Oakland mayoral candidates tiptoe around Israel in high-profile forum – J.

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Should a candidate for mayor of a mid-sized US city be expected to take a stand on Israel?

That question was tested at a forum of Jewish community mayors Thursday night, held at Oakland’s historic Temple Sinai.

Before the subject even came up, there was nervous energy in the room.

About a week before the event, a banned candidate from the forum, Peter Liu, launched a tirade calling Jews “evil”, “corrupt” and controlling the media after the Council on Jewish Community Relations limited the forum to the three main fundraisers. Liu and others suggested there might be protests.

There were none, except for a polite pamphleteer supporting candidate Greg Hodge who handed out flyers at the front door of the synagogue.

Still, there were chatter that a protester hiding in the audience would jump up and scream at any moment. The synagogue had tightened its security; IDs were checked at the door. A uniformed security guard patrolled the sanctuary and another man wearing a Secret Service-style earpiece controlled traffic in the room, advising people that they could not take pictures in the aisle or stand during the procedure.

There was a strong turnout, probably helped by the controversy; organizers estimated around 120 in attendance and more than 300 streaming home (the event was also checked in). The chapel was so full that the Sinai Temple opened its back doors, where infinity chairs were set up on a patio.

In his introductory remarks, Tye Gregory, the CEO of the SF-based JCRC, addressed the anti-Semitic elephant in the room.

He acknowledged what he called increased attention around the event due to “unfortunate anti-Semitic comments”. He said he was less concerned about the comments themselves than he was the audience.

“Let me just say that we are not concerned about the messenger,” he said, “but about who is listening.”

A line formed outside Temple Sinai as people waited to register. Organizers demanded RSVPs for security reasons after threatening anti-Semitic statements were made by a contestant not included in the event. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

For an hour and a half, sitting in front of the Torah ark and ner tamid, or Eternal Light, the three guest candidates vying for current mayor Libby Schaaf — Treva Reid, Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao, all current Oakland council members — answered a handful of questions, some specific to the Jewish community and other more general ones. The discussion was moderated by Gregory and Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Sinai. Each contestant was allowed one timed answer. Debate was discouraged.

The restricted format ultimately did not produce clear distinctions between the three contestants. But it made for a rather cordial, if sometimes flat, discussion.

Questions were asked about Israel, the rise of hate crimes, refugees, housing and inequality.

With respect to hate crimes, responses varied. Only Reid named law enforcement and prosecutors as having an important role to play in combating these crimes, to “identify, arrest and charge” offenders, she said. Taylor recalled when Temple Sinai was hit with swastika graffiti and condemned Liu’s comments, stressing the need to do so permanently. “Good is good and bad is bad,” he said. Thao said “we live in perilous times,” citing a rise in anti-Semitism, AAPI hate, anti-Blackness and “anti-revivalism.” She condemned Liu’s comments and called on him and Seneca Scott, another candidate who she said did not respond strongly enough to Liu’s statements, to drop out of the race.

The next question, also on anti-Semitism, sounded like the first and elicited similar feelings, but with a twist.

The question came from a devotee of Beth Jacob, a Modern Orthodox shul in Oakland. She stood facing the candidates.

“With the recent rise in anti-Semitism, Jews increasingly feel that we are not welcome in public spaces,” she said, citing “litmus tests of our connection to Israel.” . Jewish students sometimes feel excluded and “insufficiently supported” by schools, or bullied on social media, she added. “As mayor, how will you work to promote the sense of belonging of the Jewish community of Oakland in our city?

The candidates approached the issue from surprisingly different directions.

Taylor said Oakland “is a place of refuge for all cultures, all races, all ethnicities, all genders, all sexual orientations.”

“I think it’s important to recognize that Israel is a close ally of the United States. We must recognize this strength, while recognizing that it is in our interest to be in good relations with all countries,” he added. “The conflicts there have been going on for years and years and years, and we’re not going to resolve this from Oakland City Hall.”

The conflicts there have been going on for years and years and years, and we’re not going to resolve this from Oakland City Hall.

