Pro-Israel Activists Upset With Berkeley Paper, Santa Cruz Mayor

By Josh Richman

Published September 08, 2006, issue of September 08, 2006.
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Two recent controversies in Northern California cities have Jewish communal leaders protesting what they describe as a local embrace of anti-Israel rhetoric.

In Santa Cruz, the mayor gave a visiting Palestinian ambassador a key to the city, just before the diplomat declared that “Hezbollah is an amateur in terrorism compared with Israel.” And in Berkeley, a newspaper’s publication of what it admits was a virulently antisemitic opinion piece touched off a firestorm.

“It’s all kind of wrapped up with this broader issue we deal with: this ‘new antisemitism’ … this anger toward Israel that transforms into just blatant antisemitism,” said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region. It emanates from the extreme political left, he said, and “for that reason, Berkeley and Santa Cruz are the epicenters of this problem.”

The Santa Cruz-based Resource Center for Nonviolence, along with the San Francisco chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, invited Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the United States, to speak July 31. Mayor Cynthia Mathews introduced him and gave him a key to the city, calling it a rare honor. The Santa Cruz Sentinel later noted that the city has bestowed 39 keys since 1996, including some to such liberal icons as filmmaker Michael Moore; historian/activist Howard Zinn, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat.

Besides the Hezbollah comment, Safieh — who has advocated a two-state solution and is politically aligned with Fatah, not with the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas — said that Palestinians “are the victims of the victims of European history” and “enough is enough… I personally believe we Palestinians are not children of a lesser God.”

Bernstein said he’s not sure that Safieh’s Hezbollah comment was antisemitic, “although it certainly is offensive to try to link Israel’s defense of its own country with the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians.” The issue, he said, is the mayor’s implicit endorsement: Giving a key to the city “is like giving someone an award.”

Rabbi Richard Litvak of the Reform Temple Beth El in the nearby city of Aptos thought so. He and a few others met August 16 with Mathews to express dismay, then sent the Santa Cruz mayor a letter saying that a lasting peace in the Middle East is not furthered “by honoring a representative of the Hamas-led government which has as its aim to [sic] destruction of the State of Israel.”

Mathews did not return messages from the Forward. She told the Sentinel she’d presented the key in support of peace and had no plans to apologize, but would give a key to an Israeli dignitary should one ever visit.

Litvak seemed reticent about the incident and loath to bad-mouth Mathews. “I don’t know that I’d call this one antisemitism,” he told the Forward, adding that Safieh’s comments “did offend me deeply, and I felt I needed to speak out about it.”

One of the organizers of the PLO ambassador’s trip, two-time former Santa Cruz mayor Scott Kennedy, attributes the protests to “a small group of rightwing extremists.”

“[They] really couldn’t address Safieh directly, because he’s so reasonable and his argument is so compelling,” said Kennedy, the Middle East program coordinator of the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence. Kennedy said he was shocked that Litvak — a senior, respected rabbi — would lend his name and reputation to an effort to control public discourse.

Litvak “may have been offended by that one line that was cherry-picked off of six days of speaking” in Northern California, Kennedy added. “I’d think 80% of the people in Santa Cruz would agree with Safieh over Litvak: Most people do believe state-implemented violence against civilians is also a form of terrorism.”

The executive director of the Hillel branch in Santa Cruz, Rick Zinman, said that bestowing the key “was not an overtly offensive act” but did represent the latest episode in a long, tense history between the Resource Center for Nonviolence, which is generally pro-Palestinian, and the local Jewish community.

Zinman said that he was more focused on the nearly 3,000 Jewish students at his branch of the University of California: “I think they’re going to care more about what’s happening in Lebanon when they get back than about what the mayor said and gave away in terms of a key to the city.”

About a week after Safieh’s Santa Cruz speech, the Berkeley Daily Planet, which lies 63 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, published an op-ed piece by Kurosh Arianpour — identified as an Iranian student studying in India — titled “Zionist Crimes in Lebanon.”

Antisemitism over the past 2,500 years has been caused by Jews’ “racist attitude that they are the ‘Chosen People,’” he wrote. “Because of this attitude, they do wrong to other people to the point that others turn against them, namely, become anti-Semite if you will. Since they think they are the Chosen People they can murder Lebanese and Palestinian children at will.”

Almost two-dozen local Jewish communal leaders wrote to the Daily Planet, protesting the letter and calling for the newspaper to apologize; another letter criticizing the article came from Berkeley’s state lawmakers, its mayor and four of its city council members, plus the mayors of two adjacent cities.

Becky and Michael O’Malley, longtime Berkeley residents and political activists who made a software fortune in the mid-1990s, bought the Daily Planet — which is actually published twice weekly — in late 2002; he’s the publisher, she’s the executive editor.

Accounts differ over whether Becky initially refused the ADL’s request for a meeting. But both sides now say they’re willing to meet and that Becky has abandoned her demand to do so in a public forum — yet no sit-down has occurred.

Becky said she understands why Jews were offended — she herself describes the opinion piece as “crap” — yet she feels that publishing unpopular views is a newspaper’s duty. “You do have to let people know there are people out there who are awful people, who are making the leap from ‘I don’t like Israel’s foreign policy’ to ‘All Jews are bad,’ which we all know is totally inappropriate.”

But Rabbi Jane Litman of Berkeley’s Reform Congregation Beth El said that Becky “continues to be insensitive and defensive and is continuing to try and make it a circus rather than a good-faith discussion of differences of perspectives.”

“I still don’t understand why she’s printing hate literature,” Litman said. “She’s giving respectability to very hateful thought. That’s why there was such unanimity of negative response.”

The ADL’s Bernstein predicted that a public meeting would devolve into a roomful of local ideologues debating Zionism rather than the issue at hand. “There wouldn’t be any dialogue or exchange of ideas,” he said. “It would probably just turn into a screaming match… I think that was her objective in laying out that stipulation — to make the whole thing unproductive.”

Litman still hopes for a public apology, but acknowledges, “It seems very unlikely, which is a terrible shame; O’Malley has allied herself and her paper with some of the worst hatefulness in human history.”

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