Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham gives closing remarks at an Jewish community mayoral forum held at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Sept. 15, 2022. Candidates (from left: Loren Taylor, Treva Reid and Sheng Thao. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham gives closing remarks at an Jewish community mayoral forum held at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Sept. 15, 2022. Candidates (from left: Loren Taylor, Treva Reid and Sheng Thao. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Oakland mayoral candidates tiptoe around Israel at wide-ranging Jewish forum

Should a candidate for mayor of a medium-size American city be expected to take a position on Israel?

That question was tested during a Jewish community mayoral forum on Thursday night, held at Oakland’s historic Temple Sinai.

Even before the topic was broached, there was a nervous energy in the room.

About a week before the event, a candidate excluded from the forum, Peter Liu, unleashed a tirade calling Jews “evil,” “corrupt” and in control of the media after the Jewish Community Relations Council limited the forum to the top three fundraisers. Liu, and others, suggested there might be protests.

There weren’t, except for a polite pamphleteer in support of candidate Greg Hodge passing out flyers at the synagogue’s front gate.

Still, there was some chatter that a protester hidden in the audience would jump up and shout at any moment. The synagogue had bumped up its security; IDs were checked at the door. A uniformed security guard patrolled the sanctuary, and another man wearing a Secret Service–style earpiece controlled traffic in the room, informing people they could not take photos in the aisle nor stand during the proceedings.

There was high attendance, likely aided by the controversy; organizers estimated around 120 in the audience and more than 300 streaming at home (the event was also recorded). The chapel was so packed that Temple Sinai opened its rear doors, where overflow chairs were set up on a patio.

In introductory remarks, Tye Gregory, the CEO of the S.F.-based JCRC, addressed the elephant in the room.

He recognized what he called heightened attention around the event due to “unfortunate antisemitic comments.” He said he was less worried about the comments themselves than he was the audience for them.

“Let me just say that we are not concerned about the messenger,” he said, “but by who is listening.”

A line formed outside Temple Sinai as people waited to check in. Organizers required RSVPs for security reasons, after threatening antisemitic statements were made by a candidate not included in the event. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
A line formed outside Temple Sinai as people waited to check in. Organizers required RSVPs for security reasons, after threatening antisemitic statements were made by a candidate not included in the event. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Over the course of an hour and a half, seated in front of the Torah ark and ner tamid, or eternal light, the three invited candidates vying for current Mayor Libby Schaaf’s job — Treva Reid, Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao, all current Oakland council members — answered a handful of questions, some specific to the Jewish community and others more general. The discussion was moderated by Gregory and Sinai’s Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. Each candidate was allowed a timed response. Debate was discouraged.

The limited format did not end up producing sharp distinctions among the three candidates. But it did allow for a discussion that was rather cordial, if sometimes flat.

Questions were asked about Israel, the rise in hate crimes, refugees, housing and inequality.

On hate crimes, responses varied. Only Reid named law enforcement and prosecutors as having significant roles to play in combating such crimes, to “identify, arrest and charge” offenders, she said. Taylor recalled when Temple Sinai was hit with swastika graffiti and condemned Liu’s comments, stressing the need to do so definitively. “Right is right and wrong is wrong,” he said. Thao said “we are living in perilous times,” naming a rise in antisemitism, AAPI hate, anti-Blackness and “anti-wokeism.” She condemned Liu’s comments and called for him and Seneca Scott, another candidate who in her view did not respond strongly enough to Liu’s statements, to drop out of the race.

The next question, also about antisemitism, sounded similar to the first and prompted similar sentiments, but with a twist.

The question came from a congregant at Beth Jacob, a Modern Orthodox shul in Oakland. She stood to face the candidates.

“With the recent rise in antisemitism, Jews have a growing sense that we are not welcome in public spaces,” she said, naming “litmus tests regarding our connection to Israel.” Jewish students sometimes feel excluded and “inadequately supported” by schools, or bullied on social media, she added. “As mayor, how will you work to promote the Oakland Jewish community’s sense of belonging in our city?”

Candidates approached the question from strikingly different directions.

Taylor said Oakland “is a place of refuge for all cultures, all races, all ethnicities, all genders, all sexual orientations.”

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that Israel is a close ally of the U.S. We have to recognize that strength, while also recognizing that it is in our best interests to be in good relations with all countries,” he added. “The conflicts there have existed for years and years and years, and we are not going to solve that from Oakland City Hall.”

