The demonstrator holds up a sign that reads "Fundraising 4 genocide & ethnic cleansing — SHAME"
A demonstrator wearing an Oakland teachers union sweatshirt protests outside the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Gala in San Carlos, Nov. 5, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Oakland teachers union doubles down on support for Palestinians

The Oakland teachers union voted Monday by a 2-to-1 margin to “encourage” its members “to become involved in the growing anti-apartheid movement demanding freedom for Palestine.”

The 66-31 vote on the measure was taken by the Oakland Education Association’s site representatives — not all 3,000 union members — 10 days after union leaders released a harsh statement on Gaza that alarmed families and union members who are either Jewish and/or pro-Israel. A vote to postpone the measure failed.

“There are a lot of teachers this morning who are thinking of leaving the union, and I completely understand that impulse,” Oakland teacher Joshua Diamant, who is a site rep for the union, told J. after the vote. Diamant described the union’s decision as a “horrible mistake” but said he doesn’t plan to withdraw his membership.

“I refuse to be pushed out of spaces by antisemitism,” he said. “Haven’t our ancestors experienced that enough already? Isn’t that why the State of Israel exists?”

The measure also encourages the OEA to set up a phone bank, specifically citing as an example a phone bank run by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, to demand that U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland add her name to a House resolution pressing for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

The multipart measure also states that the union will provide pro-Palestinian materials that teachers can use in their classrooms.

“OEA leadership will support teachers by publicizing and distributing educational materials and resources for teachers to use in classrooms and give support to any teachers that are reprimanded for teaching about Palestinian liberation in their classrooms,” the union measure says.

“I can’t believe this is happening in Oakland, California,” said Jewish parent Shira Avoth, a native of Tel Aviv whose family was expelled from Egypt.

Her son, a seventh-grader in the Oakland Unified School District, has a teacher who had hung a poster from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a San Francisco-based activist group known for its strident criticism of Israel.

Avoth saw the poster, which reads “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” on a back-to-school night in September. After the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel, she made multiple calls to the school and the district in protest. It was finally taken down at the end of October, she said, but the situation remains tense.

“He’s been attending this class where he’s too afraid to make eye contact with his English teacher,” she said.

Many families in the district began organizing after the OEA released its first statement on Oct. 27 and have continued, even hosting backyard parties with school board members.

Parents who wished to remain anonymous to protect their children from potential backlash told J. that they are disappointed in the district’s response to the situation.

OUSD planned to issue a statement on the Israel-Gaza issue, spokesperson John Sasaki told J.

Parents also said the latest OEA vote was the tipping point in a school district that has long been negligent in dealing with criticism of Israel that crosses the line into denying its right to exist.

Some are just done with the whole thing.

“We’re leaving the district. It’s non-negotiable,” one mother of a kindergartner told J. She requested anonymity due to her concerns that her family will face “hate and antisemitism.” She has relatives in Israel and said she was “angry, frustrated, scared.”

“I don’t believe in [the district’s] ability to advocate for inclusivity within the community,” she added.

Diamant said the measure reflected the dominance of the anti-Israel members.

“We were simply out-organized,” said Diamant, who voted against it. In his personal life he’s critical of Israel’s government, he said, but the teachers union doesn’t need to pick a side.

“Supporting peace and dignity and safety and self-determination for Jews and supporting those things for Palestinians” are both possible, he said.

Another site rep, who asked to remain anonymous so that he can preserve neutrality with his students, said he doesn’t believe the union should be involved in geopolitical issues at all, but that it is characteristic of the Oakland union to do so.

Sarah Rothe, a union member and an OUSD parent, said that the impact on families will vary school to school. She said some schools have staff and educators who understand the issue while others are more likely to present biased lessons in the classroom. The elementary school her kids attend has been supportive, she said, but the school where she works not as much.

“Even if [teachers are] not seeing it as intentionally antisemitic,” she said, “a lot of our Jewish students are going to feel quite unsafe, quite frightened and just invisible in the classroom.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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