Al Jazeera America

Pro-Israel and Arab groups wrangle over Arabic instruction in SF schools

Critics of Arab center's involvement say group will insert its view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into coursework

SAN FRANCISCO – In May 2015, Arab community members were elated when the San Francisco Unified School District unanimously voted — twice — to pass a resolution mandating instruction in Arabic and Vietnamese for English learners who speak those languages at home. The classes will diversify educational options in local public schools starting in 2017, but some pro-Israel organizations are seeking to suppress the participation of a major Arab community group in the planning process.

“It was really exciting,” said Sama Abu Ayyash, the mother of a 5-year-old, who was one of those cheering the results at the May 26 school board meeting that sealed the deal. Ayyash’s son Zein begins kindergarten this fall.

“It’s an opportunity for my son to learn more about his culture, and I believe the more connected children feel to their roots, the more they have a better chance to succeed in life,” Ayyash said.

There are approximately 500 children in the district who speak Arabic as their home language, by the District’s own estimate. In providing Arabic language instruction, San Francisco will join other cities such as Dearborn, Michigan (home to the highest concentration of Arabic-speaking people in the United States), which introduced Arabic instruction back in 1982, and New York City, which opened a 100-student English-Arabic dual-language high school in 2009. In Dearborn, more than 90 percent of its students (or about 11,000) speak Arabic at home; about 6,500 (4 percent) of New York City’s students speak Arabic at home. San Francisco’s ratio is 3 percent.

Laurie Wager, a literacy specialist who has been with the district for 18 years, believes home language instruction for kids starting school leads to better academic performance later on. “We shake our heads at [low] graduation rates, but it really starts in kindergarten,” she said.

“I see kids who don’t see themselves reflected, appreciated, understood [in the classroom] who don’t relate to the school experience at all. They’re mandated to be there, and they go through the motions,” Wager said, adding that home language instruction can reduce this marginalization.

There were lots of smiles in the room on May 26, from Arab and Vietnamese parents as well as school board members.

Then came the backlash.

A local community group, Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), headed the campaign to expand Arabic language instruction at SF public schools. AROC and its executive director Lara Kiswani were soon targeted by pro-Israel groups who claimed that the organization’s previous displays of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation means the group is politically biased, and therefore unfit to help the SF Unified School District develop its programming.

As an anti-racist group, AROC is “inherently anti-Zionist,” Kiswani explained pointedly. “No Arab is going to be OK with the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, so inherently we must take a position of solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

AROC had recently gained worldwide attention for its part in a successful effort to block Israeli-owned ships from docking in the port of Oakland, as part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement supporting Palestinian human rights.

The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sent a disapproving letter to SFUSD’s directors, writing that AROC would “inappropriately [inject] its biased views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into its training.” The ADL’s letter cited a radio interview in which Kiswani expressed that it would be “absurd” to expect an Arab organization in San Francisco to not advocate for Palestinian issues.

“For us this is part and parcel of our work and for us we know that the community stands behind the values of human rights, the values of social justice, the values of self-determination and dignity for all people. And that’s what we fight for on a daily basis and Arabic language pathways is just another example of that,” Kiswani told California community radio station KPFA in July 2015.

In an email to Al Jazeera America, Jeremy Russell of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), another pro-Israel group, described Kiswani’s criticism of the Israeli government, which has always implemented de facto segregation in schools, as “intolerant and extremist,” but declined to elaborate or answer specific questions about the controversy.

The SFUSD Board responded to the dispute with a letter on July 22 to several leaders of pro-Israel groups explaining that AROC was named in the board resolution because of its “role in providing support and resources to SFUSD families as it relates to language development.”

The board apologized “for giving any impression that we may have taken a political position or if anyone was offended,” stating that “there is no room for hate” in San Francisco public schools, and that it would “review its relationship” with AROC in the coming weeks.

Of the ADL and JCRC statements against her, Kiswani said, “It’s just fueling the fire in terms of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country.” By vilifying AROC, she said, the pro-Israel camp is “fanning the flames of anti-Arab racism.”

