July 15, 2019

Anti-Israel UTLA committee gets sent to the corner for a time out

The United Teachers Los Angeles committee that came under intense criticism for planning to host a gathering calling for economic sanctions against Israel, including a boycott and divestment, has shut down its Web site and agreed to undertake a monthlong “self-evaluation.”

The move came after a meeting on Friday, Oct. 13, with UTLA President A.J. Duffy.

Duffy said he hopes the self-examination will lead the 25-member UTLA Human Rights Committee to focus its attention on “issues that touch on the classroom and the school site that really have to do with education, rather than far-reaching issues, such as whether to boycott Israel.”

The event was to have been sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of Movement for a Democratic Society Inc., an organization based in Connecticut that, according to its Web site, includes among its board members author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, and revisionist historian Howard Zinn.

Duffy said the majority of the UTLA Human Rights Committee now realizes that their actions have damaged the union’s reputation and diverted union members’ attention from salary negotiations for a new teachers contract. UTLA has 48,000 members.

Duffy said he has received more than 300 phone calls and e-mails, some from as far away as Russia, Israel and Great Britain, lambasting the Human Rights Committee for agreeing to host an anti-Israel meeting at the union’s headquarters. Some angry callers, Duffy said, accused the union of supporting terrorists. A few UTLA members threatened to quit the union.

After the outcry from UTLA members and others, including pressure from a united front of local Jewish organizations, Duffy denied the committee use of UTLA facilities.

Going forward, he said he would personally review committee requests for meetings at UTLA headquarters. If proposed gatherings are inconsistent with the union’s official political position, Duffy said, he could exercise “emergency powers” and deny usage.

Although the UTLA Human Rights Committee rescinded its offer to host the meeting that triggered the controversy, the Movement for a Democratic Society gathering took place at a different, unnamed site on Oct. 12, with some of the Human Rights Committee members in attendance, according to committee member Emma Rosenthal. The society is allied with Students for a Democratic Society, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s. Cafe Intifada, which Rosenthal heads, and the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee officially endorsed the gathering.

Rosenthal declined to reveal any details about the Oct. 12 event, except to say that the outcry by pro-Israel groups “created a whole lot of interest. We had a lot more involvement than we otherwise would have had.”

Founded in the 1980s, the Human Rights Committee has sponsored and hosted a variety of meetings and conferences over the years that have addressed the environment, support for striking Oaxacan teachers in Mexico and immigration rights, among other issues. In April, the group’s two-day “Conference on Human Rights and the Environment” featured workshops on topics ranging from the environmental impact of Israel “occupation” on Palestinian communities, to the Gulf War to climate change. A lunchtime plenary session included a discussion of “definitions of genocide and human rights in the U.S., world history and in the Middle East, specifically in Palestine,” according to the group’s Web site.

UTLA members can become voting members of the Human Rights Committee by attending its first meeting of the year or two consecutive gatherings.

The original release put out by the local chapter of the Movement for a Democratic Society said the anti-Israel meeting’s purpose was 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….”

A Movement for a Democratic Society spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, has 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.”