The idea was so obvious that no one had ever thought of it before: Bring together members of two ethnic groups who share a lasting love of their respective ancient cultures and who have had similar experiences as U.S. immigrants.
"The Jewish and Asian communities in Washington have never really gotten together and talked," said Edward Levy, director of the Anti-Defamation League for the local chapter of B'nai B'rith. "We thought it was time that they did."
The result was a West-meets-East dinner reception last week, hosted by the ADL in honor of the Washington area's Asian American residents. About 80 people attended, including District Mayor Marion Barry, leaders of local Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Indian groups and members of B'nai B'rith's board of directors.
Unlike some past meetings sponsored by the ADL, last Wednesday's dinner was not intended to address friction between the two groups. Rather, Levy said, its purpose was to pass on to the Asian community some of the resources Jewish people in this country have developed for dealing with discrimination.
Richard Pennington, director of community relations for the D.C. police department, noted that some Asian Americans, particularly those from Korea, have had their businesses fire-bombed and vandalized. The incidents stem in part from the perception that Asian-owned businesses, which often employ only members of the same family, take money out of a neighborhood without giving anything in return, Pennington said in an interview at the reception.
Grayce Uyehara, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, told the guests that the problem of discrimination has been compounded by the inability of Asian Americans from various countries to organize as a unified political force. "That's something we Asians have to learn because we have for too long been tied up with our own individual issues instead of trying to build coalitions," Uyehara said.
Barry announced that he would help make the Asian population in the District, which numbers about 50,000, more visible by appointing an advisory commission on Asian-Pacific Islander affairs. The mayor solicited nominations for the commission from the Asian leaders present.
Patricia Lee, who helped organize the event for B'nai B'rith, said that while Jewish and Asian people have not traditionally worked together, the two groups have a natural and potentially powerful affinity.
"Both groups came to this country as immigrants and worked in the garment industry in the sweat shops," Lee said. "They both have strong family ties and strong connections with their heritages that have been threatened by the desire for the second generation to assimilate with American culture. And they both have done well in education and business only to be victimized for this later."