The Gaza resolution

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I know that the discussion over the John Avalos/Sophie Maxwell resolution on the Gaza flotilla took a long time, and kept the supervisors and assorted city employees at work until midnight, and Sweet Melissa says that cost the city some money. And she makes the same argument we hear all the time when these things come up:

Run for Congress. Jump onto a plane. Send money to a worthy organization. But don’t pat yourselves on the back for a job well done for getting a resolution passed at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. No one cares what supervisors in San Francisco think about foreign policy — not other governments, not the U.S. government and especially not those of us who live here.

And while I agree that the Avalos/Maxwell resolution was long, and isn't going to change anyone's foreign policy, and a lot of the other supervisors wish the thing had never come up and consider it a terrible time suck, let me gently argue the contrary.

I remember back in 1984, when a group of Berkeley activists put a measure on that city's ballot calling on the United States to reduce its aid to Israel by the amount that Israel was spending on settlements in the occupied territories. It bitterly divided the Berkeley City Council, stirred up a giant fuss on the city's left and led to a long, dramatic meeting of the progressive coalition called Berkeley Citizens Action. BCA was at that point the equivalent of a political party that dominated city politics.

There were some BCA members who thought the measure was horrible, anti-semitic and needed to be killed. There were some who argued that the situation in the occupied territories was so bad that Americans needed to take a stand. There were others who said this was none of Berkeley's business -- much as a lot of San Francisco pundits say that the Avalos resolution was none of San Francisco's business.

But I was there and I watched all of this come down -- and in the end, it was a good thing for Berkeley, for progressive politics, and for the way the left in the Bay Area thought about the Middle East.

Lee Halterman, who was an aide to then-Rep Ron Dellums, chaired the BCA meeting where the measure was debated, and he did a fabulous job -- everyone got a chance to speak, nobody was cut off, the discussion was remarkably civil and in the end, the group voted not to endorse either side. "This was healthy for BCA," Halterman told me afterward. "This was a discussion that we needed to have."

I didn't know much of anything about the politics of Israel's settlement policies back then, and I got quite an education. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination committee folks came down to the Guardian and -- calmly, without harsh rhetoric, explained why the continuing settlement construction was creating a serious obstacle to future peace (they were absolutely right). I learned that John B. Oakes, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times, had written a series of columns saying, in essence, that building all the new settlements was going to make a two-state solution almost impossible. Slowly, political observers who fully supported Israel on almost every issue were starting to question the Israeli government's actions.

We heard the other side, too: Anna Rabkin, the Berkeley city auditor and an icon on the Berkeley left, came in and told us how painful this would be to progressive Jews and how harmful it would be to the progressive agenda. She made a powerful, impassioned argument. 

And all of this came to a head with a ballot campaign that generated both heat and light. We endorsed Measure E (I wrote the endorsement myself); it went down overwhelmingly, but it got a lot of people thinking. I think today it would pass overwhelmingly. And while the usual snipers complained the "Berserkeley" was wasting everyone's time and money on a foreign policy statement that nobody would pay attention to anyway, I think a lot of us were glad it happened.

And I think that the members of Congress who represented the Bay Area were paying close attention.

So let's not trash the Avalos/Maxwell resolution so quickly. Sometimes these debates are good; sometimes they help the local voters -- who, after all, decide who to elect to Congress, the U.S. Senate and the White House -- hear conflicting sides of a complicated story.

The Gaza flotilla wasn't just about breaking the blockade; it was about getting people in the United States to pay attention to a terrible situation that the daily papers and TV stations typically ignore. I don't see why it's so bad for the San Francisco supervisors to help spread that word.