On June 5, 1984, voters in Berkeley, California, by a margin of almost 64 percent to 36 percent, defeated a ballot measure calling for the United States to reduce its aid to Israel by the amount Israel spends on its settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. What’s going on here? Since the 1960s, Berkeley has had a reputation as the most politically progressive urban community in the country. Civil rights activism on the University of California campus spawned the Free Speech Movement, which in turn set the stage for the early protests and organizing against the US war in Vietnam. When Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, one of his main campaign targets was UC campus radicalism.

Berkeley city politics echoed the growing new left strength on campus. Republicans lost control of the city council in the early 1960s, and the political debate in the city shifted from liberal-conservative to radical-moderate. This leftward shift was accompanied by the rise of slate politics and grass-roots ballot initiatives. Through the city council and ballot initiatives, Berkeley has established a police review commission and a rent control board, taken city money out of banks that do business with South Africa, established relations with a sister city in a guerrilla-controlled area of El Salvador, and passed a resolution against the military draft.

In the summer of 1983, an ad-hoc committee called Taxpayers for Peace in the Middle East (TAPME) came together to raise publicly the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories by means of the ballot initiative process.* TAPME activists came from groups such as the UC Committee for Academic Freedom in the Israeli Occupied Territories (CAFIOT), the local Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the local New Jewish Agenda, and the International Jewish Peace Union.

The first key political decision of the campaign concerned the wording of the initiative. Some felt that the measure would only garner the broad-based support necessary to win if it specifically supported Israel’s right to exist in its pre-1967 borders. The majority felt that it would be more relevant to keep the initiative focused strictly on the issue of US tax dollar financing of the illegal settlements as the major impediment to a peaceful resolution of the Palestine/Israel conflict. 4,800 valid signatures of registered Berkeley voters were required to place the initiative on the ballot. When the three-month signature drive concluded in early January 1984, TAPME had over 7,000 signatures. No formal opposition had surfaced yet, and TAPME volunteers were heartened by the response they encountered.

In February 1984, the initiative came before the City Council, which had the choice of either passing it directly into law or placing it on the June ballot. After a heated public debate, conservative Councilmember Leo Bach proposed an additional ballot measure which expressed general support for Israeli policy, reaffirmed the “special nature” of the American-Israeli relationship, and placed the blame for ongoing Middle East strife on “the Arab rejection of a comprehensive peace.” Bach’s motion narrowly failed by a 5-4 tally, and the council then voted to place the TAPME initiative on the ballot. During the ensuing campaign, seven of the nine Councilmembers publicly opposed the initiative. Mayor Gus Newport stood alone in support of what had become ballot Measure E; three colleagues from the leftist Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) were aligned with four of the five members of the moderate/conservative All Berkeley Coalition (ABC) in opposition.

The BCA split over Measure E came to a head at their convention in late April. Some opponents, invoking the Holocaust, claimed that the initiative was inherently anti- Semitic. Others advocated a two-state solution as the only guarantee of Israel’s security; they supported Measure E to draw attention to the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Responding to those who claimed to be against the settlements, but who opposed Measure E on the grounds that it was divisive and would damage the progressive movement, Mayor Newport borrowed a metaphor from the civil rights movement, asserting that “this measure won’t split the left; it will sift the left.” With more than 200 BCA members present, the vote was 58 in favor of endorsement, 48 for opposing the measure, and 75 for taking no position at all. The result pleased many from both sides, who felt that taking no stand avoided the breakup of the BCA.

”No on E”

Opposition to the initiative had surfaced in late January, when the Coalition for Middle East Peace and Justice was organized by members of the Berkeley Jewish community for the purpose of defeating Measure E. In March, the Coalition hired the San Francisco firm of Solem and Associates, high-priced professional campaign consultants with a national reputation for orchestrating anti- rent control campaigns (including the one against the 1980 Berkeley initiative). Solem hired three full-time professionals (including one from Senator Alan Cranston’s presidential campaign). Their initial poll in mid-April found voters in every category informed on the issue and opposed to the settlements. On the whole, they supported Israel but not its present policies, and also supported Palestinian rights. The poll also showed that voters were anti-military and supported peace above all other issues. At this point, Measure E appeared to be ahead.

The Solem professionals immediately re-positioned the campaign by stressing the theme of peace and discouraging their clients from defending the settlements. One of their biggest worries was that TAPME would respond by spotlighting the endorsements of their “peace personalities” — Joan Baez and Daniel and Phillip Berrigan — to develop this issue more fully. The position on the ballot favored TAPME, who could say “Vote YES for PEACE.” (TAPME did neither.)

A 15-year veteran of California electoral politics designed the “No on E” literature. It included separate mailings targetting specific audiences: Democrats, Republicans and seniors, women, students and progressives, Blacks, and Jews.

”No on E” was able to muster an impressive assortment of elected officials to oppose the initiative publicly. Locally, Alameda County Supervisor John George and State Assemblymember Tom Bates, both of whose districts encompass Berkeley and who are part of an informal East Bay coalition of progressive Democratic politicians, joined with mayors Lionel Wilson of Oakland and Diane Feinstein of San Francisco, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and UC Chancellor Ira Heyman to oppose E. Other “No” endorsements came from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Assemblymember Tom Hayden and his wife Jane Fonda, and Senator Cranston. Governor George Deukmejian and Senator Pete Wilson joined the chorus as token Republicans. Mayor Newport was the only elected official to support Measure E.

