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.
Members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, a group of state-level politicians who advocate for issues of concern to the Jewish community, have written an emotional letter to colleagues asking for their “support and solidarity.”
The open letter was released Wednesday, the start of the 2024 legislative session, which was cut short when a protest led by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations prevented the state Assembly from conducting business.
In the letter, the caucus members ask their peers to understand the depth of the trauma American Jews have been feeling since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and to lament a “shocking” lack of empathy from “individuals and organizations that we have considered allies.”
“It has impacted many of us on a deeply personal level, and we find ourselves asking fundamental questions — including about the security of our families and our community — that we could not have imagined several months ago,” the letter states.
The five-page letter speaks to the feeling of abandonment that many Jews have expressed since Oct. 7.
“The far right and far left in America view each other as existential enemies, yet the one thing they seemingly can agree on is that Jews are a unique problem responsible for various evils in the world,” the letter states. “Our community is trapped between white nationalists who hate us because they believe we are behind a plan to diminish the influence of white people and far-left ideologues who hate us because we are somehow the epitome of white oppressors.”
All but one of the 19 caucus members signed the letter: Assemblymembers Dawn Addis (Morro Bay), Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (Orinda), Marc Berman (Menlo Park), Laura Friedman (Burbank), co-chair Jesse Gabriel (Encino), Jacqui Irwin (Thousand Oaks), Josh Lowenthal (Long Beach), Gail Pellerin (Santa Cruz), Blanca Rubio (Baldwin Park), Chris Ward (San Diego) and Rick Chavez Zbur (Los Angeles), and Sens. Ben Allen (Santa Monica), Josh Becker (Menlo Park), Steve Glazer (Orinda), Josh Newman (Fullerton), Susan Rubio (Baldwin Park), Henry Stern (Calabasas) and co-chair Scott Wiener (San Francisco).
The only member of the Jewish caucus whose name does not appear on the letter is Matt Haney, who represents San Francisco in the Assembly. Haney’s office did not immediately respond to J.’s request for comment.
The caucus letter named priorities for the new session, including setting up a select committee on antisemitism to explore policy solutions, addressing the “toxic anti-Jewish environment” at California’s public universities, keeping anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias out of K-12 classrooms, creating better standards for reporting antisemitic incidents in schools and colleges, boosting Holocaust education, and putting more money into the security grant program. The program covers physical security measures for synagogues and Jewish organizations, such as fences and better lighting, and training on what to do during a violent attack.
The letter also makes a case for empathy across the board.
“We want to name and mourn the devastation that is occurring in Gaza,” it states. “Far too many Palestinian civilians, including a heartbreaking number of children, have been killed — civilians who are not Hamas and who did not commit the October 7 massacre. While Hamas has cynically used these civilians as human shields and intentionally placed them in harm’s way, we believe Israel must do everything possible to protect civilian life while it defends itself.”
The letter reaffirms the caucus commitment to a two-state solution and condemns Islamophobia but does not call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.
That was the demand of hundreds of protesters who, according to the Sacramento Bee, filled the Capitol rotunda and the Assembly gallery, where they hung banners and chanted. According to the Bee, the protest was organized by JVP, IfNotNow and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.
Eventually the Assembly session was adjourned and the lights were turned off. The state Senate session was not interrupted.
January 3, 2024
Members of the California State Legislature
California State Capitol
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: October 7 Attack, Rising Antisemitism, and the 2024 Legislative Year
SACRAMENTO – Today, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus released a letter thanking President Biden for his efforts on behalf of those being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza and requesting that he continue to do everything possible to ensure that all those in captivity are safely released as quickly as possible. The Jewish Caucus also asked the President to ensure Red Cross access to the hostages to ascertain their health condition, in light of widespread reports of physical and sexual abuse.
SACRAMENTO – The California Legislative Jewish Caucus issued the following statement after the California Democratic Party Convention was shut down by anti-Israel protesters. The Jewish Caucus is co-chaired by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino) and Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco):
SACRAMENTO – Today, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus released a letter — signed by all 18 members of the Caucus — calling on University of California President Michael V. Drake and California State University Chancellor Mildred García to act to counter the wave of antisemitic incidents sweeping their campuses since Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7.
Jewish Caucus Applauds Additional Funding to Protect Vulnerable Communities Amid Surge in Mideast Violence
Governor Newsom Announces $30 Million in Additional State Funds to Support Communities Threatened by Hate-Motivated Violence
SACRAMENTO, CA – Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D - Encino), Senator Scott Wiener (D - San Francisco), and Senator Josh Becker (D - Menlo Park), released the following statement on behalf of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus:
With antisemitic incidents spiking in California, Jewish advocates for increased funding for the state’s nonprofit security grant program were bracing for the worst, given the state’s $30 billion budget deficit. But when Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had cut the program in his original budget proposal, signed the state’s annual budget bill on Monday, Jewish leaders were guardedly optimistic at the outcome.
The 2024 budget commits $20 million to the state’s nonprofit security grant program — nearly $30 million less than last year’s funding level, and far below the $80 million sought by Jewish community activists during their advocacy day in Sacramento in May.
“Would I have preferred to have $50 million again? Of course I would. But given the real budgetary constraints that we were facing this year, I think this is a good outcome,” California Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, an Encino Democrat who chairs the Legislative Jewish Caucus, told Jewish Insider, noting that “a lot of programs were completely zeroed out.”
Co-chair of Sacramento’s Jewish Caucus, State Senator Scott Wiener cites his upbringing as inspiring legislation that will allow religious institutions to build homes on their land
LOS ANGELES — California State Senator Scott Wiener paused to munch on blueberries as he pitched his affordable housing bill earlier this year to members of IKAR, a Jewish congregation based in LA.
The bill, which recently gained ground as it advances toward ahead of a final vote on the Senate floor, touches on an issue that’s close to Wiener’s heart and closely tied in with his Jewish identity — which he made sure to mention in the Zoom meeting.
“I learned very early on that, for Jews, if the wrong government comes into power, really bad things can happen,” Wiener told the attendees. “I view politics and lawmaking as saving lives and we know that the housing crisis is killing people.”