The Bay Area’s “progressive” reputation was somewhat tarnished November 8 when voters in San Francisco and Berkeley overwhelmingly rejected pro-Palestinian initiatives on their respective ballots. San Francisco’s Proposition W, which called for the US to recognize a Palestinian state “side by side” with Israel “with guarantees of security for both states” was defeated by 68 to 32 percent. In Berkeley, Measure J would have established the Gaza town and refugee camp of Jabalya as a sister city; it was defeated by a 70-30 margin. Both initiatives made a poorer showing than did Berkeley’s Measure E in 1984, which called for the US to end financial support for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and garnered 38 percent of the vote.
How, in the midst of the Palestinian intifada, when US polls were indicating growing support for Palestinian self-determination, could pro-Israel forces win such convincing victories? Matthew Hallinan, one of Prop W’s four co-chairs, points to the virtually unlimited funds available to Prop W’s opponents and to the fact that the “No” committee had “the complete support of the liberal political establishment.”
A week before the election, the No on W campaign reported donations of close to $400,000 (compared to the Yes campaign’s $84,000); some estimates put the final figure nearer $1 million. In addition to hundreds of $100 and $200 donations from Jews in the Bay Area and across the country, the No on W campaign took in four-figure contributions from a half dozen national pro-Israel PACs and 10 prominent Jewish politicians, mainly from the Los Angeles area including Representatives Henry Berman, Henry Waxman and Mel Levine. The only significant non-Jewish contributions came from Sacramento Congressperson Robert Matsui and State Comptroller Gray Davis, at $10,000 each, and Kathleen Brown, sister of former governor Jerry Brown, who put in $5,000. A number of prominent San Francisco “big givers” also contributed to politicians who opposed the measure.
The No on W Committee, headed by Seagram’s Henry Berman, hired the Campaign Performance Group (CPG) to run the opposition effort for $170,000. The No on W slogan was “Because we want peace.” CPG president Richard Slackman prepared a series of 11 mailings employing a variety of progressive symbols to convince the electorate that a vote against Prop. W was a vote for peace. These invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, the United Nations or Oscar Arias and the 1960s anti-war movement, as appropriate to various communities.
Heading the “liberal” attack was Harry Britt, San Francisco’s gay supervisor, originally appointed to the Board in 1978 following the murder of Harvey Milk. Britt has been struggling to get back into the good graces of San Francisco’s Jewish establishment since incurring its wrath in 1986, when he unsuccessfully challenged the city’s contract with the Israeli Zim shipping line because of its business ties to South Africa. Britt compared Prop W with “US attempts to impose its own solution on other countries — Vietnam, El Salvador, Lebanon and Nicaragua.” A photo of Britt appeared with a picture of the Harvey Milk memorial on Slackman’s flyer directed to the gay community. (The Harvey Milk Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club voted to support Prop. W and gave Britt a hostile reception when he appeared at the club’s endorsement meeting.)
The flyer directed to the Latin American and liberal white community of the Mission District featured a picture of Oscar Arias on the cover, juxtaposed with a photo of a San Francisco antiwar march featuring placards saying “Bring all the GIs home now.”
Mayor Art Agnos had assured supporters in San Francisco’s Arab community that he would remain neutral, but he came under increasing pressure from local Jewish groups. After an October 4 phone call from Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes, Agnos capitulated. No on W quickly reprinted its stationery to include his name at the top of its campaign committee.
Slackman’s flyer for the Black community featured the famous aerial photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington. Inside was a photo of State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, Jr., Jesse Jackson’s campaign chairman and a Jewish National Fund honoree in 1987, standing in front of a black housing project. “Justice. Brotherhood. Black and white — united in a common purpose — committed to humanity’s noblest goals” read the opening words across the page. “Let’s keep Dr. King’s dream alive…” There was no mention of the Palestinians or the issue.
Slackman had something very different for conservative voters who would not respond positively to Harvey Milk or Martin Luther King. Their flyer pictured Yasir Arafat, with an unreferenced quote, “You must strengthen the iron fist around the rifle which will lead to victory.”
Only one of San Francisco’s 11 supervisors, Richard Hongisto, declined to join the No on W Committee. Hongisto, who had travelled to the West Bank and was reportedly willing to endorse the proposition, was apparently asked not to do so by members of the Arab community who were afraid it would jeopardize his political future. He has since indicated that he will not run for reelection.
