Adam and John discuss the strong relationship between California and Israel, how to combat the BDS movement, and how partnerships between the Latino-American and Israeli-American communities can strengthen the relationship between the Latino community and Israel.
John is a union organizer and politician from Los Angeles, California, who was the Speaker of the California State Assembly from March 1, 2010 to May 12, 2014. He was also appointed to the University of California Board of Regents in 2014.


Adam Milstein: This is Adam Milstein, welcome to my podcast. Today I’m honored to have an incredible state leader on our program. Speaker Emeritus John Perez is one of the longest serving speakers of the California State Assembly in recent years. Representing the communities of downtown Los Angeles and east Los Angeles, he served in the assembly from 2008 until 2014. Today he serves as a regent for the University of California, He’s a great friend of Israel and strong proponent of the US-Israel relationship. Time and again he has spoken out forcefully against the BDS movement on the California campuses and in our communities. John, thank you for being on the program.


John Perez: Thanks for having me.


Adam Milstein: You’re welcome. I would like to start with the following question. You have been a passionate, outspoken advocate for Israel in so many ways, especially at the UC Regent and in the political arena. Tell me, how do you view your role in building relationships between the state of Israel and California? In what direction do you see Israel and California relationships heading?


John Perez: You know I have less of a role now that I’m no longer in the legislature but still some role as a regent and as a civically engaged person. I think the history of the relationship we’ve built, though, is very important to see. When I was in the legislature we worked very hard at building a bi-national relationship that focused on the unique dynamics that make California and Israel so similar. The rich tapestry of the diversity of our communities, the reality of some of the natural resources we have and the natural resources we want for, like water and the innovation of our populations. My colleagues and I worked very hard to increase the interpersonal connections between our state and the nation of Israel and the economic and innovative relationships.


We took a few legislative visits to strengthen those relationships. We worked in what ultimately became an MOU signed by Governor Brown and Prime Minister Netanyahu. We looked at way in which our business could partner together and I think we’ve seen huge benefits for both California and Israel in all those regards and now an increased effort at looking at science and engineering and technology partnership with a recent MOU where the Minister of Science came from Israel to deal with our regenerative medicine institutes here in California. I think it lays the foundation for greater cooperation between our universities as well.


Adam Milstein: Thanks, as you know I’ve been very involved in the efforts to combat the BDS movement and the limitation of Israel. What should our community approach in dealing with the hate movement, which is spreading in the US and around the world, be? Is this just a threat to Israel or is it also a threat for America as well?


John Perez: It’s clearly a threat to both and I think everybody needs to speak out in the most unwavering terms when they see hatred present itself, especially on places like college campuses. American universities, like universities across the world, have been a haven for free speech and active debate but there’s a difference between vigorous debate and hate filled activity that is intended to demonize one particular country, in this case Israel, and one particular people, in this case Jews.


What is even more dangerous is that often time it’s a dishonest expression of the hatred so instead of being honest about what is being espoused, they hide behind anti-Zionist rhetoric claiming that it’s not anti-Semitic. Let’s be very clear, I am an avowed Zionist yet they don’t protest me for my Zionist views. They only are protesting Jewish voices that expressed a Zionist ideology and so all of us have an obligation to point out the hypocrisy of that action and the fact that coded language, coded hate filled language is particularly dangerous. We’re seeing this in the national debate around our Presidential campaign but we’re clearly seeing this with respect to the Jewish community and Israel on college campuses, not just here in California but across the country so we all have an obligation to speak out against it.


Adam Milstein: Okay you serve as a Regent for the University of California which has been a key target for BDS activity and anti-Israel campaigns. You’re one of the authors of a recent UC resolution identifying anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. I understand there were some last minute changes to the original resolution you had proposed. Do you believe the amended resolution that was adopted is sufficient?


John Perez: I believe it’s sufficient but not ideal. I think our original language was stronger, it was less open to interpretation but this language is clear as well and the fact that it garnered a unanimous endorsement is important because it meant the entirety of the Board of Regents understood that in many cases anti-Zionist rhetoric was nothing more than a fancy was to package anti-Semitism. To the extent that the amendment got us to a unanimous vote, I think that was essential. Now the test is putting it into action, making sure that when there are expressions on campuses that are hateful, whether it’s expressions of anti-Semitism or any other type of hate, that the University step up and act based on the policies against intolerance that we just adopted. We have seen inconsistency prior to the adoption of this policy in which one type of hate filled activity is treated different then another type of hate filled activity and we believe this policy will help us create a single standard.


