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Coalition of Education Groups Call on AFT to Denounce Pro-BDS Resolutions

The letter advocated for Weingarten to call for the repeal of the resolutions, implement “new training programs” regarding antisemitism and “develop a plan to repair the damage that has been done by recent actions.”
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June 17, 2021
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks to the audience at the annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers July 13, 2018 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

A coalition of education groups called for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to denounce resolutions expressing support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement recently passed by its affiliates in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The groups, which included Parents Defending Education, Coalition for Jewish Values and Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, wrote in a June 15 letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten that the resolutions “falsely accuse Israel of ‘apartheid and war crimes’” and argued that the BDS movement aims for the “destruction of Israel.” “We are troubled that you have not condemned this egregious embrace of anti-Semitism by the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) or demanded that the AFT affiliates repeal the resolutions. You are leaving the impression that anti-Semitism, unlike other forms of bigotry, is tolerated in your ranks.

“This is a terrible message to send at a moment when clarity and leadership are needed. We saw once again in recent weeks how inflammatory and dishonest anti-Israel rhetoric, when left unchallenged, can escalate to physical attacks on Jews. It is unacceptable that the teachers’ union you head has affiliates that are using the AFT’s name and infrastructure to promote this kind of hateful rhetoric.”

The letter advocated for Weingarten to call for the repeal of the resolutions, implement “new training programs” regarding antisemitism and “develop a plan to repair the damage that has been done by [the union affiliates’] recent actions.” The letter also asked Weingarten to imagine if she were a Jewish student subjected to anti-Israel lectures from a teacher. “This teacher falsely accuses Israel of all manner of crimes and offenses, embraces in the name of ‘social justice’ the anti-Semitic and often violent BDS movement, and supports the destruction of only one country in the entire world – the Jewish country. How should that Jewish child feel about his or her teacher and school? And how should all this make the rest of us feel about your leadership of the AFT?”

Nicole Neilly, president and founder of Parents Defending Education, said in a statement to the Journal, “Jewish students deserve to learn – and Jewish teachers deserve to teach – in an environment free from discrimination and anti-Semitism. This kind of activism is wholly inappropriate and has no place in American schools.”

“Jewish students deserve to learn – and Jewish teachers deserve to teach – in an environment free from discrimination and anti-Semitism. This kind of activism is wholly inappropriate and has no place in American schools.”

When asked to respond to the letter, a spokesperson for the AFT referred the Journal to a letter that Weingarten sent to Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on June 14 in response to Greenblatt’s concern over UTLA’s pending vote on a pro-BDS motion in September. Weingarten wrote that she understands Greenblatt’s “unease about Jewish students and educators feeling harassed and frightened in response to the wave of antisemitism that has taken hold in the United States and the world” and touted AFT’s efforts to fight antisemitism and other forms of bigotry.

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I worked with AFT locals in New York and New Jersey to bring together the only multiracial coalition of trade unionists to march in solidarity with the Jewish community across the Brooklyn Bridge when antisemitic acts were on the rise,” Weingarten wrote. “Not only have we marched—but we’ve spoken out, and spoken up, passing numerous resolutions decrying antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian sentiments, racism and other forms of hate. And to help bring this conversation into our schools and teach tolerance, we offer classroom strategies on how to recognize and fight antisemitism. As you know, for years, we have been working with ADL on our model Share My Lesson program to teach issues around both antisemitism and Islamophobia. We look forward to continuing this work.”

Weingarten also lauded AFT’s efforts to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians and blamed Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recently ousted from his position as Israeli Prime Minister, for impeding progress toward peace. “As Bibi Netanyahu gave his final speech as prime minister, he publicly opposed a Palestinian state. All peoples have rights to self-determination. This is one of the cornerstones for the creation of the state of Israel. And we have repeatedly, as a union and a labor movement, supported the right of Israel to exist in peace and security. But the Palestinians also have equal rights to self-determination. They have suffered under occupation for 54 years, and while there is countless blame on both sides for why this is so, the fact is that it must end. I believe that dialogue and education have tremendous roles in making this happen.”

She concluded the letter by stating that while AFT doesn’t support BDS, it supports “dialogue, debate and the free ability to express a range of viewpoints” and “countless have spoken out against antisemitism, including UTLA and United Educators of San Francisco. The ‘federation’ in American Federation of Teachers has real meaning: Locals have broad autonomy, and the national union does not override locals over differences or questions of policy.” Weingarten added that the UTLA motion hasn’t yet been passed by its leadership and that the union “passed a strong resolution against antisemitism, while clarifying its internal process.”

Neilly wasn’t satisfied with Weingarten’s letter to Greenblatt. “It’s appalling that Ms. Weingarten asserts that the embrace of BDS and anti-Semitic rhetoric is merely ‘differences or questions of policy,'” she told the Journal. “This language and these policies create a hostile environment for students, teachers, and administrators, and should not be tolerated. Failing to either acknowledge or condemn this movement is little more than tacit approval.”

The UESF passed a resolution on May 19 expressing “solidarity with the Palestinian people and call for Israel to end bombardment of Gaza and stop displacement at Sheikh Jarrah,” called on the Biden administration to stop providing military aid to Israel and espoused support for BDS “against apartheid in Israel.” Two UTLA Area chapters passed a similar motion on the same day; that motion will go to a vote in UTLA’s House of Representatives in September. UTLA said in a June 1 statement that motions passed by Area chapters don’t reflect the opinions of UTLA leadership. “UTLA stands against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and oppression in all forms. We stand against both anti-Jewish hate and violence and anti-Arab hate and violence wherever they occur, and we denounce the recent attacks on Jewish people in Los Angeles.” A spokesperson for UESF also told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union “unequivocally [stands] against antisemitism in all its forms and told The Jewish News of Northern California that the union also passed a resolution on June 2 condemning antisemitism calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District recently resigned from UTLA over the matter, stating that she feels “unsafe as a Jew in this UTLA.”

This article has been updated.

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