionaire defiling the collective core of black men and women who work for him, rent from him and buy tickets to Clippers games is sure to rile up those anti-Semitic voices which have been largely dormant for the past two decades.
There has lingered a fringe element in black community who have harbored resentment against their Jewish neighbors on economic and social grounds. Sterling, who was born Donald Tokowitz and is widely recognized as Jewish, was already seen as a nemesis in the African American community because of the highly publicized discrimination lawsuit over his prejudicial treatment of minorities in his real estate operations in which he payed out 2.7 million dollars.
Now, in the wake of his latest escapade and his besmirching remarks towards blacks, Sterling is not only sure to rile up the sentiments of those factions amongst blacks already disposed to hate Jews, but he has also created a danger with its impact on the mindset of the majority of blacks, who have been nurtured in the belief that Jews are their natural allies and share a common cause against discrimination.
There is still another aspect of Sterling’s tirade which is worrisome and disconcerting to Jews and Israelis alike.
In another part of his dialogue, he alludes to the Israeli white majority as treating their dark-skinned countrymen like “dogs” and implies that his own brand of treatment of blacks is far more humane.
In this context as well, his invectives are certain to give comfort to African Americans who are seen as sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians and Sterling’s remarks will undoubtedly inflate the acrimonious bias which a great many of them already harbor towards Israel.
It is incumbent upon Jewish community and civic leaders, especially in Los Angeles, to exert some damage control by reaching out to their colleagues in the black community in various forums and proclaim that the compassion and empathy of the vast majority of Jews towards blacks remains intact and cannot be undermined by the prejudicial and backward quips of a loose cannon like Donald Sterling.
The fact that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, himself a Jew, has banished Sterling for life from any activities involving the LA Clippers or the NBA, should produce a calming effect on many who have been enraged by Sterling’s behavior.
There is a collateral issue here in that there have been numerous calls within the Jewish community and elsewhere for those charities which have benefitted from Sterling’s donations to return the donated funds to the Sterling Foundation.
These demands are likely to be summarily rebuffed and they are not supported by precedent. It is well documented that many charitable institutions, including but not limited to hospitals, schools and synagogues have benefited by the generous contributions of underworld figures like Meyer Lansky, Moe Dalitz, Arnold Rothstein and others.
It is difficult to find a single instance whereby a charitable organization has voluntarily or otherwise returned contributions to their donors, regardless of how culpable they were. That will not happen in this case either, although it is too late for Mr. Sterling to save himself from this mess, no matter how many checks he wants to write.
Don Barnett is an Israeli soccer agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.