November 12, 2019

Dispute Over Bias in LAUSD Course on Islam

After community activists alleged a continuing education class for Los Angeles public school teachers was biased against Israel, a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) official has contradicted them, reporting the class free of bias.

“My staff did not observe evidence of the concerns raised about the course,” Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian wrote in a letter to the school board.

Complaints about the two-day teachers course reached board members after Linda Cone, a retired schoolteacher from Orange County, attended the first session of “Learning About Islam and the Arab World” on Oct. 14.

She shared the course material with Jack Saltzberg, who runs the Israel Group, a nonprofit in Westlake Village that claims to defend Israel against attacks on its reputation. Saltzberg then wrote to the LAUSD board, claiming the course presented a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and shared his letter with thousands of his email subscribers.

LAUSD dispatched an observer to the second session of the course on Oct. 21. There, the observer found “diverse viewpoints were encouraged,” Ekchian wrote on Oct. 25.

Ekchian wrote the observer found that the course presenters “provided multiple sources to help participants formulate their own opinions” and “respectfully responded to two non-District individuals who repeatedly challenged the presenters,” one of whom was Cone.

Responding to Ekchian’s statements, Saltzberg said in an email, “Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss any of these self-serving characterizations in light of anticipated litigation.”

He added that he is awaiting responses to California Public Records Act requests from LAUSD for documents related to the course and the Orange County Board of Education for documents about a similar course held Oct. 4 and Oct. 25 for public school teachers in Orange County.

Cone also took issue with Ekchian’s characterization, saying course materials were biased and participants were discouraged from challenging presenters. Cone said she attended both sessions of the LAUSD course along with another self-appointed observer, after learning about the Orange County course and attending the first session. She said both women are activists with ACT for America, an organization that describes itself on its website as a grass-roots network of national security activists, but which the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center label as an anti-Islam group.

Cone said in an interview that at the first session of the LAUSD workshop, participants were told that the term jihad, often applied to terrorist ideologies, in fact referred to internal religious struggle, and that any other definition is “a lie, a mistranslation, a misrepresentation.”

On the second day, the course shifted to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said. She described the materials and discussion as skewed toward a pro-Palestinian narrative.

“We are being told that the Palestinians are the victims and the Jews are the oppressors, categorically and totally,” she said of the course. “And we are being told that Hamas” — the political entity that controls the Gaza Strip — “is not a terrorist group; Hamas is a noble entity defending the rights of Palestinians.”

“When looking at a posted syllabus, I wasn’t convinced that the allegations were without merit.” – LAUD board member Nick Melvoin

A course primer that Cone shared with Saltzberg described Hamas as a “national liberation organization” and speculated that missile attacks on Israel hope “to send a message to the governments of the world that have not responded to Israel’s ongoing inhuman and illegal treatment of the Gazans.”

Jeff Cooper, the lead instructor on the course, declined to comment on Cone’s allegations.

After LAUSD received complaints prompted by Saltzberg’s emails, board member Nick Melvoin, who is Jewish and whose district includes parts of West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, responded by saying he would seek a review of the district’s approval process for continuing education courses.

“While the District staff ‘did not observe evidence of the concerns raised about the course,’ I nevertheless insisted that we no longer continue the course until we can re-evaluate the course’s objectives, instructors, and materials,” he said in a statement posted to Facebook on Oct. 26. “When looking at a posted syllabus, I wasn’t convinced that the allegations of bias were without merit.”

The course is due for reapproval in 2018.

Ekchian concluded in her letter to the board, “L.A. Unified stands resolute in its dedication to diversity and respect for students and families from all backgrounds. I will keep you apprised of updates.”