Natasha Kehimkar had never seen graffiti before on the streets of Foster City, a sleepy suburb of San Francisco, where she has lived for a decade. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the town is famous for its extremely low crime rate and for the giant corporations headquartered there, like Visa and Gilead Sciences. Until now, the major decisions facing the municipality were very local issues, such as developing the marina, or sustainable housing.
But the peaceful reality of this well-kempt suburb was suddenly upended in mid-December, when hundreds of young people wearing keffiyehs burst into city hall, shouting at council members chants which ranged from anti-Israel to antisemitic. That was when graffiti began to appear throughout the city. Near one of the town’s main streets: "Zionism Is Terrorism"; on a bridge: "Gaza Will Be Freed".
Kehimkar, a board member of advocacy organization the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), happened to hear about a resolution on the agenda at the Foster City city hall just as she was about to give a lecture on antisemitism at one of the Jewish schools in the area. One of the guests seated next to her was a city council member who told her about a proposal set to be discussed in a few days, according to which Foster City would officially approve a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The significance of the decision: the small town of 30,000 residents would officially call on both sides to lay down their arms.
"We wouldn't have known about the resolution that was supposed to come up for discussion, had it not been for a chance meeting at the Jewish school," Kehimkar told "Globes". "At first I didn't know what to do. I felt dizzy. The next morning, I decided to contact friends in the Jewish community. In the end, we arrived there with an impressive number of over 150 people and we prepared in advance. We did not come with extreme messages; we focused on unity of the city, on the need not to divide the residents, and that the council members needed to do what they were elected to do, and that is to take care of their constituents. And then, we saw the other side - some call them pro-Palestinian, I call them anti-Israeli. To our surprise, there were only a few of them, because their umbrella organization had not publicized the meeting on their website. Very quickly, we saw them pull out their phones and call for reinforcements."
During a very long discussion that began at 6:30 pm and ended at 1:00 am, many speakers turned up to condemn Israel. Unlike in other Silicon Valley towns, most were cut off if they did not address the ceasefire issue specifically. "Anyone who went back into history, had their microphone cut off," Kehimkar says. "Their words were disturbing and hateful, it was like being punched in the stomach. It was very hard to sit and listen to statements with very little connection to facts, reality, or history, but our decision was to respect democracy and sit through the discussion until the very end."
The resolution to oblige Israel and Hamas to observe a ceasefire ultimately fell, after four out of the five council members voted against. It was supported only by the council member who had proposed in the first place. The protesters dispersed as quickly as they came and have not been seen in the city since. Kehimkar, who is in contact with other Jewish community members in the Bay Area, says that many of these protesters have been seen at similar meetings in the nearby cities of Santa Clara, Alameda, and San Bruno.
Keffiyehs and slogans against Israel
Foster City succeeded in taking the pro-Palestinian resolution off the agenda, but the opposite is true in dozens of other cities, including major US cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta. Even US President Joe Biden’s hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The first to make this controversial decision was the city of Richmond, which is located in the San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay region, a center of progressivism near to the University of California at Berkeley and the city of Oakland, two places where distinctly pro-Palestinian sentiment prevails. The decision against Israel passed very easily, as Mayor Eduardo Martinez is known for his anti-Israel positions, and has attended demonstrations since the outbreak of the war. At the meeting, most of the participants wore keffiyehs around their necks, and filled the air with chants condemning Israel.
The wording of the decision finally adopted by the council was among the most extreme, and used terms such as "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing". "The citizens of the United States, whose government finances the support of the Israeli army with their tax dollars, have a moral obligation to condemn Israel's actions," Martinez stated during the meeting. The resolution also condemned the Hamas attack of October 7, but drew a parallel between the victims of the massacre and the 6,000 Gazans reported killed up until that time.
Tyler Gregory, CEO of JCRC Bay Area, admits that his region is particularly challenging, perhaps the most extreme in the entire United States. Three Bay Area authorities have passed resolutions against Israel -- Oakland and San Francisco, along with Richmond - and that is not the last word. "Almost every left-wing social movement started in this area," Gregory told "Globes". "Black Lives Matter (BLM), Occupy Wall Street -- all started here."
