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Casuto wrapping up 37-year career with the ADL

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Morris Casuto

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Morris Casuto is retiring next month.  And, no, that’s not one of the irrepressible Casuto’s jokes.  The ADL is even having a “gold watch” dinner for him Oct. 17 at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines.  

At age 68, he says he’s ready to try something different – something that requires him to be less an administrator, and more a “field man.”

Such people as former Sheriff Bill Kolender; Monsignor Dennis Mikulanis; La Raza Lawyer 
Lorena Slomanson;  former TV Reporter Lee Ann Kim, who now heads the Asian Film Foundation; and former San Diego Jewish Times columnist Dan Schaffer think of Casuto’s self-deprecating humor whenever his name is mentioned.

At 5’6 “on a good day,” Casuto remembers when he was the subject of a fundraising “roast,” and Kolender was the speaker.  Pretending to be perturbed with Casuto, Kolender declared, “You know I’ve had it with this guy – up to here!”   The tall sheriff indicated an area somewhere above his belt buckle.

Similarly, Schaffer, who also is of short stature, loves to quote Casuto on why he rarely gets upset with people:  “I don’t have long toes.”

Slomanson, who went on an ADL-sponsored Latino leaders’ trip to Israel, recalls, having grown up Roman Catholic, how strange it was to “walk in the footsteps of Jesus with Morris besides me.”  Especially before she “immunized myself” to Morris’s humor.

Says Mikulanis, vicar of interfaith and ecumenical relations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego: “I know this appears hard to believe but Morris is a giant among men — and not just in Lilliput.  Everywhere Morris goes people know him — and they run to their houses and lock the doors!  No, actually, San Diego is a much better community because of the integrity and sheer decency of Morris Casuto.  With his wife by his side and his sons to urge him on (getting out of bed in the morning can be tough at his age!) Morris has kept the conscience of San Diego from being totally numbed by an increasing social self-indulgence. 

“He has also proven himself to be a stalwart and effective partner in Catholic/Jewish Dialogue working with the Diocese of San Diego for over thirty years to help our two peoples come to a better understanding and acceptance of one another. Morris is a realist in such dialogues and comes to the table (usually Chinese when we meet) ready to listen and learn as well as talk and teach.  Ours is a better community because of Morris. I will miss working with him and I am sincerely envious (and for us Catholics envy is sin — so I’ll go to confession and confess it) that he is retiring at this time.  I only have 16 more years to go!”

Comments Kim: “I’ve known Morris for years, having been a reporter at KGTV-10 news.  Morning, noon, or night that man would always be available for an interview (his poor family!).  He completely understands the importance of speaking to the media, and he has this uncanny ability to speak in ‘soundbites.’  He always delivered his message to the public with passion, authority, and urgency.  What I wish I could have put on the air, however, was his off-camera comments – because as you know, Morris is quite the ham… and will never miss an opportunity for self-deprecation at the expense of making you cry with laughter.” 

“Quite the ham” – Get it?  Casuto seems to bring out the stand-up comic in everyone.

Recently at The Trails, a neighborhood restaurant near Cowles Mountain, Casuto reflected both on his time with the Anti-Defamation League and the role humor played in his career.  On the wall above the retiring director was one of the restaurant’s decorations, reading: “Happy Trails: Till We Meet Again.” Casuto, of course, is old enough to remember whose television theme song that was: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

“I found that humor has served a lot of functions,” Casuto reflected.  “One, it had the tendency to mask the extraordinary seriousness with which I take this job, and the sense of obligation I feel to this community, both Jewish and general.

“I have also found — and it is not planned, I assure you, I’m not that smart; I’ve also found that humor can defuse some very difficult situations.”

Particularly important to Casuto was establishing good relations with law enforcement agencies – and humor helped.

“I remember this gentleman, he was a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department. He was the head of criminal intelligence and we were having a really stilted, stultifying conversation and I said  ‘Look I understand that your job is to get as much information out of me as possible while at the same time saying as little to me as possible — like the conversation we are having now.’  And he started to laugh. That broke the ice and we became friends.”

In fact, Casuto’s close relationship with San Diego law enforcement began not long after he arrived here in 1978, following a five-year ADL tour in Washington, D.C.;  Columbus, Ohio;  and Indianapolis.  Two San Diego ADL stalwarts – Harry and Ellie Nadler – urged him to meet Kolender, who then was San Diego’s chief of police.

The city’s first-ever Jewish police chief , Kolender immediately was sympathetic when Casuto told him that he would like an opportunity to meet and work with San Diego’s larger community.  Kolender recommended Casuto for appointment to the Integration Task Force, which the police chief then was chairing.  Faced with a court order to end de facto segregation of its schools, the San Diego Unified School District had appointed a panel of distinguished citizens to grapple with how to do that.

