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90 days in, California politicians keep trying to navigate the Israel-Hamas war

Sameea Kamal | Cal Matters

As the war in Gaza rages on, public opinion across America is slowly but steadily shifting: Nearly 60% of voters support a ceasefire, compared to 53% in November.

But in California — home to both the largest Arab-American population and the second-largest Jewish community in the U.S. — some politicians are still trying to find the right approach in their response to the conflict.

As the death toll in Gaza topped 18,000 in mid-December, Gov. Gavin Newsom met with leaders from the Arab and Muslim communities, a month after he held a similar meeting with Jewish community leaders.

And as the state Legislature reconvened today, 17 Assembly Republicans plan to introduce a resolution that condemns Hamas “in the harshest terms” and denounces “all instances of antisemitism.” The resolution doesn’t mention the humanitarian crisis in Gaza after the Israeli military’s bombardment.

Shortly after the Assembly session started, it was adjourned until Thursday as protesters from Jewish groups who support a ceasefire broke out in songs and chants in the chamber. Out in the middle of the Capitol, more protesters staged a sit-in. 

The Jewish Community Relations Council responded to the protests by posting on X that the “vast majority” of Bay Area Jews “believe that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”

In the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200, Newsom’s initial response and trip to Israel, as well as the reaction of other state leaders, left many in California’s Arab and Muslim communities feeling unheard. Most visibly, at the California Democratic Party convention in November, pro-Palestinian protesters called the governor out by name.

As he promised, Newsom met with leaders of California Muslim and Arab communities on Dec. 16. The hour-long Zoom meeting, included 15 leaders from various chapters of the Council on American Islamic Relations, from mosques and from Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities.

Asked about takeaways from the meeting, Newsom’s office said Tuesday: “The administration is actively engaging with Muslim and Jewish community leaders across the state to support the safety and security of California’s diverse communities.”

Attendees described it as a positive meeting — one in which their concerns were not dismissed or rejected, unlike experiences some California residents have had with elected officials.

“He listened, he expressed empathy and sympathy … and understands our concern,” said Ahmed Soboh, chairperson of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an advisory board for mosques in the region.

Attendees had six requests of Newsom, including to call for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid, and to address civil rights violations and of freedom of speech of Californians who spoke in support of Palestinians.

Soboh said Newsom was “alarmed and concerned” when attendees brought up people being fired from jobs or punished on college campuses, but the conversation didn’t go as far as they’d hoped.

“We did not get a solid action plan that he will strongly publicly stand up for the rights of Palestinians,” he said.

“That’s the concern we’re having with many elected officials. There’s no solid strong opposition of the massacre (in Gaza), no solid support for a ceasefire, even though we say this is what we want,” Soboh said. “They say, ‘I’ll take your sentiments and suggestions,’ but no one will come out and say it with the same strength and support for Israel and the Jewish community. We don’t see it for the Muslim community or the people of Gaza.”

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento and Central Valley chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations — whose parents were born in Gaza — said he shared with the governor that he had lost 73 members of his extended family, and that Palestinians in Gaza are starving and have limited access to water.

But he acknowledged that the governor is in a difficult situation politically.

“It’s very difficult for him to say anything or put out an announcement that can contradict Biden’s stance at the moment,” Elkarra said. “We still hope that somehow he’ll come out stronger.”

He also acknowledged that Newsom delivered on his promise to send medical and other aid to Gaza.

At the meeting, attendees asked the governor to “utilize his relationship with the president and other lawmakers to bring awareness to our sentiment and demands,” according to the Shura Council. 

But for Assembly Republicans, the state’s response against Hamas has not been strong enough. That, according to Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher, is why they authored the resolution. It was also in response, he said, to rhetoric by pro-Palestinian advocates at some city council meetings that he says sought to justify Hamas’ actions.

“That’s why I think it’s even more so that we as a state, as leaders of the state, need to say absolutely not,” Gallagher said. “This is horrific, it’s barbarous, and it needs to be condemned, unequivocally.”

The resolution is expected to be introduced as soon as this week. It also notes that at least one Californian, who was at a music festival that was attacked on Oct. 7, remains a hostage: Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, whose parents Newsom met on his brief Israel visit.

Gallagher added that the resolution was sent to all members of the Assembly with invitations to sign on as co-authors, including Democrats. The list of co-authors includes all but one Republican in the Assembly: Bill Essayli of Riverside.

In a statement on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Essayli, who is the only Arab American in the Legislature, said that he has been clear about condemning Hamas and the terrorist acts they committed on Oct. 7, and that the resolution was drafted without input from any Jewish legislators.

“The Legislative Jewish Caucus has requested that we work with them rather than make this a divisive partisan issue,” Essayli wrote. “Now more than ever we must come together to reject terrorism and work toward peace.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council, based in the Bay Area, told CalMatters it supports the resolution, saying that the “moral clarity of the language should be praised.”

“Considering that seven Americans are still held in captivity by Hamas, it sadly remains timely,” said Jeremy Russell, spokesperson for the council. “If this is passed it will be seen as a statement of support similar to when Governor Gavin Newsom visited Israel in the wake of the attacks. We hope that members of the state Legislature will also visit Israel soon to bear witness to Hamas’ atrocities.”

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus declined to comment on the specifics of the Assembly Republicans’ resolution. But Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, the co-chairpersons of the 19-member caucus, told CalMatters they have been responding to “the surge in antisemitism in California and the incredible trauma inflicted on our community in Israel and around the world.”

“We remain focused on the legislative and budget work needed to protect and support our community and plan to unveil a package of priority bills and actions in the coming weeks,” the two Democrats said in a statement Tuesday evening. “Our Caucus is best positioned to lead on these issues, and we intend to do so in an authentic, thoughtful, and inclusive manner.”

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