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Morris Casuto Leaves ADL After 37 Years

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Aired 10/26/10

Morris Casuto retired this month after 37 years with the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. As the long-time head of the ADL's San Diego office, Casuto has fought anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice, and now bullying. He has been the target of threats and grafitti, worn a bullet-proof vest and had police protection at his home.

Morris Casuto retired this month after 37 years with the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. Casuto reflects on his career as the director of the ADL's San Diego office, where he has fought anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice, and now bullying. He has been the target of death threats, worn a bullet-proof vest and had police protection at his home.

GUEST: Morris Casuto, retiring regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, San Diego

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS of from swastikas in boxes of Turkey stuffing to cyber bullying, Morris Casuto has seen a lot in his 37 years in heading the San Diego antidefamation league, he's been in the media, working with legislator, and law enforcers, raising awareness about anti-Semitism, and other forms of discrimination in our league. And he's a little happy about it. And he's here to talk to us about how San Diego has changed for the better, and about the challenges that still face us. It's a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

MORRIS CASUTO: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. How do you think San Diego rates in terms of ethnic and religious peace and tolerance? Give us a call with your questions and your comments for Morris Casuto, 1-888-895-5727. Morris, you are such a well known figure here in San Diego. But you're not a native. What originally brought you here.

MORRIS CASUTO: How could you tell I'm not a native?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I don't know! It might have been something you said.

MORRIS CASUTO: Actually, the antidefamation league brought me to San Diego. Initially my wife and I were living in Washington. And I was looking for a job. And met the Washington regional director of the ADL at a birthday party. And he said I hear you're looking for a job, we have an opening. Honestly I had never heard of the antidefamation league benefit. And I asked them what he did, and he said, it's complicated, I said it was interesting, happened him my residence maim. To make a long story short, we were invited to work in Columbus Ohio. The town I love, and I will always be a buck eye fan, I'm sorry. I'm on the territory the of SDSU. But we loved Columbus, it was a great town. I was then moved to Indiana. Which was an entirely new experience. When we actually first moved to Columbus, my family gave us soap and playing cards just so that we could pass the time in case we didn't have electricity, and we could stay clean.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A New Yorker's view of the rest of the states. Yeah.

MORRIS CASUTO: A parochial New Yorker's, I think those may be synonyms. So Indiana as an office was open when the clan was running rampant. And there was a clans man named Steven son, who stated without any degree of hyperbole, I am the law. Things changed substantially, the league realized that the Jewish population was moving west. And they decided to open the office in San Diego. Which I did not protest. Very enthusiastically.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, for the people who may be listening, there may be some people who are not familiar with the antidefamation league. What are the goals of the league.

MORRIS CASUTO: The actual mission statement of the league is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all alike. So this was a realization actually from the very beginning of the antidefamation league's founding that the Jewish community cannot be secure so long as there are substantial populations that are disenfranchised. And so it's a matter of humanitarian self interest. It is required of us to help heal the tears in the soul of the world, and at the same time, there is a realization that we are too small a population, we have been targeted in the past. There must be in a democratic society, a belief that people should be treated equally. And that is as close to a mission statement of the league as I think we'll ever find.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the ADL brought you out here in 1973.

MORRIS CASUTO: Actually in 78, I was hire indeed 73, then went through my baptism, so to speak, of fire, by living in the midwest. It is cold in the midwest.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you came to wonderfully balmy San Diego in 1978. What was it like when you first got here? In terms of the goal of the antidefamation league?

MORRIS CASUTO: Well, first I had to find my way around. In a town like San Diego, you can never get too lost. Since all you have to do is drive west, until your feet start getting wet, and then you know where north and south are. I remember going to a super market, big bear, which I don't think exists any longer, and it was just benefit the Jewish holiday of passover, when we celebrate the exodus from Egypt, and are required to eat unleavened bread, matzah. I went into a big bear store and there was a Jewish section and there were bagels. Now, Bagels don't constitute unleavened bread. There was an attempt to be sensitive to the needs of the Jewish community, which was really quite small at that time. But I don't think the community knew very much about Jews. Now, that there is so much more information and sensitivity and products to buy is really not a reflection of the work of the antidefamation league, it's a reflection of the growing size of the Jewish community. But it didn't take a lot for this community to be sensitive to not only the Jewish community, but other new communities in San Diego as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Morris Casuto, he is retiring from his years heading the San Diego antidefamation league. And we're taking your questions and comments at 1-888-895-5727. You said when you were first assigned to the midwest, there was a clans man, and that the situation was rather intense with him saying I am the law. Was there hate group activity here in San Diego when you got here in the late '70s?

