California lawmakers ‘pull the fire alarm’ on antisemitism

Thursday, January 4, 2024

SACRAMENTO — Jewish lawmakers in California whose legislative session was shut down by a cease-fire demonstration this week say this is an unprecedented moment in American political life where the far-right and far-left are aligned in dangerous, antisemitic beliefs about Jews.

Wednesday’s protest in the California statehouse, where singing and chanting brought the Assembly floor session to a halt, was the latest in a series of disruptions to Democratic events in Sacramento, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere over the Israel-Hamas war in an increasingly tense fight within the party. A number of Jewish organizations were behind Wednesday’s demonstration, including Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group.

The activism following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israeli counteroffensive has put many Jewish lawmakers in an impossible position — trapped, as Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel described it, between political extremes and worried about their personal safety.

They say the dual attacks are unlike anything they’ve faced in decades.

“The one thing that they seem to agree on is that Jews are uniquely evil, and that we are responsible for the world’s problems,” Gabriel, 42, said of the opposing groups.

Protesters have called for a halt to Israel attacks that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza. But Gabriel, and many American Jews, feel that demonstrators have largely ignored what sparked the war: The attack by Hamas militants on southern Israel that left 1,200 people dead, mostly civilians, in a horrific display of violence.

Rather than waiting for the temperature to drop, California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus has decided to lean into the fallout, with bills aimed at stopping antisemitism in public schools and college campuses — policy debates that are likely to spur more protests at the statehouse.

Gabriel, a Democrat who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, is the caucus’ co-chair. He sat down with POLITICO to speak about the urgent need to crack down on antisemitism, and the caucus’ legislative game plan in 2024.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your first reaction when you heard the protestors in the Assembly on Wednesday?

I had a sense that it was coming when we walked over to the building and saw a bunch of folks, and it was much more crowded than usual and a lot of people in masks and everything else. We had a sense that potentially there would be some protest activity. And I thought that it might be on this. This is obviously a very contentious topic of conversation right now.

There were complaints about interrupting the democratic process, but how do you balance that with the right to free speech?

The way I think about it is you have thousands of groups and Californians who come up to Sacramento every year who have passionately-held beliefs on a whole range of issues, and the overwhelming majority of them manage to express those beliefs without interrupting the democratic process.

So it can’t just be that some folks get to interrupt the democratic process and everybody else has to play by the rules.

What do you know about the protesters? They identified as Jewish groups, but it’s also clear that some of the Jewish caucus felt intimidated by what they were doing.

I don’t know that I would say that we felt intimidated by it. I certainly didn’t. I think it was upsetting for some folks and members of our caucus, but I don’t think anybody felt intimidated.

Let me say that some of these groups I know, I’ve heard of — others I know less about — it has sometimes rubbed me the wrong way that they describe themselves as Jews and quote unquote ‘allies,’ because I think many of the folks in these groups are not Jewish, and purporting to speak on behalf of the Jewish community.

While they are speaking on behalf of themselves, I would argue very strongly that they’re not speaking on behalf of the Jewish community.

I think the overwhelming majority of folks in the community feel a very, very strong emotional connection to Israel. Many of us have friends and family over there, people that we love, that we care about, that we are connected to. So a lot of this is not a theoretical war for us. This is something that we are experiencing through phone calls and emails and text messages with loved ones who are sitting in bomb shelters who are worried about the safety of their kids.

For us, it is a deeply personal issue. And that is both separate and very much intricately linked to this explosion in domestic antisemitism that we have experienced that, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, seems to be going below the radar.

When you think about it, if there were 225 Black churches that have gotten bomb threats in the last week, I think we’d be reading about it all over the news.

There is an incredible sense of vulnerability in the community right now. Some of the rhetoric around this has been very dehumanizing of Jews. There seems to be this sense that we should believe victims of sexual assault, and yet there was so much pushback and continues to be so much pushback on the notion that Hamas committed mass rape and mass sexual violence on Oct. 7.

I think a lot of folks are able to hear opinions that we disagree with. And that’s OK. That’s part of democracy, that’s part of education, that’s part of the world we live in. But some of this rhetoric gets into a place where it becomes about longstanding stereotypes about our community, about dehumanizing Jews, that we have a long history, that our history teaches us this rhetoric leads to violence.

And we now find ourselves in this incredible situation, where we are trapped between the far-right and the far-left. Those two groups hate each other, see each other as a threat to everything that they love and believe is holy, and the one thing that they seem to agree on is that Jews are uniquely evil, and that we are responsible for the world’s problems.

We know that in recent years, we know there’s a trend where the far-right and far-left are growing. Those are two segments of our society in the United States and around the world that are growing. And if one of the core ideologies that’s made its way into both of those groups is that Jews are bad and Jews are oppressors and Jews are evil, that’s a very problematic and scary thing for us, given how we’ve seen this unfold in history over and over again.

The Jewish caucus this week released a letter specifically lamenting a lack of support from labor and advocacy allies. Who does that refer to?

I think part of the challenge is that there are people here who are not particularly well-informed about everything that is going on, that the challenges and the trauma that the Jewish community is experiencing are somewhat invisible to them.

That’s part of what that letter was doing, is letting them understand how our community is feeling at this moment. And that we, frankly, would expect more of them and hope that they’ll engage with us and take the time to learn.

What has been so interesting to me about recent weeks is a lot of Jews that I know that are very far-left, that are very critical of the Israeli government, are also deeply, deeply feeling the antisemitism in society right now, and have expressed that to me and to members of the caucus, in really emotional and evocative terms.

And the same thing is true of Jews on the right, and Jews in the middle and Jews whose politics I don’t know, and Jews who are religious and walk around in ways that they’re easily identifiable as being Jewish, and Jews who are not particularly observant.

So we’re getting this feedback from all corners of our community: That people are feeling this in a way that they haven’t felt. And I will tell you, I am feeling differently than I have felt at any moment in my life.

What would you like support from those groups to look like? Many and, maybe most, people in the Sacramento ecosystem have been incredible.

But we have also seen a number of folks who have put out some really reprehensible statements, and then others who just seem to be blind to facts and to Jewish suffering. I don’t have problems with people expressing sincerely-held beliefs. But they ought to think about, if you were silent on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, if you had nothing to say about this, really unspeakable, act of brutality, and then you’re going to say things in a really one-sided way that doesn’t acknowledge Jewish pain, that doesn’t acknowledge the suffering that’s going on, that feels pretty rough.

Are there going to be consequences for that inaction or some of those statements, as far as damaging relationships?

One hundred percent. And I’ll just say I’m always eager to have conversations with people and to learn from them and hopefully to have them learn from me.

Have you been specifically targeted at all?

Not in a way that’s made me feel particularly threatened. My wife was freaking out [Wednesday] when everything was going on at the Capitol, and I was trying to calm her down.

Members of our caucus have been targeted, a number of them have not wanted to share that publicly, and this is something we’ve struggled with.

There are a number of members of our caucus that have been targeted in the most despicable personal terms at their homes, at their work. I think we have received stuff at the office and other things, and I think most Jews in elected office in publicly visible places right now have been targeted.

As a state lawmaker in this moment, do you bring the temperature down or stand up and call attention to the problem — knowing that it could continue to escalate these tensions?

I think there’s been a lot of conversation as we’ve seen little incidents of antisemitism over the past number of years. How widespread is this belief? Is this just some misinformed person? Is that some crazy person that really doesn’t understand this? Can we go have a conversation with them? Can we deescalate?

There’s a sense now in the community that, given what we have seen in recent months, that we have to assert ourselves and we have to pull the fire alarm, because this is a moment that feels different than any other moment in our lifetimes.