Progressive Zionists of California organizers Matthew Finkelstein and Susan George of Vallejo.
Progressive Zionists of California organizers Matthew Finkelstein and Susan George of Vallejo.

California progressives get pushback on Zionism ‘litmus test’

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A group of liberal Zionists based in Solano County is organizing against what its members see as an effort within the progressive wing of the state Democratic Party to ostracize supporters of Israel.

The Progressive Zionists of California announced Jan. 26 that it had launched a petition and letter-writing campaign imploring the state’s Democratic Party leaders to oppose what it called “dangerous litmus tests.”

PZC is a three-year-old activist group whose co-founders are residents of Vallejo and Fairfield.

The group’s latest actions follow a controversial statement and questionnaire sent out in December by the Progressive Delegates Network to delegate hopefuls. The document focused unduly on the Israel/Palestine conflict, PZC activists said.

The PDN document — sent in advance of a since-completed election of delegates for each of the state’s 80 Assembly districts — devoted two of its five affirmations to topics related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as reported in J. last month.

Critics have called the form a step in pushing the Democratic Party to the far left, and are afraid efforts like it will erode historic support for Israel in a manner some said is anti-Jewish. Some compared it to what former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights and critic of Israel, attempted to do to his party in Britain.

“We, in the California Democratic Party, spend more time on Israel/Palestine resolutions than on any other issue and have been doing so since 2017,” said Susan George, one of PZC’s co-founders. Though the Vallejo resident is not Jewish, she said she is concerned about a growing “anti-Israel narrative” in the party.

In a statement, the PZC said its efforts were a “necessity” in response to “demonizing anti-Zionist rhetoric” that has become a central organizing principle in the Progressive Caucus.

“California Democrats should know,” the PZC statement said, “that since 2017 more time has been spent in the resolutions and platform committees on Israel and Palestine than on any other issue of importance, including climate change, economic and racial justice, health care, housing and women’s rights.”

Democrats for Israel Los Angeles also has been critical of the PDN of late, issuing a statement last month opposing candidate forums that have been organized by groups such as PDN, Jewish Voice for Peace and Muslim Allies.

The L.A.-based group’s statement called JVP, which is headquartered in Oakland, a “fringe group” that is “the only self-identified national Jewish American organization that has called for the destruction of Israel and removal of any Jewish character from Israel by creating a single Jewish-minority state.”

As for the candidate forums, the statement said, “Rather than reaching out and building bridges, these events do little other than reinforcing confirmation biases of activist echo chambers.”

Dan Kalb
Dan Kalb

Despite supporting many PDN policy aims, Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb said he was taken aback by the form’s apparent focus on Israel. Kalb, in his ninth year on the council, said he planned to forward the issue to the California Legislative Jewish Caucus in Sacramento.

The form asked potential progressive delegates to pledge to never restrict the right to boycott, divest from or sanction countries that engage in “routine human rights violations.” Another affirmation referenced refugees’ “right of return” to their ancestral homelands, a call often made by Palestinians and their supporters. Those seeking to become delegates agreed, by signing the form, that they would support those stances and vote to endorse candidates “that support these issues” (though a comment box was provided for those who had “any concerns regarding your ability to adhere” to the affirmations).

“It seemed so very odd that we had a questionnaire two-fifths of which concentrated on the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” said Kalb, a progressive state Democrat Party delegate for more than 25 years. “The Progressive Caucus is supposed to promote a broad range of progressive policies to work on, and are picking one international issue to spend 40 percent of their work time on. That seems very odd and it doesn’t make sense to me.”

Other local Jewish delegates, such as Soli Alpert of Berkeley, disagreed. A delegate in the 15th District who has been endorsed by PDN, Alpert said he saw nothing wrong with the questionnaire. The 23-year-old also said there’s nothing unusual about California Democrats engaging in discussions about foreign policy.

“We endorse federal policies,” he pointed out. “The debate over what our relationship with Israel should be is totally relevant and one we should have. We spend more money on Israel than on nearly any other country in the world.”

While he acknowledged the existence of antisemitism on the left and that “maybe we spend more time on [the Israel/Palestinian issue] than we should,” he said they do so “because it’s an important one.”

He insisted there is no effort within the state party to squeeze out Zionists.

“They’re not trying to exclude any Jews from the party. It’s not a conspiracy against Jews,” Alpert said. “I understand people’s concerns. But to not endorse people who disagree with you politically, well, that’s politics. Atrocities done against Palestinians by Israelis in my name as a Jew have to be opposed.”

As of Feb. 8, the PZC’s petition had received 177 signatures, according to its website. The petition is called “Act Now: Tell CADEM leadership to oppose dangerous litmus tests.” CADEM stands for California Democratic Party.

The PZC also sent letters to California Democratic Party leaders (such as current chair Rusty Hicks and chair candidate Delaine Eastin), executive board members of the party’s Progressive Caucus and a number of organizers within the Progressive Delegates Network.

George and fellow PZC co-founder Matthew Finkelstein said the possible erosion of Democratic support for Israel represents a wider threat.

“They say,  ‘As goes California, so goes the nation,” George said. “That’s where they’re trying to steer the national party as a whole in this direction. Because so many people are silent and afraid to engage on the issue, the whole party is vulnerable. It’s time for the party leadership to act.”

Kalb fumed at the thought that support for Israel could blacklist someone from liberal politics in California.

“No one is going to tell me I’m not progressive just because I believe in a two-state solution, and no one’s going to push me out of the progressive wing of my party because I want to see a fair resolution to the Israel/Palestinian issue,” he said.

Though he said he agrees with the Progressive Caucus on a number of issues, Kalb acknowledged the existence of a subset of people who “are hyper-focused on attacking Israel. It takes away from the items the state party should be focused on.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.