x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

In Berkeley, California, US Jews argue fiercely over Israeli policies

Jewish Voice for Peace is a liberal group often critical of Israeli and US policy but some other Jews believe it harbours anti-semitic views.

BERKELEY // It has a history of anti-war and pro-civil rights activism unmatched anywhere in the United States, yet not even this bucolic city nestled above San Francisco Bay in California is immune from the slings and arrows that accompany the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Berkeley is home to the top-ranked University of California, bookshops, cafes and wide leafy boulevards with imposing houses for professors and professionals from San Francisco's high-tech sector.

But according to the Reut Institute, an Israeli research group, these unlikely surroundings on the edge of the Bay Area make up "one of the very few geographic locations that drive a global assault on Israel's right to exist". The issues are so volatile that at least one prominent Jewish critic of Israel has been threatened with violence.

Last year the Berkeley home of Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, a liberal Jewish magazine, was covered with posters reading "Islamo-Fascism" after he announced he would give an award to Judge Richard Goldstone, who led a United Nations investigation into Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2008. That invasion, Operation Cast Lead, left about 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead; many Jews considered Goldstone's report unfair.

"There were actually two attacks on my house, but I decided not to go public with the second attack and since then, things have been quieter," Rabbi Lerner said. "But Cast Lead is still a hot issue in the Jewish world. There is recognition Israel was responsible for palpable violations of human rights, and those who always defend Israel are on the defensive."

Rabbi Lerner, who in the 1970s was called "one of the most dangerous criminals in America" by J Edgar Hoover, then director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, said he had yet to find a synagogue that would agree to host a Friday service for a group of guests he planned to host later this year when Tikkun held its 25th birthday celebrations.

"I want to take some award winners, not including Goldstone, for a shabbas [sabbath] service, but synagogues just don't want to be associated with anything connected with criticism of Israel."

Last month The New York Times ran an article that examined American Jewish groups in Berkeley and their outspoken activism against US and Israeli policies.

Later, the newspaper issued an editor's note saying that Daniel Ming, one of the article's two authors, "had been active in pro-Palestinian rallies". The note went on to say that "if editors had known of Mr Ming's activities, he would not have been allowed to write the article".

Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Bay Area-based grassroots organisation often criticised as anti-Zionist by other American-Jewish groups, said Mr Ming had yet to explain his position publicly but she believed him to be an objective reporter.

"He was at a protest just to cover it for his blog and he was subjected to personal smears," said Ms Surasky, who also runs a blog called Muzzlewatch that tracks "efforts to stifle open debate about US-Israeli foreign policy".

She said she was proud of what she described as her "Zionist-socialist" ancestry and was upset by threats made against her by other American Jews. A CCTV system was recently installed in the JVP offices and only accompanied visitors are allowed inside, she said.

Ms Surasky was one of several JVP activists who heckled Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, when he gave a speech at a convention of Jewish organisations in New Orleans last November.

"We stood up to say 'settlements delegitimise Israel' and members of the audience turned on us and tried to strangle and gag one of our people with a chokehold," she said. "Ironically, it was the police who protected us."

JVP has proved particularly controversial because of its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which calls on investors and activists to shun Israel companies and products. Other American-Jewish groups contend that JVP provides cover for anti-Semitic views.

But Ms Surasky said the BDS movement was necessary given the failure, most recently by the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, to bring forceful diplomatic pressure on Israel to end the occupation.

"The smart money right now is on grassroots, people and community-based activism and education," she said.

"We are inspired by Cairo. We had great hope for Obama, but he has been a profound disappointment."

Many American Jews are convinced that mainstream organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) speak for an older minority while much of a younger majority feel increasingly distanced from Israel and its policies.

Barbara Lubin is 70 and said she found more like-minded people among the young than among members of her own older generation.

She is the co-founder of the Middle East Children's Alliance, which is based in Berkeley and has provided aid to children in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon since 1988.

"There is a high per capita [proportion] of Jews in Berkeley and they were progressive on every issue except this one [Israel-Palestine]," said Ms Lubin, who also comes from a Zionist family.

"But everything is changing and I don't listen to people who call me irrelevant. History is changing. Look at what's happening in Egypt."

sdevi@thenational.ae