Zionist activists in the U.S. have a long history of “attempting to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism,” Kiswani said. Her group and others strongly dispute this point.

‘It’s an opportunity for my son to learn more about his culture, and I believe the more connected children feel to their roots, the more they have a better chance to succeed in life.’

Sama Abu Ayyash

San Francisco mother

Organizations such as the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Jewish Voice for Peace and Queers Undermining Israeli Apartheid (QUIT) quickly came out in support of AROC, circulating a letter in early August that was co-signed by dozens of other Jewish community groups showing the stark divide between Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish Americans.

“As members of the broader Bay Area Jewish community, we decry the Jewish Community Relations Council’s shameless targeting of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center,” the letter stated. “The JCRC does not speak for, serve, or represent the views of all or likely most Jewish individuals and communities in the Bay Area, and certainly not those of us who believe in principles of equality, justice, and diversity. Jewish communities, like all communities, are diverse in our opinions and perspectives – to reduce the Jewish community to a single perspective, as the JCRC has done, is tokenizing and inaccurate.”

After the letter from the SFUSD board, both ADL and JCRC clarified that while they supported Arabic classes, they believe AROC is too biased to be considered a legitimate partner to spearhead the effort with the District.

The situation is the latest in a series of retributive moves from anti-BDS political groups toward anyone involved in the BDS movement that brings attention to Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

“One of their primary strategies is economic coercion,” explained Kiswani. “They put pressure on funders and no longer fund organizations that do work around Palestine, whether it’s direct work, or just an expression of solidarity.” In 2003, the JCRC instigated the freezing of nine months of city funding to the group San Francisco Women Against Rape for its statement of solidarity with Palestine; in 2010 it initiated the cancellation of the Oakland Museum of Children’s Arts display of artwork created by youths in Gaza.

“This is part of an international campaign to stop BDS at the root,” said Deeg Gold, with QUIT, an activist collective composed mostly of anti-Zionist LGBTQ Jews. Gold pointed to the June 2015 anti-BDS summit in Las Vegas, where right-wing casino mogul Sheldon Adelson called on wealthy allies of Israel to commit to funding a pro-Israel public relations campaign.

Days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged more than $25 million to combat BDS, including hiring government officers solely focused on delegitimizing the boycott movement.

Even though the SFUSD resolution makes no mention of BDS in its push for Arab cultural involvement in schools, Gold said the fact that AROC has supported BDS makes them a target.

Sama Abu Ayyash hopes the classes, in some small way, help combat Islamophobia in America’s progressive capital.

“I moved into SF 15 years ago, so I’m pretty rooted here. But at that time, it was the height of Islamophobia — 9/11 had just happened,” she said.

A man mistook the Palestinian flag Ayyash displayed outside her home for an Iraqi one, and repeatedly defaced her walls with spray-painted racial slurs. “Awful things,” she recalled.

“That’s how I got involved with AROC, because when that started happening, the police weren’t enough. They came and wrote up a report,” she said. “AROC got me in the media, got me to speak out, got the Arab community together, and got me to interact with other people here in SF who were also victims of hate crimes.”

Ayyash now lives in the Latino-heavy Mission District and has registered Zein in a Spanish immersion class. She believes the forthcoming Arabic classes will benefit all San Francisco children by exposing them to the fifth-most widely spoken language in the world, and opening up new opportunities for travel and cultural insight.

The district has offered other home language instruction programs, including Cantonese, Hebrew and Korean, for years.

San Francisco’s school board resumed conversations with AROC in mid-August regarding the new language classes.

QUIT’s Gold expects more backlash to come, but said groups like JCRC are “fighting a losing battle.” She compared the language pathways to another controversial piece of education legislation recently conceived in San Francisco that mandates teaching disability and LGBT history in California public schools. This fall, a public high school in San Francisco will unveil the country’s first LGBT Studies class.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter