SFWARs anti-Zionism traced to heated 02 meeting

A San Francisco woman who served on the board of San Francisco Women Against Rape for 10 years has traced the agency's anti-Zionist stand to an emotionally charged membership meeting in February 2002.

Karen Schiller, who resigned as a SFWAR board member for unrelated reasons at about that time, said she stopped supporting the nonprofit after concluding it had become anti-Jewish as well as anti-Zionist.

"I just really think some people in the organization made a decision that this is what we're going to do, and we don't want to hear anything else about it," Schiller, who is Jewish, said in a recent interview.

Last week, officials at the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning and the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women said they were looking into the political practices at the rape crisis center. SFWAR gets more than $600,000 annually from those public agencies.

After the Bulletin's deadline Wednesday, other members of the JCRC and the Jewish community planned to speak to the Commission on the Status of Women in San Francisco. SFWAR planned a demonstration outside City Hall an hour before the meeting.

Housed in the Women's Building on 18th Street, the 30-year-old center runs a 24-hour hotline that answers some 3,000 calls yearly from women in crisis.

Last week, SFWAR reworded and then completely removed online application forms that asked volunteers and interns to participate in "political education discussions" that recently included "taking a stance against Zionism."

SFWAR Executive Director Nina Jusuf failed to return calls and e-mails both last week and this week from the Bulletin. She previously described the agency as "anti-Zionist" but denied it discriminated against Jewish clients, volunteers or others.

Schiller said SFWAR has historically taken a progressive posture that included stands against racism and oppression. "SFWAR has always prided itself on doing anti-oppression work, being sort of on the cutting edge of those issues," said Schiller, who commended the center's past services.

But she questioned the motives behind SFWAR's move in February 2002 to declare itself anti-Zionist.

"To single that out as something so vital to be against…to me just smells of anti-Semitism," said Schiller, a financial consultant for nonprofit agencies. At the time of the meeting, Schiller was stepping down as a board member and was performing some paid financial work at SFWAR to help the agency because the finance director's job was then vacant.

But the political atmosphere at SFWAR eventually prompted Schiller to withdraw her $600-a-year contributions.

"My history — my people's history — is too full of other times when Jews were blamed, then destroyed, for me to accept that SFWAR's decision is based on anything but hatred of Jews," Schiller wrote in a spring 2002 letter to Jusuf.

"To put it simply: I believe that SFWAR has declared itself an anti-Jewish organization, and I cannot be a part of that."

In an interview, Schiller gave a detailed description of the February 2002 meeting when staff members openly broached the idea of SFWAR becoming anti-Zionist.

About 25 or 30 staff, board members and volunteers had gathered for a monthly membership meeting, she said, to discuss a grant they'd received to do "anti-oppression work."

At the meeting, a staffer said, "We should declare ourselves an anti-Zionist organization," Schiller recounted. Former volunteer Ellen Tunitsky, who is also Jewish, told the Bulletin last week that she was later yelled at and called "racist" by another staffer because she apparently made a facial expression when that suggestion was made.

After that outburst, the staff member who yelled at Tunitsky stormed out of the room, Schiller said. "That brought it to a head and made it all public," Schiller said.

During an ensuing discussion, Schiller said another staff member eventually told the group: "'We are an anti-Zionist organization' and she said, 'That's that' and she drew her finger across her throat," recounted Schiller. She said that woman, whom she declined to identify, has since left SFWAR's employment.

The comment and the gesture were chilling, she said. "I was at that point so sort of shocked at what people were saying and when she said that I was just, 'Oh my God, she's ready to kill somebody,'" Schiller said.

Schiller estimated that about five or six volunteers, most of whom are Jewish, resigned as a result of the political position. She was not sure if there were any Jewish volunteers left at SFWAR.

Schiller expressed the hope that staff members would "understand that…this is an oppressive stance that's not going to move forward the real agenda of ending rape and ending violence."

Schiller said at the time she left the board, the seven-member body lost three other members because of expiring terms. Two others left as well.