MORRIS CASUTO: Oh, sure. And in fact, not only was there a hate group, but it was publicly active. You don't really see that any longer. There was an individual who belonged to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, three Ks weren't enough, they added a fourth. He was in some way related not by blood to David duke's operation. These groups they splinter, and a person who was successful in a particular geographic area, and he forms his own group, and that happened with Tom Metzger. I had recently come to San Diego, and I attended a clan rally in Oceanside. And the reason I think it's important to go is it's one thing to read about individuals who hate, it's another thing entirely when you see them reasonably up close and personal. So I decided to observe the rally. When the clan marched into the orbed park, you could tell they were on for war. Helmets and bats, shields and chains, heavy boots, dogs. You would think you were looking at a medieval gang. They by the way didn't start the violence, it was the county demonstrators who did. They were throwing things at the clan, and eventually a riot broke out. There were times when we were all very parochial, and the thing -- they were heading toward my car, and the basic still owned it, and I was fortunate nothing happened to the car. But the ease with which that gang turned into violence, told me something important about these groups, and as I was moving in front of the retreating clans man, there were shots fired. And people froze for a second and then started running in every direction. It turned out that a clan dog attacked a police dog, and the officer shot the clan dog. And that type of violence really was the symbol of these types of groups. There was nothing subtle about them. We had the clan, skin heads began to come to San Diego. Most people know that skin heads were originally formed in England, the first group in the United States, was, I believe recognized in Chicago and it was called romantic violence. There is nothing romantic about violence.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You use the name Tom Metzger, that's a name familiar to Hong time San Diegans, he used to be an active skin head leader in north San Diego County, no longer lives here in San Diego. I wonder, when you get that close to a situation that you just described and you are working with the antidefamation league, how do you -- how can you respond? Did you come up with some sort of game plan to respond to the hate groups that were in existence in San Diego County at the time?

MORRIS CASUTO: It's interesting that you should ask that question, because it took two forms, actually, three. One was the education. The importance of teaching our young people that violence doesn't breed success in anything. And endangers not only the individual who's a victim, but also the perpetrator. The second element was the need for ongoing police training to understand what hate crimes are. And still are. Hate crimes I've always defined them as message crimes. And to understand that they're message crimes, leads to the recognition that there's no single victim of a hate crime. Because often the victim is seen as a representative of his or her larger group. The third way we try to respond was somewhat irrational. Tom Metzger one time had a television program on the community access channel. And people would be watching television, and you upon, remote controls were the bane of anyone watching one program, and believing I of as much a person who does that as anyone else, but they would be flipping by the channels and suddenly see someone dressed in a clan robe or in a Nazi and think, what's going on here? Well, they would complain to us, and we would tell them. We're not about to violate freedom of speech or the first amendment. That protects us even more than it protects the people we don't like. So we tried to come up with the idea of how can we counteract this type of television program? And I think there was a collective insanity that struck the committee that was trying to decide how to we do this in a fresh and new way, and we decided to create a 30-minute sitcom pilot that would be both humorous and have a message. Much like all in the family. So we put it together. We raised money, we hired a writer. We borrowed a television studio. We filmed a 30-minute program in one day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow.

MORRIS CASUTO: Wow. Everyone involved in it was lying on the floor at the end of the day, unconscious. And we realized we could never do it again. And we wondered, oh, gosh, what are we gonna do with this thing? So we sent it to a number of the television stations if San Diego, and the neatest -- nicest thing they said to us was that we should put it in a dark closet, lock the closet door and forget about it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So some things working some things don't.

MORRIS CASUTO: Some things don't work, and our board was actually fearless in seeking to undertake this. The other elements of approach, and that is the police and the educational were far more successful.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's hear from Ellen, calling from San Diego. And welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I would like to ask about the history in La Jolla that African and Americans and Jews weren't able to buy glass until not that many years ago, and how all that changed because you have the university. In fact a few years ago walking in the community I actually picked up a brochure that depicted both African Americans and Jews quite horribly, and how things aren't all that long ago in the past. If you could speak to that history.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure, thank you, Ellen for that call.

MORRIS CASUTO: Actually, Ellen, I think you answered your question quite accurately. This happened before we came. I came. And I knew about it, and of course the most powerful voice to speak to equality, was, I believe Roger Ravel, who said that he would oppose a creation of the branch of the yesterday of California in La Jolla unless these covenants were removed. It is. It's extraordinary to understand that it was into, what? The 60s when these things were still thought of as normative, and people were willing to put it into contracts. We shouldn't believe, however, that there is no discrimination that takes place. There is. Continues to be. But there are different victims. They look different, they may be Latinos, as some people have tried to create a law that states that you have to prove you're legal before you can rent an apartment, it could be gays, and of course, the city of San Diego passed the human dignity ordinance making it a misdemeanor to discriminate an individual I believe in the work placing, and in a residence. And we were one of the -- we were the only Jewish agency to publicly support that. And of course, the most recent group that is vilified is the Muslim community. So societies often move from one scapegoat to another. And it is vital to understand that our work, and I'm not talking only about the antidefamation league, but this type of work is not the work of a day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are speaking with Morris Casuto, and he is retiring as head of the San Diego antidefamation league. We have to take a short break, and when we return, we will continue talking about Morris and taking your phone calls. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

My guest is Morris Casuto who has been heading the San Diego antidefamation league here in San Diego, since 1978, he is retiring. Wee talking about his legacy, and the challenges that still face us here in San Diego. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Before we go any further, Morris, I referenced swastikas, and boxes of Turkey stuffing as what you've seen here in your years of San Diego. Tell us about that story.

