Israel’s Zim Line and San Francisco’s Shame
Over the years there have been scores of demonstrations in front of Israel’s San Francisco consulate and dozens of marches and rallies in the city’s streets protesting Israel’s recurring, pre-planned, episodes of bloody suppression of Palestinian resistance and its devastating wars on Lebanon.
None, however, have been as memorable as the one that took place across the San Francisco Bay on June 24, 2010, when more than 1200 community and labor activists, supported by workers from ILWU Local 10, set up a picket line and shut down the Port of Oakland terminal where a container ship owned by the Israeli Zim line was scheduled to dock and be unloaded.
That action had been called to protest Israel’s deadly attack on the Turkish ship Marvi Marmara as it was attempting to break Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza and bring humanitarian supplies to the residents of the world’s largest outdoor prison. In that incident, which evoked world-wide protests, Israeli commandos murdered nine Turks and one Turkish-American, all of whom were unarmed.
On Saturday, August 16th, building on the hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who have been in the streets protesting Israel’s latest genocidal war on Gaza, a coalition of groups, including Palestinian and Arab American youth, anti-war organizations, and labor union activists are hoping to replicate the success of the 2010 action. They will be gathering at 5 AM, as they did last time, at the gate to the Port of Oakland’s terminal 57, where two Zim ships are scheduled to arrive and be unloaded.
There is an important back story to the appearance of Zim’s ships in Bay Area ports that includes one of the most shameful episodes in San Francisco’s history. It bears repeating now since most of those picketing on Saturday are unaware of it and it is not likely to be mentioned by any of the speakers. It illustrates the degree to which the pro-Israel Lobby controlled local politics and politicians then, as it does now and for the past half century on Capitol Hill, and will continue to do so until an enraged public puts an end to it
Our story begins with what turned out to be a naïve decision on the part of the otherwise, politically astute mayor of San Francisco, (now Senator) Dianne Feinstein, to accept an invitation by the Soviet Union to visit Leningrad in 1985 which, in the period of Glasnost, was looking to sign a sister-city arrangement with an American city and it was San Francisco that Mikhail Gorbachev had his eyes on.
As the Los Angeles Times (Oct. 12, 1987) described it:
“Leningrad began courting San Francisco, home of the Russian Hill and the only Soviet Consulate in the United States outside Washington. It too seemed an ideal match, a union between cities that many consider the beauties of their nations.
“They even have bridges in common. Leningrad, called the Venice of the North, is a city of islands linked by bridges. And, of course, San Francisco has its Golden Gate.”
Feinstein heard the call and traveled to the Soviet Union, and, according to the Times, “was wined and dined in Leningrad. She and Leningrad’s mayor emerged from a private tete-a-tete and announced their civic engagement. But it was not to be.”
San Francisco, as Feinstein must have been aware, was home to a Jewish Community Relations Council whose raison d’etre appeared to be organizing rallies in front of the Soviet Consulate demanding “freedom” for Soviet Jewry and outside of New York City, there was probably no Jewish community in the country more active (or mis-informed) on that issue.
Consequently, when Feinstein returned to San Francisco and announcing the city’s new sister city relationship that she had learned that she had kicked over a political hornet’s nest.
Despite the fact that Feinstein had previously used her office to assist some 36 Jews in leaving the Soviet Union, she was blasted on all sides by Jewish leaders, joined by former mayor, Art Agnos who had previously been arrested at a protest in the Soviet Union on behalf of that country’s Jews.
What added strength to their accusations that Feinstein was insensitive to Jewish concerns was that she had never visited Israel (today, a sine quo non for every aspiring big city mayor), and, it was whispered, that not having a Jewish mother, she was technically not an MOT (Member of the Tribe).
‘So how come you visited the USSR and never been to Israel?’ she heard from so many sides that she quickly did the expedient thing. She canceled the sister-city contract with Leningrad and announced her plans to visit Israel and re-new San Francisco’s sister-city pact with Haifa which, at the time, had a sister-city arrangement with Cape Town in apartheid South Africa, a fact that the local media, if it was aware of it, did not see fit to publicize.
So away whisked Mayor DiFi to Haifa and upon her return, she proudly announced that she had not only established new cultural ties with Haifa, she had convinced the head of the Zim Line, Matty Morgenstern, to shift its Northern California business from the Port of Oakland to that of San Francisco.
