San Francisco Mayor London Breed poses overlooking the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, May 2023. (Photo/Dan Garon)
San Francisco Mayor London Breed poses overlooking the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, May 2023. (Photo/Dan Garon)

S.F. Mayor London Breed gets expansive view of Israel, from Haifa to Jerusalem

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Mere hours before San Francisco Mayor London Breed touched down in Tel Aviv on May 9, conflict had erupted between Israel and Gaza. The boom of rockets being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome could be heard in the background during her first dinner the following evening, the kickoff to a planned celebratory trip in honor of the 50th year of the San Francisco–Haifa sister-city relationship.

The Israel Defense Forces had launched targeted airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, killing three senior commanders of the Islamic Jihad militant group, and over the next few days, hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel in retaliation. The five-day clash came to an end with a May 13 cease-fire.

Violence had also broken out during Breed’s first visit Israel in 2012 with the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area (she was the executive director of the African American Art and Culture Complex at the time).

In an interview about her recent trip, Breed told J. she knows what it’s like to live in a community fraught with violence, having grown up in public housing in San Francisco’s Western Addition.

“We’re talking about rockets vs. guns,” she said. “I think that choosing to be afraid and walk away from a situation is the easy thing to do. And I think the hard thing to do is to open your eyes and go and explore and learn and be unafraid.”

Unless the security team — which included two San Francisco police officers and two Israeli security officers (former IDF soldiers) — deemed any travel plans unsafe, Breed said she was ready to forge ahead with the itinerary; in the end, the trip went ahead as planned.

But plans were nearly derailed, said Tye Gregory, CEO of JCRC Bay Area, which organized the trip and mapped out the itinerary with Sam Lauter, the trip’s chair, and Bob Tandler, who heads the sister-city committee.

“We’d go to bed thinking one thing, and then we wake up the next morning: Oh, there’s a cease-fire; oh, the cease-fire didn’t hold, there’s more rockets going on. So it was very touch and go for a few days,” Gregory said.

Breed, he added, “was very clear that she wanted to experience the itinerary, and she was ultimately the decision-maker on that.”

The group of approximately 30 Bay Area travelers was prepared to go into a bomb shelter if necessary, Gregory added, and contingency plans were in place. “It was a close call, but ultimately we were able to stick to the plan.”

The trip began in Haifa, where Breed and Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem signed a memorandum of understanding renewing the sister-city partnership. Breed also signed an agreement that will allow for future collaborations between S.F. General Hospital and Rambam Medical Center (a primary level 1 trauma hospital) “in the areas of emergency preparedness and trauma treatment,” said Bob Tandler, a board member of the S.F. General Hospital Foundation. The group toured Rambam’s state-of-the-art 2,000-bed underground emergency center. The two medical centers, Breed remarked, share the same mission of being a “neutral zone,” where people, “no matter who they are, where they live, can get treated.”

Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem and San Francisco Mayor London Breed reaffirmed the sister city relationship between their cities on the trip.
Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem and San Francisco Mayor London Breed reaffirmed the sister-city relationship between their cities on the trip.

Haifa is unique among cities in Israel, Gregory said, in that Arabs and Israelis are not segregated by neighborhoods and coexist peacefully. He likened it to San Francisco’s status as a safe harbor for LGBTQ and minority communities.

Breed also toured the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology and the University of Haifa to discuss innovations that resonate with challenges San Francisco faces.

For instance, Breed said she enjoyed learning about how the University of Haifa was able to partner with the city to extend its campus to downtown Haifa, and in doing so revitalize parts of the city that had been “somewhat abandoned.”

“It became more of a hub for young people in terms of its nightlife and activity in the day,” Breed noted.

Strengthening the sister-city partnership, building business and economic relationships, and learning best practices on revitalizing downtown corridors were primary goals of the five-day visit.

Trip organizers decided not to arrange meetings with Knesset members, Lauter said, given the large number of Jewish San Franciscans who have voiced their opposition to actions by the far-right wing of the Israeli government on judicial reform, and anti-LGBTQ views held by some ministers.

