Oakland Unified School District teacher Joshua Diamant at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a recent statement by the teachers' union. (Photo/Dan Ancona)
Oakland Unified School District teacher Joshua Diamant at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a recent statement by the teachers' union. (Photo/Dan Ancona)

Oakland parents (and some teachers) organize against pro-Palestinian activism in schools

Oakland schools remain a hotspot of conflict over pro-Palestinian activism following a tense school board meeting and controversial statements from the teachers union.

About 100 concerned parents of Jewish students began organizing when the union released a harshly anti-Israel statement less than three weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel and subsequent war. Families are continuing to mobilize ahead of a Dec. 13 Oakland Unified School District board meeting, where an Israel-Gaza resolution is tentatively scheduled for discussion.

The Oct. 27 union statement disturbed many Jewish and/or pro-Israel families and union members by referencing the “75 year long illegal military occupation of Palestine.” The Oakland Education Association’s statement also said the union would provide pro-Palestinian materials for teachers to use in their classrooms and support teachers if they got pushback from their schools.

On Nov. 6, the union’s school reps voted by a 2-to-1 margin to “encourage” members “to become involved in the growing anti-apartheid movement demanding freedom for Palestine.” That was followed by a Nov. 8 school board meeting that included an Israel-Gaza related resolution on the agenda but adjourned without a discussion when attendees became disruptive.

On Nov. 10, about three dozen parents and teachers held a press conference on the steps of Montclair Elementary School in North Oakland, with dozens more supporters in the audience. At the press conference, they relayed their concerns about the union’s activity and condemned OEA’s statements on social media that used incendiary language about Israel, calling it “genocidal and apartheid.”

“The past few weeks have been overwhelming,” Naomi Bernstein, a fourth-grade teacher at Crocker Highlands Elementary, said at the press conference regarding her distress over her union’s position. “We need to keep the education and critical thinking of our students at the top of our agenda, not imposing our political beliefs on anybody.”

That sentiment was echoed by a parent organizer, who told J. that one of their biggest concerns is what teachers might say or teach in the classroom and how that would affect Jewish students.

“The great concern around this is what actually happens to kids,” said the parent, who asked to remain anonymous. “We would like to see OEA retract and apologize for the harms it has done.” (J. spoke to several parents who said they are concerned about their names being published out of fear that their children might face backlash at school.)

The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area has stepped in to help respond to the union’s leaders.

“We are calling for them to abandon this reckless campaign so that our community can continue to be a part of this school district,” JCRC Bay Area CEO Tye Gregory said at Friday’s press conference.

Gregory was joined by Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai Oakland, Dan Kalb, a city council member representing North Oakland, Oleg Ivanov, assistant director of the San Francisco branch of the American Jewish Committee, and Marc Levine, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s S.F.-based regional division.

Kalb said he is disappointed that OEA missed an opportunity to bring people together.

“They instead decided to pull people apart and pour salt in open wounds,” he told J. on Tuesday.

Kalb added that he understood why some people would call for an Israeli cease-fire in Gaza on humanitarian grounds, but that using this moment to delegitimize Israel is unacceptable.

“Those are two different things,” Kalb said, adding that he would vote against any resolution before the Oakland City Council that would condemn Israel like the Richmond City Council did on Oct. 24.

On Nov. 7, OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell sent an email to families stating that the district “recognizes the complex and polarizing nature of this longstanding conflict and remains committed to supporting our students, educators and community by providing balanced and historically accurate resources, guidance on facilitating difficult conversations, and affinity group structures that have convened as a source of shared safety and community.”

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)

Johnson-Trammell, who participated in a roundtable with U.S. Department of Education officials in September on combating antisemitism in schools, added in her email that OUSD schools “do not tolerate bullying, antisemitism, Islamophobia or any other forms of hate.”

Her email included a link to resources designed to create a civil atmosphere in classrooms when teaching controversial issues, including age-appropriate background materials on the Middle East from C-SPAN, the Council on Foreign Relations and PBS Kids.

Kalb said that parents were heartened by her email.

Then on Nov. 10 — the same Friday as the press conference — OUSD released a follow-up statement reiterating: “The District has made clear to educators what should be taught and how in the context of the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Under no circumstances should any of our students or staff feel uncomfortable or singled out because of who they are and how the conflict is impacting them.”

Mates-Muchin told J. that parents are in a “holding pattern” right now, waiting to see what further action may be taken by the union, school board or city council. She praised JCRC’s leadership in helping Jewish parents organize but said that much of the talk among parents is about leaving the school district.

“There’s been a lot of conversations around whether folks want to continue with OUSD,” she said.

Two days before the press conference, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters thronged the Nov. 8 Oakland school board meeting on news that the board would discuss a resolution regarding Israel and Gaza.

“Oakland has a long and proud history as a national beacon of anti-war activism and opposition to US military intervention in the neocolonial world,” the resolution notes.

The text of the resolution calls for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the release of all hostages, the withdrawal of Israeli troops currently invading Gaza, and the safe passage of substantial humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.”

The resolution also “encourages open, respectful, and well-informed discussions on Israel and Palestine” in classrooms. However, that issue in particular is what concerns the parents who worry that teachers will handle the topic in a way that leaves Jewish students feeling unsafe and isolated.

According to Oaklandside, the school board adjourned the meeting early without a discussion of the resolution after attendees began chanting and became unruly. A parent organizer who spoke with J. said it isn’t clear whether the resolution will be on the agenda at the Dec. 13 meeting, but if it is, parents will be prepared.

“We’ll be there,” the parent said. “I think our position is clear that we don’t think the union or the district needs to have a foreign policy.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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