For California leaders, calls for ceasefire in Gaza war grow more difficult to ignore

For California leaders, calls for ceasefire in Gaza war grow more difficult to ignore

For California leaders, calls for ceasefire in Gaza war grow more difficult to ignore

In summary

As more Palestinian civilians are killed in the war, officials are facing tough questions about how well they’re representing California’s Palestinian community. The state now says it hopes to send aid to Gaza this week, and Gov. Newsom plans to meet soon with Arab and Muslim leaders.

In the aftermath of the brutal Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7, in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken hostage, California officials swooped into action. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom booked a last-minute flight to Israel on his way to China because, his team said, California is home to the largest Arab American population and the second-largest Jewish community in the U.S. In Israel, he met with government officials and the parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a Californian being held hostage.   

But the state’s response hasn’t been entirely even-handed — even as Israel’s escalating retaliation is killing thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

Newsom did not venture into Gaza to meet Palestinians on his trip. While last month the governor’s office committed to sending humanitarian aid to both regions, relief has only been delivered to Israel — 52 pallets of surplus medical and emergency supplies on Nov. 7. 

The state blames the political situation for why aid has not made it yet into Gaza, where, according to the United Nations relief arm, residents lack access to food, clean drinking water and fuel for electricity. Israel, along with Egypt, has long controlled the flow of goods and travel into the 140-square-mile region, which has been under Hamas rule since a military takeover in 2007. 

Today the Office of Emergency Services told CalMatters it anticipates that similar medical supplies and aid could be delivered to Gaza as soon as this week, but that depends on whether and how long the relief corridor remains open — which is more likely if an agreement is reached for at least a temporary pause in fighting. Israel approved a tentative deal today for the release of 50 women and children being held hostage by Hamas, exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Over a four-day ceasefire set to start as early as Friday, 300 to 400 aid trucks would be allowed into Gaza daily. 

After symbolically ordering the state Capitol dome to display the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag on Oct. 9, Newsom met with Jewish community leaders over Zoom on Nov. 7 to discuss efforts to fight antisemitism.

Newsom has not held a similar session with Palestinian community leaders, and has made no public statements addressing the growing calls for a Gaza ceasefire from leaders of other countries and international bodies — and from Californians with relatives in Gaza. 

After multiple inquiries from CalMatters, the governor’s office on Monday said it expects to “host a formal convening” with Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian leaders “in the coming days.”

While the Legislature is out of session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle issued statements in support of Israel. Assemblymember Evan Low, a Democrat from Cupertino, noted that the Asian American Pacific Islander caucus stands “in unwavering solidarity with Israel ….Always have.  Always will.” On Nov. 7, all 18 members of the Legislative Jewish Caucus sent a sternly worded letter to the leaders of the University of California and California State University urging them to “act to counter the wave of antisemitic incidents sweeping their campuses.”

“We’ve been really deeply warmed by the response from our elected officials across the aisle, across both parties,” said David Bocarsly, executive director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California.

He noted that his coalition of Jewish community groups had spent years building relationships with legislators and other communities since forming in 1972. “We’ve seen really strong statements condemning terrorism and supporting Jews and Israelis … And it’s really heartwarming to see so many elected officials show up for us,” he told CalMatters. 

While the state’s support of the Jewish community after Oct. 7 is called for, the Palestinian community also deserves attention, say advocacy group leaders and others. They say state elected officials who have decided to step into the fray have done little to represent the needs of Palestinian and Arab constituents. 

That imbalance has become even more noticeable as casualties increase in Gaza. An estimated 13,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the health ministry, including more than 7,500 women and children, at least 100 humanitarian workers and 53 journalists. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is also worsening: On Monday, the World Health Organization said that most hospitals are no longer functioning.  

Pro-Palestine protestors march through the streets of downtown, calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict, in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
Pro-Palestine protestors march to the state Capitol calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza war on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Protesters have rallied at the state Capitol and around California for weeks, but the activism flared this past weekend as they forced the state Democratic Party to shut down its Saturday evening convention programs. 

“With every breath, with every step, we’ve expressed our disappointment. We’ve expressed our disappointment for the past six weeks,” said Omar Altamimi, policy and advocacy coordinator for the Sacramento and Central Valley chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. 

“Today we gather … to say we will not forget. We won’t forget where you stand now, and that’ll impact our decisions a year from now,” he said at a Friday rally at the Capitol. “Muslims across the nation have vowed to not vote for a single elected official who has failed to call for a ceasefire in the past month-and-a-half. And we’ll hold them to account.” 

The civilians killed include the relatives of Californians, who say they haven’t received the same kind of public outreach from state leaders as victims of the Oct. 7 attack. 

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the same chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said he has lost at least 65 members of his family in the war, though that number may be higher since they’ve lost contact with their relatives a week ago, he said.   

Rajaie Batniji, a doctor at Stanford Medical Center and CEO of a healthcare company, said on social media that 37 members of his family have been killed. 

And Luqman Elbakri, a senior at UC Berkeley who also has family in Oakland and Saratoga, said he found out on Oct. 23 that 22 members of his extended family had been killed in an air strike, including six children under the age of 5. They all lived in the same high-rise building, common in Gaza due to the inability to build outward.  

“My family name, ‘Elbakri’ no longer exists in the civil registry in Gaza,” he said.

A boiling point 

State leaders have little direct influence over foreign policy, but they can exert some pressure on the federal government. While California Republicans are almost uniformly supporting Israel, Democrats are more divided and advocates are focusing on them since they’re in power. 

That’s why, on Nov. 7, 50 Democratic Party delegates sent a letter to Newsom, asking him to publicly support the ceasefire resolution introduced by members of Congress, and to “demand that the United States reassert its leadership role as a negotiator in pursuit of a lasting peace.”

Newsom’s office confirmed receipt of the letter, but did not respond to the delegates, according to Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, chairperson of the Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus.

But at the California Democratic Party convention this past weekend, it was harder to ignore the demands from protesters and delegates. 

They loudly cheered Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, who has been the most outspoken in calling for a ceasefire among the leading candidates for U.S. Senate. They interrupted speeches by other candidates. And they broke through security into the convention center Saturday, leading the party to cancel the formal events that evening.

The canceled sessions included meetings of the Latino, Black and Native American caucuses, who said they planned to discuss resolutions calling for a ceasefire. But Norma Alcala, chairperson of the Latino Caucus, said she understood why the protesters needed to make their point.

Party Chairperson Rusty Hicks, however, called the protests “completely unacceptable,” while the Legislative Jewish Caucus issued statements condemning what it called “anti-Israel protesters.”

“We fully support the right to protest loudly and vociferously. But storming through security and shutting down a democratic process — particularly with chants calling for the destruction of Israel and appearing to justify the Hamas attack — is completely unacceptable,” the caucus said in a statement.

The protests included chants and signs with slogans — specifically “from the river to the sea” — that many in the Jewish community view as antisemitic and calling for the annihilation of Israel, though a 2020 declaration signed by hundreds of scholars on antisemitism disputes that interpretation.

Protesters calling for a ceasefire of Israeli bombing in Gaza interrupted the general session at the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento on Nov. 18, 2023. The group broke past security and gained access to the general session events at the SAFE Credit Union Convention Center. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza interrupted the general session at the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento on Nov. 18, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

But Seth Morrison, a Bay Area resident and spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Peace, pushed back on the party’s response.

“People are dying … and it’s all being done with our tax dollars,” he said. “To have business as usual when our tax dollars are paying to kill children — I’m old enough to have been involved in the Vietnam protests, and it’s the same thing.” 

Mahmoud Zahriya, former chairperson of the California Democratic Party’s Arab American Caucus, told CalMatters: “A ceasefire’s now become synonymous with, for some reason, supporting a militia or terrorist group when a ceasefire is supposed to be an end to violence for all people in the region.” 

But it wasn’t all protests, or conflict at the convention. 

The Progressive Caucus held a panel Friday night with both Arab and Jewish speakers, discussing that prior to the British intervention by the end of World War I, Jewish and Arab communities lived together peacefully — and that the fight for Palestinian freedom doesn’t mean harm to Jews.  

“I think we have to hold several truths simultaneously. And we can let our hearts break for all of it. The war crimes committed by Hamas were an unconscionable massacre. And the revenge that Israel is inflicting on all of Gaza is genocide,” said one of the panelists, Penny Rosenwasser, an activist, author and founding board member of Jewish Voice for Peace. “And I want to keep working for a future where every Palestinian and every Israeli life is precious, and all people live in freedom and safety.”

A numbers game? 

The imbalance in power and representation may be explained in some numbers: While there are more than 1.2 million Jewish Californians, there are about 715,000 Arab Americans, according to recent estimates.

There are also differences in migration patterns and history. 

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish history at San Francisco State University, said in the late 1840s, about 100,000 Central European Jews migrated to the United States, fleeing nationalist movements in Europe and seeking economic opportunities. During the Gold Rush, thousands of them moved west. One of the earliest notable Jewish politicians: Adolph Sutro, mayor of San Francisco from 1895 until 1897. 

Their early years were prosperous, according to Dollinger. But nationally, the Jewish community faced persecution in the anti-immigrant movement in the early 1900s and after World War II, pushing them to fight to secure representation.

Historians trace sizable Arab Americans’ immigration into California to the 1900s. But the number of Arab Americans has historically been difficult to track, since there is no “Arab” ethnicity option in the U.S. Census. Starting with the last Census, people could write it in under “white.” 

An accurate number on the number of Palestinians is also hard to track since many Palestinians were expelled from their homeland during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and migrated to Lebanon, Jordan or Syria before coming to the United States. Many people identify simply as Arab, according to Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, which seeks to encourage community engagement.

Al-Dabbagh also noted that Arab communities were subject to “unreasonable surveillance” after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which has deterred civic engagement, including not wanting to fill out the Census.

Why that matters: In the 2022 election — despite the state’s large Arab American population, the state of California was not required, based on federal data, to publish voting materials in Arabic. The state did require translations in San Diego County based on its additional calculation, which has a lower population threshold. 

