New S.F. Democratic Party head is crusader for Israel

In 1990, the year Natalie Berg was elected to the San Francisco County Committee of the California Democratic Party, the organization scheduled an event on Yom Kippur.

Berg wouldn't hear of it.

"My first action as a newly elected member was to block that, to stand up and say, `You can't do that,'" she recalled.

Such outspokenness is the hallmark of the 60-year-old Berg, who last month was elected chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party. During the past decade as a Democratic activist on the state and local level, she has been out front in speaking on Jewish concerns.

In particular, Berg has made it her mission to counter challenges to Israel, where her son and six of her eight grandchildren live. Anti-Israel sentiment, she said, was particularly rampant in the state Democratic party from the mid-1980s through the early '90s, a pre-peace accords period when the Palestinian uprising was at its height, along with cries that Israel oppressed Palestinians.

"When I first got onto the state party, every resolution that came before the platform committee or the resolutions committee had to do with Palestinian homelands or condemning Israel for any number of imagined abuses," Berg said. "It was very, very difficult."

The resolutions turned into political hot potatoes before the peace process began. Resolutions linked U.S. loan guarantees for Soviet immigration to halting West Bank settlements, for example, or they urged U.N. involvement in Middle East peace negotiations rather than direct talks between the parties, which Israel was pursuing.

Acting on her frustration, Berg took matters into her own hands. She approached a range of grassroots activists with information on why such resolutions could damage Israel.

"She presented facts, and because of her involvement in other issues in the party and the respect she had of people, people listened to her," said Naomi Lauter, regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Together with AIPAC and Jewish Democratic Party activists, Berg helped organize Democrats for Israel, a group of both Jewish and non-Jewish activists committed to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and Middle East peace.

Partly as a result of that group's education campaign, as well as perceptual changes brought on by the peace process, the situation for pro-Israel Democratic activists has improved, according to Berg.

"We just simply don't have the same problems we had," she said.

"In large degree, it's because we've really gotten a lot of people motivated to be more active in the Democratic Party. Those people are really good, solid people who are not afraid to stand up and be counted. I think that's been the revolution for us."

But despite the improved climate, Berg cautioned that pro-Israel Democratic activists cannot allow themselves to become complacent. "I don't think we can never not be vigilant about Israel," Berg said.

Israel has long been close to Berg's heart. Though her European parents immigrated to the United States long before World War II, many of their relatives stayed behind and were killed in the Holocaust. As most of the relatives who survived made it to Israel, "my very earliest recollections were that Israel was a safe haven for the Jews," Berg said.

Dean of the School of Health and Physical Education at City College of San Francisco, Berg has been a member of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom for 30 years. She helped found the city's Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club. She also serves on the boards of AIPAC, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, and Jewish Vocational Service.

In between these activities, she is finding time to chair the San Francisco Democratic Party. Her top goals: Getting as many Democrats as possible to register to vote in the November elections and urging those already registered to show up at the polls.

Her concerns arise because San Francisco may have a high percentage of Democratic voters — 62 percent of all those registered — but polls show voter turnout in the city has dipped as low as 32 percent in the last two years. Though the San Francisco registrar of voters does not know what percentage of those voters were Democrats, some presumably were.

"There's as appallingly a low turnout for voters in San Francisco as in everywhere else," Berg said.