Potentially the most important endorsement for either side was that of seven-term Congressmember Ron Dellums, the fulcrum of the East Bay progressive constituency. Dellums’ record as a spokesperson on the issues of social justice and non-intervention is one of the best and most forthright in Congress — with one exception. The Berkeley Jewish community is an important component of his political base; his policy statements on Middle East issues are muted in comparison with other areas such as Central America or Southern Africa. He did not take a stand on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and did not condemn the partisan role of the Marines in Beirut nor the shelling by the USS New Jersey.

In a public letter to Dellums, the president of the Berkeley/Richmond Jewish Community Center, Lee Marsh, asserted that “90 percent of your Jewish constituents oppose this initiative as a disguised attempt to push the Israeli people into the sea.” Marsh said that while he believed “in building an alliance of the Black and Jewish peoples in our district and country…the Jewish people will consider mere neutrality on this issue as insensitivity.” Dellums replied that his

gut reaction is that the problems of the Middle East are so complex that it is of questionable value to approach solutions in such a piecemeal fashion; such efforts seem better calculated to cause anguish and divisiveness than to move us to a realistic position of solving these problems. On a personal level I resent being pushed into kneejerk positions on ballot initiatives that are irrelevant to any political solution to the problem; when I think of it in that vein, a neutral position makes perfectly good sense.

Dellums held meetings with representatives from both sides. Since there was never any likelihood that he would support Measure E, TAPME considered it a tactical victory when he decided to remain on the sidelines.

Lessons of the Campaign

The most important factor determining the outcome of this campaign was money. This was the most expensive election by far in Berkeley history, with “No on E” forces having a more than seven-to-one advantage. TAPME raised a total of about $25,000, barely enough to cover expenses, from small local contributions. Solem and Associates employed professional fundraisers to solicit by telephone from Jewish fundraising appeal lists. Of $180,000 raised, $25,000 came from four Zionist lobbying groups, through a phony campaign committee formed shortly before the election. Yet “No on E” raised the cry of “Arab money,” and alleged that the settlements initiative was part of a coordinated effort directed by the national ADC. San Francisco Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver charged that the Arab League was funding Measure E.

The second key factor in the defeat of E was the lack of professional campaign advice and experience. TAPME decided in March to continue with the coalition’s steering committee collectively in charge of campaign strategy and direction. In retrospect, this appears to have been ill- advised. One or more persons with practical electoral experience (ideally in the local community) involved in planning and managing the campaign might well have made the “yes” vote significantly higher.

One significant planning error was to place the initiative on the June ballot, when most students were out of town. Students had shown much support for the initiative, partly due to the educational work on campus done by the CAFIOT over the past few years. A more coherently organized strategy, targeting specific constituencies, also would have increased the “yes” vote. The large backing TAPME expected from Blacks did not materialize, although their support — 44 percent — was greater than the overall “yes” vote. Mayor Newport’s endorsement, in the face of threats from some of his political supporters, was more than offset in the Black community by the opposition of John George, Lionel Wilson, Willie Brown, and Tom Bradley. The anticipated split in the Jewish community over the issue of the settlements did not occur, and by concentrating exclusively on the flatlands, TAPME wrote off the Republicans and the more prosperous voters in the hills. Potential support in all these diverse communities was not effectively cultivated.

At the same time, the campaign achieved some real gains. For one thing, it effectively contested the notion that only Jews are entitled to speak forthrightly on questions of US support for Israeli policies. Early in the campaign, opponents of the initiative tried to discredit and intimidate supporters. County Supervisor John George alluded to this late in the campaign when he intimated that he might be having second thoughts about his hasty opposition to E: “I’m opposed to the present Israeli policy in the settlements, but I want to be able to tell the Jewish community that if I say that, I’m not anti-Semitic.” Uneasiness over the Jesse Jackson-Louis Farrakhan controversy may have accounted for the lack of coordination between the Rainbow Coalition and TAPME, although many people in TAPME actively supported Jackson. When he came to Berkeley, Jackson made no mention of Measure E; Mondale and Hart openly opposed it.

The TAPME coalition was an exemplary landmark of Arab-American/Jewish cooperation — the first time in the US that Jewish and Arab-American organizations have formed an alliance to work on a political campaign. The issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is now definitely on Berkeley’s public agenda, although it is still not seen by the majority of the liberal/progressive community in the same context as issues such as Central America and Southern Africa.

The Berkeley experience shows how blind support for Israel has been a vehicle for drawing the organized Jewish community into an overall reactionary political stance. The organizer of the “No on E” campaign subsequently ran for Berkeley city council on the conservative ABC ticket. (Although he raised twice as much money as any other candidate, he lost, and BCA swept the council seats at stake.) The active role of several Jews in the TAPME campaign shows that the Jewish community is not monolithic on Israel, particularly after Lebanon. Nonetheless, the Jewish community’s organized leadershp was able to present a monolithic front and thereby deter many progressives from taking up the Middle East question this time around.


* In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the city council blocked a similar effort.

How to cite this article:

Jock Taft "Sifting the Berkeley Left," Middle East Report 129 (January 1985).

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