California and Black Lives Matter flags hang in the Berkeley City Council chambers on March 26, 2024. The Berkeley Unified School District board meets in the same room. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
California and Black Lives Matter flags hang in the Berkeley City Council chambers on March 26, 2024. The Berkeley Unified School District board meets in the same room. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Why political activism in local schools keeps crashing into Gaza

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Behind the dais where the Berkeley Unified School District board meets, four flags are on display. Two hang from standing flag poles: the U.S. and California flags, both of which are required by state law to be displayed at public schools. Two more hang on the walls: LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter.

Like most school boards in the U.S., BUSD members are elected by voters. That’s because they control large taxpayer-funded budgets, set priorities for public school districts and hold professional educators accountable for meeting them. 

Because school boards are chosen this way, they tend to reflect the values of the community that elects them. When a Minneapolis officer murdered George Floyd in May 2020 and set off a nationwide wave of protests against police brutality, BUSD voted to hang the Black Lives Matter flag. The vote was unanimous

Berkeley wasn’t the only Bay Area school district to make official changes at that moment. The San Francisco Unified School District board voted to cut ties with the city’s police department and encouraged teachers to avoid calling police to respond to minor incidents. The Oakland Unified School District’s board did something more dramatic. It eliminated the Oakland School Police Department, redirecting its $6 million budget to social services.

In large Bay Area cities, political support for such measures was strong. And they came with direct implications for students. 

The Bay Area’s political DNA made it easy for local school boards to agree on policies meant to tamp down racism and shore up support for the oppressed. But the Oct. 7 massacre and the Israel-Hamas war have scrambled their calculus. Yes, it’s important to support the oppressed, but who, in this scenario, is the oppressed — and who is the oppressor? How should children learn about what’s happening? What role should activist groups play?

An 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)

So far, their approach has been rocky. Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco find themselves facing internal investigation, lawsuits, civil rights complaints and congressional investigation for their handling of antisemitism and anti-Zionism in schools since Oct. 7. Many of those complaints stem from the behavior of activist teachers who see themselves as carrying on a legacy of anti-racism.

In this case, merging activism with public education has led to a cascade of unwanted, negative attention on these districts. 

In Berkeley, two anti-Zionist activists have noted publicly since Oct. 7 that they sit on a volunteer committee tasked with helping to implement ethnic studies across the district. In San Francisco, meanwhile, the school district’s longtime partnership with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) has drawn scrutiny. AROC, an anti-Zionist group that organizes mass protests against Israel, supported school walkouts across the region on Oct. 18 and was inside at least one San Francisco high school that day. 

AROC is unequivocally and passionately anti-Zionist: It sees Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish state in Israel, as a historical evil, propped up by what its executive director calls “American imperialism.” As much energy as many in the Jewish community put into strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, AROC puts into attacking the country economically and weakening its reputation in the Bay Area and beyond.

The group has long worked with the San Francisco public school district, often on issues unrelated to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nine years ago, the district announced a partnership for Arabic language instruction. In October, an AROC employee gave a presentation to staff at Galileo High School about Arab American Heritage Month. AROC maintains an agreement with SFUSD to provide services in the district through 2026.

It’s important to support the oppressed, but who, in this scenario, is the oppressed — and who is the oppressor? 

Yet recently, it was revealed via a school district investigation that the same AROC employee who led the presentation at Galileo on Oct. 11 returned to the school a week later, on Oct. 18, the day of the walkout. The person met with four students who participated in the walkout, according to a report from SFUSD’s Office of Equity. The same day, three “unidentified adults,” the investigation said, met with students at Balboa High School and filmed students in the quad. The report also said a school administrator saw one of the unidentified adults ask a student walking in the hall, “Do you want to join my protest?” 

More than 1,700 students walked out of class that day across the Bay Area, according to AROC. Students chanted a number of now-familiar slogans, including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a rough translation of an Arabic slogan that many interpret as a call to replace the State of Israel with Palestine.

AROC executive director Lara Kiswani said during a BUSD school board meeting last fall that she serves on the district’s advisory committee to implement ethnic studies.

Many in the Jewish community, including the influential Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, have expressed outrage at both AROC and its collaboration with local school districts. 

Days after the Oct. 7 attack, AROC published a statement inverting blame for the most brutal terrorist attack in Israel’s history. AROC “holds the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence we’ve witnessed across historic Palestine,” the statement said.

Lara Kiswani, head of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, pumps her fist after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passes a Gaza cease-fire resolution on Jan. 9. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Kiswani herself has a long history of making unapologetically anti-Zionist statements. When she spoke in late May at the People’s Conference for Palestine in Detroit, she specifically mentioned schools as part of the plan to transform people’s minds about Israel.

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

What Berkeley, San Francisco and other districts have found out the hard way is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most morally complex of our time. 

Riding a long wave of political activism that Bay Area school leaders consider a point of pride, they have now crashed headlong into a political conflict that stubbornly resists easy explanation. 

They’ve also opened the door to those who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms: as a zero-sum struggle between oppressed and oppressor — and as an anti-racist struggle equivalent to American political movements like Black Lives Matter. 

In doing so, they run the risk of coaxing public school students to see it that way, too.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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