People take part in a protest in support of Palestine on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on Nov. 16, 2023. Photo by Bay Resistance via Reuters

But, while it has been difficult for supporters of Palestine to gain traction in the past, the current activism for a ceasefire has grown beyond Middle Eastern and Muslim communities. 

Individual cities throughout California have issued resolutions, and support has come from members of the Vietnamese community in Orange County, and Black Lives Matter chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There’s also some support in the Jewish community. In the last month, the Sacramento and the Bay Area chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace say they’ve seen a large uptick in members. The Sacramento chapter has tripled, according to David Mandel, spokesperson for the group.

But largely, Dollinger said, California’s Jewish community allies with Israel. In part, that’s generational, he said. 

“This was a generation that saw Hitler. And this is a generation that witnessed the Holocaust. So when the state of Israel was created in 1948, from that generation’s perspective … this was an absolute necessity,” he said. The next generation, he added, witnessed conflicts that threatened the country, including the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973.

Tony Quinn, a longtime political consultant, said while the war is dividing the Democratic Party nationally, Democrats have a larger majority in California and the support of most Jewish voters. 

“It could have an effect on some of the congressional races,” he said. “I think the Democrats have high hopes … But if I were a Democrat in Michigan, I’d be really concerned about how this is going to affect the Democrats there.” 

The shrinking middle ground

As the Gaza war continues, there have been more calls from the international community for a ceasefire, including from leaders of the United Nations, Amnesty International, OxFam America, and Doctors Without Borders, and the governments of China, Brazil, Ireland, Belgium and Spain. They say that Israel must do more to avoid civilian casualties and not exact “collective punishment” on Palestinians in trying to kill Hamas fighters.  

In Washington, D.C., the number of House members signing a ceasefire resolution has grown from 13 to 43, including eight California lawmakers. 

On Monday, Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento issued a call for a “temporary negotiated ceasefire.” “Lasting peace can only be achieved if Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure is dismantled,” she said in a statement. “At the same time, we must exhaust every option to prevent the death of innocent civilians.” 

Rep. Eric Swalwell, who represents the East Bay, hasn’t called for a full ceasefire, but he did co-author a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to address violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank of Palestine, which is not under Hamas control.

Others are still seeking more of a middle ground, supporting Israel’s war against Hamas while still showing compassion for Palestinian civilians. They’re also calling for the release of about 240 hostages — mostly Israelis, but at least 10 Americans — held by Hamas and other militant groups. 

In supporting more humanitarian aid to Gaza, Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove said when he talked to a Palestinian constituent, he heard the “pain, anguish, despair and anger” for a personal loss, and also deep grief from Jewish constituents. Bera said in a video that while he believes in Israel’s right to self-defense, “so do innocent Palestinans have a right to life and peace and dignity.”  

Leaders of the Legislature’s Jewish, Black, Latino, Women’s, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander and LGBTQ caucuses signed on to an Oct. 26 letter to President Biden urging him to protect all civilians. And the governor announced $30 million to protect synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship in California.

Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat and co-chairperson of the Jewish Caucus, noted that he has been calling for a “more surgical approach to Hamas as opposed to the more broad-based bombing.” The other co-chairperson, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, said that while he feels a responsibility to the Jewish community, he also feels “a deep responsibility to serve my Muslim, Palestinian and Arab constituents.” 

Before marching in support for Palestine, Muslims participate in a Friday prayer at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
Before marching in support for Palestine, Muslims participate in a Friday prayer at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Still, lawmakers’ efforts to walk the tightrope aren’t cutting it with activists and other members of the Palestinian community.

Outside the state Capitol on Friday, Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s ethnic studies department and a well-known advocate for Palestinians, delivered a talk before a prayer service — and his message was not only for nearly 200 seated on the lawn in front of him, but for politicians. 

“Today we are in a different era in terms of political engagement and mobilization,” he said. “If you don’t vote and support the issues we care about, we don’t care about whether you speak Arabic and you say ‘Salam-u-alaikium’ in a decrepit way, or you say you like our food … What I want to see is how you voted. This is not a community that will be taken for granted from now on.”  

And if voters don’t find a candidate who meets their demands, they should run for office themselves, Bazian said.

Ola Subeh, a 36-year-old Chino resident who has an aunt in Gaza, echoed the sentiment. She said she’s researching alternatives to Democrats for 2024 — perhaps independent parties, though she knows they don’t stand a real chance. 

“We’re going to have to find people who are going to start running for office, and vocalize for them and go out there and do our best to get better people in office who are going to represent our people, who care for humanity, are not one-sided and biased because we’ve always been treated as … like nothing, it’s like we don’t even belong, we don’t exist.” 

Keane Chukwuneta, a Democratic delegate, said he sees the issue, fundamentally, as a question of whether representative government works or not.

“I hope that the machinery of the party starts to listen to these voices, because they clearly exist, and they’re not going anywhere,” he said, adding that he’d much rather see organizers work within the Democratic Party to reflect the concerns he and others share. 

“That’s not happening,” he said, “and I think that’s why we’re here.”

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