Berkeley High School (Photo/Melinda Young Stuart via Flickr)
Berkeley High School (Photo/Melinda Young Stuart via Flickr)

Memo to Berkeley school district: Do the right thing

Editor’s note: This is a letter sent to Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel and the BUSD Board of Education in advance of a BUSD meeting tonight, 7 p.m. Oct. 18. The authors are parents of students in the Berkeley Unified School District.

On Oct. 11 we reached out independently to the Berkeley Unified School District board and superintendent to inquire about their deafening — and uncharacteristic — silence on the largest and most gruesome massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, perpetrated by an avowedly antisemitic terrorist organization bent on erasing the entire nation-state of Israel.

We each noted the penchant of the BUSD superintendent or board to issue well-intentioned emails to the BUSD community about events beyond BUSD: mass shootings “in a largely Asian American Southern California community,” and in Buffalo and Uvalde against “communities of color,” and in Orlando driven by homophobia and Islamophobia; a condemnation of Donald Trump and the insurrectionists he helped incite on Jan. 6, 2021 with their “racist markers” (though curiously omitting any mention of their antisemitic ones); and from the board a ringing declaration in support of Black Lives Matter and against the “injustice of the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.”

Given this pattern, we wondered why the silence from the superintendent and board as the days after Oct. 7 ticked away, especially considering that many if not most Jewish and Jewish-Israeli students were one degree (or less) of separation from an event that dwarfs the scale of 9/11 for Americans?

As parents of two BUSD students each, we urged Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel and the BUSD board to issue a message that: 1, names and denounces the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel, the barbaric details of which grow worse with each passing day, and 2, expresses concern for the feelings of Jewish students and Jewish-Israeli students who have been reeling over this modern-day pogrom, with all of its echoes of the darkest chapters in Jewish history.

To identify Hamas as the perpetrator and Israel as the victim of the barbaric slaughter of Oct. 7, we further communicated, does not require taking a stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any more than, say, issuing a similar statement on 9/11 would require delving into U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Nor would the message have to ignore the suffering of Palestinians as Israel retaliates. The Palestinian people did not commit these atrocities. Hamas — an antisemitic, homophobic, misogynistic, Islamo-supremacist, terrorist organization — did.

Surely, we thought, the superintendent and/or board were up to the task of pulling together a message of comfort for its Jewish and, especially, Jewish-Israeli students and parents. After all, they had such a good track record of doing so for many other groups they saw as impacted by awful events occurring beyond BUSD.

We were wrong.

Instead, what we got on Oct. 11 was an anodyne exercise in moral equivalency from the superintendent (a 300-word message titled “Acknowledging this Time of Conflict and Turmoil”) and nothing whatsoever from the board:

I want to acknowledge that there is heartbreaking conflict and tragedy at this moment. We are here — in community — to support our students, families and staff as we experience the weight of recent events in Israel and Palestine. While we are all processing these events differently, we know that children are especially sensitive to this level of violence and turmoil. Many of us in Berkeley are experiencing shock and sadness for those who are suffering.

Saying nothing would have been better, though we thank the superintendent for at least trying.

Oct. 7, 2023 — like 9/11, Dec. 7, 1941 or Kristallnacht — was a world-historical event that will be remembered forever. What happened on that day had none of the vexing complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was a rare moment where the moral compass for how to react pointed steadfastly in one direction.

Yet somehow the superintendent and/or board couldn’t see that. Or, worse, maybe they did but couldn’t muster the empathetic imagination to respond appropriately because the victims were not their usual suspects for sympathy; they were Jews (though not only Jews), of all people, and in Israel, of all places.

Whatever the reason, neither the superintendent (though at least she tried) nor the board (who sold the superintendent down the river by not issuing a statement of its own) could find it in themselves to even acknowledge that a mega-massacre of Jews had just occurred, much less condemn it.

If not now, when?

Going forward, we have a simple request for the superintendent and board: Please stop issuing selective statements of moral opinion about events unfolding beyond the Berkeley Unified School District.

You can’t possibly capture them all, nor, as we’ve seen, do right by them all.

You have plenty of other more complicated and more important business over which you have actual responsibility and actual power — above all, delivering a rigorous, excellent education to your students in the core subjects. Nothing will do more to serve the cause of equity, inclusion and social justice than that.

Keep your eyes on that prize, and the arc of the moral universe will bend in the right direction, even if yours just failed to bend in the direction of demonstrating that Jewish lives matter, too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of J.

Mark Brilliant

Mark Brilliant is an associate professor in history and American studies at UC Berkeley.

Shamik Dasgupta

Shamik Dasgupta is an associate professor in philosphy at UC Berkeley.