Calif. budget battle to test lawmakers’ will on fighting antisemitism

Gov. Gavin Newsom released a new antisemitism plan. Will it survive the state’s enormous budget deficit?

Take a look behind the headlines about rising antisemitism in the U.S. since Oct. 7, and many of the most eye-popping anecdotes share one thing in common: California. 

At a Berkeley City Council meeting in March, in which the elected officials considered a resolution to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, anti-Israel protesters called Jews “Zionist pigs,” despite the discussion having nothing to do with Israel. In October, a Los Angeles man was charged with a hate crime after allegedly threatening to kill a Jewish family at their home in Studio City. 

The state’s college campuses have also been hotbeds of anti-Jewish activity, with antisemitic threats made against the UC Berkeley law school dean and harassment against Jewish students at Stanford University, to name a few recent examples. 

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, released a comprehensive strategy — inspired, in part, by the Biden administration’s national antisemitism strategy launched last year — to help fight antisemitism in the state. 

“Antisemitism is unacceptable and demands action,” Newsom said in a post on the social media platform X. “California is committed to confronting antisemitism in all its forms and protecting those who are targeted simply because of who they are.”

For Jewish lawmakers and community advocates, Newsom’s plan is a welcome weapon in the all-hands-on-deck battle against antisemitism in the Golden State. The 17-page document offers a summary of actions Newsom has already taken, such as pledging an additional $20 million to the state nonprofit security grant program in October and signing legislation creating a hate crimes commission. The plan is also a statement of the governor’s values, with a discussion of the forward-facing priorities of his administration — starting with fighting rampant antisemitism on college campuses. 

Jewish leaders in California say that the most important part of Newsom’s plan is that it exists at all — they view it as a commitment from Newsom that he will continue to support Jewish community priorities in a year that California faces an enormous budget deficit, when every lobbyist in the state is fighting to make sure that their programs are not cut from the state budget. (Nonpartisan analysts predict the budget could reach as high as $73 billion; the state won’t know the exact figure until tax revenues are counted.)

But it’s far from certain that Newsom will support the legislation being promoted by the state’s Legislative Jewish Caucus and the Jewish community’s lobbying arm in Sacramento.

“There’s a budget deficit, and he’s pledging to continue programs,” said Tyler Gregory, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council. “On its surface, that doesn’t look like news. But on the other hand, we have a massive budget deficit, and everyone’s trying not to get their programs cut. So this plan affirms that these are not going to get cut.”

Next month, hundreds of Jewish activists will gather in Sacramento for the community’s annual lobbying day to advocate for a slate of bills that include increasing the amount of money available for Holocaust and genocide education, and for the nonprofit security grants; requiring antisemitism to be included in higher education anti-discrimination and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs; and requiring state universities to strengthen their codes of conduct to better address antisemitic harassment. All of these issues are discussed in the antisemitism plan. 

The message that existing policies that are in place to fight hate won’t get cut was also affirmed by David Bocarsly, executive director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, the official lobbying arm of California’s Jewish organizations. “The state is facing its biggest budget deficits since the great recession, and so many of our partner organizations are worried about cuts to services. But these items are now not at risk,” Bocarsly said in a webinar before Passover. 

But a member of Newsom’s team cautioned Jewish advocates that the path is not so straightforward.

“I will say, this is going to be painful. There will be cuts to programs that we all hold dear,” Jason Elliott, Newsom’s deputy chief of staff, said on the Jewish communal webinar last week. “There are certain things that are stipulated in the plan. We prioritize those things. But we are not the only branch of government.”

Newsom has not indicated if he will support any of the legislation that the Legislative Jewish Caucus is prioritizing this year. That’s normal — the governor generally doesn’t weigh in until legislation is much closer to being finalized. So the test, for Newsom’s antisemitism plan, is to see what goes into the state budget and where he signs his name. A spokesperson for the governor suggested he is working closely with the Jewish Caucus, but did not comment on any specific legislation. 

“While we don’t typically comment on pending legislation, in his Golden State Plan to Combat Antisemitism, the governor includes many of the principles put forward in the Caucus’ legislative package,” said Izzy Gardon, a Newsom spokesperson. 

Jesse Gabriel, an assemblymember from Los Angeles and the co-chair of the Jewish Caucus, said it isn’t so clear cut that the priorities in the plan will be funded this year. 

“It depends. I’ll add a little nuance to that,” said Gabriel, a Democrat who also chairs the state budget committee. “I think this is a really important and strong indicator of the administration’s values. Obviously, the state budget will be the result of a negotiated process between the legislature and the governor.” 

A revised annual budget won’t be released until next month, after the state learns how much — or how little — it will bring in from tax revenues. 

Irrespective of how the budgeting process goes, Jewish advocates view the strategy as an enormous win, and a strong statement that the governor stands with the Jewish community and Israel. (Support for Israel and the California-Israel relationship is central to the plan.)

“This gives us some coattails to bring this agenda to the attention of everyone from the chancellor at Cal [University of California, Berkeley] to the school board president to a small-town mayor,” said Gregory.

“While our community might be familiar with a lot of these programs that have been around a while, I don’t think the run-of-the-mill council member is. We have to remember that we’re not the primary audience for this plan.” 

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