San Francisco’s proposed resolution for a ceasefire, concluded only a few days ago, caused an uproar in the local Jewish community, and also received extensive media coverage worldwide. The person who made the proposal was, ironically, a Jewish member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Dean Preston. The resolution went through several iterations until it was accepted by a majority vote by the council. In summary, the fourth richest city in the US called for "a sustained ceasefire, the provision of lifesaving humanitarian aid in Gaza, and the release of all hostages," condemning the attack by Hamas on October 7 that resulted in 1,200 deaths, while at the same time resolving to "condemn the Netanyahu government's attacks, resulting in the deaths, deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
"Dean Preston is a representative of the Democratic Socialist movement. It is his ideological base," says Gregory by way of explanation for the fact that a Jewish candidate initiated the proposal. "This policy has been criticized. After all, San Francisco has much bigger problems than the war in Gaza, like people dying from drug overdoses. But he’s trying to run for re-election and his opponent is Bilal Mahmood, a Muslim candidate from the Democratic Party, so he wants to rouse his support base."
San Francisco mayor London Breed could have vetoed the resolution. Breed, a member of the Democratic Party, used to be friendly towards Israel, and has even visited the country and met the mayor of Haifa -- San Francisco’s Twin City - Dr. Einat Kalisch-Rotem. Kalisch-Rotem even wrote to Breed urging her to cast the veto. "A very bad wave has started there," says Kalisch-Rotem. "From what I saw, the council meeting was stormy, difficult, and very violent. The pressure on the city leaders was inhuman."
In the end, Breed decided to refrain vetoing the resolution, but she publicly criticized the council's decision, reproving it for meddling in foreign affairs without the legal authority or expertise to do so, and argued that the decision had left the city "angrier, more divided and less safe".
At the Board’s hearing, Breed noted, "One man spoke about his family members who were killed by Hamas on October 7. People in the crowd made pig noises, devil horns with their hands, and screamed for him to ‘kill himself’ as he walked out of the chamber. People surrounded a Jewish city employee in the restroom to intimidate him while he was doing nothing more than being present in his workplace. They shouted down and intimidated those who disagreed, including a legislator offering amendments citing the atrocious acts of Hamas. At a supervisor candidate debate… a candidate, who is Jewish, bought up these instances at the Board and the crowd booed him loudly. When he mentioned the documented sexual violence committed by Hamas, people yelled ‘liar’ and continued jeering him throughout the event."
"Sadly, demonization, heartlessness, and abject antisemitism have, it seems, become politically and socially acceptable among a certain subset of activists," she wrote.
"Breed came to Israel with us only last May," says Gregory. "She was hosted at a dinner in Tel Aviv and experienced rocket fire from Gaza - so she saw the Iron Dome in action." He respects her decision: "If she had vetoed it, it would have led to another eight hours of debates from hell in the council, and she wanted to spare everyone that. I sat there and got sworn at -- I know what it’s like."
"Weaving a network with the progressives"
Gerald Steinberg, professor emeritus of political science at Bar-Ilan University, has been monitoring anti-Israel organizations, and their sources of funding for over two decades through NGO Monitor, an organization he founded in 2002. He knows San Francisco well; he was born in London, but his family moved there when he was a child, and Steinberg grew up in a city that became the center of hippies, student demonstrations, and protests against the war in Vietnam.
Over the past twenty years, Steinberg says, "Blue" areas - progressivist strongholds and campuses throughout the US -- have become centers of support for boycotting Israel. But in recent years, the campaign against Israel has become a link between many organizations representing a variety of populations. "The anti-Israel line unites supporters of Black rights and Muslim rights with those working for a revolution against capitalists and against the regime, presenting a challenge from the left side of the map," says Steinberg.
"They feel that they have ostracized from the normative political framework, so they embrace the Palestinian struggle, create new alliances, and, thanks to this, receive financial and political support. On the other hand, they encounter some who say that such resolutions are none of their business."