“That began the whole process of the ADL reaching out to non-Jewish communities and organizations,” Casuto said. “So Bill enabled us very quickly to be able to meet on a very important level the leaders of the various communities and important organizations.  It is one thing to call community groups together to commiserate; it’s another thing — and it is something I have favored for 37 years with the Anti-Defamation League — it is most meaningful when you engage on projects of importance to other community organizations.”

In a separate interview, Lorena Slomanson, the past president of La Raza Lawyers Association, corroborated that importance:  “We had an incident here with a lady, Estela de los Rios, who heads the Center for Social Advocacy…”  After de los Rios expressed opposition in a television interview earlier this year to Arizona’s proposed anti-immigrant law, “people came and threatened her at her work.”  Hearing of her need, “Morris was the first person and responded as if time was of the essence.”  Walking by her side through her offices, he “helped her figure out security issues,” Slomanson recalled.

Not long after joining the Integration Task Force, Casuto—with support from the Regional ADL’s first chairman Sanford Goodkin, a nationally known authority on the housing market—began taking on other educational projects.  He joined a committee studying school history textboks “not only through the prism of the Jewish community, but also how did these textbooks deal with Civil Rights issues, how did they deal with racism?  And that enabled us to reach out to different districts and important educational leaders in the community.”

Not all of Casuto’s projects in his early years with the ADL were as successful.  The office created and distributed a teaching guide on the Middle East, but had no idea if schools ever put it to use.   It produced a 30-minute episode of a television show called “Mort’s Deli” promoting respect and racial harmony, and no local TV station was willing to provide air time.  That was a blessing in disguise, Casuto says.  The cast, including former San Diego Charger tight end Kellen Winslow, was absolutely exhausted after a day of filming, and Casuto says they all would have been unable to maintain such a pace for multiple shows.

“Mort’s Deli” was intended as a response to the activities of white supremacist Tom Metzger, who along with his followers, became a preoccupation for Casuto during many of his years at the ADL helm.  Ironically, Metzger’s knack for getting publicity generated many contributions and followers for the ADL, which stood in opposition to Metzger’s philosophy of hate.  It also generated ADL initiatives for which Casuto has won recognition, such as San Diego County’s Hate Crime Registry, and seminars with law enforcement agencies intending to sensitize officers to the problems and perspectives of minorities.

Of Metzger, Casuto said: “He had an organization, they had rallies, they had activities, and it did not hurt at all that we were known as some of the more vocal opponents of these racists,” remembered Casuto. 

Among the racists who tried to retaliate against Casuto was Alec Curtis, a La Mesa resident who was  later imprisoned for anti-Semitic activities that also targeted a synagogue, the Heartland human relations agency and Congressman Bob Filner’s district offices.”

“One time someone pasted a large swastika to our front door window,” Casuto recalled. “Another time there were leaflets left at our house. Another time there were swastikas pasted along the route I take to the office. Another time there was a cake box with a balloon of the grim reaper, and inside on the cake was 901, which was a transposition of 109, for Hitler’s birthday.  One time there was a talking skull, which resulted in the bomb squad coming.”

With wife Doreen and sons Loren and Simon living at home with him, Casuto’s family felt quite vulnerable. But, he said, they bravely withstood the threats, never asking him to change jobs.

Doreen “knew how important my work was but she also knew that if we cut bait and ran things would get worse for the community.  It was unpleasant for her to see me walking out wearing a (bullet proof) vest,” he said.

“It’s more unpleasant for others to ask me now if I am still wearing a vest, which suggests something else,” he added in a characteristic, self-deprecating joke about his girth.

While the ADL flourished under Casuto’s leadership, San Diego regional offices for other organizations in the Jewish community closed – among them those of the American Jewish Committee and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.   

Casuto credited the regional ADL’s longevity to its commitment to programming, as well as its development of a local endowment fund. Although the endowment has shrunk some, at one time it was approximately $5 million.

“Almost on the first day I arrived, I wanted to create an endowment that protected the office, its staff and its programs from the vagaries of economics and we began very slowly — I think we were the first and perhaps the only office in the country that has an endowment provided us by individuals through their wills — and so we have a flexibility to do things that other regional offices don’t have,” Casuto said.

“For instance, we do a wonderful educational program for catholic priests, nuns and educators who bear witness.”  The endowment fund and various grants enabled the ADL to start “to build an early childhood program with about $300,000 in the bank,” Casuto said.

