Bay Area Jewish Community Has Wrongly Tuned Out Israel-Palestine Conflict


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict divides community. This is nowhere more evident that in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a region known for its politics – the site of the free speech and anti-Vietnam war student movements in the 60s, the epicenter of feminist and queer activism in the United States, and, more recently, the location of the now infamous UC Berkley campus Occupy Wall Street protest pepper spray incident – you wouldn’t expect widespread disengagement on as contentious an issue as Israel and Palestine. Yet while engagement on campuses and communities around the country continues to increase – inspired by the waves of activism in the Arab Spring and in response to the stagnating political reality of the conflict – residents of the Bay Area have largely tuned out of the discussion.

Case in point: the Jewish Student Union at Berkeley voted this week to exclude J Street U from their umbrella as they deviated too far from mainstream Jewish opinion on Israel. Lines are being drawn with people talking only among themselves.

The cause? Unlike other regions in the U.S. where inter-community polarization makes engagement a case of bringing different groups together to discuss the conflict, the Jewish community within the Bay Area is itself plagued by political division. This internal division in turn makes wider community engagement with Muslim and Arab groups even more difficult, according to Rachel Steinberg, director of the International Education Program (IEP) for OneVoice, a grassroots movement working among American youth on campuses for a two-state solution.

"Whenever politics is brought up in the Jewish community, it's heated," said Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in San Francisco. "It becomes so heated that no one wants to talk about it. Then you start to talk only within your limited community, making it much worse."

This problem in the Bay Area Jewish community is a well diagnosed one. The Jewish Community Relations Council initiated the Year of Civil Discourse to foster dialogue about the issues that usually turn people off within the community, Israel being one of them.

"We are cautious about bringing Israel up," said Ophira Druch, associate director of education at Temple Sinai. "The division around Israel comes from a good place: it's because we really care. We care enough to have a strong opinion. But it doesn't help."

This division in the wider Jewish community has found its way into the university campuses as well. With groups such as Stand with Us, Jewish Voice for Peace and Kesher Enoshi (Progressives for Activism in Israel) all vying to represent the Jewish body on Israel, Ryan Simon, a student at San Francisco State University, describes it as "a little war on campuses. The blatantly polarized environment has turned Jewish students off from engaging in a conversation they otherwise would."

All of this makes engaging with – indeed, even talking about – the conflict difficult. "What divides the Jewish community in and of itself is a major problem with how we relate to other faith communities," said Mates-Muchin.

“Each region in the US is different,” said Shaina Low, IEP associate, during her latest outreach tour to Northern California which brought OneVoice’s message to three university campuses. OneVoice’s programming, bringing youth leaders from Israel and Palestine to campuses across the United States to present their stories and struggles for an end to the conflict and a two state solution, is well attuned to bridging the divide between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian communities. “The Bay Area, though, presents unique challenges for us,” Low continued. 

Tailoring their programming to the needs of the community, OneVoice held more events with Jewish groups than in previous trips to the region, ensuring that the internal division that hampers wider engagement is addressed.

And the next step? "Interfaith events," said Druch. "We need to really open this conversation up. My neighbors, who are not Jewish, are also talking about Israel and I want to be able to talk with them. We don't have to come to consensus, because there is no consensus. We need an understanding."

"Abigail,” one of the youth leaders on the latest trip to the Bay Area, “said something to me that was so powerful," recalled Mates-Muchin. "She told me not to get emotional about it, to try and help figure out what they should do next. That's the message we need. It shakes people from the self-serving debate about who is right and who is wrong."

Photo Credit: OneVoice