Progressive Zionists of California members Andrea Beth Damsky, Paul Kujawsky, Susan George and Matthew Finkelstein at the 2019 California Democratic party convention (Photo/Dan Pine)
Progressive Zionists of California members Andrea Beth Damsky, Paul Kujawsky, Susan George and Matthew Finkelstein at the 2019 California Democratic party convention (Photo/Dan Pine)

How activists at state Dems’ convention sparred over Israel resolutions

A high-stakes battle at the recent California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco was waged over a number of resolutions that, if passed, would have radically changed the party’s position on Israel, Palestine and the future of the region.

In the end, pro-Israel activists persuaded the 35-member Resolutions Committee to remove or dramatically soften the language, resulting in what one of the activists called “total victory.”

This is how it all unfolded, in the decorous realm of parliamentary procedure.

Matthew Finkelstein is a deep-blue liberal Democrat. The Vallejo resident loathes Donald Trump and champions universal health care, immigrant rights, reproductive rights and, with one notable exception, every cause embraced by left-of-center progressives.

Finkelstein is also an “unapologetic Zionist,” saying liberal Jews like him “have to be unafraid to be who they are. We can’t let anyone make us check our organic identities at the door.”

Alarmed by what he considers creeping anti-Zionist sentiment among some in the party, he co-founded Progressive Zionists of California two years ago. He and several other like-minded activists turned out in force at the California Democratic Party State Convention, held May 31 to June 2 at Moscone Center, to make their case.

They showed up primarily to push back against several resolutions written by delegates who are activists in the pro-Palestinian movement. If passed, the resolutions not only would have meant major policy changes but also could have had nationwide ripple effects.

That was something pro-Israel Democrats desperately wanted to avoid.

“My fear was that some of this [maneuvering] would work,” said Finkelstein, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “peace” in English, Hebrew and Arabic, “and would be established as a tried-and-true method of anti-Zionists ramming things through committees.”

The original language in the resolutions distressed Finkelstein, as well as representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, Democrats for Israel Los Angeles, the American Jewish Committee, Democratic Majority for Israel (a newly formed national nonprofit) and the California Legislative Jewish Caucus (made up of elected officials in the state Legislature). Members of the caucus put their opposition on the record in a letter, urging the Resolutions Committee to “reject or significantly amend” the resolutions in question.

The resolutions took on facets of U.S. and Israeli policy. “Resolution 1: Trump Policies,” for example, was seeking change in what it termed the Trump administration’s “biased, unilateral” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other resolutions were aimed at ending the blockade of Gaza and requiring that any California Democratic Party official invited on a sponsored trip to Israel “devote an equal amount of time” to visiting Palestinian towns and meeting with “Israeli anti-occupation advocates” and Palestinian leaders.

The resolutions used language such as “settler colonialism” to describe Israel’s actions and condemned “new Jewish settlements” in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights.

Yet another resolution would have had the state party endorse a Palestinian “right of return,” mandating that descendants who fled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence be allowed to return to their original homes in Israel. Those who oppose a Palestinian right of return say such a move would irrevocably change Israel’s Jewish character.

The author of three of the five Israel-centric resolutions, Jewish Voice for Peace activist David Mandel, said in an interview with Fox News before the convention that “most of the [3,400] delegates at the convention agree with us.”

Pro-Zionist Democrats were not willing to wait and see if that was true. Members of PZC, the women’s group Zioness (“Unabashedly Progressive, Unquestionably Zionist” is one of their slogans) and others attended various committee meetings, ready to speak up.

Andrew Lachman speaking at the state Democratic convention
Andrew Lachman speaking at the state Democratic convention

They also had the ear of Andrew Lachman, an L.A.-based attorney and president of Democrats for Israel Los Angeles who sits on the Resolutions Committee.

Lachman said that once submitted, a resolution becomes “the property of the committee. Then the committee has the right to make changes to it to make it fit with the existing platform or prior resolutions, and also to make sure it doesn’t violate one of our rules.”

That’s what happened to each of the controversial resolutions, which were rewritten by committee members. In every case, the controversial language was amended or deleted entirely.

“It’s important that we find a statement that’s reflective of every part of our party,” Lachman told J. “Bottom line, 92 percent of American Jews support Israel’s existence, while 52 percent don’t like [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s policies. Just like you can love America and hate Trump, you can support Israel’s right to defend itself and vehemently disagree with the policies.”

David Mandel
David Mandel

It was clear that the authors of the original resolutions, including Mandel, were unhappy with the rewrites.