How does it work in practice? These "ceasefire resolution" activists move from city to city, meet with council members, and try to persuade them to put the controversial proposals on the agenda. When this happens, the dates of the discussions are published on websites of pro-Palestinian organizations, such as the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), an umbrella organization for several Muslim movements in the US, bringing dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of activists to council meetings to chant condemnations of Israel.
"Turning to local councils has a political purpose: to exert pressure from below, from the municipal level, on members of Congress, so that they will support their goals," maintains Steinberg. "Most council members will never reach high office in national politics, but their support can help members of Congress, like Bernie Sanders, for example. This sends a resounding message to the decision makers."
"The Palestinian lobby in the US weaves a network of connections throughout the progressive world in the US, and the organizations operating in it support one another by activating demonstrations, and bringing masses of people to create political pressure in Blue centers like Northern California, Seattle, Portland , New York, Boston, and the Ivy League universities Some of them have no connection to Palestine at all, such as the Chinese Progressive Association (CAP), which was established to help immigrants and expatriates from China, Black rights organizations, or the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has been a recognized Communist organization for decades. The policy is broadly: support me and I’ll support you."
Underlying these pro-Palestinian organizations is a complex network of support and funding relationships that are not always apparent in the public debate. According to NGO Monitor database, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an organization founded at UC Berkeley, which defines itself as a student organization but, in fact, has many alumni members, benefits from connections with a sister organization, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), both founded by Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at Berkeley.
According to NGO Monitor, the Virginia Attorney General opened an investigation into AMP after the October 7 massacre for soliciting contributions without first having registered with the appropriate state departments, and in addition, "will investigate allegations that the organization may have used funds raised for impermissible purposes under state law, including benefitting or providing support to terrorist organizations". Steinberg says that it is difficult, and even impossible, to track foreign money that finances non-profit organizations in the US. "There’s no ban on funding NGOs in the US and there’s no way to follow the money trail."
The organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) also plays a prominent role in protesting against Israel. According to NGO Monitor, in recent years the organization has actively promoted boycott campaigns against Israel, accepting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as parallel to Black-White relations in the US, and expressing support for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh and Ahmad Sa'adat. The website also details the millions of dollars JVP has raised from various donors, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Schwab Charitable Foundation, Adalah-NY: Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, and other donors.
Along with failures, the Jewish lobby has also had some successes. Foster City is just one of them. Ceasefire resolutions were also defeated in San Bruno, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and Alameda. Steinberg, however, doesn’t get excited over that. "In these cities, there is a low proportion of young people and not many progressives. These are older centers; they see pictures of the wild council meetings in neighboring towns, and are put off by the violent young folks."
Jewish tents versus Palestinian villages
While there are quite a few US Jewish communities whose members oppose a ceasefire, it is not always easy to organize them. "First, many feel unsafe in these council meetings," explains Gregory. "I sat in on the Oakland and San Francisco councils, and believe me, I can't blame them. Second, many of these council meetings are held in the middle of the day, when many Jews are at work or studying. We always try to remind the council heads they’re mainly seeing one side before them, but that doesn't mean there isn't an opposing side."
Organizing the Jewish side is usually done through social networks or synagogues. Through an initiative that began at a synagogue in the Silicon Valley suburb of Redwood City, the Jewish community managed to prevent, for the time being, a discussion about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Dena Koren, a financial advisor for schools in the area, said that, by chance, she heard from the local Chabad rabbi about a discussion on the issue scheduled to take place at the city council. Because Redwood City laws do not permit items to be added freely to the agenda, pro-Palestinian activists had pressured members of the city council, including making uninvited appearances at council meetings and sending some 400 letters.
"Most of them were sent from other cities, and all used a uniform and impersonal template," says Koren. "It's quite clear this was an effort by an organizing body from the Arab side. That's why we decided to prepare our own response. We prepared letters that were much shorter and very focused on council members. To our surprise, we received letters of reply, after which we arranged personal meetings for coffee, and to explain our point of view. We wanted to make it clear to them that holding a discussion about a ceasefire was an invitation to these crazies to come speak at council meetings."
