Oakland elementary school teacher Naomi Bernstein at a press conference at Montclair Elementary School, where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders spoke out against a statement on Gaza by the Oakland teachers union, Nov. 10, 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)
Oakland elementary school teacher Naomi Bernstein at a press conference at Montclair Elementary School, where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders spoke out against a statement on Gaza by the Oakland teachers union, Nov. 10, 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)

Legal group seeks to prevent more pro-Palestinian teach-ins at Oakland schools

Following a Dec. 6 anti-Israel teach-in at Oakland public schools, a legal team representing Jewish families is trying to work with the school district to prevent similar events in the future.

The main focus of the teach-in for educators and their students was a 45-minute livestream on YouTube with people describing their activism against Israel and advocacy for Palestinians. It reached significantly fewer than the 100-plus classrooms that organizers expected after teachers said they could not access YouTube on their school-issued computers.

“It had obstacles,” said Judy Greenspan, a teach-in organizer and a substitute teacher at United for Success Academy, a middle school in East Oakland.

Both Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and Deborah Project lawyers unsuccessfully tried to prevent the event from happening at all.

The Oakland Educators Association, the union for OUSD teachers, organized the teach-in. OEA has been outspoken in its support for Palestinians in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began more than two months ago.

The OEA alarmed Jewish and pro-Israel families in late October and again in early November when it publicly condemned Israel’s war against Hamas and the Jewish state’s 75-year existence. Parents of Jewish and pro-Israel students began to work with Jewish communal agencies and spoke out against the OEA’s efforts, which also have included an offer to provide pro-Palestinian materials for teachers and support them against any pushback.

Johnson-Trammell released a districtwide letter on Dec. 4 expressing her disapproval of the teach-in.

“I want to make clear that the District does not authorize this action,” she wrote. “I want to again make clear that our expectation is that all educators, in every classroom across the District, take seriously their responsibility to adhere to principles of education, and to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom.”

Lori Lowenthal Marcus, legal director of the Deborah Project, sent a cease-and-desist letter to OUSD on Dec. 5 on behalf of a dozen district parents to try to stop the teach-in. The Philadelphia-based organization offers pro bono legal services to defend the civil rights of Jewish students.

Lowenthal Marcus told J. that her letter “asked on behalf of clients to please stop this, not allow it to happen. It will be discriminatory, and it will create divisions, and it is harassment. It’s bad for Jewish students. And it’s also bad for non-Jewish students to be marinated in Jew hatred coming from their teachers in the classroom.”

She is looking ahead now.

“I have spoken with the general counsel for the school district, and the next step is to find out how this will be prevented going forward, because they already knew this was going to happen and they didn’t take adequate action,” she said. “If we have to, we’ll take this to court.”

Lowenthal Marcus said that Oakland teachers violated state and federal laws by participating in the teach-in and that OUSD is culpable for not doing enough to stop it.

She emphasized that public school teachers do not have the same free speech rights in the classroom as they do outside of school, citing the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2011 ruling in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District that teachers speak for the government and not for themselves in their classrooms, or whenever they act in their official capacity.

Lowenthal Marcus also listed three sections of the California Education Code that the teach-in allegedly violated on the grounds of discrimination or bias. The cease-and-desist letter, which was sent to district leaders, including the school board, went unanswered before the teach-in, she said.

A banner reads "Oakland Educators Say Fund Education, Not War on Gaza" at an Oakland Unified School District meeting Nov. 9, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy Anonymous)
A banner reads “Oakland Educators Say Fund Education, Not War on Gaza” at an Oakland Unified School District meeting Nov. 9, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy anonymous)

Greenspan, who is Jewish and a member of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), did not know the number or school affiliation of teachers who participated in the teach-in, though more than 100 indicated in advance that they would do so. The final number was likely closer to 50, Greenspan said, made up primarily of  middle school and high school teachers. Few if any elementary school teachers joined the livestream, Greenspan said, instead opting to read books or create art projects based on classroom resources recommended by teach-in organizers.

OUSD did not respond to J.’s request for comment.

Nate Landry, an Oakland parent and teach-in co-organizer, moderated the livestream panel, which included a local Palestinian American involved in the Palestinian Youth Movement, a Bay Area member of Jewish Voice for Peace and an Atlanta-based representative for Black Alliance for Peace, a collective of anti-war activists.

The livestream, viewed by J., began with social-media video clips showing pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the Bay Area since Oct. 7, including a Port of Oakland protest that temporarily blocked a ship reportedly transporting arms to Israel and a protest that shut down the Bay Bridge for hours one morning in November.

One panelist identified only as Violette, who is a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, said Israel’s military forced her grandmother out of her home in Jaffa in 1948.

Israel celebrates 1948 as the year it became a nation. Palestinians refer to the same event as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

“Today Gaza is experiencing another catastrophe, a Nakba of 2023, with much bigger, greater numbers,” Violette said. “Nowhere in Gaza is safe.”

No one who spoke in the livestream mentioned Hamas or made any reference to the violence committed against Israelis on Oct. 7.

Tunde Osazua with Black Alliance for Peace erroneously claimed that Zionism began in 1948 in an attempt to “exterminate Palestinians.”

“We have the same enemy,” Osazua said. “We should be fighting side by side to defeat settler colonialism, Zionism, capitalism. All of these structures are affecting us, even though in Palestine it’s more acute.”

In the last 10 minutes of the livestream, the panelists responded  to questions relayed by teachers from students. One student asked how the pro-Palestinian protests here help the Palestinians. Another asked why Israel’s war crimes are ignored.

“The U.S. is to blame,” said a panelist identified only as Anton, representing JVP. “Our government has a vested interest in making sure people don’t understand where their tax dollars are going, the violence their tax dollars are funding now.”

The panelists encouraged students to take action, such as school walkouts and supporting cease-fire resolutions from local city governments. The Oakland City Council passed a cease-fire resolution in November.

Anton recommended students join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and “divest from organizations that invest in the oppression of Palestinian people,” suggesting Starbucks as an example, without elaborating on the coffee company’s relationship with Israel.

The YouTube video remains online. Lowenthal Marcus has requested that teach-in organizers take it down.

“That’s still out there,” she said, “and that’s dangerous.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.