Stereotyping Beverly Hills

John Mirisch
Councilmember and former three term mayor of Beverly Hills

A day after Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding, we can read that Syracuse University suspended an engineering fraternity for a “racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic” video.

On that same day, Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, remarked that “anti-Semitism is in full sight in Europe.”

Last year right here in the US, the Anti-Defamation League saw the largest single-year increase in anti-Semitic incidents since they began tracking them.

Beverly Hills, my home town, the city I represent and the community in which I grew up, is known throughout the world as an affluent city.

Beverly Hills is also home to a large Jewish population and has been that way for as long as I can remember.  And stereotypes of Beverly Hills are often, sadly, infused with various strains of both conscious and latent anti-Semitism.

This stereotyping of Beverly Hills has also been happening for as long as I can remember.  When younger – and this certainly wasn’t an uncommon experience among many kids who grew up here – it sometimes felt embarrassing to be from Beverly Hills because of the stereotyping.  In some cases it was a giveaway that you were Jewish and you weren’t quite sure how people might react.  When on vacation or at camp or visiting friends outside the city, for example, initial exchanges could go something like this:

“Where are you from?”

“Los Angeles.”

“What part of Los Angeles?”

“West LA.”

“What part of West LA…?”

Drawing out, as long as possible, the inevitable.  Because of the stereotype.

No more.

Enough with the stereotyping.  It’s time to say it loud and say it proud: I am from Beverly Hills.

Because Beverly Hills is a welcoming, cohesive and diverse community.

It’s truly a Community, with a capital “C.”  In the middle of a county with more residents than the entire country of Sweden, our community truly has given our residents a sense of connectedness, a sense of place and a sense of home.  The village-like atmosphere and the feeling of being connected to each other is something which is not easy to explain, but it is something most Beverly Hills residents seem to understand.  At our best, we’re Mayberry RFD.  At our worst, as BH resident Susan Mishler has remarked, we’re Peyton Place in an Ibsen play.  In other words, as special and unique as we are, we’re just like communities everywhere which are all special and unique in their own ways.  While I truly believe we are a special community, it is also my deep-seated belief that everybody is Elvis and every community is Beverly Hills.

But for those of us who live here, Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills which is subject to both mild and virulent stereotypes, is home.

To be sure, some of the stereotyping of Beverly Hills comes from Hollywood visions of our town as an enclave of the rich and famous, born of watching reruns of the “Beverly Hillbillies” and other Hollywood concoctions, which trade upon the Beverly Hills name as a kind of emblem of glamor, luxury and wealth.  But Beverly Hills is much more than “swimming pools and movie stars” and is much more diverse than the stereotypers would let on; but let’s face it, those who would invoke the stereotype of Beverly Hills aren’t interested in giving a real, nuanced and human look at our town, because reality undermines the stereotype.  Yes, we’re a community which is well off, but the median household income in Beverly Hills is not the highest in the state, or even the county. In fact, median household income is not even among the top 15 cities in the county.

And, unfortunately, some of the stereotyping of Beverly Hills is a form of bigotry which goes beyond Beverly Hills’s status as an affluent community.

The debate surrounding state Senator Scott Wiener’s SB827, which would use transit as an alibi to impose Sacramento-dictated levels of density around bus and rail stops, brought to the surface some of the nastier forms of anti-Semitic stereotyping of what is likely the only Jewish-majority city outside of Israel.  Wiener himself is Jewish, but that never seems to stop him from opportunistically trading on bigoted and misinformed Beverly Hills stereotypes in his efforts to score political points.

Wiener’s SB827 co-sponsor, Nancy Skinner, looks at single-family housing as inherently racist. For her, as well as for all those who go around invoking Richard Rothstein as if his name were a magical touchstone positively proving charges of racism, it needs to be pointed out that the majority of Beverly Hills’s homeowners would not have been able to purchase their houses in the early years of the city. Rothstein, of course, is correct in pointing out the history of institutionalized racism, especially at the hands of the Federal Housing Authority.

Rothstein, however, is wrong in his efforts to relativize the effects of racism by trying to create “tiers of discrimination,” thereby minimizing impacts on “other people of color” (a phrase he doesn’t particularly like).  He also doesn’t seem to understand the dynamics of ongoing community building beyond FHA and other institutionalized discriminatory policies which ended 50 years ago.

