Hundreds of people, mostly Arab-Americans, are expected to gather Saturday in downtown San Francisco to support anti-government protests in Egypt, and a large contingent of Jews representing a Bay Area peace-advocacy group will join them, one of its leaders says.
“We are deeply inspired by their push for democracy and freedom,” said Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, based in Oakland.
Surasky said she hoped a new political order in Egypt would help speed the end of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, which her group opposes. The group’s views differ markedly from statements about the Egyptian protests coming from the Israeli government and many other Jewish-American organizations, which caution that the demonstrations in Cairo could ultimately threaten Israel.
The unrest in Egypt is merely the latest issue to pit a number of Bay Area activists against prominent Jewish organizations, as well as against some Israelis who have come to see the Bay Area as a locus for Jewish opposition to Israel’s government.
One prominent Israeli research organization, the Reut Institute, recently described the Bay Area as “one of the very few geographic locations that drive a global assault on Israel’s right to exist.” In October, the Anti-Defamation League placed Jewish Voice for Peace — which has called for an international boycott of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories — among “the top 10 anti-Israel groups in America.”
The divisions have heightened tensions among Bay Area Jews. During one altercation last year, a pro-Israel activist attacked two representatives of Jewish Voice for Peace with pepper spray. Last March, Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly Jewish magazine based in Berkeley, received death threats, and his home was plastered with signs accusing him of “Islamo-Fascism,” after he announced that he planned to give an award to a United Nations official who led an investigation into Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza.
“What’s happening is outlandish; the era of civil discourse has disappeared,” said Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco’s largest synagogue.
The activists say they are not working against Israel, but against Israeli government policies they believe are discriminatory. In the past week, many of these activists have cast the Egyptian demonstrations as an opportunity to alter the Middle East, including Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
“When you look at the Middle East, in one way or another it’s all about what’s happening in Palestine,” said Barbara Lubin, co-founder of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, a group in Berkeley that organizes aid missions to Gaza, which remains under an Israeli blockade.
Lubin said she hoped that if President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was removed, Israeli policies toward Gaza “would become more lax” and allow her organization to carry out its work in support of the Palestinians.
Rabbi Lerner has been an outspoken supporter of the demonstrators in Egypt. His recent editorial, headlined “Jewish Prayers for Egypt’s Uprising,” was the lead opinion article on the website of the television network Al Jazeera on Tuesday. He said in an interview that American Jews had an interest in letting “the people of the Arab world know that a very large section of the Jewish people support the liberation of the Egyptian people and of all Arab people.”
Such views concern Israel’s defenders locally and abroad.
“Nobody defends Mubarak,” said John Rothmann, a talk show host for KGO radio in San Francisco and the former President of the Zionist Organization of America in San Francisco.
Rothmann added, however, that it was important to remember that Mubarak had maintained peace between Egypt and Israel for nearly three decades.
“He may be a barbarian, but he’s our barbarian,” Rothmann continued. “You need to have an alternative, and we have never been able to create one.”
Eran Shayshon, a Reut Institute senior analyst, said in an e-mail that Israelis were watching Bay Area Jewish activists closely because “campus dynamics and consumer trends originating in California often reverberate throughout North America and beyond.”
In fact, Jewish Voice for Peace has grown significantly since Israel’s invasion of Gaza, its leaders say.
The 23-day operation in December 2008 and January 2009, named Operation Cast Lead by the Israel Defense Forces, left 13 Israelis and at least 1,300 Palestinians dead. It drew strong criticism that Israel used excessive force against civilians.
“Cast Lead was a radicalizing moment for a lot of Jews,” said Sydney Levy, director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace. Levy said Jewish discontent with Israel typically subsided after a conflict ended. That did not happen after the most recent Israeli incursion, he said, “mostly because the siege of Gaza continues today.”
Jewish Voice for Peace’s mailing list has risen to 100,000 from 35,000 since the start of the Gaza conflict, according to the organization; the number of chapters has grown to 27 from 7. From 2008 to 2009, the group’s operating budget, fueled by donations, grew 44 percent.
“We, as Jews, have a unique responsibility to change the viewpoint of the people who are in our community,” said Rae Abileah, a San Francisco resident and advocate for Jewish Voice for Peace’s youth wing.
Jewish Voice for Peace has been at the center of several attention-grabbing episodes.
In November, during a convention of Jewish philanthropic organizations in New Orleans, Abileah and others drew international attention when they heckled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel during a speech.
“I’m a 28-year-old young Jewish woman, and the settlements betray Jewish values!” Abileah shouted. One man grabbed her in a chokehold while another tried to gag her by stuffing a seat cover in her mouth.
Much of the recent scrutiny of Bay Area Jewish activists has focused on efforts to impose an international boycott on Israel. The campaign is modeled after the boycott of South Africa in the 1980s over apartheid.
Last spring, students at the University of California, Berkeley, with the backing of Jewish Voice for Peace, mounted a divestment campaign singling out companies that provide “military support for the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” The effort ended after Akiva Tor, Israel’s consul general in San Francisco, came to the campus and held a private meeting with student senators.
By supporting the boycott, Jewish Voice for Peace “puts themselves beyond the pale,” wrote Shayshon of the Reut Institute, because some leaders of the boycott movement “have explicitly talked about the goal of dismantling Israel.”
Members of Jewish Voice for Peace say they are simply concerned about human rights of all peoples in the Middle East — whether in Israel, the Palestinian territories or the streets of Cairo.
“Egyptians deserve a democracy just as Americans do, just as Israelis do, just as Palestinians do,” Surasky said.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.
Editors' Note: February 10, 2011
After this article was published, editors learned that one of the two writers, Daniel Ming, had attended pro-Palestinian rallies. Such involvement in a public cause related to The Bay Citizen’s news coverage is at odds with the publication’s journalistic standards; if editors had known of Mr. Ming's activities, he would not have been allowed to write the article.