The next mayor of San Francisco will have a lot on his or her plate — creating jobs, finding money for the cash-strapped public schools, fixing Muni and keeping families in the city, for starters. But at a gathering of candidates at the JCC on Aug. 24, Israel was the word on everyone’s lips.
The debate, hosted by the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club, brought together the nine Democratic candidates in San Francisco’s upcoming mayoral race, including interim Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Democratic Party’s official endorsement, Supervisor John Avalos, as well as former supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier and Bevan Dufty, Supervisor David Chiu, state Sen. Leland Yee, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting and Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Seated in the audience in the JCC’s packed Kanbar Hall were prominent members of San Francisco’s Jewish community, including Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor.
Over the course of a spirited two-hour discussion moderated by S.F. Examiner political writer Melissa Griffin, the candidates fielded questions about education, the budget, pension reform, housing and more.
But for the first 30 minutes, aiming to draw the city’s Jewish vote, candidates took turns announcing their support for Israel and for San Francisco’s Jewish community. Topics included what each candidate would do in the face of anti-Semitism and the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.
Griffin opened the debate by asking Avalos to speak on the controversial resolution he introduced to the Board of Supervisors in June 2010, proposing that San Francisco formally condemn Israel’s late-May raid on a flotilla bound for Gaza. The resolution did not pass, but some in the Jewish community were outraged over Avalos’ position on Israel.
“I learned from that experience that the Board of Supervisors was not the place to engage in that discussion,” said Avalos. “I do have concerns about the conflict in Israel and in the occupied territories, but I also support the Jewish homeland and the Jewish faith. That resolution didn’t move forward because I realized I was dividing people and not bringing them together.”
All the other candidates responded that they would not, as mayor, have signed such legislation had it reached their desks.
“That was the most painful day that I experienced in eight years on the Board of Supervisors,” said former Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the only Jewish candidate in the race. “There was a five-hour hearing, and what was so difficult was seeing these amazing, articulate young individuals of Arab descent who are going to U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State who have such a hatred of Israel. The fact is that Israel is held to a standard no other nation in the world is held to.”
Lee said he would never have signed it, mentioning his work on the city’s Human Rights Commission and collaborations with Rabbi Doug Kahn of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Lee added that, as mayor, his priorities lie elsewhere. “There is a different way to approach this discussion, which is education through dialogue,” he said. “You can see that happening through programs like [JCRC’s] year of civil discourse, and that kind of conversation is needed all over the city.”
However, he said, “Every morning when I wake up, I worry about the jobs in our city, what we have to do to keep our city strong … that’s where priorities ought to be in a Board of Supervisors discussion.”
As evidence of their support for the Jewish state, Herrera and Ting both spoke of an eye-opening trip to Israel they’d taken with JCRC.
“That trip was a life-changing experience for me,” said Herrera, the Democratic Party’s No. 2 choice. “Had a resolution like that come to me, I would have vetoed it. We’re responsible for bringing communities together. And one thing that must inform how we approach this issue is the very special relationship Israel has with the United States of America. … We must ensure that we are following the official position of our federal government, which is to recognize that relationship.”
Asked what they would do as mayor if “Middle East tensions spread into the city of San Francisco and the rhetoric included a subset that was clearly anti-Semitic,” the candidates all spoke to their eagerness to work closely with Jewish community leaders — both in the face of adversity and as part of a daily effort to build community.
“Obviously, the role of mayor is to speak out against any expression of hate or discrimination. That value has been imbued in me my entire life as a Chinese American, and it’s part of why I became a civil rights attorney,” said Chiu, who got a big laugh earlier in the evening when he mentioned that his college study group had been called “Four Jews and a Chiu.”
“I’m sure everyone in this room has experienced discrimination of one kind or another,” he added.
The San Francisco mayoral election will be held Nov. 8.