As the space filled up, the temperature rose.
Soon it was standing room only for the hotly anticipated panel discussion called “Critiquing Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic” at Manny’s, a nonprofit, progressive café and community space that opened last November in San Francisco’s Mission District.
The café and bar, which employs formerly homeless and incarcerated people and sells books on issues such as race, gender politics and climate change, has been a reliable campaign stop for Democratic presidential candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro and others hoping to solidify their progressive bona fides. And it regularly hosts animated discussions and presentations on social justice issues, from environmentalism to affordable housing, many of which are free.
But the Oct. 23 event was about Israel. And the mood was particularly tense.
Café founder Manny Yekutiel opened the evening by describing himself as a liberal, practicing Jew with close ties to Israel, where he has family members. It was a bold, even provocative introduction. Virtually since Manny’s opened, protesters have stood outside every Wednesday evening, holding signs and shouting anti-Zionist slogans, calling Yekutiel a “Zionist gentrifier” and pressing for a boycott.
In response, local synagogues and Jewish organizations have sent people to Manny’s to show their support. Groups from Congregations Emanu-El and Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and Beth Am in Los Altos Hills have gathered at the café, while AJC San Francisco and the Illuminoshi, a society of Jewish food professionals, each have held events there specifically to support Yekutiel and his endeavors.
Yekutiel did not encourage those shows of support but was said to be grateful for them and spoke with the visitors to make sure peace was maintained.
Two months after the café opened, he explained himself and his motives in a Jan. 1 op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m a religious Jew and proud of it,” Yekutiel wrote. And while he supports Israel’s right to exist, “As a liberal American Jew, I have complicated feelings about Israel. I do not support everything that its government does.”
“I read about the protests, I read his op-ed, and I was moved by the person he is,” Eran Hazary of AJC said, explaining why his organization had held a human-rights discussion in the café in February. “I said, this is what AJC stands for. This is a place where you can have difficult, nuanced political conversations. It’s ironic — the people protesting are people who don’t want that kind of open conversation.”
So it came as a surprise to many in the room last night when Yekutiel introduced a number of people sitting near the front, many wearing kaffiyehs; they were members of Mothers on the March, one of several groups that regularly protested outside.
“I am proud to say, and I’m humbled to say, that tonight, in an act of real courage and humanity, the women and men who have conducted the demonstrations outside of Manny’s are here tonight, to be a part of this conversation,” he said to the roomful of 40 or 50 people, many of whom applauded. “It is my premise that for conversations like this, we have to be in the same physical space.”
It was another question whether the protesters, who have called Zionism a “racist ideology” and claimed Israel is committing genocide against Palestinian children, would be swayed by the evening’s speakers.
The panel consisted of four progressive Jews — a rabbi, an Israel educator, a historian and a community activist — who were, if not necessarily supporters of the current State of Israel, at least sympathetic to the idea of Jewish liberation and steeped in the history of the Jewish people.
“I’m here because my friends in Israel are my closest friends, they are my brothers and sisters, they are like my family,” said Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen, a San Francisco center for Jewish life that attracts young adults and families. “And I’m here because as a Jew, I agree with [political commentator] Peter Beinart when he says that this generation will be judged in history by what we do, or do not do, in regard to the occupation.”
For the first half of the evening, panelists spoke more to the “without being anti-Semitic” part of the title rather than to “critiquing Israel.” The speakers sought to dispel misconceptions about the definition of Zionism and its origins, for example. This frustrated some attendees, it later became clear.
“We’re not here to talk about the occupation per se,” said moderator Jhos Singer, maggid at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev. “The question is, can we figure out ways to have really deep conversations, in which we end up with a little bit more understanding?”
Panelist Levi Maxwell, a black trans Jew and community activist, said their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “radically informed” by their identity.
“When you talk about Israel and Palestinians, oftentimes you fall into this very quick settler/indigenous idea, and ideal, that makes it very easy for folks to pick sides,” Maxwell said. “Not understanding the long history, for example, of Jews who were in Palestine before the modern State of Israel existed. Not talking about the fact that there are Arab Jews. When we fall into strictly narrow ideas of Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, we fall back on political structures that we’ve absorbed or internalized in the West, or wherever we’re from.”
Another panelist, Ethan Katz, an associate professor at UC Berkeley in modern European and Jewish history, said the conversation around the conflict is often plagued by misunderstanding.
“One of the things that concerns me … is that so many people enter the conversation from a position of tremendous ignorance, wherever they lie on the spectrum,” he said.
To criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, he said, requires an understanding of Jewish history “and the circumstances that brought about the Zionist movement and the eventual creation of the state.” Lacking that knowledge base can become “a fundamental problem.”
Katz, wearing a blue kippah, provided what he called the “most basic definition” of Zionism as “the right of Jews to self-determination in a portion of historic Palestine.”
Can we figure out ways to have really deep conversations, in which we end up with a little bit more understanding?
“The term has been so hijacked by various forces, of the right and the left, that it’s important to return to what its roots were” — namely, a response to violent anti-Semitism in 19th-century Europe and the fight for acceptance in nearly every country where Jews have lived, that “tragically culminated in the Holocaust,” Katz said.
Though the evening began peacefully, with Singer leading a guided meditation and asking everyone to be mindful and listen to their heartbeat, the mood of gentle solidarity lasted only so long. Throughout the discussion there were snaps of approval, scattered applause, a few exclamations and a good deal of sighs, head shaking and fidgeting. Once the room opened to questions, tensions and passionate disagreements began to bubble over.
“I just feel you’re really circling round and round the issue,” said one middle-age woman. “With all this goodwill sort of oozing out, I just feel it’s really frustrating. There is no critique I’ve heard yet of Israel. You’ve kind of deflected it all as stereotyping Jews. It’s not. It’s actually the foreign policy that is occupying land.”
Mahmoud, who identified himself as a Syrian Arab, said, “How dare Israelis, or Jewish people, talk about suffering and their history — which is good — but they are doing the same thing in Israel right now in front of our eyes.” There was scattered applause in the room.
“Just because I am a Jew does not mean that I support Israel,” Maxwell responded. “This is a great example of how people might perceive what you said to be anti-Semitic.”
Deena, an Arab Muslim from Lebanon who is involved with the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, asked, “Is it my duty to understand anti-Semitism?” and “Is it the duty of slaves to sympathize with the oppressor?”
“I think the answer is if we want to move forward, we have to have sympathy for one another, even if it’s incredibly unfair,” Kushner answered. “Otherwise I think we will have the same conversation over and over again.”
The panelists acknowledged throughout the evening that the disagreements in the room, or what Singer called “a very, very tangled knot,” would not be unraveled in one hour.
But at least one form of resolution was announced: At the end of the event, Cristina Gutierrez, lead organizer with Moms on the March, said her group would no longer protest Manny’s — on the condition that it hosts a pro-Palestinian speaker in the near future and holds monthly dialogues to “plan how to stop the genocide of the babies,” Gutierrez said.
“Babies are being murdered,” she repeated three times during the announcement. Audience members grumbled. One person called out ‘False!’”
“Maybe on both sides,” Gutierrez conceded.