In wake of election: Bay Area Jews wary, hopeful

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When Likud's Menachem Begin became Israel's prime minister back in 1977, a good number of Bay Area Jews cringed.

"There were many members of this community who were shocked, dismayed, upset," recalled Wayne Feinstein, executive vice president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Yet the hawkish Begin, the country's first prime minister from the Likud Party, went on to surprise his Bay Area critics by relinquishing the Sinai to make peace with Egypt.

Such historical comparisons have cropped up repeatedly since Benjamin Netanyahu's slim victory on May 29.

Less than a week after the election, many Bay Area Jews who had been rooting for incumbent Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his peace policies were giving the Likud leader the benefit of the doubt.

"This is not the end of the world," said Raquel Newman, a San Franciscan and a longtime member of Americans for Peace Now.

Meanwhile, Likud supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief after living for the past four years in an area heavily favoring the Labor Party's peace negotiations.

"I do feel vindicated and extremely happy," said Hillsborough resident Carl Pearlstein, a devoted Likud backer who has hosted many visits by Knesset member Ze'ev "Benny" Begin.

Still, Jews on all sides wonder how the new government's policies will affect both Israel and the Bay Area. Some are concerned about the repercussions for college students who will likely face renewed antagonism toward Israel, for the somewhat fragile relationship between Jews and Palestinians here and for fund-raisers whose donors support the Labor-backed peace process.

Others are distressed about the potential weakening of religious pluralism in Israel as a result of the newly strengthened Orthodox parties, and about a possible breakdown in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro, director of U.C. Berkeley Hillel, was relieved that the spring semester ended before the election.

"I'm very concerned we're going back to the bad old days when the campus was hostile toward Israel," she said.

And Jewish students, who generally have felt united on Israel in the past few years, will once again split into left- and right-wing factions, she predicted.

When she arrived six years ago, Shapiro recalled, the student government constantly passed resolutions condemning Israel.

"It was like the United Nations used to be," she said.

Supporters of Islamic militants never stopped their hate campaign against Israel over the past four years, but Shapiro saw a definite plunge in general campus support for such attitudes.

Meanwhile, Jewish leaders said local ties between Palestinian and Jewish groups probably won't suffer much because they haven't improved significantly over the past four years.

"Among Arab Americans with whom I've spoken, there has tended not to be much willingness to acknowledge the risks Israel has taken for peace and the accomplishments that have been made in the course of the Oslo Accords," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. "Frankly, I've been disappointed with their response."

The distance came largely over the JCRC's stance toward a Palestinian state. JCRC leaders made clear they wouldn't come out in favor of a two-state solution because this is the subject of final-status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, Kahn said.

Supporting a Palestinian state became a quid pro quo for even "innocuous" joint projects such as educational seminars, added Dan Grossman, chair of the S.F.-based JCRC's Middle East Strategy Committee.

At the grassroots level, the scenario is slightly different.

Libby Traubman, a co-founder of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group, expects the election's results initially to strain relations between members.

But the 4-year-old South Bay group focuses heavily on such projects as raising $14,000 for two needy schools in Israel proper and the West Bank. As a result, Traubman doesn't expect that any Palestinian members will drop out.

"This will be a test of their commitment," she said.

Like Traubman, the Bay Area's federation leaders don't expect the elections to affect donors' support.

JCF's Feinstein said no donors have voiced anxiety to him so far, possibly because the new government's coalition and policies haven't been formulated yet.

"If there are going to be things that give people pause, they'll happen in the fall of 1996," he said.

But Feinstein said Bay Area donors rarely tie their contributions to their support of any particular Israeli government.

"Our donors are more sophisticated than that," he said, noting that 90 percent of overseas-bound dollars pay for the resettlement of Russian emigres in Israel.

Ami Nahshon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, concurred.

"Whatever individual feelings those of us in the diaspora have…the fundamental tie is with the state of Israel," Nahshon said. "The vast majority of our donors understand that the overseas portion of their gift has no connection whatsoever to any government of any kind."

He added that the federation has many ways for individuals to support specific projects either here or in Israel.

Whether or not Bay Area Jews speak with their checkbooks is one issue. Their actions and reactions over the next four years is another.

Roxanne Epstein, an Oakland resident who repeatedly has joined public protests against the Oslo Accords, said she expects right-wing activists will focus more on educational events and less on demonstrations.

But Epstein, a member of Likud USA and Women in Green, said she isn't ready to let her guard down yet because the overall community has acted so abusively toward the right wing.

"We've been on the defensive," she said. "It will probably take us a few months to feel we can bask in the rewards."

Rabbi Jacob Traub, who leads the San Francisco Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel, said he didn't consider the election an exoneration of right-wing supporters here.

The results of last week's vote were almost exactly the same as they would have been before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, he asserted.

"It's not a question of vindication," said the rabbi, whose congregation generally favored Netanyahu. Nonetheless, he said, the elections proved that those Israelis who felt the peace process was moving too quickly were not an "undemocratic minority," as some labeled them.

On the other side of the political spectrum, disappointed progressives weren't sure what they would do if the Likud government expands the Jewish settlements or refuses to pull out of Hebron.

"With the Peres government we all felt sympathetic enough. Whenever we felt it wasn't going quite so strongly, we [said]: `Let's give them a chance,'" said Allan Solomonow, director of the Middle East Peace Program of the Oakland-based American Friends Service Committee.

While highly critical of Netanyahu, Solomonow doesn't expect a resurgence of grassroots demonstrations that began during the Palestinian intifada and dissipated with the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords.

Only two Women in Black continue to protest each week in Berkeley, for example.

"I think mostly we're very tired," he said. "It will require a very clear issue with which to spring back to life."

Shulamit Magnus, a Palo Alto resident and a director of the International Committee for the Women of the Wall, felt similarly dispirited but for other reasons.

Her group, which supports women's right to pray collectively at Jerusalem's Western Wall, has relied heavily on the Israeli courts to expand religious pluralism in Israel.

She expects the Orthodox parties, which suddenly hold 23 Knesset seats instead of 16 and are likely partners in a Likud coalition, will immediately introduce legislation to curb the power of the courts.

However, Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom said non-Orthodox Jews have only themselves to blame because relatively few make aliyah compared to the Orthodox.

"We can whine and complain and shrei `gevalt.' But we deserve it," Lew said. "Is it unjust and is it unhealthy? Of course it is. But it's our own fault."

Magnus disagreed with such a view, calling it an "evasion of the whole problem."

Still, Rabbi Yosef Levin, who leads Palo Alto's Congregation Ahavas Yisroel-Lubavitch, cautioned against anyone reacting too quickly or predicting so soon what the new government will do — on any issue.

"I don't think it's going to be as terrible as the left is fearing," he said, "or as euphoric as the right is considering."