Arab group’s partnership with S.F. schools raises alarm

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Responding to pressure from the Jewish community, the seven-member San Francisco Unified School District board is reviewing a resolution it recently passed authorizing an anti-Zionist organization to conduct cultural competency training in tandem with Arabic language courses.

Sponsored by board members Sandra Fewer, Matt Haney and Shamann Walton, and passed unanimously on May 26, the resolution approved K-12 Arabic and Vietnamese language and culture classes beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

It also stated the district will work with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and “other community based partners” to create “culturally appropriate professional development opportunities for school faculty.”

AROC is an S.F.-based nonprofit that does work on behalf of the local Arab American community, including immigration services, language access and what it calls “anti-repression” and “anti-war” activism. On its website, AROC states, “We believe the global nature of policing and repression is directly related to the relationship between U.S. imperialism and Zionism.”

Rita Semel speaks to the San Francisco Unified School District board on June 23. photo/dan pine

Once it learned of the resolution and AROC’s participation, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council objected strongly.

“We met with commissioners in face-to-face meetings,” said Abby Michelson Porth, JCRC associate director. “We indicated to them our serious concerns about the district partnering with this organization. [Members] viewed the YouTube videos and [AROC] public statements and instantly recognized the problem. They were extremely apologetic. Several asked us to extend their apology to the Jewish community and explained that unfortunately no due diligence had been done.”

Those clips and public statements include AROC executive director and former member of Students for Justice in Palestine Lara Kiswani on a panel last November urging U.C. graduate students to pass an Israel divestment measure. In the video she says, “Bringing down Israel really will benefit everyone in the world and everyone in society,” and “As long as you continue to be on that side [of Zionism] I’m going to continue to hate you.”

The organization also helped lead a Block the Boat campaign in 2014, which twice sought to prevent the Oakland offloading of a cargo ship partially owned by an Israeli company, succeeding the second time. Referring to that campaign, the AROC website proclaimed that “business with the racist, exclusionary, Zionist state of Israel, which works alongside local and federal law enforcement to repress our communities, will not go unchallenged.”

Last December, AROC tweeted the message “Help us kick Zionism out of the Bay Area.”

After reviewing JCRC’s evidence against AROC, school board president Emily Murase told J., “It made me think that we want to vet our partners fully.”

AROC has neither signed a contract with SFUSD nor submitted curricula for its cultural competency training, and it is not known whether that curricula would include the topics of Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Murase said the school board has long had in place a policy of nondiscrimination, which she said “lays out that all programs shall be conducted without discrimination, and organizations that provide services must have the same nondiscrimination policy. We are now reviewing that, based on the complaint from JCRC.”

AROC did not respond to J.’s requests for an interview.

SFUSD school board members (from left) Rachel Norton, Superintendent Richard Carranza and Emily Murase on June 23 photo/dan pine

School board member Jill Wynns, who voted for the resolution, was troubled after her meeting with Porth. “When I saw the video, [in] which you have a person in a meeting saying ‘I hate these people,’ then you’re pretty clear it’s about hate,” Wynns told J. “This was not veiled or implied in any way, so I was taken aback by the video. What I hope is that members of the board who were disturbed by it will think twice about” how they vet candidates when resolutions come before them.

Wynns noted that board meeting agendas can run into the hundreds of pages, and that board members rely on their colleagues to vet resolutions they sponsor. Wynns said AROC was “instrumental” in the writing of the resolution.

“I understand [sponsoring board members] worked with AROC and a Vietnamese community organization to write the resolution,” Wynns said. “On the evening of the vote, I tried to get some amendments in, but no one on the board supported them.”

One amendment would have removed references to specific community organizations, but Wynns said her colleagues on the board objected in part because “the language [of the resolution] had been done by the community organizations, and it had been quite an intense process where every word had been agreed to.”

Porth argued that contracting with AROC would violate the spirit of the District’s Vision 2025 plan, which calls on schools to instill in students “a sense of pride in their racial and cultural identity and an appreciation for the unique and diverse identities of others.”

After learning of the JCRC effort to thwart AROC’s involvement with the Arabic language courses, organizations including the National Lawyers Guild, the Asian Law Caucus, the S.F.-based Chinese Progressive Association and Chinese for Affirmative Action wrote to the school board urging it to retain AROC.

A letter signed by Chinese Progressive Association executive director Alex Tom called JCRC a “pro-Israel political interest group” that is “funded specifically to attack Arab and Muslim groups defending their rights,” and which “does not speak for, represent or serve the majority of Jewish communities in the Bay Area.”

At the June 23 school board meeting, the resolution was not on the agenda, but Jewish community leaders took advantage of a general comment period to voice their opinions.

In attendance were, among others, Porth and fellow JCRC executive staffers Rabbi Doug Kahn and Jerilyn Gelt, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation CEO Danny Grossman and San Francisco Interfaith Council member Rita Semel.

“I am deeply concerned the San Francisco Unified School District has partnered with a group that has expressed hatred for me and my family,” said Sam Lauter, a San Francisco political consultant, who also voiced support for an Arabic language program in the schools.

Rosalind Franklin, JCRC board president, pointed to a tweet from AROC’s Kiswani that reads, “We need to start de-zionizing in our own backyards.” Franklin continued, “To me that is a threat. Zionism is the philosophy of Jewish liberation [and] national determination. Zionists include the overwhelming majority of Jews, and me.”

During the 30-minute comment period, no one spoke in defense of AROC.

Addressing the issue early in the meeting, SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza noted that passage of the resolution was only the first step in a long process of determining feasibility of the program, and that SFUSD staff would assess it in terms of alignment with district goals and policies.

“The board is the sole determiner of curriculum and what is taught,” Carranza said. “We are not interested in any geopolitical discussion or environment where any people feel disparaged or unwelcome.”

Murase could not say how long the feasibility process would take, but she echoed Carranza’s views, telling J., “Clearly we want to make sure it [the Arabic language and teaching program] does not contain political agendas.”

Wynns added that in making its decision about whether to retain or drop AROC, the board would have to follow SFUSD regulations and policies, which are clear regarding nondiscrimination. She also emphasized that the resolution was only a first step. “This is absolutely not a contract,” she said, “and I am very confident about that. I know that to be true.”

Porth has her own desired outcome of the matter. “We are encouraging the school board to find a suitable partner organization that can carry out their vision for what cultural competency training means.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.