California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Rob Bonta and members of the state’s Legislative Jewish Caucus highlighted the speakers for the Jewish Public Affairs Committee’s (JPAC) Advocacy Day event.
The event went from May 9-10, primarily at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento; 200 Jewish leaders and activists were in attendance, including 30 state legislators. The event focused on JPAC’s main priorities: combating antisemitism and other forms of hate and providing more services to immigrants and the elderly.
Kounalakis, a former United States Ambassador to Hungary and a Democrat, recalled how in Hungary they deal “with the horrific chapter of the Holocaust” nearly every day. Europe is “weighed down by history” and California is blessed to not be “not weighed down by history in the same way,” she said. However, she warned that she is “starting to see the same kinds of [antisemitic] tropes and language” in the state. “We have to be very vigilant when it comes to the education of our students that they understand how to know it when they see it,” Kounalakis said.
The lieutenant governor also pointed out that when she asked people in Hungary how the Holocaust was allowed to happen there, and she was told that “once you begin to chip away with how people see one another as humans, anything can happen.” Holocaust survivors told her that their neighbors shut them out and “didn’t offer to help.” “In European law there is now much more of this conversation about human rights I think in the context of the Holocaust because of this intention around never again,” Kounalakis said, “that we haven’t really caught up to out here.”
Kounalakis then turned her attention to immigration, pointing to how her father and her huband’s parents obtained “refugee status” to enter the U.S. She also cited figures showing that 27% of California residents are foreign-born––higher than the 14% figure nationwide––arguing that immigration and education created “the fifth largest economy in the world.” Kounalakis dismissed arguments that the increasing number of people leaving California shows that the state is heading in the wrong direction. “It’s always been the story of California that people come and go,” she said.
When Bonta spoke, he decried the “darkest times of the Trump administration” in which “our immigrant communities were under full-frontal assault.” He said that he had been talking to the Jewish community about how to protect immigrant communities. Bonta also praised the Jewish Caucus for being among the first ones “by our side” to combat the spike in anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is no place for antisemitism, not here, not anywhere, not now, not ever,” Bonta said, pledging to “use the full force of law… against the forces of hate.” He also championed himself as “the people’s attorney” in “standing up for racial justice,” being against “big polluters” and defending “reproductive freedom.”
Jason Elliott, Senior Counsel for California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), also spoke, decrying the “corrosive hate-filled dialogue” nationally toward “trans kids” as well as minorities and immigrants. He touted California’s GDP growth and the fact that they added an extra grade level, transitional kindergarten. “We’re not going to fix everything overnight but dammit we can make a difference,” Elliott said.
Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-San Fernando Valley) headlined the Jewish Caucus speakers during the May 9 dinner; Gabriel chairs the caucus. He praised the caucus for being “as strong and as influential in the policymaking process as we have ever been,” pointing to their fight against antisemitism and in favor of Holocaust education as well as strengthening the relationship between Israel and California. The caucus chair also discussed the legislators’ “Tikkun Olam” agenda in supporting “wonderful” bills regarding immigration, the criminal justice system, people without access to healthcare as well as investing “very significant resources to homelessness.”
On May 10, the JPAC event moved to the Capitol Annex Swing Space, where legislators are conducting their business while the capitol building is under construction. There, JPAC activists met with legislators in small groups to lobby for their legislative priorities. These included bills mandating social media companies be transparent about how they handle hate speech, establishing a study on the Holocaust and genocide are being taught in the state and providing $67.6 million toward Jewish and non-Jewish summer camps, community centers and recreation centers that have suffered extensive damage since the state wildfires began in 2017. Other bills supported by JPAC include extending unemployment benefits to illegal immigrants for a year and expanding Medi-Cal access to everyone who is income eligible regardless of immigration status.
Additionally, the JPAC event featured Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian being given the Legislator of the Year award for his work in fighting antisemitism and providing services for Holocaust survivors and the elderly. Lynn Bunim, JPAC’s board chair from 2019-20, also received an award for guiding the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic and Nancy Kirshner-Rodriguez also received the Barbara Yaroslavsky Award for being a female leader in Jewish civic engagement.
“We fight for issues that directly support the Jewish community, and we fight for issues that directly further Jewish values,” David Bocarsly, JPAC Executive Director, said in a statement. “In this moment and in our community, those pillars are manifesting into an acute need to fight antisemitism and hatred, and to support immigrants and older adults. At JPAC Advocacy, California’s diverse Jewish community came together as one voice to forcefully assert the importance of these issues to state lawmakers. We pushed large-scale, life-changing bills, and asked for over $300 million from the state budget to accomplish our key initiatives. We know this bold and unprecedented agenda is achievable because we’ve seen a glimpse of what’s possible when we unite as a community. This week, we showed our community’s strength in a powerful way, which will elevate our priorities this year and our work for years to come.”
Anti-Defamation League Los Angeles Regional Director Jeffrey I. Abrams said in a statement to the Journal, “ADL California well understands the importance of coalition building and community bridging to move the needle on policy aimed at improving the lives of Jewish Californians and all Californians.
ADL was the second largest contingency present at JPAC’s Advocacy Days and we diligently pushed for our key issues including the Social Media Transparency act (AB 587) and the Non-profit Security Grant (AB 1664). We are incredibly thankful for support of numerous legislators and staff members who took the time to meet with us to discuss these critical issues.”