MORRIS CASUTO: It's one of the things that makes this job so fascinating. There was a time when members of the master race were seeking to speed the next Reich. And they decided that one of the ways to do that is to put little square or rectangular sheets with swastikas on them in boxes of food stuff. So that when someone would buy, no fault to Mrs. Cuber son's Turkey stuffing, and they would open the box, there was the container, but also at the bottom of the box was this little swastika, and I don't mean to make light of it. It was distressing, and no one really knew. But people all over the state were encountering this new and extremely formidable program of the racist white supremacists, and of course I believe the California assembly passed I resolution making it a misdemeanor to put any foreign object into a food box. And you don't see those swastikas too much anymore.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No you don't.

MORRIS CASUTO: But it also speaks to the nature of people. And I'm gonna tell a story that is at least in terms of how I remember it, absolutely true. At my age, I don't want to say it's accurate. I remember it being in San Diego fairly -- for a fairly short period of time. And I received a note from an individual who was at a -- one of the aquaria in San Diego. And he said that he passed a tank with groupers in it. I'm from New York. I don't know what a grouper is. But apparently it's a very large fish, and it may be related to the carp. And he noted that the fish was also called the Jew fish. And he found this despicable, insensitive, perhaps antisemitic, and he wanted me to do everything I can to have that definition edited. Well, as I was trying to contemplate what one does about a fish, I get another note and that is from a gentleman who visited different aquarium in San Diego, and was looking at a tank filled as he put it with that magnificent species of fish called the grouper. But nowhere in the definition of that fish did it indicate that the grouper was also called a Jew fish. And he wanted me to do something to have that definition edited so Jew fish was now enshrined in that. Now, I'm not the brightest person in the world, and I'm certainly no Solomon, and I'm thinking, offering to cut the fish in half would not work this time. And I'm thinking, and I'm thinking, then I suddenly had a flash. I sent each of the person's letters to the other individual, and asked, what would you have me do? Now, I have no idea if anything has changed. But it's one of the things that sparks amusement and interest in a job that changes by the empty, almost. .

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's a wonderful story. Let's take a phone call. Art Madrid is calling from La Mesa, and mirror Madrid, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I just want to take this time to publicly thank Morris. He is an unsung hero in this region. He's very modest, he's also one of the most sane individuals and looks at things very objectively, I was personally involved in an incident where Morris was extremely helpful. The city of La Mesa has a human relations commission, and we went ahead and had an annual honor of doctor Martin Luther kick, and the skin heads from east San Diego County went out there and graffitied the area because of the event, they wound up targeting me, and eventually in a year, they left a hand grenade on my door step at my home. Morris was extremely helpful. Because they targeted me, the city, and a couple of synagogues, and Morris had to use the attorney's office, and they extremely helpful, the individual was eventually incarcerated and spent three years in prison. Morris is gonna be missed completely, and I really have a tremendous amount of respect, and I consider him a dear, personal friend.

MORRIS CASUTO: Art, thank you, we have plenty of time, you can go on, if you wish. The reality, art, when he was saying because he just brushed over the fact that he was also one of those targeted. The success of this community adapting and changing is in large part to people like art Madrid, and the Clara Harrises who were also targeted. These are individuals who workday in and day out to insure that everyone who lives in this community, can do so in safety. And art, I would return to you the comments you made about me. Even though the comments you made about me were highly accurate, and I would like to thank you for them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, mayor Madrid. Thanks so much.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's hear from Yasher, calling from La Mesa. Good morning, and welcome to these.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for having me. And thank you for the wonderful program you put together.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for saying so, how can we help you?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, I'm calling because I'm -- and I just wanted to thank Morris for his amazing working because if it wasn't for the antidefamation league, I highly down the that it'd be as peaceful and harmonious to live here if it weren't for not only his working but everyone else in the antidefamation league, and the work they've done in the past 34 years in the country, having lived in Sweden, and being the son of immigrants I was exposed to bigotry and racism, quite a lot when I was growing up, but I haven't seen that in San Diego, and that's something that I admire wholeheartedly, you know, with San Diegans, and just the community as a whole, and listening to the program. I just wanted to give my thanks to Morris for his amazing work.

