What I Saw at the California Democratic Party Convention

The “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party has grown larger, and its illiberal ideology has become weirdly respectable. Many elements of this creed favor the Palestinian narrative.
November 30, 2023
Marie Hickman/Getty Images

The California Democratic Party (CDP) has long harbored anti-Israel and antisemitic extremists. I remember attending my first CDP Arab-American Caucus meeting in the early 1990s. Someone passed out copies of The Ugly Truth About the ADL, published by Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review, where I learned that “The B’nai B’rith, a pivotal player in the British Freemasonic plot to destroy the Union, was implicated in Lincoln’s assassination!”

At that time a group of Jewish and non-Jewish party activists created Democrats for Israel. We squelched all anti-Israel resolutions and platform proposals, in part because the fanatics were a tiny minority.

Times have changed. In a March, 2022 Pew Research Center poll of some 10,400 people, 56% percent of folks aged 18-29 have a favorable view of Israel, down from 63% in 2019; but 61% view the Palestinians favorably. More important, the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party has grown larger, and its illiberal ideology has become weirdly respectable. Many elements of this creed favor the Palestinian narrative:

  • It accords unearned prestige to victimhood; and the Palestinians have fashioned themselves as the most fashionable of victims, denying any responsibility for their situation.
  • It creates a hierarchy of victimhood based on race, sex and other immutable characteristics; and it insists that Palestinians are “people of color,” while all Israelis are “white” (or “people of pallor,” for those with a sense of humor).
  • It regards “settler-colonialism” as the most unforgiveable sin; and sees the return of the Jews to our homeland as a European invasion, while seeing the seventh-century Arab conquest of Palestine as—well, it doesn’t see that at all.

So fringe ideas, such as “Zionism is racism/settler-colonialism/apartheid,” are creeping toward the center of the party, especially among younger delegates. Thus, after the October 7 Hamas pogrom, I expected trouble at the November CDP convention in Sacramento. I was not disappointed.

It started Friday afternoon with an anti-Israel march outside the Convention Center, with such signs as, “Ceasefire Now,” “US is complicit in Genocide of Palestinians,” and “27,027 km—EVERY INCH, every Kilometer was, and will be PALESTINE.” (That was oddly specific on the kilometers, I thought.) There were no “Free the Hostages” signs, of course.

On Friday night hundreds attended the Progressive Caucus’ forum, “Understanding Trauma: Palestinian Humanity and Unraveling Antisemitism in the Face of Genocide.” Only anti-Zionists were on the panel, including the notorious Israel-hater Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley; and Penny Rosenwasser of the remarkably-misnamed Jewish Voice for Peace. The presentation was a farrago of anti-Israel revisionism, including classics like: Palestinians have no problem with Jews or Judaism—just Zionism, which came from “racist Europe.” And Palestine was a peaceful, multiculture paradise before the Zionists came. All this and more was enthusiastically applauded.

That was the warm-up for Saturday. A few hundred demonstrators sat down in the convention center, chanting, “Ceasefire now,” “Biden, Biden you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” and similar pleasantries. Eventually protesters skirmished with security personnel and pushed their way into the hall to disrupt a forum of U.S. Senate candidates. They permitted Barbara Lee to speak, because she favors a Gaza ceasefire. But they shouted down Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, who do not.

Maybe American political culture will recover its health before it’s too late. But Jews know, and worry: we’ve seen this movie before.

In the afternoon, Progressive Zionists of California, Democrats for Israel-California, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus and others held a Jewish Community Solidarity Rally in the rain. An interval of welcome, if damp, calm and harmony.

Saturday night traditionally sees the final round of caucus meetings and hospitality suites. For many delegates this is the highlight of the annual convention. But not this time. Around 6:00 a mob of protesters estimated at a thousand or more people banged on the Convention Center windows, overpowered security and swarmed into the building, chanting, pounding drums and waving Palestinian flags. Many Jewish delegates felt afraid and unsafe. Some hid in restrooms. The CDP emailed delegates: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, and for the safety and security of our delegates and convention participants, we are cancelling tonight’s caucus meetings, hospitality suites, and VoteFest taking place at the convention center.” Shut It Down for Palestine had come for the California Democratic Party.

A dozen events affecting thousands of delegates and guests from around California were cancelled, including the Democrats for Israel-California’s general meeting and its Ice Cream Social. DFI-CA scrambled and managed to reassemble in a nearby hotel. But what would have been a crowd of hundreds of delegates and candidates was reduced to around forty people.

And in what was a serious own goal, the rioters prevented the Arab-American Caucus from meeting and voting to support a ceasefire resolution.

How did the security breach happen? The protests were predictable, especially since something similar occurred at the Democratic National Committee in Washington DC earlier that week. The Sacramento Police Department told me: “The event at the convention center hired a private security company to provide interior event security. . . . We remained in contact with the interior event security throughout the night. Any questions regarding their actions, and decisions to cancel the remaining part of the evening should be directed to them. . . . No arrests were made, and there were no reports of vandalism.”

I emailed CDP Chair Rusty Hicks for comment on the security breakdown. He did not respond.

However it happened, it would have been better to call in the police and make arrests, rather than permit a mob to exercise a “heckler’s veto.” It should be too obvious to need saying, but evidently isn’t, that it is not “free speech” to shut down meetings, preventing delegates and guests from exercising their own free speech and free association rights.

California Penal Code section 403 is available in such circumstances. It states: “Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character . . .  is guilty of a misdemeanor.” It should be used more. It should have been used that Saturday.

Sunday morning Chair Hicks said that the protests violated the CDP Code of Conduct, and any delegates who participated would face unspecified consequences. The extent of the connections between the protesters and the delegates remains to be explored. (For instance, at least some of the “CEASEFIRE NOW” signs bore the CAIR logo. Hussam Ayloush is both the Executive Director of the Los Angeles office of CAIR and a member of the CDP Executive Board.)

What did the demonstrators hope to accomplish? True, they chanted, “In November we’ll remember,” an implicit threat not to vote for President Biden and other Democrats next year. But if Muslims and Progressives believe they will have better, happier lives, in a country more to their liking, if they tip the election to Trump (or whoever the Republicans nominate), I have a bridge to sell them. Or to put it less obliquely, if they believe that, they’re idiots.

It seems to me that trying to have any meaningful political impact was secondary to the feeling of belonging and purpose that comes from being in a mob; the fun of playing at being revolutionaries; the pleasure of showing contempt for “the establishment” (and “the Jews”); and the transgressive, childish joy of breaking rules (and windows).

The convention, although more—interesting? exciting?—than usual, was not a total loss. We approved a party platform that, as before, explicitly endorses Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, and supports the “two states for two peoples” solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. We held our endorsement caucuses for next year’s elections. The convention got its essential work done.

But the lengthening shadow of anti-Israel political mob violence is sobering. True, aside from a couple of security guards who received “minor injuries,” no one was physically hurt this time. And maybe American political culture will recover its health before it’s too late. But Jews know, and worry: we’ve seen this movie before.

Paul Kujawsky, an appellate attorney, is a former president of Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles and founding board member emeritus of Progressive Zionists of California.

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