Members of the United Educators of San Francisco, the union that represents the school district's teachers, rally for Proposition 15 in Oct. 2020. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)
Members of the United Educators of San Francisco, the union that represents the school district's teachers, rally for Proposition 15 in Oct. 2020. (Photo/Brooke Anderson)

Pushback against S.F. teachers’ union BDS endorsement

UPDATED June 1, 2 p.m.

Parents with children in the San Francisco public school system expressed feelings of “outrage” and disappointment upon hearing that the teachers’ union had passed a resolution supporting BDS and calling for the U.S. to defund Israel.

On May 19, one day before Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire after 11 days of fighting, the voting assembly of the United Educators of San Francisco passed the “Resolution in Solidarity with the Palestinian People” by a roughly 4-1 margin. It was a historic endorsement of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Some Jewish parents were not happy. “This [resolution] is irrelevant to their daily functioning,” said Ira Gert, an Israeli who has lived in San Francisco with her family since 2007 and has two children in the San Francisco Unified School District. She said she felt “fear” and “outrage” after finding out about the resolution. “I regret sending my kids to SFUSD. We deliberately wanted them to be exposed to racial diversity and socioeconomic diversity. And now I feel like my race and my nation is being singled out in a negative way. It is uncomfortable to be an Israeli here.”

In addition to calling for the support of BDS, the resolution also condemned Israel’s “forced displacement and home demolitions” of Palestinians in Jerusalem, asked the Biden administration to stop aid to Israel and described the Jewish state as an apartheid country.

“I am shocked and disappointed to learn that SFUSD teachers are publicly picking sides on this political matter,” said one parent, who requested anonymity because of fear of reprisal. “While Jewish families may be more directly harmed by this, this really hurts the entire community and society as a whole. Rather than picking sides, perhaps teachers should recognize the rights and responsibilities of both Israel and Palestine.”

J. reached one of the signatories on the union resolution, teacher Max Raynard, who said his Jewish values have taught him to “be the first to speak up against prejudice.” 

In a statement he wrote, “Any rational person with empathy toward other humans can see that Palestinian people are suffering under injustice.”

Raynard compared BDS to forms of nonviolent resistance that others, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, have used throughout history.

“If we want to condemn Hamas and rockets as horrific which of course we should and ask Palestinians to use peaceful methods… How can we also condemn a peaceful, nonviolent protest tactic that has been used by the greatest civil rights heroes in history?” 

Raynard noted that the government of Israel is “simply the government of a country” and does not “speak for all Jews, nor even for all Israelis.”

J. also spoke with another Jewish union member who supports the resolution. Substitute teacher Drew Bader said in a statement that he was “proud” to be in a union that is “standing in solidarity with Palestine.”

“UESF and the labor movement both have a long history of showing up and taking stands around human rights and social justice issues in our communities and society,” said Bader, who has been teaching in the SFUSD since 2016. 

“What is happening in Gaza is both a human rights and social justice issue, and we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians who are suffering. When we stand up for social justice and against racism, we uplift the needs of all our communities,” Bader said.

Another SFUSD parent, Viviane, who for safety reasons requested that only her first name be used, framed the situation more broadly, describing the resolution as “them vs. them” and “simplistic.”

“If they are going to step into something of this complexity, I would hope they would seek to build bridges to communities that are both suffering,” she told J.

In a May 26 letter, the Anti-Defamation League’s S.F.-based regional director Seth Brysk expressed “concern and dismay” to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews over the union action.

“The resolution is replete with inflammatory and counterfactual assertions and rhetoric about Israel, including blaming the recent outbreak of violence solely on Israel and questioning Israel’s right to defend itself,” wrote Brysk. “There is no attempt to see the humanity of both sides … much less an acknowledgement of Israeli loss and pain.”

Citing rising cases of antisemitism in the country and around the world, Brysk requested that the school district “distance” itself from the resolution and “assure the safety of and right to free expression by all students, parents, and district employees who are Jewish and/or Israeli, including those with family in Israel.”

Brysk also noted that the resolution “could well violate” provisions of the state’s Education Code that prohibit discrimination on the basis of nationality, race or ethnicity and religion, among others factors. He said the school had not responded as of June 1.

In an email statement to J., SFUSD spokesperson Laurie Dudnick said the district “is a separate entity from UESF.”

“I can tell you that the SF Board of Education has not taken a position on this,” she wrote, referring to the seven-member body that determines policy for the school district.

Dudnick’s statement did not include a response on whether the SFUSD would “distance” itself from the resolution, as Brysk had requested.

S.F.-based Israeli Consul General Shlomi Kofman said the resolution would contribute to the “heightened vulnerability experienced [by] Israeli and Jewish Americans — including students from our community in San Francisco.

“It is shocking that the United Educators of San Francisco would betray their Israeli brothers and sisters in labor by endorsing a movement that attacks Israeli workers’ economic ability to pursue a life with dignity and pride,” Kofman said.

Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, the Northern California director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement that the “misbegotten resolution” from the union “will only detract from real efforts towards peace in the Middle East.”

On May 26, Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers and an AFL-CIO member, presented a draft statement on the Israel-Gaza conflict on behalf of Education International, a global federation of national education unions. (The SFUSD union is a member of both the AFT and AFL-CIO.)

The statement, titled “Beyond the Ceasefire,” was later adopted unanimously by the 45-member executive board, Weingarten among them.

The statement, which she provided to J., said that the EI board “deplores” the fact that Israeli airstrikes had killed 248 Palestinians and that Hamas rockets had killed 12 Israeli civilians.

Education International “mourns all these civilian losses,” the statement continues. “We deplore the destruction of schools on both sides, and the conversion of scores more from centers of learning into emergency shelters housing displaced people.

“Equally important is to recognize that the root causes that have led to the current situation and escalation must be addressed with the same urgency. Focusing attention on symptoms and not causes resigns all involved to a permanent cycle of escalation and violence instead of coexistence and peace.”

Weingarten, who is Jewish, maintains a supportive but politically progressive stance on Israel. In 2013, for example, she opposed a decision by the American Studies Association to support BDS, saying it would “stifle intellectual and democratic engagements.” Five years later, she condemned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Knesset for passing a law declaring Israel a “nation-state of the Jewish people,” calling it “despicable” and “nativist.”

In a Facebook post on May 26, Weingarten said she and her wife, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, were on their way to the airport and would be traveling to Israel for several days.

“It is important to me to be on the ground to express solidarity and hope with our colleagues and allies, both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel,” the post read. “We support those in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza who are dedicated to secure self determination, coexistence, shared society, safety and human rights. I condemn Hamas in the strongest terms. I mourn the civilians killed on both sides. We  can and must do better. Together.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.