protesters walk down a street holding a large banner that reads "ceasefire now!" many are carrying palestinian flags.
Protesters call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in downtown San Francisco, Oct. 28, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Parents, teachers condemn Oakland teachers’ union statement on Gaza

A statement issued Friday by the Oakland teachers’ union has many teachers and parents in an uproar.

In a now-deleted Instagram post, as well as a statement still on the Oakland Education Association’s Facebook page, the union took a strong anti-Israel stance. It condemned the “75 year long illegal military occupation of Palestine” and said the Israeli government “created an apartheid state and the Israeli government leaders have espoused genocidal rhetoric and policies against the people of Palestine.”

People “are genuinely scared about sending their kids to the Oakland public schools,” said Ben Siegel, a parent of three students and an Oakland Unified graduate himself. “Scared for the kids’ physical safety, scared for any kind of emotional trauma of being singled out or called out for being Jewish.”

The statement has even put union members on edge.

“To put something out that’s divisive — this divisive — makes schools unsafe for students,” said Sara Holderfield, a union educator at an elementary school where she is also the union site representative. “And really, our goal should always be the safety of our students.”

Holderfield and a fellow union member wrote a letter on Monday to union leadership that was circulated in the Oakland community, in which they described their shock at seeing the messaging from the OEA.

“We did not know this was going to be sent out,” Holderfield told J. “And it was sent out in the name of all of our members, which is just blatantly wrong.” She said there should have been a vote by all members, and that the union should not focus on international politics.

“We as a district have so many complex problems to focus on here that need to be solved, that we have no business wading into complex political issues,” she said.

The teachers’ union has about 3,000 members in a district with some 80 schools and 45,000 students.

On Tuesday the union posted an update to the statement that added a call for the release of hostages and said it “mourns the loss of life” and “unequivocally condemns anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

The OEA post on Friday said it was compiling “lesson plans and curriculum materials” in a Google Drive for teachers to use specifically to address the current events. One recommended resource was Teach Palestine, which is a collection of resources to counter the “mainstream media [which is] almost completely dominated by the Israeli narrative.” In a statement that implies that the materials might be controversial, the statement said: “Any educators who face disciplinary actions based on their teaching will have the full support of the Association and OEA leadership.”

The statement also included a script for contacting elected officials to ask them to support a cease-fire, and invited members to attend two rallies, one titled “Stop The Genocide in Gaza.”

People are genuinely scared about sending their kids to the Oakland public schools.

Jewish parents have reacted to the statement with dismay. A private WhatsApp group was set up in response to the statement, while parents have also been discussing on Facebook whether to move their kids to other districts.

Siegel said some are considering leaving the city or putting their kids in private schools, although he is not.

He said parents want to find out to what degree the statement reflects the union leadership. They also want to take a stand against any lesson plan based on Teach Palestine, which he calls “slanted and biased, and so hateful towards Israel and Jewish people.”

Union leaders did not immediately respond to a J. request for comment. Holderfield said on Tuesday that she had not received a response to her letter.

“I think our families felt very alone and felt very afraid to send kids to school and unsure why our union would put out such a strong statement,” Holderfield said. “And so we felt like we really needed to say this does not speak for us.”

A recent message in an East Bay Jewish parents group that contained an anonymous post advising parents on how to transfer out of the Oakland school district also received an impassioned response from a teacher.

Oakland music teacher Joshua Diamant wrote the following: “Please know that there are a lot of Jewish teachers and allies within OEA who were not OK with this statement and warned of the harm it would cause. We are organizing and advocating and leadership is listening to us.” He added, “if you’re thinking of pulling your kids from OUSD schools, don’t. It doesn’t represent how most of us feel, and many of us are working to repair the harm done in our names.”

Oakland Unified spokesperson John Sasaki provided an official statement to J. regarding the OEA statement.

“OUSD disavows the various polarizing statements on the conflict issued by organizations in the OUSD community this past weekend,” it stated.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.