The conflicts there have existed for years and years and years, and we are not going to solve that from Oakland City Hall.

From Thao: “When my son was in elementary school, he just felt so different because he had severe ADHD,” she said. “He begged me to put him on medication. Do you know how heartbreaking that is? It was because he was different. We must make sure that we have programming in our schools that works with the diversity that we come with. Our diversity is our strength.”

Throughout the evening, the candidates stressed their own personal histories, exploring how they might resonate with their audience. Thao, if elected, would become the first Hmong mayor of a major American city whose parents fled murder and genocide in Laos to find refuge in America. Reid, who if elected would become the first Black woman mayor of Oakland, talked about her Christian upbringing and how she was taught to respect the Jewish community, “as my faith is deeply rooted in our shared beliefs.” Taylor, who began the evening with a halting “Shalom,” talked about attending a recent bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai and described himself as a “kid from Oakland” and product of “The Town” who through hard work succeeded in becoming a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur.

During a long campaign season, the candidates had already been asked many of the same questions about housing, inequality and public safety, and had practiced answers. But the Jewish community event appeared to be the first and possibly the only time that they had to address certain issues of acute concern to many Jews, specifically about Israel.

Those answers felt a little raw, at times rambling, and to some observers in the audience, weak.

Dara Pincas, a member of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, stood to ask whether the candidates support boycotts of Israel. Pincas referenced “Block the Boat” protests, efforts by BDS activists over the last eight years to disrupt the delivery of goods from Israeli cargo ships to the Port of Oakland. Some of those efforts have been temporarily successful, with activists preventing cargo from being unloaded for days.

“There have been recent efforts in Oakland to prevent ships coming from Israel from docking at the port, and to divest city funds from Israeli companies,” Pincas said. “Do you support or oppose efforts to boycott the State of Israel? And what do you see as your role as mayor with respect to Oakland’s relationship to Israel?”

From Reid: “I do not support any policies that would lead us to isolate, and cancel out, any culture — that cause us not to be supportive of community members, particularly our Jewish community members,” she said, adding, “I recognize the deep roots of the homeland of the Jewish community.”

From Thao: “We are a beautiful city of inclusion. I don’t believe that turning our backs on anybody is what we are here for. … Because once we do, who would be there to help us?”

From Taylor: “One of the things we have to recognize is this culture of ‘canceling.’ For me it is important that we create a table for dialogue and understanding,” he said, adding, “We as a city are not the U.S. foreign policy body. And so when it comes to some of these stances, I think we have to recognize what’s in our scope.”

Notable in the candidates’ responses about boycotts: the word “Israel” was never uttered, something certain audience members took issue with.

The audience spilled out into this overflow area. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
The audience spilled out into this overflow area. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Orit Vogel, a stay-at-home mom and an Oakland resident, approached this reporter after the discussion to express her frustration. In her view, the candidates did not begin to fairly answer Pincas’ question. “I can’t tell you how much it annoyed me!” she said, adding that in fact it made her “furious.”

“It’s either a political tactic — in which case, read the room,” she said, “or they really don’t like Israel.”

Pincas also noted the absence of the word.

“I think people view Israel as a loaded topic and issue, and I just have the perspective that it shouldn’t be,” she said. “They are one of our greatest allies, period.”

Rabbi Mark Bloom, senior rabbi at nearby Temple Beth Abraham, who delivered a closing prayer at the forum, was also struck by the candidates’ responses in general, even as he said there was a lot to like about all three.

“To understand their answers, you had to know a lot, in order to read between the lines, which I found sad,” he said.

“It’s clear none of them want to be quoted using either the words ‘Israel’ or ‘boycott,’ and that’s a sad state of affairs,” he added. “We’re in a place now where they’re afraid to be quoted saying ‘I support Israel’ or ‘I don’t believe in boycotting’ Israel.”

Bloom added that in response to the question about Jewish students feeling included in school, he would have liked the candidates to address the issue of ethnic studies — which, since gaining widespread attention in 2019, has seen Jewish community organizations battle to keep one-sided criticism of Israel out of California classrooms.

“There were a lot of things I liked about what all the candidates had to say, but it was clear they were being politic about avoiding certain hot-button topics,” Bloom said.

A full list of candidates for Oakland mayor can be found here. The election will take place on Nov. 8.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.