Adam Milstein: Thanks John, I think you have touched on my next question. Let me ask it and see if you want something to edit. How do you think this resolution might affect reality for Jewish and pro-Israel students on the UC campuses?


John Perez: Again, it remains to be seen because like all of these policies, until you test them you don’t know how well they’re constructed and until you hold administrators accountable for enforcing them, until students feel that the policy really is there to protect them and come forward and say, “Here’s what I was just subjected to and I’d like the university to respond.” Policies don’t work in a vacuum, they work in engagement and when tested so time will help us know whether the policy we adopted is right or whether we need to go back and adjust it to make it better.


Adam Milstein: Thanks, based on your experience, how can the university system help reverse those trends and empower students to consider these issues thoughtfully? How can we facilitate respectful, educated discussion about Israel among students and what is the relationship between student engagement and the UC system?


John Perez: I think in the middle of your question you touched on the most important element, how do we create thoughtful engagement? Because these are difficult issues and so you want to not quell the discussion but make sure that you foster it in a way where people get to challenge each other’s world view. But they do it in a way that’s not dehumanizing and they do it in a way that doesn’t shut down debate. Creating spaces for discourse is incredibly important. Some of it is in looking at new ways in which we could engage in speaker series on a variety of campuses, to go against the grain of what we’ve seen in the past where, for example, the Ambassador of Israel was shut down at UC Irvine or IVF students were shut down at UC Davis. Creating structured exchanges in which we have a variety of world views brought forward, that’s one part.


The other is really holding people to a standard and expectation of civility and academic discourse so that when people are doing research, when they’re doing academic work, that it’s based in fact, not in polemic.


The last is creating safe spaces for conversations and that’s a very difficult thing to define. UC San Diego is about to do something which I am very hopeful about. They’ve looked at the variety of food offerings they have on campus and they’ve created a new space that will be opening in the next month or two which is a large dining facility that is 100% kosher and 100% halal. They’re going to start programming just interactions in that space, the idea of people breaking bread that speaks to all their dietary needs but that creates a space for civic discourse, I think, is really innovative and an important opportunity for us to test at that campus in particular.


Adam Milstein: Interesting, thank you. John you are a respected leader in the Latino American community and also a proud advocate to the state of Israel. How do you bring more Latino Americans into the fold when discussing Israel related issues?


John Perez: I think there’s already a natural alliance. There’s an understanding of commonality and quite frankly if you look at the history of California there have been long histories of cooperative political work. In the 1950s when Ed Roybal was the first Latino ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council in modern times, it was though a coalition of the Latino Community, the Japanese American Community and the Jewish Community coming together and saying collectively we want to have a seat at the table that’s out there expressing our joint values.


The other is, quite frankly, space. Los Angeles is the most diverse city in the country and the history of neighborhoods we’ve been in has been the same. Royal Heights, in my old district, the heart of Los Angeles City is Latino community, the first place so many immigrants came was also the heart of the Jewish community, historically, in Los Angeles and I think folks in the Jewish community have been very thoughtful reinvesting in engagement in that space. The great shining star is the Old Bridge Street Show and the fact that it’s now being used as a place for civic engagement for community satires, for the center place for festivals, really creates a space for natural discussion and I think those natural interactions are much more impactful then anything that is overly constructed. Those natural sets of interactions are happening, we need to talk about our joint history and the rest comes together, I think, on its own.


Adam Milstein: Thanks, Latino Americans and Israeli American have similar Judeo-Christian values as well as sharing familiar traditions and family values. Where do you see the opportunities for partnership between Latino Americans and Israeli American?


John Perez: It’s a step further, in many cases we have joint ancestry and I think there’s been more and more of a realization of the real history of Jewish Mexican, Jewish Guatemalans, Jewish Panamanians and the like. Everybody digging a little deeper in their family tree, there’s a reality of some joint ancestry but there’s also a reality of joint values, as you said, Judeo-Christian values is one expression but a sense of community identity, a sense of self-determination, a joint symbol. Israelis are referred to as Tzabaras, Mexicans, when they refer to somebody being very identifiable as Mexican, talk about them having a cactus on their forehead. That Tzabaras is a joint symbol that we share as well that maybe, if we dig a little deeper to both the rough exterior, the tough exterior and the sweet center, we find that commonality.


Adam Milstein: Great, thanks John, again thank you for being on the podcast, it’s exciting to speak with you and I’m looking forward to future collaboration, sharing ideas and working together. Thanks again.


John Perez: Thank you.