MORRIS CASUTO: Thank you. You know, there was an old musical called south Pacific, and in south Pacific there was a song with some of the lyrics that said you have to be carefully taught to hate. But I always looked at that as part of an algebraic equation, and therefore, teaching someone to hate is one part of it, what's on the other part? And the other side to me, means, you really have to teach people carefully to get along. It's not necessarily natural. People come, I remember growing up in the Bronx when the first influx of people from Puerto Rico came. They made great citizens, they were hard workers, but they dressed differently, they talked at different vocal lengths, Americans want their space, you're in my space, their food looked different, it smelled different, they spoke fast, and it took time for people to understand that there is nothing wrong in difference, and you don't have to be afraid of difference of there was a white supremacist, who once said something I consider to be brilliant of he said it an audience, this he realized before he could learn to hate, he had to learn to fear. And so much of this has to do with people who are afraid, and when we're dealing with young people, people who look at their future as being at best clouded, and as I said before, the degree to which we allow large segments of the population to be disenfranchised, and that can mean a lack of education, a lack of decent housing, to that degree, our democracy is endangered.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Morris Casuto, let me get your take on what you think the level of anti-Semitism is in this country. We have recently had a national news program host on CNN, he made reference to how Jews control the media, and he was let go, the popular actor Mel Gibson, infamous for his slanderous comments about Jews of are these just eruptions from a very, very low level of anti-Semitism? Or do you see this as being more significant?

MORRIS CASUTO: I see America as one of the most unique political and social experiments in the history of the world. There is surprising level of antisemitism in part because we are constantly taking in new groups of people who were educated in their own home land, not necessarily in the way that we educate ours. Anti-Semitism exists. However, we have to keep that in context. Many in the Jewish community level freely, participate fully, and take pride in the fact that they are American citizens. And so I'd like to think that Jews vote in the numbers and percentages that they do because they realize in a democracy, it is the obligation of citizens to participate at the very least by voting. Anti-Semitism is a pathology which continues to baffle me. We've encountered anti-Semitism in areas where there are no Jews. Are we scapegoats? Yes, we're scapegoats. But this business of anti-Semitism is complicated, and I think America has learned to deal with it in a variety of different ways, and we have been eminently successful, and the success of dealing with what has been called the -- the unending hate red, has allowed us to deal with other new groups, and understand what they are going through, so that they need not hopefully go through the same types of bigotry and violence that Jews and African Americans did. We should remember that it wasn't long ago when newspapers carried ads that said white Christians only. It was not that long ago when people of color had to use a separate facility. As idiotics on that sounds to our young people today. And so I -- I love Irish music, and there is a song called come to the mountains. And there's a line in the lyrics that says the past is lost, but the future is still -- is yet to be won. And if the future is to be won for our democratic society, that means we all have to participate in that effort today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And are you using some of the lessons? Is the antidefamation league using some of the lessons? The hard won lessons that the Jewish community has learned to help the newest scapegoat in America, I guess you could make the argument, the Muslim community.

MORRIS CASUTO: You can. We've been very involved in the whole process of trying to address cyber bullying which is an awful form -- when we were growing up, everyone was bullied in a way, but with the Internet, today, you're bullied in a way that thousands, tens of thousands know exactly what is happening. We have a very strong program for the schools. We have something called the Miller early childhood program. And something that we used to have in conjunction with the juvenile court called pathways to tolerance that was an extensive period of training and education for people who had a risk of joining the extremist groups. So this as I said before, this is a never ending struggle. And if we falter, there are groups simply waiting underneath the floorboards of a democratic society to ruin it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, those important programs are going to continue for the San Diego apartment defamation league, but you are not going continuing as the head of thing antidefamation league.

MORRIS CASUTO: I'm glad you frizzed it as the head. Not continuing would have concerned me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, I wasn't going to end it there. What are you going to be doing with yourself?

MORRIS CASUTO: I'm retiring at the end of December. And the first thing I want to figure out is if I can wake up later than 3 o'clock in the morning. I'm a very early riser, I've got books to read and people to see, I would like to go back to school, one of my -- I like poetry, and one of my favorite poets is a Victorian poet named Algernon Charles Swinburne.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes.

MORRIS CASUTO: Have you heard of him? You're the only person I've ever met. People accuse me of making up that name. So I would like to read some more of his work and study. There's a lot to do. I'm not sure. I want to take this very slowly. I do want to work. So I'm looking for a part-time job.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But not right now.

MORRIS CASUTO: Not right now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

MORRIS CASUTO: Thank you for the invitation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Morris Casuto who is still the head of the San Diego antidefamation league.

MORRIS CASUTO: Until Friday.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Until Friday. If you'd like to comment, you can go on-line on KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, the artistic power of the nude. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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