US public school program comes under Israel lobby pressure

An Israel advocacy group’s campaign to thwart implementation of an Arabic language program in San Francisco public schools has ended in failure.

Last May, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District unanimously passed a resolution to implement Arabic and Vietnamese into the city’s Language Pathways program. The program was established more than 40 years ago to ensure that students from an array of language backgrounds receive equal access to education.

San Francisco has one of the most progressive language programs in the United States, providing learning opportunities in more than a dozen languages.

But soon after the May resolution passed, board members began hearing complaints about the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a San Francisco Bay Area-based activism group which campaigned for the language program. The complaints came from people who had been mobilized by the local chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a subsidiary of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

JCPA is an umbrella organization that lists 125 JCRC chapters around the country. It co-founded the Israel Action Network, a $6 million initiative devoted to combatting the “delegitimization” of Israel by attacking grassroots activism expressing solidarity with Palestine.

“Political agenda”

In June, JCRC leaders Rosalind Franklin and Rabbi Doug Kahn met with the superintendent of the school district and president of the board of education to present their concerns about the city working with AROC.

In a follow-up letter, Franklin and Kahn cast AROC as a “hateful and inflammatory” group and state that it “has a political agenda that is anathema to peaceful, inclusive and civil discourse.”

JCRC excoriate AROC’s anti-Zionist activism in the Bay Area, including their part in the successful Block the Boat campaign.

AROC was a central organizer with other local activist groups and labor unions to successfully prevent the unloading of an Israeli cargo ship at the Port of Oakland during the assault on Gaza last summer.

The JCRC’s letter asserts that Zionist students and teachers would not feel safe with AROC serving as a school resource.


JCRC has a long history of bullying institutions from working with groups it views as sympathetic to Palestinians. In 2011, it attempted to prevent a local museum from displaying children’s art from Gaza after Israel’s 2008-2009 attack.

Authors of resolutions for San Francisco’s school district have a 30-day window to rewrite a resolution after it has been passed. JCRC pressured the authors to rewrite the resolution to exclude AROC as a partner while trying to rally support from other board members and community organizations to cast AROC as a hate group.

JCRC’s Franklin and Kahn wrote in a letter to Noah Sochet, a member and former chair of the Peace and Justice Commission in the neighboring city of Berkeley who had given his support for AROC, that the group “has expressed overt ‘hatred’ against those who believe in the Jewish people’s right to freedom from oppression and for national self-determination.”

JCRC’s letter also tries to portray AROC’s executive director, Lara Kiswani, as someone who promotes hate. JCRC selectively quoted Kiswani from a local panel discussion about a boycott resolution put to vote among student workers at the University of California last November.

During board meetings, AROC members told The Electronic Intifada, JCRC showed a heavily edited clip of Kiswani as she placed the Palestine liberation movement into a political context.

Kiswani told The Electronic Intifada that JCRC was trying to cast AROC as a hate group so that the city could no longer work with them.

Smear campaign

For some on the school board, the question boiled down to the mere fact that AROC is an anti-Zionist organization, Kiswani said.

By the time the 30-day window closed, none of the three original authors were willing to reintroduce the bill.

Kiswani says the Arabic Pathways program will emphasize culture and history and give all students a chance to broaden their understanding of the Arab world.

According to AROC, there is a growing Arab community in San Francisco with an increasing number of refugees from Yemen and Syria.

While its political organizing attracts more media attention, AROC has been working with the city for years to improve services to the Arab community. In 2012 they successfully lobbied the city to provide Arabic language interpreters across the school district.

Core values

JCRC’s attack on AROC’s involvement with San Francisco’s public schools takes place within a broader effort by Israel lobby groups to conflate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism and hate speech.

The board’s acceptance of AROC as a partner with the school district despite the JCRC’s protest has been seen as an implicit rejection of the characterization of anti-Zionist groups as hate groups.

“The city has a history of working with social justice organizations that are anti-racist and hold anti-Zionism as a core value,” Kiswani said. “AROC [is] one of them. The attempt by JCRC to censor and repress this work failed.”

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Twitter: @CharESilver.