For some years, before that, the use of the Port of Oakland by the Zim American-Israeli Shipping Co., had apparently drawn no attention from pro-Palestinian or anti-apartheid activists despite the fact that Zim was providing the crucial trade conduit between the two apartheid nations.
Suddenly, with Feinstein’s announcement, it was in the news and the reports that Zim did business with South Africa created a problem for San Francisco’s very liberal board of supervisors because, just three months earlier, on January 21, 1986, the supervisors had passed an ordinance that prohibited the city from signing contracts with any company that was doing business with South Africa which simply Zim clearly was.
One of the city’s two African-American supervisors, Willie Kennedy, who had been a co-sponsor of the anti-apartheid legislation, reported that her staff had learned of Zim’s South African ties and argued that approving the contract with the Israeli company and allowing it to unload its goods in San Francisco was in violation of the letter and spirit of the ordinance.
Feinstein’s response, backed by the City Attorney, was to deny that the supervisors had any jurisdiction over the port and that any effort to block the contract was “sabotaging” the port’s “rebirth.”
The response of the Zim Line came in a letter to E.L. Gartland, director of the Port of San Francisco, on April 23, from Dov Teitler, Zim’s number one West Coast official, based in Los Angeles. As could have been expected, he denied that any of the Zim’s ships did any business with South Africa:
“As Senior Vice-President of the Zim American Israeli Shipping Company, Inc.,” he wrote. “I am responsible for all operations of the West Coast Region. I also, of course, am familiar with our operation throughout the world, and I can categorically state that this company has no service to South Africa for carriage or cargo, either to or from that nation.
“At a prior time we did have such service, but it has been cancelled. Unfortunately, our advertising agency did not make the necessary correction, and for a period of time certain publications indicated we serve South Africa.
“If you have any further questions, please feel free to call me at any time. I authorize you to represent the above facts to your board of supervisors by giving them a copy of this letter.”
Teitler was clearly lying, but how to prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt or, at least enough to convince the Board of Supervisors to reject the contract? The answer was, to use a term that had yet to be born, a “no brainer.”
I simply attached a cassette recorder to my phone and called Zim’s offices in Cape Town and Durban in South Africa and New York, Toronto, Houston, and New Orleans and asked them “when is the next Zim ship leaving for Israel from Durban?” Not surprisingly, they all told me and further informed me that there were two sailings every month to the Israeli ports of Ashdod and Eilat.
I then made transcripts of the conversations and delivered them to each of the supervisors’ offices at City Hall and awaited their action at the next meeting, naively believing that there was no way, in the face of this new evidence, could they possibly approve the contract.
At that meeting, then Supervisor Harry Britt, another one of the ordinance’s co-sponsors, courageously but unknowingly, put a cap on political career when he stood up, with the transcripts gripped tightly in one hand, and declared that Zim was in obvious violation of the ordinance and that its contract with the city’s port should be rejected.
But this was Israel, in the form of the Zim Line, that the SF Board of Supervisors was dealing with, and, as anyone familiar with American politics knows or should know by now, Israel and its institutions are not only held to different standards, it is fair to say, as we have seen in Gaza, that they are held to no standards at all.
Bulldozed by liberal attorney and later judge, Quentin Kopp, who a few years earlier had served as a volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces as it was engaged in its second war on Lebanon, the board rolled over and the contract was approved by an 8-2 vote with Britt and Kennedy dissenting. The most pathetic moment came when the other African-American woman on the board, Doris Ward, appeared to be so clearly distressed at voting for what she knew was wrong, that her “Yes” vote was almost inaudible, requiring the board chair to ask her to repeat it more loudly.
Ward’s vote for the Zim contract, for those wondering about it, simply reflected the political reality facing black politicians in America who, like Ward was at the time, up for re-election. They are largely dependent for campaign funds on liberal Jewish donors who will cut them off without a dime and back another candidate if they speak out against Israel’s actions or racist policies. The last two members of the Congressional Black Caucus to do so, Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard, took the risks, knowingly, and paid the price.
The following year, after the death of San Francisco Congresswoman, Sala Burton, Harry Britt threw his hat in the ring, challenging Democratic Party fundraiser, Nancy Pelosi and three others, including Ward, in the race to replace her. By then, Britt should have learned that his attempt to thwart the Zim contract had been an act of political suicide, that he had no future in the Democratic Party.
