Under a tidal wave of pressure from the local Jewish community, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has decided to deny use of its headquarters to a UTLA committee planning to host a meeting to discuss the launch of a local boycott of sanctions against and divestment from Israel.
In an release issued late on Oct. 5, UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he favored canceling the planned Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian gathering because it will “only polarize our union members and members of our community.”
However, the UTLA’s Human Rights Committee might still choose to hold the gathering elsewhere, even though Duffy has lobbied several committee members to scrap it, UTLA communications director Marla Eby said.
“It’s still up in the air,” she said.
The planned gathering would be sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of a group called Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS), a new outfit that, according to its Website, includes author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, as well as revisionist historian Howard Zinn as board members and which has tight links with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s. The gathering is officially endorsed by the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee and by Cafe Intifada.
Still, some Jewish leaders seemed to appreciate UTLA President Duffy’s efforts to put distance between the union and the Human Rights Committee.
“I’m proud of what the UTLA has done,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the western region of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).
Earlier, Rowen Taylor had said that allowing such a meeting to take place on union property would give the appearance that that UTLA endorsed divestment and a boycott, which it does not.
A draft letter to Duffy from several Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America, AJCongress, the Jewish Community Relations Committee and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others, thanks him for sending “a clear message that UTLA does not endorse the [Human Rights] Committee’s action.”
Leaders from several major local Jewish organizations met at the L.A. Federation on Oct. 4 to discuss how to respond to the planned event. Duffy also attended the two-hour gathering. Duffy, several participants said, told the group he is Jewish, supports Israel and sympathizes with their concerns. He told participants that UTLA’s 30-plus committees enjoy much autonomy and that their positions don’t necessarily reflect the union as a whole.
Duffy said, in the release, that he had removed UTLA’s Web link to the Human Rights Committee and that UTLA would review its procedures for granting use of its facilities to union committees. In an interview Oct. 5, Duffy added that he found the brouhaha a distraction.
“Let me put it this way, I’d rather be focusing 100 percent of my time to the contract negotiations going on, rather than this [meeting],” he said.
Duffy said he had received far more pro-Israel calls and e-mails than pro-Palestinian communication.
Representatives from UTLA’s Human Rights Committee declined to comment. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said he believes the group is “made up of a fringe of anti-Semites.” The congressman added that perhaps UTLA should create a new committee for teachers supporting Israel.
The Human Rights Committee’s mission statement calls for “social justice and the peaceful resolution of conflict for its members and other staff, students, parents, the community, the nation, and the global economy.”
After learning about the planned anti-Israel meeting, local Jewish groups united in their condemnation, characterizing the event as anti-Semitic and criticizing the UTLA for initially allowing its headquarters to be used.
“This is worse than a black eye. This goes to the heart of [UTLA’s] credibility,” said Stephen Saltzman, western regional director of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), before the UTLA announced the gathering could not take place on its property. “This is the largest teachers’ union west of the Mississippi allowing itself to be used by extremist radicals who want to launch a campaign to attack the state of Israel and do so with the implied endorsement of the people teaching our children.”
Paul Kujawsky, vice president of the Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles, and a fifth-grade teacher at Germain Street Elementary Street in Chatsworth, said he thought UTLA could make better use of its time grappling with such important local issues as high-school drop-out rates.
“As a union member, I’m furious that we are attempting to have our own foreign policy when there are so many important educational issues to be addressed,” Kujawsky said before Duffy’s announcement.
A release put out by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Movement for a Democratic Society said the meeting’s purpose is to support the Palestinian people and call for a boycott, divestment and sanctions.
“When Israel was created in 1948, 75 percent of the Palestinians were forcibly dispossessed of their lands and forced into exile,” the release says, adding that “Israel’s apartheid and racist system of oppression closely resembles that which South Africa once had…” An MDS spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said the strategy for boycott, divestment and sanctions is really a “campaign for the elimination of the state of Israel, spearheaded by extremist groups who use the same hateful rhetoric as states like Iran and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”