Of particular concern was the delusional, self-important sentiment, echoed by several of the board’s commissioners, that though this resolution was entirely beyond the scope of the board, they were confident passing the resolution would finally catalyze a conversation on the topic. While homeless people are dying in Berkeley’s streets, the rent board dedicated energy and time to an issue well beyond its remit, drawing attention away from its important mission and making a mockery of itself.
The rent board’s ridiculous show might as well have been an article in The Onion. While it’s easy to laugh at, it was a perfect encapsulation of the way absolute political ideologies have come to provide clarity and meaning for people at the expense of nuanced politics that may actually create avenues for change.
Soli Alpert, the boad vice chair who proposed the resolution, referenced his own Jewish upbringing during the meeting, rooting his argument in the adage “never again,” a reference to the enduring lessons of the Holocaust. Over and over, during the public comments, Jewish speakers began with reference to their heritage before offering support or opposition.
Underlying all these comments was the ongoing challenge for American Jews to reconcile seriously with the fact that Jews are simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.
Several Jews who spoke in support of the resolution, including Alpert, expressed a desire to ensure that injustices done to Jews during the Holocaust were not passed on to the Palestinians. Many Jews who spoke against the resolution pointed to the fear of increased antisemitic violence and tied those concerns to the increase in Islamophobic, anti-Asian and anti-Black violence.
Both comparisons are at best tone-deaf, and at worst cynical.
The Holocaust bears little resemblance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and American antisemitism, while rising, is hardly comparable to the ongoing struggle Black Americans continue to face (not to mention that there are plenty of Jews who are people of color).
When we, as Jews, only see ourselves (or Israel) as exclusively powerful, we belittle Israel’s security concerns and disregard the real ways antisemitism manifests across the U.S. political spectrum. And when we see ourselves only as vulnerable, we are blind to the significant ways Jews wield real power both in Israel and the United States, translating into policies that cause real suffering.
Our discomfort with the seeming paradox of being both powerful and vulnerable leads to behavior that emphasizes symbolic allegiance over responsibility.
If I claim, as a Jew, that I am against Israel’s existence and power, I can morally absolve myself of the sins in which the Jewish people are implicated. And if I emphasize, as a Jew, Hamas’ rocket attacks and all forms of Palestinian violence, I can morally absolve myself of support for Israel’s asymmetric power relationship with Palestine.
In his essay “Auschwitz or Sinai,” Rabbi David Hartman critiqued Israeli society for its reliance on the Holocaust in the myth of is founding. To focus exclusively on one’s own suffering and victimhood is narcissism, he wrote. That same narcissism is present when we align ourselves morally with Israel’s victims, and cast other Jews exclusively as oppressors.
In both cases, when we wage these symbolic battles online, in synagogue, at the dinner table — or in a meeting of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board — we get to feel good about our political positions without creating any real change. But in truth, we can only effect change by adopting an ethic of responsibility for our fellow Jews and for all humanity. We cannot simply disavow the villains on Twitter and then pat ourselves on the back.
The not so simple fact is that Israel could and should shrink the occupation. The Palestinians suffer under both an Israeli occupation and their own corrupt political leadership — a complication that people would rather not think about because it does not offer a simple narrative with villains and heroes.
But most importantly in this particular story, the California housing crisis has nothing to do with Israel-Palestine, despite the desire among some progressives to map the political challenges of the United States onto the globe in some sort of reverse anti-colonial imperialism.
To take suffering and injustice seriously, we need good governance and leaders who understand their specific roles. No one in Berkeley is surprised by the appalling lack of political leadership demonstrated by the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. For those of us committed to the moral aspirations of the Jewish people and an America of possibility, it is imperative that we come to grips with our own feelings of Jewish power and vulnerability so that we may manifest a better society.