Casting principle aside in favor of deluded ambition, Britt flew to Washington where he apparently threw himself at the feet of some Israel Lobby bigwigs, no doubt begging their forgiveness for having challenged their sacred shipping line’s business dealings with South Africa, although that’s not quite how the San Francisco Chronicle reported it. (2/24/87). According to the paper, “He said he also will meet with labor leaders and with a number of ‘Jewish political action committees,” to assure them that he views Israel as “a beleaguered nation that must have unqualified support to defend itself.”
That was followed by an ad in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin which depicted a photo of Britt standing next to the Russian Jewish refusnik, Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, and committing him “to the issues we care about most.”
Topping a list of ten were: ‘Support full military and economic aid to guarantee the strength and security of Israel,” “Oppose any negotiations with the PLO,” and “Defend Israel against scapegoating in the international arena.”
Since the ad would fit on a letter sized page, I made a dozen copies of it and send it to some friends. One of them ended up in Britt’s hands which he proudly held up at a candidates’ forum at the city’s Raoul Wallenberg Democratic Club, declaring that “somebody mass produced that ad and sent it to every liberal and lefty activist in the city” and that now, he, too, (a former Methodist minister) had “experienced anti-Semitism.”
After an unnamed San Francisco Jewish leader told the SF Bay Guardian that the “community” would never forgive Britt for his efforts to reject the Zim contract, he lost by a few percentage points to Pelosi in the primaries in a surprisingly close vote, but didn’t challenge her again.
His turning his back on the anti-apartheid struggle and jumping in bed with the San Francisco’s pro-Israel establishment, however, did not appear to tarnish his reputation among the city’s left and liberal communities. The most emphatic proof of that would be his endorsement in the congressional race by the city’s Rainbow Coalition which voted to support him and “urged all members to take an active role” in his campaign.
“We commend your commitment to working directly with the people in our community to solve the problems of our time,” wrote Lyle “Butch” Wing, coalition co-chair, in a letter to Britt.
Except among the minority committed to Palestinian rights, his pro-Israel stance did not hurt him in the gay community in which he had portrayed himself as the late Harvey Milk’s successor which, in one sense, he was.
Following Milk’s assassination along with that of Mayor George Moscone by fellow supervisor Dan White in 1978, the new mayor, Feinstein, appointed Britt to the board as Milk’s replacement where he served until 1990, eventually becoming its president. Throughout the remainder of his tenure, following the Zim vote, he never lost an opportunity to voice his support for Israel.
In 1988, he would get another chance, taking the lead against Proposition W, a measure placed on the San Francisco ballot through the efforts of members of the city’s Arab-American community, that would have had the city go on record as endorsing a “two-state” resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Trampling on the reputation of his much admired predecessor, Britt sent out a city-wide mailing, telling San Franciscans that “a bullet may have struck Harvey down, but it couldn’t kill the vision that guides us today—or the voice that still echoes in our memory. It’s in the name of that incomparable vision—and that inimitable voice—that I ask you to defeat Prop. W.”
It was, with Harry’s help. But to be fair, he wasn’t alone. The campaign to defeat the ballot measure, which had an early lead in the polls, exposed the degree to which the American political process, on this issue at least, had already become the provenance of the Israel Lobby.
The same SF Jewish Community Relations Council that had almost brought Feinstein to her knees two years earlier, was able to secure the names of virtually every elected state official from San Diego to the Oregon border to place on the slick mailing pieces that went to the city’s voters, opposing Prop. W.
Four years later, in 1992, adding to the city’s shame and checkered history of activism, Britt would be appointed chair of the Harvey Milk program on “humanities and social activism” at San Francisco’s “alternative” New College which went broke and closed its doors in 2008.
At the end of its 10-year contract with the Port of San Francisco , Zim took advantage of Oakland’s superior container facilities and, like most of the other international shipping lines, arranged for it ships to unload and pick up new cargo there.
End Note: In 1989, three years after the Zim contract with San Francisco went into effect, I called Polaris Ltd., the agency that had taken over Zim’s South African operations and asked the same questions I had before: “When will the next ship be leaving Durban for Israel?” and “How many sailings are there from South Africa to Israel each month?” When I got the same answers as before, I sent them together with the earlier transcripts to the Investor Responsibility Research Center Inc. (IRRC) in Washington DC, which maintained a directory of companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. On September 27, 1989, I received a letter from the IRRC notifying me that, thanks to the record of those conversations, Zim had been added to its list.
I have often wondered what would have happened had the San Francisco Board of Supervisors the courage to reach the same conclusion in 1986.
Jeffrey Blankfort is a journalist and radio host currently living in Northern California. He can be contacted at email@example.com