San Francisco Unified School District May 22 board hearing on awarding AROC a contract to teach  'cultural competency' in SF schools.
San Francisco Unified School District May 22 board hearing on awarding AROC a contract to teach 'cultural competency' in SF schools.

Controversial Arab cultural group wins SF school district contract

Three years ago, the San Francisco Unified School District held up a proposal to grant the Arab Resource and Organizing Committee (AROC) a contract to teach “cultural competency training” and Arabic language classes in city public schools.

At the May 22 school board meeting, to the dismay of some in the Jewish community, that hold was lifted.

Board members voted 6-1 to allow AROC to “provide workshops in classrooms related to leadership development and cultural empowerment.” Under terms of the three-year contract, AROC instructors will be present once a week at five San Francisco high schools: Balboa, Galileo, Mission, Raoul Wallenberg and S.F. International. Though the program is open to all students, AROC will offer special support to Arab American and Arabic-speaking students.

The controversy stems not from the concept of aiding Arab youth, but from AROC’s history of strident anti-Zionist rhetoric and actions.

As reported in J. in June 2015, AROC executive director and former member of Students for Justice in Palestine Lara Kiswani, at a Nov. 2014 panel discussion, urged UC graduate students to pass an Israel divestment measure. In a video clip of the event, Kiswani 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.”

AROC also helped lead a Block the Boat campaign in 2014, which twice sought to prevent the offloading at the Port of Oakland 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.”

In December 2014, AROC tweeted the message “Help us kick Zionism out of the Bay Area.”

According to their website, AROC is an S.F.-based nonprofit that claims to do 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.”

Several concerned citizens opposing the school district’s contract with AROC spoke up during a public comments period at the May 22 meeting.

Teacher Lori Barrett said, “My concern is not [with] supporting Arab youth. I’m all for learning language, cultural history. It’s the extreme speech of the leadership of AROC. When I heard [Kiswani] saying online [that] bringing down Israel will really benefit everyone in the world and everyone in society, that goes far beyond criticizing a government. That’s scary language, which is hatred and is wrong for a school district.”

Other spoke up in support of the contract, including a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. A woman who identified herself as Ellen and who claimed she represented “hundreds of thousands of Jews” who are critical of Israel and Zionism said, “[AROC] is the organization in San Francisco that can provide Arab culturally relevant programming for Arab youth. This organization can provide the mentorship that can help Arab youth in our school district. I can assure you that the Arab community looks to AROC for a multitude of services, including mentoring their youth. So I encourage you to renew AROC’s MOU [memorandum of understanding] so they can continue to provide culturally relevant education of students.”

According to the contract, the AROC curriculum “will be under direct supervision of certified SFUSD staff.” The document further stipulates that AROC may not disseminate to students any information that “reflects adversely upon persons because of their race, color, ancestry, national origin, ethnic group identification, age or religion,” and that AROC’s programs are similarly free of such biases.

SFSUSD Chief Communications Officer Gentle Blythe told J. via email that since AROC’s first push to enter the schools in 2014, the district has adopted a nondiscrimination policy that requires all agencies with MOUs to agree to the terms.

“AROC will not be part of developing curriculum,” Blythe wrote. “Like any other community nonprofit the district partners with, if there is any indication that AROC staff working at school sites are acting in a manner inconsistent with the MOU and/or SFUSD’s nondiscrimination policy, the SFUSD can terminate the MOU.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council took on AROC and its school district contract from the beginning. Spokesman Jeremy Russell expressed disappointment this week at the board’s green lighting of the program.

“We are concerned that this MOU was approved,” he told J. “Our concern isn’t only about the partnership between SFUSD and AROC, whose extreme and hateful agenda is public knowledge, but also the agenda may be brought into the public schools.”

He was not optimistic that the school district would properly police the AROC curriculum.

“We opposed this MOU precisely because we think it will be very difficult for the district to enforce its nondiscrimination policies on an organization that fundraises on an anti-Zionist platform.”

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.