San Francisco Green School Board members meet Israeli Progressives

By Wendy Kenin, Green Party of California

What can Greens learn from their progressive Israeli counterparts? That’s what Mark Sanchez and Jane Kim, San Francisco Green Board of Education members, sought to find out as they led the Coalition Mission to Israel last March.

Sponsored by the New York and Tel Aviv-based America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL), the Coalition Mission was created “to enable youth advocates of San Francisco and Israel to share their experiences in the field of violence prevention, and to heighten awareness of Israel’s democratic society,” according to an AIFL press release.

Sanchez chaired the Mission’s delegation of a dozen progressive community leaders ages 20-45, representing an array of Bay Area government and non-profit entities. Among sites the Mission toured was the Yemin Orde Wingate Youth Village, south of Haifa in the Carmel Mountains, home to more than 500 immigrant, disadvantaged, and at-risk children and youth from 20 countries around the world. They also went to the Jerusalem Open House, a grassroots LGBT center; and Neve Shalom—Wahat al-Salame (Oasis of Peace), a village situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa jointly-established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel engaged in educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two peoples.

Some Mission participants faced criticism from their friends and colleagues for joining the Israel trip. The predominant Bay Area progressive view of the Middle East focuses on the critical issue of Palestinian rights, but often neglects to also consider the multi-generational and current experience of the people of Israel.

Sanchez explains, “The tricky part living in the Bay Area is that there’s a perception and then a belief that only Israelis are being heavy-handed or using internationally illegal tactics to resolve their issues. Because that’s kind of the norm. It’s the paradigm and because of that paradigm we tend to have that perspective on Israel. … Many are asked, ‘Are you an apologist or a Zionist?’ We need to have that conversation, not automatically draw a line in the sand. Everybody who lives in the region is struggling to assert their reason for existence. That is the basis for the conflict.”

Gabriel Hernandez, member of the National Chicano Human Rights Council  and director of the Hayward Day Labor Center, “Organizationally and as an indigenous person, I’ve been supporting the Palestinian struggle for decades, including their rights to the homeland. Now since I’ve gone to Israel, it’s become clear that there’s a lot more information that needs to be understood about the land struggles there, because it’s very complex.”

A labor and peace negotiator, Hernandez was most impressed at hearing from non-governmental organization leaders about agreements they have developed through the United Nations, in conjunction with negotiations of the nation states. “The progressive left needs to step back and take a look at all sides of the conflict. There is a peace process that has been developing, but is not being covered enough by the media, progressive or otherwise. Because the sides have been polarized for so long, this middle ground simply isn’t getting the attention it deserves.”

Concerned that polarized positions in the U.S. may be holding back resolution and perpetuating conflict, he added, “Just as the grassroots peace process has developed in Israel, the same must happen here.”

Sanchez, who is running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this November after serving eight years on the School Board, forged a distinct Bay Area progressive strategy in leading the group. “Everybody has to be open to different narratives and to coming up with an approach to bridge the gap… I think the way its going to be resolved will be through people who really understand the multitude of positions.”

“For people who may have felt that Israel is only doing things that are negative or colonial,” Sanchez adds, “they were given another view of the culture. I think that was a positive aspect. It informs the struggle of everybody there.” At the same time, Sanchez felt that understanding could be broadened next time with more contacts with the left-wing and non-Jews. Despite these limitations, Sanchez saw the trip as, “an opportunity to gather progressive folks who work with young people to be able to share our ideas… and to see what other areas of the world are doing.”

A favorite spot for 30 year-old Kim was the Rehabilitation Café, an all night café in Jerusalem where employees such as the wait staff and cashiers are social workers who build relationships and eventually serve youth.

“Highlights of the trip were seeing some of the incredible programs and schools serving young people and meeting passionate activists and organizers in Israel,” said Kim. “I learned new ideas that I hope to model in San Francisco including the Rehabilitation Café.”

For his part, Sanchez aims to host Chaim Peri, the Yemin Orde Youth Village’s Director, in the Bay Area. Peri travels internationally to share strategies on assisting youth with trauma and displacement recovery and reintegration, with a critical component being affirmation of cultural background.

Other Coalition Mission participants included Marquez Gray, a 22-year-old minister with the Word of God Christian Community Church; Timothy Ho, Chinatown Community Development Center; Bobbi Lopez, Youth Coordinator, La Voz Latina Coordinator for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and current SF School Board Candidate; and activists Lateefah Simon and Brian Fox.

Participants also applauded Israel’s educational support systems for at-risk youth that follow the students from early childhood through college and career placement, as well as impressive community-run centers and gardens as prototypes they hope to import to the Bay Area.

Pending new funding, next steps may include programs to support ongoing relationships between Bay Area and Israeli youth, students and youth wellness leaders, and inter-group activities that employ Israel’s models to assist Bay Area communities. In addition, greater interchange is sought with Israeli political parties like the Israeli Green Party, Green Leaf and others, as well as the LGBT, eco-professional, anti-wall, indigenous, immigration, civic, wellness, arts, labor, housing and human rights communities in Israel.

For more information:
Wendy Kenin,
Mark Sanchez
Jane Kim