Lara Kiswani (center), the head of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, speaks in the San Francisco City Hall rotunda, Jan. 9, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Lara Kiswani (center), the head of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, speaks in the San Francisco City Hall rotunda, Jan. 9, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Local activist with ties to public schools calls to ‘overcome Zionism’ at conference

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The leader of an anti-Israel group, already under scrutiny for its work in Bay Area public schools, recently called for activists to help “overcome Zionism.”

During a panel discussion titled “The Movement for Palestine in North America,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), described a dramatic weakening of Zionism in the United States in recent months. She anticipated its eventual downfall, to enthusiastic cheers.

“We are isolating Zionism politically. We are isolating Zionism economically. We are isolating Zionism militarily,” she said May 25 during the People’s Conference for Palestine in Detroit. “We truly are witnessing the beginning of the end of Zionist hegemony in the United States.”

She added, “You’re seeing the inclusion of Palestine in every movement for social justice, including in teaching and across K-12 schools.”

Kiswani’s statements come as AROC, an influential Bay Area activist organization that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, has faced scrutiny for its work with high school students. AROC partners with San Francisco public schools to facilitate classroom workshops, leadership trainings and other services under an agreement that lasts through 2026. Kiswani also sits on a volunteer ethnic studies committee of Berkeley public school staff, students, parents and “community organization members” tasked with developing recommendations for a five-year plan to implement ethnic studies from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Berkeley Unified School District’s ethnic studies program has been at the center of debates surrounding whether the district is doing enough to prevent discrimination against Israeli and Jewish students since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel that sparked the ongoing war and a spike in antisemitism worldwide. The district is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and has faced tough questioning from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for its handling of antisemitism complaints.

Last month, Rep. Kevin Kiley, a Republican representing a long swath of California’s border with Nevada, brought Berkeley’s ethnic studies program into the national spotlight. He grilled BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel during a combative public hearing in Washington, D.C., and criticized the district’s collaboration with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, a controversial consulting group that BUSD’s volunteer ethnic studies committee had recommended to the district.

The ‘Liberated’ ethnic studies vision

Sometimes abbreviated as “Liberated,” the group has sparred with the organized Jewish community in California for years after its members stridently opposed changes to the first draft of a statewide model curriculum for ethnic studies that expressed support for BDS and didn’t include any meaningful discussion of antisemitism. The draft was skewered by a number of politicians, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, and was revised to include two lessons on Jewish Americans and to remove BDS.

BUSD approved a $111,120 contract with Liberated in June 2023 for the current school year but had not renewed the contract as of March, according to Chris Albeck, director of curriculum of instruction, as reported in Berkeleyside.

“You specifically chose to work with a group whose work product was rejected by political leaders throughout California as antisemitic,” Kiley said to the Berkeley superintendent at last month’s House committee hearing. “So I don’t think it’s any wonder that you see antisemitism suddenly become rampant.”

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)

Ford Morthel pushed back against Kiley, stating that Liberated was not writing Berkeley’s ethnic studies curriculum. Teachers are creating it in collaboration with “community partners,” she said, and Liberated has served as a “thought partner.”

At the time it was not clear which “community partners” Ford Morthel was referencing. Notably, Kiswani is not the only pro-Palestinian activist on the volunteer ethnic studies committee. Jody Sokolower, a leader of an organization called the Teach Palestine Project, noted that she is a committee member when she spoke during a school board meeting in November.

Ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color. In 2021, California became the first state in the U.S. to mandate the course for high school students, a mandate that goes into effect in 2029.

In 2022, BUSD established the volunteer committee that Kiswani serves on to help implement the policy.

Some materials taught on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Berkeley have leaked out of the district in recent months and drawn criticism from pro-Israel Jewish parents. The materials were not prepared by Liberated, according to Berkeleyside.

Anti-Zionist speeches

Kiswani’s call to “overcome Zionism” came during a three-day conference featuring prominent speakers within the pro-Palestinian movement, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan).

Kiswani made that remark while discussing paths to end U.S. military aid to Israel, as well as Zionism’s entrenchment among American decision-makers — what she called the “liberal wing of the ruling class’ commitment to Zionism.”

“We need to utilize all the tactics at our disposal — legislative direct action, grassroots mobilizing, political education, divestment campaigns. We must consider the long-term, multisector [approach] needed in order to overcome Zionism and U.S. imperialism,” Kiswani said.

Tye Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, sharply criticized Kiswani’s remarks.

“It sounds like a speech out of 1930s Germany,” he told J. “And Jews are not going anywhere. Not here, and not in Israel.”

The Anti-Defamation League described the conference as “rife with overt support for U.S.-designated terror groups and the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack, extreme anti-Zionist rhetoric including open calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, and classic antisemitic tropes.”

Multiple speakers at the conference spoke in favor of Palestinian militancy. Among them was Wissam Rafidi, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist group that hijacked commercial airliners in the 1960s and 1970s and that the U.S. has designated as a terror group. Rafidi, who spoke via video, said “these Zionists lie like they breathe” and expressed support for Hamas, according to the Free Press.

Sana’ Daqqa, the widow of a PFLP leader sentenced to life in prison in Israel who died in custody earlier this year, also spoke.

“The only thing that can stop this is a flood,” she said, referencing the Hamas designation of the Oct. 7 massacre as Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. “This is what the resistance intended, that the flood would become floods throughout the entire region.”

Investigation of AROC

In December, a politically moderate activist group known as SF Guardians called on the San Francisco Unified School District to investigate its ties to AROC and whether the organization was indoctrinating students or fomenting a hostile environment for Jewish or Israeli students, particularly through its efforts to support a school walkout for Gaza across the district on Oct. 18.

The district completed its investigation this spring, finding that at least one AROC activist met with students before being escorted off school grounds at Galileo High School the day that hundreds of students left class to protest the war and chant slogans against Israel and in support of Palestinians. The investigation concluded, however, there was “insufficient evidence” to determine whether AROC violated district anti-discrimination policies.

In light of that finding, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Jewish civil rights nonprofit that is critical of anti-Zionist activism, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“They went on campus to indoctrinate the students, really,” Marci Miller, an education lawyer with the Brandeis Center, told J. “And their indoctrination in school is not lawful.”

SFUSD defended its actions.

“When SFUSD receives a report of a concern, we take immediate steps to investigate, communicate updates and outcomes of an investigation to those directly involved, and follow through with actions as appropriate,” SFUSD wrote in a statement to J. on May 31. “We understand the importance of making space for students to share their personal stories and feel safe and included.” The statement included a link to resources to teach about the Israel-Hamas war.

Neither the BUSD administration nor its school board responded to J.’s requests for comment.

AROC responded to the SFUSD investigation in a social media post on Dec. 13, criticizing what it called the “blatant anti-Arab, Anti-Palestinian, and Islamophobic actions of the San Francisco Unified School District.”

“Instead of protecting our students and addressing the violence they are experiencing in school, SFUSD chose to launch a district wide investigation into the Arab Resource & Organizing Center and student-led protests for peace,” the statement said.

Kiswani, who is also listed as a lecturer at San Francisco State University, did not respond to J.’s request for comment.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.