S.F. activist sets her sights on rousing Israeli voters

The influence of the fervently religious is growing in every sector of Israeli life, from municipal affairs and public schools to national politics.

While secular Israelis are uneasy with the trend, they've done relatively little to fight it, charges Jewish community activist Annette Dobbs of San Francisco.

And that makes Dobbs downright mad.

When in Israel, she tells her friends there, "'You feel as I do about things so what are you going to do about it?' They shrug their shoulders and say, 'What can I do about it?'

"They have their day-to-day worries, I understand. In 50 years, they've done an incredible job. But they are tired and they don't show up in numbers to vote," she said.

A longtime financial supporter of Israeli social institutions, Dobbs is strategizing how to defeat the country's right-wing forces in the May 17 election. She has pledged an unspecified sum of money to Huka LeIsrael, an Israeli grassroots organization that is rousing the apathetic to vote.

"I believe strongly that if Netanyahu is re-elected that Israel will descend into a theocracy," she said. And the fervently religious agenda casts a dark shadow on her dreams for Israel's future.

Locally, Dobbs is challenging liberal American Jews to join the cause and send their tzedakah dollars to Huka LeIsrael. The funds will subsidize the cost of advertising and other voting promotions.

"It's about time that American Jews become involved" in spurring Israelis to vote, Dobbs said.

The activist has logged many decades of activism there. She and her late husband, Harold Dobbs, have financed the building of a Tiberias school and a Nesher community center as well as numerous community and social causes. A functional pluralistic democracy is her goal. She has made nearly 60 trips to Israel and has many friends and colleagues there.

"I have earned the right to have a say."

While her convictions have been set for some time, she was propelled to action by the plea of a friend who recently made aliyah. The friend, former Marin County resident Daniel Jacobs, told her that he was having a hard time stomaching the intolerance in Israel. He asked Dobbs to put her influence to work on the Huka LeIsrael campaign.

She recalled the conversation: "He said, 'I wouldn't want what we fear may happen to happen and know that I did nothing.'"

She replied, "I don't know how much I'm able to do but I'll try," and joined ranks with Huka LeIsrael.

The nonprofit organization counts hundreds of progressive activist groups on its membership roster. In addition to the voter drive, the group is trying to change the makeup of the Knesset, establish a national constitution and promote the free exercise of science, culture and pluralistic religious expression. Meanwhile, time is running out.

It is estimated that only 60 percent of secular Israelis vote, whereas nearly 100 percent of the fervently religious, a minority population, go to the polls.

Even the fervently religious abroad fly home on the tab of rich right-wingers in order to vote, Dobbs said.

"Things are never going to change," she warned, "as long as the secular don't become politically active or at least visible."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.