“Our counter-terrorist program is supported by the Goldberg Foundation and it reaches hundreds.  We have a program that brings in an Israeli police officer to share with local, federal and military police how they handle things — the rules of engagement.  It has helped us to do a law enforcement mission to Israel. We were one of the first, if not the first office, to do a Latino leadership mission to Israel, which was last December.  Once we had the core of the program we said to national ‘why don’t you ask other regional offices if they want to send 1 or 2 or 3 people?’  We had the critical mass because we had the money and then it became a national mission as an initiative of the San Diego office.”

While credited for the lasting bonds he forged with law enforcement agencies, Casuto sometimes is criticized by some in the Jewish community who feels he doesn’t speak up quickly or forcefully enough against what they occasionally perceive as institutional anti-Semitism in San Diego.

“The accusation of ‘anti-Semite,’ as I see it, is the nuclear weapon of the Jewish community to be used sparingly and carefully,” Casuto replied.  “Secondly, it is such a stain on an individual that unless I am absolutely certain that we are dealing with someone for whom the title ‘anti-Semite’ would apply, we don’t call people names.  More often than not, we don’t deal with anti-Semites, we deal with biased individuals or insensitive individuals.

“You always have plenty of time to call someone an anti-Semite if information and validation and data warrant it, but often you are not dealing with that.  Is it anti-Semitic to calendar a soccer game on Yom Kippur?  I don’t know.  It may be insensitive.  It may be ignorant, or it may be someone saying ‘there are 600 soccer players in this league and to the best of my knowledge 5 of them are Jews.’  Now is it really insensitive for a guy to say, ‘I’m really sorry that you are going to miss the game, but we have 595 kids who are expecting to play today.”

Casuto said the Jewish community should not expect its religious freedom to come without cost.  Everything has a price.  He cited the case of an Orthodox Jew who joined the Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare unit and complained when he learned he was to be sent out to sea.   How would he get kosher food?   Casuto met with the man and his commanding officers.  There were plenty of fruit, vegetables and eggs aboard, and they agreed he would be able to bring aboard his own kosher food in addition.  The man was not satisfied.  Kosher food is expensive, he said.  That may be, Casuto responded, but “religious freedom is not without its costs.”

“For people who don’t like my lack of aggressiveness, I would suggest that they talk to some white supremacists who are in jail because of our aggressiveness,” said the regional director.

One case still unresolved is that of Navy buildings in Coronado which, seen from the sky, are shaped into a swastika.

“We have talked to the Navy several times and they said that their ideas (for remedying the situation) were not going to fly; that they would have to spend more money on a contract that will change the shape of the buildings. I don’t know why the buildings were constructed in such a way that resulted in that shape, but it is clear you would have to be … blind not to know what that was.  I am not going to call the architect names—I think he has passed away, I don’t know.  He might say ‘you know this was the best use of available space.’  That’s a bad explanation.  I believe the Navy will fix it in their own good time. There are other priorities for the Navy.  Will it be fixed?  Yes.  Do I know when?  No.”

Not being an administrator by choice, Casuto faults himself for having started programs in his early years, but not following them up.  “People would do a program and then the program would disappear never to reappear,” Casuto said.  “As the administrative responsibilities of the regional director increased, I found myself missing the field more and more.”

Casuto said that his successor (whose name as yet has not been announced) will have the benefit of a corps of volunteers who give “energy and treasure” to the ADL.

Additionally, he or she will find that law enforcement and other important agencies in San Diego have good working relationships with the ADL.   But even as Casuto did, the successor will need to cultivate those relationships.

Casuto said he treasures the friends he has made among law enforcement officials.  When Bill Gore came to San Diego as the special agent in charge of the F.B.I., he soon found himself on the invite list to the Passover seders at Casuto’s home.  Casuto related that one year he realized that he was late in calling Gore (who is now San Diego County sheriff) and his wife, Natalie, to participate in the seder.  When he telephoned the Gore home, Natalie told him, “I asked Bill if we had been dropped from the A-List this year…. His response was ‘It doesn’t make any difference, we’re still going!”

Casuto’s ADL title is regional director.  He has functioned as the Jewish community’s  ambassador plenipotentiary to the larger community.

Harrison is the editor of San Diego Jewish World

  1. September 22, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Gee shortly after I leave morris retires. Thats quite a compliment. I wont complain about Morris since I caused him possibly more anguish in the long run than he caused me.I hardly ever wore a bullet proof vest even after three attempted asassinations.

    Well here I am still going strong and not … like Morris. Running for congress as a write in which will gather me a new crop. Drop in sometime to resist.com and see how Morris C. and Morris D. slowed me down. lol tommetzgerforcongress@yahoo.com

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