S.F. Supe apologizes for off-the-cuff bar mitzvah remark

San Francisco Jewish community leaders and politicians accepted an apology Tuesday from a contrite Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who stunned a crowded room a week earlier with an insensitive comment about Jews.

Yet while many were happy to forgive, some said they could not forget.

Sandoval's controversial statement came in a point-counterpoint presentation with fellow S.F. Supervisor Aaron Peskin before the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club. While Peskin favored settling a $58 million lawsuit brought against the city by over 100 corporations, Sandoval disagreed, saying San Franciscans ought to organize protests against the litigious CEOs, picketing their "houses in Tiburon and their bar mitzvahs."

"I was stunned and I think a bunch of other people in the room were stunned," recalled Peskin, who is Jewish. "The whole setting was somewhat charged, and before anybody had a chance to deal with it right then and there, other issues came up. When I walked out of there, that was on my mind, but I didn't deal with it. It gnawed at me for a couple of days."

Local Jewish leaders were distressed by Sandoval's comment, which many felt played into the archetypical stereotype of corporate tyranny perpetrated by wealthy Jews.

"The statement was deeply troubling," said Daniel Grossman, president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. "I think it leaves the clear impression that he's playing to a stereotype, even if he may not have intended to do that. But, he will learn, intent is sometimes different than impact."

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, added that Sandoval's remark "reflects really deep misconceptions and stereotypes about Jews." After conferring with a number of supervisors, including Tom Ammiano, Peskin and Mark Leno, Sandoval personally apologized to Peskin and Leno — who also is Jewish — and called a Tuesday afternoon press conference on the City Hall steps. With Sandoval flanked by Supervisors Peskin, Leno, Matt Gonzalez, Jake McGoldrick and Chris Daly, the number of supervisors present nearly outnumbered members of the media, with whom Sandoval spoke in conversational tones, without the aid of a microphone. A very direct affair, the press conference lasted less than 10 minutes.

Sandoval characterized his "bar mitzvahs" utterance as a "half-completed thought."

"I could have easily said 'weddings' or 'parties' but what came out was the bar mitzvah comment. It was an unfortunate example and I apologize for it," he said at the press conference. "I want to thank everyone for bringing this to my attention. As a Latino, a Mexican-American, I am sensitive to discrimination. I wish this had been brought to my attention sooner."

Sandoval extended public apologies to Peskin and Leno. Both accepted the apology, with Leno making a reference to the Talmud.

"The Talmud says that when an apology is needed, we are responsible to ask once, and if you don't get acceptance, ask again and then a third time," said Leno. "In this case, once is enough."

While relieved to accept his apology, some Bay Area Jewish leaders were still miffed at Sandoval.

"I don't think he understood how offensive his remark was," said Natalie Berg, the S.F.-based JCRC's incoming vice president and former chair of the city's Democratic party. "I think he needs some sensitivity training. Let me put it this way, he needs educating. The fact that he didn't see anything wrong with saying that shows me he didn't understand that people were offended and why."

Sandoval, Berg continues, has been known to say things he shouldn't.

"He frequently has off-the-cuff comments," she said. "But he's also got to think a bit more seriously before making comments like this."

Peskin said Sandoval should be judged by his actions and not an ill-advised remark, comparing the supervisor's comment to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's slip of the tongue earlier this year, when Bustamante accidentally used a racial slur in front of a primarily black audience.

"If this doesn't fit into a pattern of this behavior, which I hope it doesn't, then it should be chalked up as a learning experience dealt with maturely and correctly," said Peskin. "Do I think that he's anti-Semitic? No. Do I think that he furthered a stereotype unknowingly? Yes. It's time for self-examination, and I think he's doing that."

The ADL's Bernstein, who attended the press conference, said he felt Sandoval "put the matter to rest" on Tuesday. But he hasn't yet closed the book on the supervisor.

"He's chalked this up as a learning experience, and it's now our job to follow through and make sure this really is a learning experience," said Bernstein. "We'll be in touch with his office to try and figure out a program to collaborate on."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.