Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg was not asked to release a public statement on the flareup of violence between Israel and Hamas. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to do so.
So the mayor issued a release on May 18 expressing his strong connection to the Jewish state, as well as his disgust with some of the recent actions of the Netanyahu administration. The headline read, “I do not recognize the Israel I love.”
The essay won Steinberg praise from some fellow progressives but “mixed reactions,” he said, from the Jewish community.
A former local chair of the Sacramento Jewish Community Relations Council, whose wife is a Reform cantor, Steinberg is a self-described “proud Jew” representing a strongly Democratic city that chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump by more than 50 percentage points in nearly every precinct. As mayor, currently in his fifth year in office, he has supported policies to benefit undocumented immigrants and was a vocal critic of the previous president, particularly his so-called Muslim ban.
Steinberg describes himself as an American Jew “who loves Israel, takes pride in its birth, and who is passionate about the continued imperative of a Jewish homeland” in the face of “unending and worldwide anti-Semitism.”
Yet citing Israeli police crackdowns during Ramadan, the threat to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem, extremist Israeli settlers chanting “Death to Arabs,” and what he calls discriminatory policies of a “right-wing Israeli government,” Steinberg wrote: “We must speak the truth.”
“I want to be proud again of my Jewish homeland,” he wrote.
In conversations with Jewish progressives like Steinberg in the Bay Area, a picture has emerged of a cohort grappling with complicated emotions in the wake of the most intense fighting in Israel and Gaza since the 2014 war.
Indiscriminate rocket attacks from civilian neighborhoods in Gaza killed 12 Israelis, while Israel responded with deadly airstrikes targeting Hamas and other militants, killing hundreds. Children were victims on both sides.
Inside Israel, ethnic conflicts between Arabs and Jews have raged, leading some to worry about a civil war.
The fighting has been accompanied by sharp public criticism of Israel in the United States and around the world that has reached a new level of intensity. Jews have been attacked in antisemitic outbursts in New York, Los Angeles, and multiple European cities.
Progressive Jews who spoke with J. find themselves caught in the middle, worried about an increase in antisemitism and wanting to distance themselves from extreme language that demonizes the Jewish state. And feeling compelled, some in ways they hadn’t before, to express strong opposition to obstacles to peace put in place by the Israelis, to show support for the Palestinian cause, and to share their opposition at “tribalism” that appears to be ascendant in Israel.
“I still believe in the value of a Jewish national home,” said Rafael Mandelman, a San Francisco supervisor in his third year in office, who went to Jewish day school at S.F. Brandeis.
Mandelman identifies as a “progressive Zionist” while acknowledging, with a chuckle, that might make him a “dinosaur” in today’s American left.
“My version of Zionism is probably different from my grandmother’s version of Zionism as she was putting her change into the JNF box,” he said.
He described his version as “committed to coexistence with everybody else in the land” and one that “believes in civil liberties, free speech and the rule of law. That’s a kind of Zionism I can get behind.”
San Francisco is one of the most progressive cities in the country, and Mandelman’s district, which encompasses the Castro and Noe Valley, is no different. A massive pro-Palestinian protest on May 15 brought hundreds to the Mission, abutting his district; among the protesters were some friends, he said.
He did not attend the protest but “wouldn’t rule out” going to one in the future, while acknowledging that certain language at the demonstrations can be problematic — such as the common refrain “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which appears to argue for the elimination of Israel.
“Free Palestine’ means different things to different people,” he said. “I agree if we’re talking about Ramallah. I disagree if we’re talking about Tel Aviv.”
While “it’s true that the narrative does sometimes bleed into real anti-Jewish prejudice,” he said, the protesters he knows personally “are not anti-Jewish. They are just horrified by what they see happening to Palestinians.”
And without changes to the political landscape in Israel, he said, Israel’s reputation among progressives likely will continue to suffer into the future.
“I think if Israel continues down the path Netanyahu has taken it, there will be less and less support in this country for Israel, at least among liberals and progressives. It just cannot be acceptable, for progressive Americans or Israelis, for this cycle of unresolved conflict to continue.”
For Jewish youth activists involved in progressive movements, the flareup of violence has spurred action in new ways as they have tried to learn more about the conflict.
We 100 percent deserve safety and security and freedom and peace. But so does every other human being on this planet.
