Rantz: Jewish community grows angry, impatient with Sawant and Seattle Council

Aug 8, 2018, 6:29 AM | Updated: 9:35 am
Kshama Sawant speaks during a council meeting. (File, Associated Press)
(File, Associated Press)

After a recent anti-Semitic event and the ongoing vandalism of a Jewish cemetery, some in Seattle’s Jewish community are left wondering if the city cares about their concerns.

In May, scores of local Jews called out Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the Seattle LGBTQ Commission for hosting a virulently anti-Semitic event. Others have been disgusted with the frequent vandalism of Bikur Cholim cemetery in Seattle, which seems to go unaddressed. And a younger demographic of Jewish Seattleites are dealing with open anti-Semitism, masquerading as a legitimate social justice movement, at the University of Washington.

Some see these issues indicative of a bigger concern for the Jewish community.

“I don’t think the city could care less [about the] straight-up anti-Semitism or slightly watered down anti-Zionism/BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanctions Movement],” Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s, told me. “The city doesn’t want to get involved. We are on our own [and] Sawant leads the charge.”

Others believe there are valid concerns, but that Seattle is a great place for the Jewish community.

“I don’t think they’re indicative of any kind of broad-based movement or reflection of anti-Semitism or how Jews have quality of life here,” Democratic State Senator Reuven Carlyle (WA-36) explained to me. “I think, overall, you have a really fabulous connection to the community and the vast views of the majority of Seattle reflect well upon the Jewish community and our overall quality of life.”

Still, the issues some have are real and concern is growing that the community is being ignored.

City resources wasted on Anti-Semitism

The highest profile incident of abject anti-Semitism occurred in May when Sawant and the LGBTQ Commission hosted an event, screening the propaganda documentary “Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back!” which claims Israel promotes itself as gay-friendly, to hide their supposed “terrible human rights violations.” The documentary has been widely panned for it’s one-sided, anti-Semitic agenda, with the Jewish Federation of Seattle claiming the event “…promotes lies about Israel, alienates and discriminates against the tens of thousands of Jews and Israelis living here, and is likely, at the very least to stir up increased anti-Semitism.”

Many in the Jewish community were disturbed to learn of the event, supported by City resources, and they focused their ire on Sawant.

“I find it appalling that Sawant would condemn Israel for its pro-LGBTQ policies,” David Schwartz, owner of a local, Jewish owned and operated full-service DJ/MC/Event company, Orion Entertainment. Schwartz is gay and a personal friend. “Israel is one of the best places to be gay in the entire world.”

“I agree that we need a balanced discussion when discussing a complex topic such as Israel & Palestine, but, some of the council member’s comments and actions may have hurt more than they helped,” explained Taylor Jacobs, a 710 ESPN Seattle colleague. “Especially with such a strong Jewish community and roots here in Seattle, it’s extremely disconcerting.”

Schwartz and Jacobs are not alone with their criticism. State Senator Carlyle is also a critic of the Socialist city councilwoman.

“Sawant’s associations and affiliations on this issue are crystal clear and well-known,” Carlyle told me. “She has a strong advocacy against the State of Israel and has a longtime record associated with that. I do not think it reflects the majority of folks in Seattle, or even in her district.”

After widespread condemnation, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office came out critical of the event.

“The Mayor disagrees with the viewpoints in this film and believes it is regrettable that it is perceived as having the official approval of the City of Seattle,” a letter from Durkan’s office stated. “At a time with increased anti-Semitism in Seattle and across the country, Mayor Durkan thinks that our community should be focused on coming together to stand against hatred.”

Durkan indicated the Seattle Office of Civil Rights would be asked: “…to host an event in the upcoming weeks to further promote dialogue around anti-Semitism…”

More than two months later, this event hasn’t yet been scheduled — and it won’t be, I’ve learned. But that doesn’t mean the Mayor isn’t moving on the concerns.

The Mayor’s office tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that they met with a number of Jewish community leaders and organizations, as well as City Departments, on July 18 to discuss the best way to follow up to the concerns in the aftermath of the documentary screening. There was no consensus on what the next steps should be and another meeting has not yet been scheduled. Mayor Durkan did not attend the meeting and her office says they will publicize the next steps when they become apparent.