In the end, the local Jewish community scored a victory: the discussion about a ceasefire was never put on the agenda. But then came the turning point: the procedure for raising issues for discussion was changed. To date, raising issues had been done through the mayor’s office. Now, a hidden hand was making it possible for municipal officials to put issues on the agenda. The Redwood City Jewish community is now waiting in trepidation for a discussion on the ceasefire to be held in the middle of next month. "It feels like we took one step forward, then took three steps back," Koren says. "We expect the motion will fail, but this is going to be the ugliest fight ever fought at the Redwood City city hall."
Oded Hermoni , an Israeli investor and co-founder and managing partner of J-Ventures Group, who has been living in Silicon Valley for more than a decade, was among those Jews present at another council meeting. in Los Altos, one of the area’s wealthiest cities. "Something like a hundred people arrived there in keffiyehs. It seems they are very organized in coordinating their attendance at these meetings. One by one, people started coming up who shared shocking stories from Gaza, such as their grandfather telling how he was expelled from Gaza, or a relative telling about people who died there. I also spoke; I said that children are afraid to speak Hebrew here, and this is considered the safest city in the US."
While the pro-Palestinian organizations come with clear messages, funding from various associations, propaganda brochures, and with a very large force of activists, Hermoni feels that the Jewish side does not know how to operate on a similar scale. "American Jewry has worked very hard to build a strong lobby in Washington -- AIPAC, J Street -- but it has completely abandoned organized activity on the local and academic side. A situation came up here where we were caught by surprise. So we set up a Jewish tent on the Stanford campus, and they build a model Palestinian village opposite. Even our government ministries, including the Diaspora Ministry, are not fighting hard enough, partly because they don’t place a high priority on American Jewry."
In addition, "Globes" has learned that the Israeli consuls in Los Angeles and San Francisco met with some council members and mayors, and played a part, albeit behind closed doors, in some of the decisions. But this is not what US Jews are calling for. Kehimkar would like to see more explanatory materials about the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict to help the Israeli narrative.
"Sometimes just bringing up the word ‘Israel’ stops people from listening," says Koren. "What’s for sure is that Bay Area Jewry will never go back to October 6. From now on, we will choose our representatives differently, and demand candidates who will represent us, and support us in the municipalities, in the schools, and at the state level. We must be more critical of the candidates' policies and their positions on Israel and antisemitism. Now is the time to ask these questions."
Pressures on the education system, too
Meanwhile, a new threat is giving Bay Area Jewry sleepless nights. Ceasefire resolution supporters have also begun to visit and put pressure on area school districts. The Santa Clara school district is scheduled to pass a resolution regarding a ceasefire, after another nearby school district, New Haven, already made such a decision. "The district education system is separate from the local authorities and they have autonomy in making decisions about schools," says Koren. "But after October 7, many of them announced that they would receive proposals to raise calls for a ceasefire. If in the past, maybe 50 or 60 people would attend school board meetings, now the halls are full."
Bay Area educational system officials, school principals, and teachers have already managed to embed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the curriculum, usually unilaterally. "In one high school, we saw a science teacher hang a poster in the classroom with the slogan 'Free Palestine,'" Kehimkar relates. "At another school, one day was turned into a 'Palestine Study Day', and many schools teach about the conflict in a way that is very discouraging to Jewish students. As soon as a district school board passes a resolution against Israel, the ranks below feel free to introduce extremist content into the classroom."
The situation in Oakland has become so critical that many parents have decided to remove their children from the public education system, with some even considering legal action. Meanwhile, the Federal US Department of Education has decided to investigate the unified school districts of Oakland and San Francisco for what is being termed religious and ethnic discrimination. Kehimkar, who runs an organizational consultancy, including diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), explains she has no problem with the concept of DEI, which has gained so much traction on campuses and in Silicon Valley. Its goal is integrating under-represented populations into decision-making circles. "I strongly support this, but the language and the concepts have been distorted to shift the discourse to a one-sided place. The people proposing a ceasefire are presenting a very distorted, inaccurate picture."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 28, 2024.
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.