“We made a calculated decision that for [Breed], meeting with the government wasn’t the right step to take,” said Lauter, a board member of Democratic Majority for Israel and A Wider Bridge. He added that past trips with former S.F. mayors Gavin Newsom in 2008 and Ed Lee in 2016 included meetings with Knesset members.

On past trips “it wasn’t a big deal” for official visitors from California to meet with Israeli ministers, Lauter said. “This government kind of made it a big deal.”

Breed said she sees the people of Israel as distinct from the country’s right-wing government, drawing an analogy with how some Americans felt during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“Just because Donald Trump was our president didn’t mean that we agreed with his views. And, in fact, we didn’t want people to say, ‘I’m not going to San Francisco, I’m not going to California. I’m not going anywhere in the United States because of [Trump],’” she said. “That was the kind of mindset I approached this with, but also with the understanding that there are some real challenges that exist.”

Breed did meet with Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, who dubbed her the “coolest mayor.” (That became her nickname for the remainder of the trip, Gregory joked.)

Breed meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog
Breed meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog

Other travelers in the Bay Area group included Joy Sisisky, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; former AIPAC leaders and Bay Area Jewish philanthropists Amy and Morton Friedkin; Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer from S.F. Congregation Emanu-El; Danielle Foreman, chief program officer at the Koret Foundation; Lynn Altshuler and David Kaufman from the sister-city committee; three members of Breed’s staff, including chief of staff Sean Elsbernd, and a handful of her close associates. The Koret Foundation and Federation were key funders of the trip.

The travelers also toured Jaffa and Jerusalem, and then made their way to Bethlehem in the West Bank.

Rami Nafez Nazzal, a Palestinian American, former reporter and founder of Beyond Borders Tours, led the group through the city and provided an overview of the political and social challenges Palestinians there face. They also met with Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman.

Both Nazzal and Salman were “pretty punishing toward the Israeli government,” Gregory noted. “We knew that that was important to the mayor, to hear both sides of the issues.” He added that many of the business leaders, professors and other Israelis who met with Breed during the trip were also highly critical of the government’s policies regarding the Palestinians. They included Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor, Chen Arieli, an LGBTQ activist, feminist leader and former leader of Tel Aviv’s Welfare Ministry.

Breed said the most “disturbing” thing she learned while in Bethlehem was how many Palestinians have limited access to clean drinking water.

“It was heartbreaking to me, what people had to go through in order to get water, and how they had to save it,” Breed said. Only one in 10 people in Gaza have access to safe drinking water, according to UNICEF.

“We spent a lot of time learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both sides,” Sisisky said. “I’ve done a lot of [these trips] before, and I’ve always learned something, and doing it with this group I thought I learned even more.”

Breed (second from left) in the Old City of Jerualem
Breed (second from left) in the Old City of Jerualem

The group toured holy Christian sites including the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, visited one of the city’s oldest hotels (owned by a local family for generations) and viewed a portion of the Israeli security barrier that encircles Bethlehem.

Throughout it all, Breed said, residents greeted her with a warm welcome, kissing and thanking her for coming.

“In the midst of the conflict, in the midst of going to the wall that was built to keep [Palestinians] out, just in the midst of all that, [they showed me] the respect and appreciation for the fact that we were there,” Breed said. “That was pretty powerful.”

While in Tel Aviv, the group visited the Battae Ethiopian Israeli Heritage Center to learn about the history of Ethiopian Jews making aliyah. Breed also had a chance to visit with leaders of tech companies, some that already have a foothold in the Bay Area, such as the medical AI startup Viz.ai. She also met with the CEO of one of Israel’s hottest tech companies, Remilk, which has engineered a way to reproduce milk proteins to craft dairy identical to cow’s milk.

“It’s our hope that some of these business relationships that we started will grow legs down the road,” Gregory said.

Breed also visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and remembrance center, and had many conversations with her fellow travelers during the long bus rides about the current rise in antisemitism and about hate crimes against Jews.

Those conversations struck a chord, Breed said.

“One of the things that I learned on the first trip [in 2012] that was also reiterated on this trip … is just how much [the Bay Area Jewish community] wants to develop relationships, and help people to understand the challenges that continue to persist,” Breed said. “But also, more importantly, the things that bring us together.”

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.