Is a California progressive political organization trying to weed out Zionists seeking leadership roles? It depends on whom you ask.
In December, the Progressive Delegates Network, a statewide organization that promotes progressive candidates to the state Democratic Party’s Assembly District Election Meetings (ADEMs), distributed a questionnaire to potential candidates that asks them, among other things, to pledge to disavow any restrictions on the “boycott, divestment, and/or sanction of countries that engage in routine human rights violations.”
The questionnaires are used to determine caucus candidates for ADEM assemblies, where California Democratic Party officials are chosen, the party platform is shaped and other decisions are made.
Two of the five questions appear to relate at least obliquely to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one references BDS without mentioning Israel, while the other references the concept of “right of return,” a call often made by pro-Palestinian groups to return to their ancestral homes in pre-state Israel.
The pro-Israel members of the Democratic Party find the tenor of the questions troubling, as they appear to be a litmus test on a topic not germane to local California politics. Other party members, however, deny that the questionnaire is focused on Israel and say such vetting efforts are not unusual.
The prompts read:
• I will not vote, in my capacity as delegate to the CDP, to endorse any candidate for public office, nor vote for any candidate for CDP Officer, that does not support fundamental human rights of all refugees, including the right to leave and return as described in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and affirmed by CDP Resolution 20.03.27.
• I will not vote, in my capacity as delegate to the CDP, to endorse any candidate for public office, nor vote for any candidate for CDP Officer that supports legislation restricting our Constitutional freedom to advocate for the boycott, divestment, and/or sanction of countries that engage in routine human rights violations.
In 2016, California passed its “anti-BDS law,” which prohibits public agencies from doing business with companies that support discriminatory national boycotts.
Karen Bernal, in the party since 2005 and an organizer of the Progressive Delegates Network, said delegate slates are organized every two years around common issues, friendships, regional ties and other factors. Most of the time, she said, they create some way to vet candidates to ensure the slate is unified.
But Jody Pratt, an Assembly District 8 delegate candidate (covering the greater Sacramento area) who has been involved at this level of state politics for three years, said she hasn’t seen anything like this before.
“It was pretty offensive,” said Pratt, who is Jewish. “I started to fill it out and started reading the pledge they wanted us to sign, and realized it was specifically targeting the Israel/Palestinian issue. It wasn’t asking about a lot of the things I find important for progressives.”
While Pratt and others say the two items immediately struck them as being about Israel, Bernal said the language does not refer “only to Palestine. We have a situation with Kashmir and India and even on our own southern border. It includes Israel but isn’t exclusive to Israel. It applies to lots of countries. It’s a nonviolent, time-honored form of protest.”
Pratt, however, said the questions seem to be asking for lock-step adherence to a particular train of thought.
“They wanted us to pledge not to vote to endorse any candidate who won’t support a right of return and who doesn’t support BDS, she said. “This doesn’t pass the smell test. I know they were talking about Israel. They mention the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which targets Israel.”
Litmus tests tend to have a chilling effect on those who feel targeted, Pratt said. “I wasn’t willing to complete or sign this questionnaire. I think most of the people on my slate felt uncomfortable with it.”
Susan George of Vallejo is executive director of Progressive Zionists of California and a District 14 candidate (covering Vallejo, Benicia and much of the East Bay). In her view, those who designed and distributed the questionnaire learned from past experience that being explicitly anti-Israel can backfire, so they avoided direct mention of Israel. But references to boycotts and right of return for refugees are triggers for anyone familiar with the issue.
“Of course, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the issues will know that these points reference the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict,” she said.
George, who is not Jewish, said members of her organization and others see the Progressive Delegates Network questionnaire as a “blatant call for anti-normalization of Jews from the party.”
“Insisting that the only ‘true progressives’ in the California Democratic Party are people who oppose Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people has the effect of excluding most California Jews from these spaces. Anti-normalization efforts, whether they range from the discriminatory BDS movement or litmus tests like this, do nothing to end the decades-long conflict, but do contribute to the harassment and singling out of American Jews.”
One troubling aspect, both women said, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be the only foreign policy issue in which these progressive organizers are interested.
It’s “the only issue that can get you blacklisted,” Pratt said. “We are supposed to be focusing on issues in our state, racial and social justice, women’s rights. It all gets shunted to the side if you are not anti-Israel.
“There seems to be wiggle room for other issues, like choice or [Black Lives Matter], but not with Israel,” Pratt added. “We’re not progressive enough for the progressives and too progressive for the centrist center of the Democratic Party,” she said. It’s the kind of issue that “leaves many of us without a political home.”