Women Against Rape against Israel, too

A San Francisco rape crisis center is asking potential volunteers and interns about their willingness to take a "stance against Zionism" and other political issues.

It was not clear what happens if an applicant at San Francisco Women Against Rape declines the request to participate in the "political education activities."

But dismayed Jewish leaders want the 30-year-old nonprofit agency to stop the practice.

"I think it's totally outrageous," said Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "It makes it sound as if a litmus test for becoming a volunteer or intern is a political belief that Zionism is wrong."

The objectionable wording is contained in the online volunteer and intern application forms of SFWAR, which is housed in the Women's Building in the city's Mission District. Its 24-hour hotline answered more than 3,000 domestic violence calls in 2001-02.

"SFWAR also believes that it's important for us to be informed about and take action on other social justice struggles that relate to our work," the form reads.

It goes on to list past discussions "about protesting the war, and supporting Palestinian Liberation and taking a stance against Zionism," and mentions plans to address slavery reparations. "Can you commit to participate in these political education activities?" the questionnaire asks.

In a brief phone conversation Wednesday, SFWAR executive director Nina Jusuf refused to be interviewed, wanting any questions posed to her by e-mail.

She sent a statement to a Bulletin reporter by e-mail that read in part: "We believe that ending all forms of oppression is integral to ending sexual assault. SFWAR, after much consideration, has come to understand that the current policy of Zionism is racism. We define Zionism, in its current form, as a political, cultural, economic project to remove the indigenous people from their land and to construct the settlers as the authentic people of the land.

"We are an anti-Zionist organization, not an anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish organization. We do not discriminate against Jewish clients, staff, board or volunteers."

Jusuf, who was out of town, agreed Tuesday to meet with Jewish groups about the issue, according to Naomi Tucker, executive director of Shalom Bayit, a Jewish domestic violence program based in Oakland.

"I'm glad they are willing to sit down and talk," said Tucker, who spoke with Jusuf. "All of us are about ending violence. SFWAR shares that mission with Shalom Bayit. Yet at the same time, to ask people to take a stance against Zionism is a form of hate."

No date for the meeting has been set, according to Tucker, whose 11-year-old program counseled about 40 women last year and fielded 650 phone calls.

Tucker said she was first alerted to the issue by JCRC representatives in late May and met about two weeks ago with Jusuf.

When she heard about the wording, Tucker said she "felt angry, hurt and disappointed that an agency I respect and whose work I think is really important could be saying something that's so directly hurtful to my community."

According to Tucker, SFWAR operates a vital 24-hour crisis hotline for rape victims in San Francisco. "We are very much sister agencies," said Tucker, whose privately funded center provides counseling and education about domestic violence.

Tucker was encouraged by Jusuf's willingness to meet. "She said she wanted to hear my perspective. She felt the staff really needed to be involved in the discussion."

Tucker said she doubted that Jewish clients of SFWAR would be aware of the agency's internal policies. Still, she asserted that the agency needs "some sensitivity training on dealing with Jewish women and what the complexity of our issues are.

"You don't respond to hate with hate," Tucker said. "We teach as an agency that peace in the home and peace in the world are linked."

It was unclear how long the question has appeared on the SFWAR application form or who decided to place it there.

But news of the rape center's political stand against Israel triggered a wave of protest from Jewish community leaders.

In a written statement sent to the Bulletin, the JCRC's Porth said that "SFWAR quickly illustrates that it is not a safe environment for Jews or other supporters of Israel."

JCRC had learned about the application form through a community member who was interested in volunteering at the rape center.

Rabbi Helen Cohn of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El said she was likewise dismayed by the "assumption that every volunteer in their organization shares their political views about something totally outside the area of rape.

"I think it's offensive, actually. I think it narrows their pool of volunteers."

The Oakland office of Bay Area Women Against Rape, an unrelated organization serving women in Alameda County, reported receiving three or four recent calls from potential volunteers who were rankled by SFWAR's questionnaire.

Reached Tuesday, Marcia Blackstock, the executive director of BAWAR, said she didn't want to pit her agency against what she described as "a very valuable organization," but noted that her center takes a far different approach to volunteers.

"For us in BAWAR, if people have a variety of political views that's OK as long as people leave them at the door," she said, adding that reaching out to women in crisis was her agency's primary focus.

After hearing the wording of the questionnaire, Blackstock said, "I could see why some people would be upset by that."

Contacted by the Bulletin, a representative of the S.F.-based Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund said SFWAR received a $10,000 grant from the organization this year but foundation officials were unaware of the question on the application forms.

In a prepared statement, Robert T. Gamble, executive director of the fund, said Wednesday, "We were not aware of this and we are dismayed to discover that SFWAR is taking this position and we will deal with the issue in due course."

Deborah Glenn-Rogers, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women, hadn't heard about the wording on the form, which is on the SFWAR Web site at www.sfwar.org

After she was informed, Glenn-Rogers questioned SFWAR's position. "Violence against women is such a huge problem, including in our own community, that I am just a bit troubled by any move to screen out volunteers," she said. "The flip side of that is I am also troubled by putting rape victims in a position of feeling uncomfortable calling for help."

She said NOW had chosen to remain neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because "we're not looking for more ways to divide U.S. women."

She said she hoped the future talks between SFWAR and critics would resolve the matter. "I hope both camps in the discussion keep this sufficiently low key, that it is not creating a barrier to women seeking desperately needed services."

After being contacted by the Bulletin about the form, Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote Jusuf a letter of concern. In it, Bernstein asked Jusuf whether SFWAR's training in public schools "relates to issues beyond sexual assault."

According to an online job listing for an associate director position at SFWAR, the agency has eight staff members and more than 80 volunteers and interns who provide "sexual assault intervention and prevention services" reaching more than 11,000 people annually. The center describes itself as a "community-based, anti-sexual assault, social justice organization" with partnerships at more than 80 schools, community and public agencies.

In a mission statement, the agency says, "We believe that sexual assault exists within a web of many oppressions, and are committed to working against all oppressions as a part of the process of ending sexual assault."

SFWAR says its services include the hotline, individual counseling, support groups, advocacy and community outreach.

Besides the Goldman Fund, recent funders listed by the agency include the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning, the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women and a host of private foundations