A young AROC organizer raises a Palestinian flag during a walkout in support of Gaza at Galileo High School in San Francisco, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A young AROC organizer raises a Palestinian flag during a walkout in support of Gaza at Galileo High School in San Francisco, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

S.F. schools to review agreement with anti-Zionist group after parent group’s complaint

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A group of San Francisco public school parents known for facilitating the successful recall of three school board members last year has turned its sights on another target: an organization vociferously critical of Israel that was involved in promoting a school walkout on Oct. 18.

The San Francisco Unified School District said it will review “relevant facts” related to the group, the S.F.-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and runs educational programs in the city’s public schools.

AROC is one of the Bay Area’s most active anti-Zionist groups protesting Israel’s war against Hamas. Now, the SF Guardians, a secular parent group formed in 2021, is taking issue with the fact that AROC provides services in city high schools.

“We’ve heard not just from people who are Jewish, but also from people who are strongly supporting the Palestinian cause, saying that political organizations should not be in our schools, mobilizing our children,” said Siva Raj, co-founder of SF Guardians.

The SF Guardians sent a letter to the school district on Dec. 6 asking it to investigate AROC.

“The investigation should include whether AROC has violated any applicable state or federal law, and/or any applicable Board or District Policy, including without limitation, by discriminating against students (or teachers or staff) who are Jewish or who are of Israeli origin; by fomenting a hostile environment against these student groups, by interfering with school instruction and learning through its overly aggressive organizing on campuses and through other means of communication,” the letter states.

The school district provided J. with a copy of its reply to SF Guardians saying it would investigate the claims and respond within 30 days regarding its agreement with AROC, known as a memorandum of understanding.

“The District will not immediately terminate the MOU with AROC prior to its collection and review of the relevant facts,” said the response, signed by Marin Trujillo, head of staff at SFUSD. “If the allegations are substantiated in whole or in part, we will determine the appropriate response and will inform you of the next steps.”

SF Guardians co-founder Autumn Looijen said the group wants to ensure the schools are making education and safety its top priorities.

“I really see our role here as setting up some guardrails to protect our learning environment, and make sure that we have very clear boundaries in place that keep all the students safe, not just the Jewish students, not just the Arab students,” Looijen said.

AROC is one of more than 300 organizations that provide services in S.F. public schools under the framework of a memorandum of understanding. SFUSD, which teaches 50,000 students across 132 schools, states that any group under a MOU “provides services free of charge” to the district or schools.

Per the memorandum,  AROC provides leadership training, workshops, academic support and family engagement at Balboa, Galileo, Mission, John O’Connell, S.F. International, Raoul Wallenberg, George Washington and Ida B. Wells high schools. The MOU is set to run through 2026.

On Wednesday, AROC posted its response to the investigation on X: “San Francisco communities are outraged at the blatant anti-Arab, Anti-Palestinian, and Islamophobic actions of the San Francisco Unified School District. We demand accountability, safety, and dignity for all students!”

J. contacted AROC for comment but did not receive a response.

According to the SF Guardians, AROC’s organization of the school walkout allegedly violated district policy in three areas: by disrupting classroom work, by not holding to anti-discrimination policies (based on religion or ethnic group) and by possibly contacting students outside of class (for example through social media) to organize the walkout.

One San Francisco Jewish parent with two children at Lincoln High School described the October walkout as disturbing. (The parent requested that J. use only her first name, Renee, out of concerns that her children could face repercussions.) Renee had called the high school in advance and had been assured that the walkout would be orderly, but one of her children texted that day telling her that students were running down the halls and chanting, “From the river to the sea.”

“He was really upset that that was going on in the school, and nobody was stopping them,” she said.

Renee had seen posts on Instagram calling for a walkout and was aware that it was promoted by AROC.

“The school is trying to walk it back and be like, ‘Oh, it’s just the students exercising their free speech,” she said. “Yeah, that’s not what it feels like.”

At Galileo High School, young organizers holding an AROC banner stood outside the school during the walkout.

Young AROC organizers chant “Free Palestine” during a walkout they organized in support of Gaza at Galileo High School in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Young AROC organizers chant “Free Palestine” during a walkout they organized in support of Gaza at Galileo High School in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

While there are many groups from across the political spectrum that have called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, AROC’s stance on Israel goes much further than that.