No help for vandalized Jewish cemetery

Just a few blocks east of Aurora in Northwest Seattle, the Bikur Cholim cemetery has been dealing with an ongoing, unaddressed problem. It’s been consistently the target of vandalism from nearby homeless people.

The homeless have used the property to party, to have sex, and to use as a toilet. Just recently, staffers found an alarming amount of drug paraphernalia scattered on the property.

Ari Hoffman, vice president of the Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath Synagogue and a board member of the cemetery, is fed up with the City Council and the Mayor. He doesn’t think they care and he certainly hasn’t seen them respond in any meaningful way. Indeed, Hoffman has been met with inaction from the city.

Originally scheduled to meet with Councilmember Deborah Juarez for an on-site visit, he says she sent her staff instead. In a letter to the Synagogue, Juarez acknowledged the issues are causing them harm and agreed it’s “unacceptable.” The letter made some promises to deal with the ongoing problems but, Hoffman says, there was no noticeable follow-up.

Hoffman also met with Councilmember Mike O’Brien, but claims he “…didn’t do anything other than tell us how more taxes would fix everything…”

It’s frustration that State Senator Carlyle understands. Carlyle, who is a member of the Jewish community, calls the issue at the cemetery “…irritating, frustrating and deeply unsettling to those affected.”

“I’m very sympathetic to their concerns because it goes to the core of our values,” Carlyle explained to me, though he doesn’t think it’s necessarily reflective of antipathy towards the Jewish community. “I think in that situation, homeless folks would be violating any type of cemetery. We’re affected by it and it’s upsetting to the Jewish community so directly impacted, but I don’t think there is a punitive effort that is specifically targeting Jews. But it’s incredibly painful for those families and I really feel for them. I think we can ask our city to consider the profound moral weight and obligation of protecting our cemeteries.”

The concerns the Jewish community have expressed aren’t exclusive to city-controlled issues, like a rogue council member or Jewish cemetery disproportionately impacted by the homeless crisis. There is a bubbling culture of anti-Semitism, in the form of a dangerous “social justice” movement, at the University of Washington.

Anti-Israel sentiment bubbling at UW

Seattle has seen a rash of anti-Semitic activism under the guise of social justice. From frequent protests calling out alleged “Israeli-apartheid” to a flourishing BDS movement at the UW, some younger Seattle Jews are growing weary.

“It’s a backward organization guised with supposed ‘good intentions’,” argues Schwartz, a recent UW graduate. “I was pretty much always sick of it, it makes no sense.”

The BDS movement calls for economic boycotts on Israel, placing the blame for the conflict in the region squarely on the shoulders of Israel while giving a pass to Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the “prominent drive” of this movement is “the demonization and delegitimization of Israel.” Adam Milstein, National Chairman of the Israeli-American Council, writing in the Huffington Post, argues BDS is to blame for increased anti-Semitism in the US and, in Europe, Germany intelligence recently labeled the BDS movement anti-Semitic and a security threat.

For Senator Carlyle? “I’m committed to ensuring that BDS does not get a foothold in Washington. Period.”

With many younger members of Seattle’s Jewish community exposed to the BDS movement – including many who move to the city to attend the UW – the effect can be serious. Will these students want to stay in Seattle after they graduate?

“I hope it’s not too late for Seattle to right the ship back towards a path of understanding [towards the Jewish community],” Jacobs told me.

What next?

It’s not entirely clear what the next steps would be – citywide – to address these concerns. Sawant isn’t changing her anti-Semitic views and the Council has shown no indication they’ll tackle the vandalism at the cemetery. As for the BDS movement at the UW, it’s not the place of campus administration to silence their viewpoint, even if it’s based in hate.

But, for city leaders that claim, repeatedly, to be inclusive and caring for the diverse community, one would hope they actually start addressing these growing concerns before it’s too late.

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Rantz: Jewish community grows angry, impatient with Sawant and Seattle Council