It very clearly was not the City’s garden-inspired design or human-scale urban planning which was racist, but rather the covenants themselves which prevented homeowners from selling to African-Americans or Jews.  Fortunately, some things do change.

Beverly Hills was designed to be an elegantly well-integrated mix of commercial, single and multifamily housing within a human-scale community.  We’re called “the Garden City,” even though we don’t actually have enough public green space for our 5.7 square miles.  Within those 5.7 miles we have had a stable population of around 35,000 for almost half a century. Over 55% of our residents are renters. 62% of our residents live in multi-family housing and we retain much of the “missing middle” which cities like Oakland have lost through downzoning.

Beverly Hills is already more densely populated than Denver, San Jose or San Diego, and my zip code, 90211, is already denser than Chicago or Miami.  38% of our residents are immigrants, including many who have fled religious persecution overseas.  Over 50% of our residents speak a language other than English at home.  And, yes, as mentioned, we have a large Jewish population.

None of this exactly fits the stereotype of rich white people in mansions who in their racist intolerance want to keep people of color out.

Unfortunately, many Yimbys (some of whom are Jewish themselves) who target Beverly Hills have no compunction about using tropes of “rich Jews” (or “Hollywood Jews”) and are guilty of anti-Semitism, both latent and overt. Latent anti-Semitism is when Yimbys call Beverly Hills “segregationist,” in effect denying the impacts of Christian privilege and denying Jews and Jewish refugees the ability to live together in a community in which being Jewish is normal. The notion that the objections of these Yimbys to the urban planning of Beverly Hills is purely socio-economic is hogwash; not one of them has ever made the same arguments in regard to Ladera Heights, a less dense, primarily African-American community which has a higher median household income than Beverly Hills.

With all the prevailing double standards towards Jews — often extending to Israel, in which anti-Zionism is thinly masked anti-Semitism — people should be less than shocked about why Jewish people, including refugees from religious persecution and Holocaust survivors, might want to live together in a predominantly Jewish community.

In a country in which an avowed anti-Semite is running for Speaker Ryan’s soon-to-be open seat; in a world in which Holocaust denial is not an uncommon phenomenon, is it so difficult to understand why Jewish people might want to live in a Community in which they don’t have to worry about anti-Semitism?

There are also very open, blatant and renitent Jew-haters among the Yimbys, such as the Twitter poet who, knowing I’m Jewish and that I represent a city with a large Jewish population, posted a picture of me next to a photo of a swollen pig’s butt. Wonder if he would have been so bold, had I been Muslim…

Each time Senator Wiener tries to give his base red meat by invoking the stereotype of Beverly Hills as a bunch of spoiled, rich white exclusionists, he enables the Twitter Jew-haters; each time Wiener’s Yimby/Wimby acolytes take cheap shots at the only Jewish majority city outside of Israel in order to score political points, they feed a stereotype which in turn nurtures anti-Semitism in this country, in both its latent and very, very virulent forms.

Scott Wiener and his Yimby posse need to stop trading on dog-whistle anti-Semitic stereotypes of “rich Jews” which they use to tar the country’s only Jewish-majority city.  The hypocrisy and double-standards need to stop. While we might expect anti-Semitism from open Jew-haters and fascists, it is perhaps all the more troubling coming from those who themselves purport to oppose racism.  Lest they forget, this is a state in which a current senatorial candidate has called for a country “free from Jews.”  Lest they forget, because of anti-Semitism, Jews today in New York — yes, New York — feel they need to hide the fact that they are Jewish.  Lest they forget, this is a country in which fascist protestors, more than 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, are still chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

Just to be clear on one thing: we’re not replacing anyone.  But we’re not going anywhere either.  Writer Sholem Aleichem once wrote: “It’s tough to be a Jew.”  For over half a century, Beverly Hills has provided immigrants, refugees and Holocaust survivors a sanctuary from the slings and arrows of daily anti-Semitism.  In attacking our City with stereotypical tropes, Wiener and his Yimbys are also attacking our home, our right to self-determination and much of what our Community has stood for over the past half century.

Of course, we’re prepared to defend our Community against slurs and anti-Semitism in all its forms.  To those who feel that we should be replaced and to those who feed such prejudice by perpetuating stereotypes, as my grandmother might have said to a Jew-hater: “Sollst voxen a trolley car im boach!” (It’s a Yiddish imprecation which literally means, “You should grow a streetcar in your stomach.” Yiddish curses can be very imaginative and colorful).

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