Its BDS advocacy has included urging local organizations, including Oakland’s minor league soccer team, to cut ties with companies linked to Israel.

After the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel that killed 1,200 people, AROC stated that it “holds the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence we’ve witnessed across historic Palestine,” according to its website.

“In the face of such violence we recommit ourselves to the struggle for freedom and justice in Palestine, in our region, and globally. Recent events did not occur in a vacuum but as a result of unrelenting colonial aggression,” the statement said.

AROC’s reach is hard to determine, though it doesn’t have a massive following on social media. It has about 39,000 followers on Instagram, 21,000 followers on X and 10,000 followers on Facebook. That compares with fellow anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, which has 1 million followers on Instagram, 296,000 on X and 713,000 on Facebook.

But AROC has been effective in the Bay Area.

It uses many standard organizing techniques, including email action alerts, scripts for calling elected officials and tips on what to do at public meetings.

For the student action on Oct. 18, the organization provided a sample walkout plan (“Begin chanting and hold space outside the school! If reporters show up, you can speak with them and use our talking points below”) and student demands (“Teachers have a responsibility to teach about the occupation and root causes of the current war on Gaza”) as well as a list of chants (“Some good practices tips: Practice saying these chants out loud before the day of!”). The plan also included a link to download posters students could carry during the walkout.

The “block the boat” campaign was organized by AROC to temporarily prevent a U.S. military vessel from departing the dock at the Port of Oakland in early November, believing it was set to pick up weapons and supplies destined for Israel. For that, AROC established a separate website with information on why it was blocking ships from reaching “apartheid Israel.” The site included a phone number for text updates and a request for short video solidarity messages.

These tactics often face pushback from Jewish community groups. The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, for example, tries to prepare Jews and Israel supporters for contentious public meetings in city councils and school boards. JCRC provides its email list with talking points, numbers to call and suggestions for public speakers.

When AROC urged people to email the Berkeley City Council to adopt a pro-Gaza resolution, JCRC sent out an email to supporters saying, “These resolutions pose a clear danger to California municipalities. Warn your city council TODAY!”

Similarly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group condemned by the White House earlier this month, has a website with suggested talking points for people to bring to Congress and schools.

Part of AROC’s success is due to its cultivation of allies, such as Jewish Voice for Peace.

AROC’s statement on Gaza and Israel specifically aligns the principles of AROC with a broader set of progressive values familiar to anyone in left-wing spaces in the Bay Area:

“The struggle to abolish apartheid, Zionism, and fascism in our homeland is one and the same with an international struggle for economic and political democracy, for education and healthcare for all, for right relations to land, for social justice, gender justice and climate justice, shaped in the interests of working people.”

AROC is fiscally sponsored by Tides, a billion-dollar nonprofit that funds a range of progressive causes. Fiscal sponsorship refers to when a small organization is helped by a larger nonprofit, which takes over much of the paperwork but in turn is responsible for ensuring the smaller group follows nonprofit rules and adheres to its mission.

AROC has tangled on numerous occasions with JCRC. Its executive director, Lara Kiswani, discussed her take on JCRC in an interview from 2018 with Judy Sokolower, head of Berkeley-based Teach Palestine, which provides pro-Palestinian curriculum.

“In the Bay Area, JCRC tries to ensure that any criticism of Israel is attacked and marginalized,” Kiswani said. “They want to make it impossible to be critical of Israel and still be a community organizer…. As an institution committed to maintaining Israeli apartheid and supporting the occupation, and dehumanization of Arabs and Palestinians, they saw [AROC’s work] as a threat — they don’t want the Arab voice to be heard and definitely don’t want it to be impactful.”

In late November, JCRC CEO Tye Gregory described AROC as a “pro-terrorism organization” that “justified and glorified Hamas.”

JCRC spokesperson Jeremy Russell said this week that AROC has a long history of inflammatory statements.

“Its strident and intolerant rhetoric about Israel and Zionism can create a hostile environment for Jewish students and faculty, as we saw with some of the student walkouts they helped organize and promote,” Russell said. “We warned SFUSD years ago that it should never have entered into a contract with AROC, or any organization with similarly extreme views, and believe they should move to disassociate with them.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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