All mentions of the Golan Heights, settler colonialism and the right of return were removed. Where one resolution included a lengthy description of Palestinians displaced in and after 1948, the rewritten version mentions that “over 860,000 Palestinians and 850,000 Jewish refugees were displaced” and that “17 Muslim states still do not recognize the State of Israel.”

Committee members were dismissive of the proposal that would require equal time be given to Palestinian concerns on any party-approved trip to Israel. Particularly irksome to them was language in the original resolution saying “that officials considering such visits should contact the communications directors of the CDP Progressive and/or Arab-American caucuses, who will be available to make appropriate connections.” In both of those party advocacy groups, anti-Israel sentiment runs high.

“That’s not something we can do,” Lachman said during the committee meeting. “There are a lot of trips that go to the Middle East that have nothing to do with security, nothing to do with human rights. To mandate exact equal time strains credibility.”

Mandel and his colleagues were upset about the changes and told the committee members that no one had shown them the alternative language in advance.

“Somebody wrote this [amended version] but did not share the language with me,” said Ronald Yatooma, who co-authored several of the original resolutions.

In the end, all of the resolutions (including two that were consolidated into one before the committee met) were passed as rewritten. All original authors and co-signers had their names removed from the revised versions.

Mandel, who lives in Sacramento, told J. afterward that the committee “pulled out all the stops [with] procedural tricks,” and said his team was “jerked around with the constantly changing rules. We were caught by surprise.”

The May 31 meeting of the California Democratic Party's Resolutions Committee
The May 31 meeting of the California Democratic Party’s Resolutions Committee

“This is not the way it happened before,” Mandel said. ”Before, if [the Resolutions Committee] wanted to rewrite, we would go into the hall and talk about it. But for three of the five resolutions I was part of, no one communicated with the authors. They just did rewrites. It meant we were precluded from being able to advocate for our original resolutions.”

From the perspective of the Israel supporters, it was a triumph.

“We’re overjoyed those resolutions were thoroughly defanged,” Finkelstein said. “My greatest fears have not come to be realized.” As he spoke, he wore a button reading “Zionism is a progressive Jewish value.”

The sense of drama did not end there. Two days later, in the waning hours of the convention, another situation unfolded in the main hall, with all delegates present.

The co-chairs of the Legislative Committee, which takes positions on bills pending both in the state and in Congress, presented a final list of recommendations for approval. Among the 40 or so bills were two related to Israel, one promoting U.S.-Israel energy partnerships and one opposing BDS — the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The committee officially took a “neutral” stand, or no position, on both of those bills, while declaring its support for every other bill on the list, covering issues from consumer privacy to homeless youth.

As is protocol, co-chairs Tristan Brown and Lynette Henley offered any delegate objecting to a bill the opportunity to pull it from the list.

After no one immediately responded, delegate Andrea Beth Damsky, a founding member of the Progressive Zionists of California, quickly took the microphone. “I move to approve this report as amended,” she said.

PZC member Micha Liberman seconded. There was an immediate voice vote, and the ayes had it. That ended the opportunity to further discuss or object to any legislation.

Mandel said after the convention that he and his colleagues would soon begin planning their next steps, which likely will include appeals and proposals at the party’s executive board meeting on Aug. 25, when adoption of the final plan is expected. (The final text of all resolutions is available here.)

He strongly believes the grassroots of the party are increasingly sympathetic to Palestinian causes and are moving away from a traditional pro-Israel stance.

“We’re going to continue the struggle,” he said. “The whole point is to bring up issues for discussion and, if we can, get a vote supporting the point of view we want the party to adopt.”

Paul Kujawsky, a member of PZC and a party delegate, called the results of the weekend wrangling “a complete and systematic defeat for the anti-Zionists in the [California] Democratic Party. They achieved nothing this weekend. We out-organized them and demonstrated that the kind of anti-Zionism they’re peddling isn’t being bought by the majority of delegates.”

Susan George of Vallejo, another founding member of PZC, said advocates on her side were better prepared than their opponents. “We broadened our circle,” she said. “Truly, more people are with us. People do not want to demonize or destroy the Jewish state. We came together because if you try to flood a party with one-sided, bigoted and hateful policies, it’s not going to work.”

But Finkelstein was not so ebullient in victory. He saw this as winning one battle, but in no way winning the war against anti-Zionism.

“There is a hostile discourse in the water of the progressive movement,” he said, “and unless we’re prepared to tackle this new wave of anti-Zionism, we are going to be overwhelmed by the amount of [it] coming into this party. There is a flood coming.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.