For years, Isha Clarke said she danced around the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I always felt this tension when that topic would come up,” said the 18-year-old, who two years ago helped lead one of the largest climate change protests in San Francisco history. “I didn’t feel educated enough to be able to say anything and, frankly, I stopped myself from learning anything because I felt like it was forbidden and I felt like it was just this taboo thing that I wasn’t supposed to talk about or know about.”
But during the deadly clashes over the last few weeks, Clarke, who is on a gap year and will attend Howard University in the fall, said she dove into learning more.
“We can’t continue to have this be something taboo,” she said. “We 100 percent deserve safety and security and freedom and peace. But so does every other human being on this planet. We cannot allow the quest for our freedom and our security to be at the expense of someone else’s.”
Sam Saxe-Taller, another young activist involved in climate change and racial justice movements, attended his first-ever pro-Palestinian march in San Francisco.
While he said he “wasn’t expecting to agree with everything the people said there,” his goal was “to learn and to just listen to people.”
“I was glad I went,” the 18-year-old Berkeley High senior said. “I got to actually have a few conversations with a few people who talked to me about their families or their friends or what they’ve seen, what they’ve witnessed. And that’s really what made it worthwhile.”
After the rally, Saxe-Taller thought about how some of the people he met at the rally and some of his Jewish friends are working off different definitions of crucial concepts.
“Going to the march really helped me understand that the meaning of Zionism to Zionists and the meaning of Zionism to anti-Zionists seem to be kind of different,” he said. “For those who are opposing Zionism, what they mean is opposing the ideas that are used to justify the taking over and subjugation of Palestinian land and people. While [Zionists] would say that their Zionism is based on wanting to have a home for the Jewish people.”
In the end, Saxe-Taller said, seeing the conflict as a “zero-sum game” will lead nowhere. “That just puts us on the road to more fighting,” he said. “And less peace.”
Democratic activist Gia Daniller-Katz has been deeply involved in politics since the 1990s, when she worked for Sen. Chris Dodd in D.C. after college. That’s how, thrillingly, she was on the lawn of the White House as the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993.
“Being there and witnessing the handshake between Arafat and Rabin, the whole thing, it was so hopeful,” she said. “It really felt like in my lifetime, things can change.”
She’s been thinking about lost optimism a lot the past week. As co-chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club of S.F. and a political consultant, Daniller-Katz has a strong network on the left, and some of what she’s heard this last week — including from progressives — concerns her.
“There is justification for concern and plenty of criticism, but it’s disheartening when statements are overblown, one-sided, overly simplistic,” she said.
Progressive U.S. politicians such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have drawn heavy criticism from Israel supporters for claiming Israel is an “apartheid” state and making other strongly worded statements. One-sided social media posts from celebrities including actor Mark Ruffalo and the model Bella Hadid have garnered thousands of likes and shares.
Daniller-Katz said she has tried to infuse more nuance in the discussion, but it’s been hard. And it’s getting more difficult as opposition to Israel has become more entrenched on the left.
“I think when you get the green light from left-leaning elected officials — not just people on the fringe but people in the mainstream — yes, it’s going to make things difficult,” she said.
She only hopes that a steady and experienced President Biden will have some positive impact on Middle East policy and ease a tense situation. Otherwise, “it’s going to make it more complicated to have an honest conversation, for it not to devolve,” Daniller-Katz said. “People will have to acknowledge the culpability on both sides and not shut things down.”
Likewise, Steinberg acknowledged that the animosity toward Israel shown by some, particularly on the left, can cross the line. The mayor disputes the critique of Israel as an apartheid state. “I don’t agree with that. I just don’t,” he said. “That’s inflammatory and not a fair characterization.”
He remains deeply concerned about antisemitism. In the past, he said, he refrained from criticizing Israel publicly, believing it could inflame hatred.
“Because the world is a hateful place, antisemitism is widespread, and you’re only playing into the negativity that already exists,” he said.
“As a proud Jew, I thought long and hard about” whether to speak about the conflict this time, he said. “And I believe there’s an equal danger, if not a greater danger, to not speak out. Because it gives the entire playing field to those who don’t love Israel, to those who want to see it no longer exist.
“There’s nothing wrong with being critical of those you love,” he said.