De Thao: “When my son was in elementary school, he felt so different because he had severe ADHD,” she said. “He begged me to put him on medication. Do you know how heartbreaking that is? It was because he was different. We need to make sure that we have programs in our schools that work with the diversity that we come with. Our diversity is our strength.

Throughout the evening, the contestants highlighted their own personal stories, exploring how they might resonate with their audiences. Thao, if elected, would become the first Hmong mayor of a major American city whose parents fled murder and genocide in Laos to find refuge in America. Reid, who if elected would become Oakland’s first black female mayor, spoke of her Christian upbringing and how she was taught to respect the Jewish community, “because my faith is deeply rooted in our beliefs common”. Taylor, who started the evening with a hesitant “Shalom,” spoke of attending a recent bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai and described himself as a “child of Oakland” and a product of “The Town” who , through hard work, managed to become a biomedical engineer. and entrepreneur.

Over the course of a long election campaign, candidates had already been asked many of the same questions about housing, inequality and public safety, and had practiced the answers. But the Jewish community event seemed to be the first and possibly the only time they had to address some issues of deep concern to many Jews, particularly about Israel.

These responses seemed a little raw, sometimes disjointed, and to some observers in the audience, weak.

Dara Pincas, a member of the Beth Abraham Temple in Oakland, rose to ask if the candidates supported the boycott of Israel. Pincas referred to the “Block the Boat” protests, efforts by BDS activists over the past eight years to disrupt the delivery of goods from Israeli cargo ships to the Port of Oakland. Some of these efforts were temporarily successful, with activists preventing the unloading of goods for days.

“There have been recent efforts in Oakland to prevent ships coming from Israel from docking at the port and to withdraw city funds from Israeli businesses,” Pincas said. “Do you support or oppose the boycott efforts of the State of Israel? And what do you see as your role as mayor regarding Oakland’s relationship with Israel?

De Reid: “I do not support any policy that would lead us to isolate and cancel all culture – that would lead us to not support members of the community, especially members of our Jewish community,” she said, adding: “I recognize the deep roots of the homeland of the Jewish community”.

De Thao: “We are a beautiful city of inclusion. I don’t believe we’re here to turn our backs on anyone. …Because once we did, who would be there to help us?

From Taylor: “One of the things we have to recognize is this ‘cancel’ culture. For me, it is important that we create a table of dialogue and understanding,” he said, adding, “We, as a city, are not the foreign policy arm of the United States. And so, in terms of some of those positions, I think we have to recognize what’s within our scope.

Notable in candidate responses on boycotts: The word “Israel” was never spoken, which some audience members disputed.

The public poured into this overflow area.  (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
The public poured into this overflow area. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Orit Vogel, a stay-at-home mom and Oakland resident, approached this reporter after the discussion to express her frustration. In his view, the candidates did not begin to answer Pincas’ question fairly. “I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off!” she said, adding that it actually made her “furious.”

“It’s either a political tactic – in which case, read the room,” she said, “or they really don’t like Israel.”

Pincas also noted the absence of the word.

“I think people see Israel as a loaded topic and a problem, and I just have the perspective that it shouldn’t be,” she said. “They are one of our greatest allies, period.”

Rabbi Mark Bloom, chief rabbi of nearby Temple Beth Abraham, who gave a closing prayer at the forum, was also struck by the candidates’ responses in general, although he said there was a lot to like. in all three.

“To understand their answers, you had to know a lot, in order to read between the lines, which I found sad,” he said.

“Clearly none of them want to be quoted using the words ‘Israel’ or ‘boycott’, and that’s a sad situation,” he added. “We are now in a place where they are afraid of being quoted saying ‘I support Israel’ or ‘I don’t believe in boycotting’ Israel.”

Bloom added that in response to the question about how inclusive Jewish students feel at school, he would have liked applicants to address the issue of ethnic studies – which since garnering widespread attention in 2019 , has seen Jewish community organizations struggle to remain unilateral. criticism of Israel outside California classrooms.

“There were a lot of things I liked about what all of the candidates had to say, but it was clear they were being political to avoid some hot topics,” Bloom said.

Full list of Oakland mayoral candidates available here. The election will take place on November 8.

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