JCRC trip to Israel an eye-opener for S.F. politico

He has traveled to just about every continent on Earth, but his tour of Israel this spring “was one of the most intense, eye-opening experiences of my life,” said David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

It also helped Chiu understand the deeply rooted convictions that often bring Middle East issues directly into City Hall.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council’s annual tour of Israel, replete with a full spectrum of viewpoints, brought Chiu and 23 other politicians, business leaders and nonprofit executives to the Holy Land for the first time from April 25 to May 5.

David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem photo/avi hayun

“It’s hard to capture the essence of a country, but what stood out for me was the geographic proximity, the major world religions on top of each other,” the 43-year-old Chiu said.  “And the vibrancy of a diverse people.”

If the stunning view of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy places from the Mount of Olives impressed him, so did the reality of massive nations surrounding the comparatively tiny Holy Land.

“One thing that fascinated me is that it’s not much bigger than New Jersey with a population the size of the Bay Area.” 

The 10-day itinerary “is exhausting but exhilarating,” pointed out Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of the JCRC. “This is one of the programs we invest in because the outcome is formidable, practical and invaluable.”

One aspect of the trip is participants getting to meet with their counterparts in Israel.

For example, Suzy Loftus connected with Parents Place in Sderot, whose residents live with the constant threat of missile attacks. Loftus is the chief operating officer of the Center for Youth Wellness, an initiative to build a one-stop health, educational and support center for urban children and families that will be located in San Francisco’s Bayview District.

“The circumstances are actually quite similar,” Loftus commented. “Children living in Sderot are exposed to rockets, warning sirens and violence. Children in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood are exposed to gunshots, sounds of ambulances and community violence. The research is clear — chronic exposure to these circumstances impacts the developing brains and bodies of all of these children.”

San Francisco Board of Supervisors president David Chiu (second from right) and others at the Israeli Supreme Court photo/avi hayun

Chiu didn’t make comparisons so much as marvel at an Israeli political scene that he called “complicated,” to say the least. He praised the Knesset, noting that “at many levels, it is an example of significant democracy and competing visions.”

Chiu lives with diversity: His district includes North Beach, Chinatown, Nob Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf and parts of Polk Street, Union Square and the Financial District. First elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2008, he was elected the board’s president in 2009, the first Chinese American to serve in that capacity. He was re-elected president in 2011 and 2013.

A Cleveland-born, Harvard-educated lawyer as well as the founder and former COO of a tech company, Chiu tried cases for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights before jumping into politics.

“It was important for me to go,” he said of the Israel trip. “Everything that happens in the Middle East has an effect in the Bay Area. In my time on the board, that’s everything from the flotilla resolution to Muni bus ads” that cast Israel as an apartheid state.

“He has been very helpful in dealing with those bus ads,” Porth said. “He is a credible voice.”

The 25th annual tour began in Jerusalem and  included stops in the Golan Heights, Tel Aviv and Haifa. There was also a stop in the West Bank and a lengthy meeting with the Palestinian Authority.

The contingent included Diana Dooley, secretary of health and human services for California; Marty Morgenstern, secretary for the state’s labor and workforce development agency; Don Horsley, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors; and Dilawar Syed, chief executive of the Yonja Media Group and a former strategist at Yahoo.

The list of past participants includes state Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Like Chiu, Syed, a Muslim, also was struck by Israel’s rich mix of ethnicities, languages and culture — “from who’s walking down the street to the food, music and political institutions,” he said.

And, like Chiu, Syed praised the JCRC for bringing the participants together with people from across the political spectrum in Israel.

One thing Syed noted was a “lack of interaction between the average Israeli and the average Palestinian,” adding, “It’s our daily interaction that helps us solve problems.” Chiu agreed.

Online, critics have blasted the trip as being paid for by the “Zionist” JCRC, calling it “completely unnecessary” for politicians like Chiu to go and charging that his joining the trip “forced the cancellation of several meetings at City Hall.”

However, Chiu said the trip was invaluable in helping “to develop a deeper understanding.”

And Loftus came away feeling that “the goal was to expose us to the diversity and richness of Israel — and they accomplished that. We spoke with people with differing viewpoints and were encouraged to ask questions and work through our questions and concerns.”

The tour is sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation, the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation, Roselyne C. Swig, and Lisa and John Pritzker.

Chiu said one of his biggest takeaways was getting to walk in the land that inspires such a wide range of perspectives. “I now understand what those perspectives are rooted in,” he said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.