San Francisco School Board Backs Away from Contract with Anti-Israel Group

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A resolution by the San Francisco Board of Education to work with an Arab and a Vietnamese group to help develop new language programs sparked a two-month controversy that was resolved, at least temporarily, over the summer.

The Board decision to encourage the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to work with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) as part of an effort to bring Arabic language instruction to San Francisco public school students prompted objections from a Jewish community group, which is concerned that AROC promotes hatred towards Israel.

Tension mounted in June after the Board unanimously adopted resolution No. 153-10A1, Creating Arabic and Vietnamese Pathways. The resolution caught the attention of Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Rabbi Doug Kahn, who was deeply troubled by the proposed partnership between SFUSD and AROC. In a June 17 letter to SFUSD superintendent Richard Carranza and Board president Emily Murase, Kahn stated that AROC “supports the zero-sum eradication of Israel and the marginalization of those who support or value Israel.”

Kahn’s claim is based, in part, on a 2014 United Auto Workers Local 2865 caucus panel discussion AROC executive director Lara Kiswani took part in at the University of California, Berkeley, at which Kiswani said, among other things, “Bringing down Israel will really benefit everyone in the world.”

“We’re being vilified,” Kiswani said in a phone interview with the View. AROC is a social justice organization, opposed to Israeli occupation, war and surveillance, and supportive of the self-determination of all people, she said.  According to AROC’s website, Kiswani’s comments at the panel discussion have been misrepresented by JCRC.

The Board resolution instructed SFUSD staff to work with AROC and the Vietnamese Youth Development Center (VYDC), among others, to teach Arabic and Vietnamese to students. AROC has advocated for increased language access, and was part of a successful 2013 campaign to get the school district to offer Arabic interpreters.  Actual demand for such translators appears to be quite modest. 

A July 22 letter from the Board and Carranza sought to ease the dispute and clarify with whom the school district will work on language programs.  The letter, which was signed by all but one Board member, stated that SFUSD received a large number of messages from an array of groups and individuals concerning “organizations named in the Board resolution.”

Board members who signed the letter, Sandra Lee Fewer, Matt Haney, Rachel Norton, Jill Wynns, Hydra Mendoza, Murase, as well as Carranza, said their intent has been “only to explore whether or not the San Francisco Unified School District will pursue the establishment of Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways.”  The correspondence indicated that such pathways need to be feasible in terms of staffing and curriculum, and should meet the needs of underserved students. “We are not interested or willing to be embroiled in any geo-political discussions,” the communique stated.

The July letter described SFUSD’s intention to study, develop and approve a program to teach students Arabic and Vietnamese. Besides determining the program’s feasibility, district staff will develop a proposal addressing the program’s design, staffing and facility needs, fiscal impact, influence on existing programs, such as special education, and comments from students, staff and community members. 

Board member Shamann Walton, who was one of the sponsors of the original resolution, didn’t sign the letter because “all of my concerns are not addressed” in it. “One thing is developing a clear policy on how we decide which community-based organizations to work with and a process for including them in resolutions in the future.” Walton told members of San Francisco’s Jewish community that he regretted his original decision to identify AROC as an appropriate SFUSD partner. 

According to Kiswani, JCRC had called for a re-vote on the resolution, and asked school district educators to exclude AROC and VYDC as partners.  But Kahn’s June 17 letter doesn’t address VYDC, and only states that JCRC wanted to “remove AROC from the adopted resolution, and discontinue any partnership between the school district and AROC. We understand this may take a full meeting of the Board to resolve.”

While the July letter reaffirmed Board members’ intent to offer Arabic and Vietnamese language training, it said that the district is “not bound to work with any specific organization” in developing a curriculum to teach these skills. In the wake of her loss to JCRC, Kiswani claimed that the Board’s intention to explore teaching Arabic in the schools is “a powerful win for our community.”

Kahn expressed satisfaction that SFUSD appears to have decided not to award a contract to what some believe is a hate group. “It is clear that any organization that promotes hate, as the Arab Resource and Organizing Council has done, is not an appropriate partner …” he said. JCRC members are “confident the school district will identify appropriate partners going forward for the introduction of Arabic language instruction in the schools and appreciate their serious attention to this matter…”