San Francisco and the Bay Area have the dubious distinction of being identified as a “hub of delegitimization,” a key source and amplifier for those voices assaulting the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence. Thus determined a 2011 study by the Israeli Reut Institute think tank, which cited various reasons for this concentration of anti-Israel sentiments, including a progressive zeitgeist that demands the condemnation of Israel as a prerequisite for membership in the liberal camp.
Such a 'prerequisite' already made headlines nearly a decade ago in 2003, when San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR), a rape crisis center, required that potential volunteers and interns commit to battling Zionism: the organization's online volunteer application (which was later modified due to protests by the Jewish community) asked applicants to commit to participate in “political education activities” such as “supporting the Palestinian Liberation and taking a “stance against Zionism."
SFWAR’s application form may have changed, but for many in the San Francisco/Bay Area, the belief that to be progressive is to denounce Israel has not. Mike Harris, a leader from the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, says that the Bay Area is home to many organizations as well as individuals who “do not accept the right of Israel to exist as the state of the Jewish people within any borders whatsoever”, forcing StandWithUs activists to often “stand up against the most vile hate speech that you come across in the American public square”.
The Bay Area public square is also home to dozens of movements that support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. Mervyn Danker, the Regional Director for American Jewish Committee San Francisco, points to the fact that “San Francisco has a greater number of anti-Israel organizations and groups than any other city in the U.S,” referring to those who deny Israel’s right to exist, and this creates an even greater challenge for pro-Israel activity. He does, however, see a silver lining, saying the inherent challenge makes the “satisfaction of successes even more gratifying.”
For a fraction of Bay Area Jews, this political pull between support for Israel and adherence to the political and social values they hold dear has forced them into what they see as a zero sum game. They feel an inherent tension between the progressive, universalistic values they hold dear, and their perceived image of Israel, leading many to abandon the pro-Israel camp.
But for many other liberal Bay Area Jews, it is precisely this fierce commitment to progressive values that propels their Israel-related activism, with some finding their voice with organizations such as J Street and the New Israel Fund. And although, according to Gordon Gladstone, J Street’s Northwest Regional Director, even J Street faces challenges from the left due to the “politically charged climate of the Bay Area”, he describes Bay Area J Street supporters as individuals who “are deeply invested in Israel living up to the ideals articulated in the declaration of statehood and also being safe, secure and part of the international community.”
In fact, NIF was born in the Bay Area, and according to Becky Buckwald, co-director of NIF in the San Francisco region, it is “the leading community in terms of support for NIF, both in absolute numbers as well as per capita.” This strong support can be attributed to NIF’s commitment to “advancing democracy and equality for all Israelis,” core values that resonate with many Bay Area Jews.
It is due to this strong commitment to liberal values that the Bay Area Jewish Community has pushed the traditional envelope beyond the usual scope of pro-Israel activities to include the diversity of opinions its members hold. With this in mind, the organized Jewish community through the Jewish Community Federation has created a set of funding guidelines informed by the “pluralistic expressions and wide-ranging perspectives that affirm a broad and inclusive tent vital to a strong and dynamic Jewish community”, delineating the scope of Israel programming eligible for JCF grants. According to the Reut study, by doing so the Bay Area Jewish community leadership “has set the standard nationally as the first American Jewish community to develop guidelines delineating red lines that go hand-in-hand with the broad tent approach.”
This broad tent approach has fostered openness to critical discussion and debate, and has created an internal community tolerance and acceptance of divergent opinions on Israel. For example, this summer at ‘Israel in the Gardens,’ an annual event that draws 15,000 people to celebrate the community’s support of Israel, community members wrote letters to Women of the Wall, criticizing the lack of religious pluralism at the Western Wall and commending their struggle for equal opportunities to prayer.
The Bay Area may indeed be a “hub of delegitimization”, with the Jewish community heavily influenced by the progressive climate that often sees delegitimization as a tenet of faith. But it is largely due to this zeitgeist, this politically charged reality, that the Bay Area has had the courage to broaden the pro-Israel tent and create an inclusive and unique Diaspora hub of discussion on Israel.
Elka Looks, originally from Tel Aviv, is the Communications Manager for the San Francisco based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) the public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish community.
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