The most significant support for Prop. W came from the religious community: the Catholic Archdiocese, the Presbyterian Church, the Northern California Ecumenical Council and the San Francisco Council of Churches. Eighteen other endorsing organizations included New Jewish Agenda and the International Jewish Peace Union. Opposing the measure were the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and a host of pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the Bay Area. The Jewish Community Relations Council provided over $11,000 of postage and printing costs.
The opposition’s political and financial clout was not the only factor. Salle Solladay, a Lebanese-American attorney and president of the San Francisco Chapter of the National Association of Arab-Americans, was one of the driving forces in planning the initiative and getting it on the ballot. She criticizes the campaign for “surrendering the control of its politics to individuals who were more concerned with protecting Israel than achieving justice for the Palestinians,” claiming that “they had three goals in the campaign: 1) the survival of Israel, 2) not to disturb Jewish sensibilities, and 3) to win without sacrificing the first two goals.”
Solladay and several other initial supporters had sought to run a more hardhitting campaign, attacking the Israel lobby, Israeli atrocities on the West Bank and Gaza, and the money US taxpayers send to Israel. “If you look at Prop. W literature,” Solladay says, “you won’t find any references to those subjects, except for a last-ditch ad that contained a watered-down reference to the $10 million a day [in US aid].”
Hallinan and co-chair Naomi Nim of New Jewish Agenda deny Solladay’s charges. Nidal Toteh, co-chair of the San Francisco chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) saw other problems with the campaign. All acknowledged, though, that the campaign could and should have said more about what was happening in the occupied territories.
“I don’t think our problem was in the message,” says Hallinan. “Our problem was in the delivery. We went in a morally neutral way for peace. We took the high road to such an extreme that we were saying that we don’t want to condemn anybody.” Hallinan also says the campaign did not wish “to emphasize the Israeli lobby, to make a fight against the Jewish community. People who signed on behind us, like the churches, did so on the basis that it was not going to be a negative campaign. We wanted to see a peaceful resolution where both people have their national rights. We didn’t realize until it was over that we had lost some of the moral edge by not maintaining the urgency around the violence, about the denial of rights and the absolute imperative nature of resolving the crisis.”
Nim responds somewhat differently: “We had a strategy that was to broaden and bring people into the movement…we were thinking in the long term, past November 8, to build a movement that would work towards peace that would be larger than just the Arab and Jewish community but would also activate the Arab community and more progressive Jews. If we were thinking solely of winning the vote, what we might have done from the start was hire a PR firm, maybe a different kind of campaign manager and leave decision making to these people. What we developed was the beginning of a new political base. Our goal was to bring the issue outside the group that usually discusses it and we were very successful.”
Nim agrees with Hallinan that “there was no decision not to talk about it [repression]. Our basic message was human rights and what could be gained from this policy change.” In retrospect, Nim says, “most of us felt we could have stated our case more strongly about human rights abuses.”
The ADC’s Nidal Toteh sees increased Arab-American participation as a positive factor. “Compared to Measure E [in 1984], when we had very limited Arab-American volunteer work, Prop. W had quite a number of Arab-American volunteers right through election day. Arab-Americans are fairly recent immigrants to the US and the Bay Area and have assimilated in certain aspects but not yet politically. It was good to see the grocery store owners and other volunteers active in the campaign.” Numerous small Arab market owners placed Prop. W petitions and signs in their windows and inside their stores. Members of the Ramallah Young Adult Club put up the bulk of Prop. W's campaign posters. “It was the first time they worked in a political campaign,” Toteh points out. “Everything starts somewhere and this is the first step.”
Toteh acknowledged that Jewish members of the campaign “may have been overly protective of Israel, but they were a minority and the only thing you can accuse them of is selling their ideas to the majority. There were certainly members of the steering committee and the central decision making group who wanted to steer away from criticizing Israel.”
Looking back, Toteh thinks that “seeing pictures of the intifada might have been effective. I’m not sure about attacking the Israeli lobby, but the money, yes. Judging from Cambridge and Measure E, the two initiatives which did best, the issue of taxpayers’ money appealed to the voters’ self-interest."
Toteh concedes that “in retrospect, we were too conservative. But the problems stemmed from how decisions were made. We didn’t have an organized structure and too many people took initiatives on their own. If we had been able to hire one experienced leader, many of our problems could have been overcome.”