Scott Wiener’s delicate balancing act

As the Bay Area pro-Israel progressive mulls a House run, he has to navigate Israel's judicial reforms, state Dems and the outsize presence of Nancy Pelosi

A lifelong supporter of Israel, Scott Wiener, a Jewish Democrat and California state senator, found himself on unfamiliar ground when he gathered with protestors in San Francisco last month to speak out against Israel’s right-wing governing coalition as it moved forward with a contentious judicial overhaul.

“It’s very painful,” he confided in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “I am a strong supporter of the State of Israel. It has a right to exist. It’s critical that it exists. It plays such an essential role in the world, for Jews and others.” But, he said, referring to Israel’s prime minister, “Benjamin Netanyahu is a despicable human being who should not be in power.”

Even as Wiener, 52, now seeks to distinguish his passion for Israel from revulsion at its current government, the staunchly progressive state lawmaker has long balanced his social justice activism with a commitment to pro-Israel values. He has pressed that position even amid growing resistance from California’s hard-left contingent.

“My approach would be the same in any office I hold,” he told JI. “My identity as a Jew is a really important part of who I am, and as a Jewish elected official, it’s incredibly important for me to stand up for our community.”

If Wiener was speaking conditionally, it was in large part because he had recently launched an exploratory committee to begin fundraising for a potential House bid, the creation of which has fueled speculation over his plans for higher office as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), a fellow Democrat in San Francisco, prepares to announce whether she will run for another term.

For Wiener, the optics associated with his early maneuver have required a different sort of balancing act. When news of his committee went public in early March, for instance, he made sure to clarify, in a deferential statement, that he would move forward with a campaign only if Pelosi, 83, decides to retire, opening up a coveted congressional seat in a solidly blue Bay Area district.

The pecking order of San Francisco politics, where Pelosi commands near-universal respect among party underlings, had all but required a disclaimer of the sort that Wiener had issued — lest he risk alienating the powerful former House speaker. And he was even more cautious while speaking with JI last month, declining to elaborate on his new committee altogether, at least for the record.

“She and I have a very warm relationship,” he said of Pelosi, who has served in the House for more than three decades. “She’s a really wonderful human being, and I think she walks on water.”

His allies insist there are no ulterior motives afoot. “He’s just being prepared,” Sam Lauter, a Jewish community activist in San Francisco who invited Wiener to speak at the recent demonstration against Israel’s now-suspended judicial reforms, told JI. “I think he is being 100% genuine when he says that if she runs for reelection, he is all-in supporting her.”

Aaron Bennett, a spokesperson for Pelosi, reiterated in a statement to JI last week that the Democratic leader “plans to serve her entire term in Congress” and has filed for reelection “to help win back the House for Democrats.”

In addition to Wiener, Pelosi’s daughter Christine, a Democratic Party activist, and Jane Kim, a former San Francisco supervisor who serves as the California director of the Working Families Party, are viewed as possible contenders in a hypothetical 2024 matchup.

With an early boost from his committee, Wiener could have a running start over his prospective opponents, even if he put himself on delicate political terrain by publicly confirming his interest in a race that others have reportedly been eyeing only behind the scenes.

Based on his own experience navigating intraparty tensions as an elected official, however, Wiener, a former supervisor who entered the state Senate in 2016, is no doubt sensitive to such dynamics. 

Widely recognized as a leading progressive in the state capital of Sacramento, where he has championed criminal justice reforms and expanding LGBT rights, among other causes, Wiener has faced more localized opposition from the activist left in San Francisco. During his 2020 reelection campaign, he drew a stiff challenge from an avowed democratic socialist whose supporters sought to portray him as a “corporate Democrat” in the pocket of real estate developers.

While his pro-Israel views weren’t a factor in the race, Wiener had previously sparred with the activist left over Middle East policy at the state party’s annual convention in 2019. In that battle, he was among the most outspoken opponents of a proposed resolution advocating for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he and other critics denounced as a rejection of Jewish self-determination.

The amendment was ultimately struck down following a contentious floor debate. But that, too, was a “painful” experience, Wiener recalled, echoing his comments on the protest he attended in February. 

“There are people who are otherwise allies who fell on different sides of that issue, and we can agree to disagree,” he explained, acknowledging that he believes Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank “undermines” the goal of achieving a negotiated two-state solution. “But my harsh criticism of this government and of the settlement policy does not stop me from strongly supporting the critical need for the State of Israel to exist.”

Lauter, who serves as a board member of the advocacy group Democratic Majority for Israel, said that Wiener has played a pivotal role in ensuring that California’s Democratic platform remains devoid of anti-Israel language. “I’ve relied on him in our pro-Israel battles at the state Democratic Party quite a bit,” he told JI.

“There are progressive activists who strongly support the right of the State of Israel to exist” and “are very critical of the Israeli government,” Wiener said, counting himself among them. 

In January, Wiener was elected co-chair of California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus alongside Jesse Gabriel, a Democratic state assemblyman in Encino. The group is now advocating for several priorities, Wiener said, including long-delayed funding for a memorandum of understanding between Israel and California signed in 2014 during the administration of former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. “We’ve been unsuccessful so far,” Wiener told JI. “But we continue to believe that it’s in California’s interest to fund that MOU.”

The caucus’ 18 members are also focused on securing continued assistance for the state’s nonprofit security grant program; passing a refugee case management bill; and upholding Holocaust and genocide education, which is required in California, according to Wiener. He said they are “closely monitoring the implementation of California’s ethnic studies requirements,” an initial draft of which had controversially excluded lesson plans about antisemitism.

“I, along with every single member of the Jewish caucus, voted for the law that requires ethnic studies to be implemented in high school, and I strongly support that,” Wiener told JI, clarifying that the caucus would remain vigilant in guaranteeing that “antisemitic elements of the original draft model curriculum,” which were removed, “don’t get backdoored in at the local level.”

Wiener, who is gay, has for his part faced an onslaught of homophobic and antisemitic death threats on social media during his time as an elected official, recent screenshots of which he shared with JI. He said that Pelosi has been particularly supportive amid the harassment. “When I’ve had death threats, she always asks me how I’m doing,” he said.

As he awaits an update from the long-serving incumbent, Wiener vowed that, no matter the office, he would continue to speak out on such issues, not least including Israel, which in recent cycles has increasingly emerged as a divisive topic, particularly in Democratic primaries for open blue House seats.

“If there is an open seat, and if I am a candidate, my position will be the same as it’s always been,” Wiener said. “I am who I am, and I don’t tailor my views to where the winds are blowing at the moment. I have strong core values around Israel and around democracy in Israel. That’s who I am, and that’s where I am. That’s not going to change.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.