Jewish families say anti-Israel messaging in Bay Area classrooms is making schools unsafe

WESTWOOD, CA - APRIL 28: Israeli flags wave in the air during a demonstration in support of Israel at UCLA on Sunday, April 28, 2024 in Westwood, CA. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Jewish families across the Bay Area are pushing back against what they describe as an overt anti-Israel bias in K-12 classrooms. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In the weeks after Hamas' deadly cross-border attacks on Israeli towns and Israel's ensuing bombardment of Gaza, a seventh-grade Jewish student at Roosevelt Middle School in San Francisco grew accustomed to seeing her classmates display their support for Palestinians.

Students wore shirts that read "Free Palestine" and "All eyes on Gaza." But it was more of a background hum until spring, when things took a sharper turn.

During a school assembly, a classmate spoke out against the war, equating it to genocide. Then, one teacher asked students to create a "propaganda poster" that would "persuade your audience" on an issue important to them. Many students used the opportunity to create public service announcements for cleaner oceans or against food waste and texting while driving. A handful called for an end to the war in Gaza.

One poster, prominently displayed by the teacher, caught the seventh-grader's attention. A student had drawn an image of a Star of David exuding thick chains shackling what appeared to be an outline of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Beneath the image, written in red and all capitals, was the phrase "from the river to the sea" — a slogan many Jewish people consider a call for the expulsion and genocide of Israeli Jews. Inside the star was the word "Zionism," the student said.

"It felt really unsafe. I couldn't be in there anymore, because there was hate against my religion up on the wall," said the student, whose parents requested The Times not identify her by name because of concerns she would face retribution from classmates and teachers.

Her parents scheduled a meeting with school officials and said they came away startled at how little the administrators knew about the history of Israel and the region — and why Jewish families would consider the poster offensive. They said it took hours of discussion before school leaders agreed to ask the teacher to take it down.

"This is antisemitic propaganda," the girl's mother said. "This would not be acceptable for any other group."

The family is hoping to transfer their daughter to a new school next year.

The incident is emblematic of what many Jewish families in Bay Area communities say is an undercurrent of antisemitism that has emerged unchecked in K-12 schools amid the divisive national debates spawned by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In San Francisco, Viviane Safrin is serving as a point person for Jewish families who want to report concerns about school lessons and activities they perceive as antisemitic.

"It often feels like I’m a triage nurse or ER doctor," said Safrin, who sent two of her children to San Francisco public schools and overall had a positive experience. "My phone is dinging from the time I wake up until I go to bed with different photos from different things that have happened at school, or a lesson plan, or this and that was said to a student by peers."

Disagreement over how the war in Gaza should be taught in K-12 schools has fractured a region that harbors some of the nation's most progressive and antiwar communities. It's also raised challenging questions about the line between free speech and hurtful bias, and what obligation public schools have to ensure all students feel welcome in their classrooms, regardless of their opinions on the conflict.

Many of the families who spoke with The Times have personal ties to Israel, whether through birth or because close family members live there. As Jewish Americans, all were raised to respect and embrace Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Some did not consider themselves overtly Zionist before the war — and disagree with some of Israel's politics. But they believe without question that Israel has a right to exist as the world's only Jewish state and because of that belief suddenly find themselves labeled as racists and genocide enablers.

Worse, for many parents, is watching as their children are somehow held accountable for a government on the other side of the world.

According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 82% of Jewish people said caring about Israel was an important part of their Jewish identity. More than a quarter had lived in Israel or visited multiple times, and 45% had visited at least once.

The Bay Area is home to an estimated 350,000 Jewish people, according to a 2021 report led by the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. They encompass a diverse spectrum of opinions on Israel and its government, including pro-Palestinian Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which was founded in the Bay Area in the 1990s.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation executive director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley, sent his three sons through Berkeley schools. Naftalin-Kelman, who said he was speaking as a Berkeley parent and not in his official capacity at the student center, said it's incumbent on K-12 educators to consider all of the experiences of young students and their families when considering how lesson plans affect their sense of belonging.

"There’s a heaviness that exists since Oct. 7 for Jewish families, families that have a connection to Israel, Zionists, Israelis," Naftalin-Kelman said. And many now have a thudding sense that some of their teachers, classmates and colleagues have "no understanding of who they are."

"Unfortunately, what I think is happening now is we are stuck with simple slogans that put people in camps, that remove all nuance and complexity in what is one of the most complex conversations around religion, identity, politics and nationhood," he said. "I think there are sometimes mistakes and administrators can do more. But it doesn't mean there is mal-intent."

Read more: 'Are you a Zionist?' Checkpoints at UCLA encampment provoked fear, debate among Jews

Jewish families across the Bay Area have raised a range of concerns about what they perceive as antisemitism in K-12 classrooms, including teachers displaying pro-Palestinian posters and adopting lesson plans that portray Israel as a white colonialist aggressor. Some said their children have been accused of supporting genocide because they won't renounce Israel's right to exist.

Some of the complaints have spawned federal investigations.

In February, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League filed a federal complaint with the Department of Education over “severe and persistent” harassment and discrimination against Jewish kids in Berkeley schools.

On May 8, Berkeley Supt. Enikia Ford Morthel was called before a Republican-led congressional subcommittee investigating allegations of "pervasive antisemitism" in K-12 schools. Ford Morthel forcefully rejected accusations that Berkeley schools had become a breeding ground for antisemitism, saying educators were working hard to ensure all students feel welcome.

"There have been incidents of antisemitism in Berkeley Unified School District," she said. "And every single time that we are aware of such an incident, we take action and follow up."

Read more: Berkeley schools chief grilled by Congress on claims of rampant antisemitism in K-12 classrooms

The teachers union in Oakland Unified endorsed an unsanctioned pro-Palestinian "teach-in" in December, prompting a civil rights probe by the Department of Education. The union also provided teachers with pro-Palestinian lessons to use in place of district-provided curriculum, drawing a stern warning from Oakland's superintendent,

The division has pushed some parents, like Shira Avoth, to pull their kids out of Oakland schools.

Avoth, who was born in Tel Aviv and moved to the U.S. at age 11, said she has requested a "safety transfer" for her son, a seventh-grader, to a school in neighboring Piedmont.

Avoth said one of her son's teachers put "End genocide now" posters up in the classroom and assigned homework that was "politically charged" even before Oct. 7. Eventually, she said, her son transferred out of that classroom. But he then spent a month working on assignments in a room by himself during that class period.

Several families spoke of a pervasive sense that pro-Israel voices are not welcome in classrooms.

A senior at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals, said he had an open mind, at first, to criticism of Israel's bombardment of Gaza. But he couldn't understand why some of his friends wouldn't condemn the Hamas attacks that prompted Israel's retaliation.

"I felt so ostracized," he said.

He said those feelings only deepened when a pro-Palestinian group was brought in to speak about the war in one of his classes, and when posters advertising meetings of the Jewish Student Union were torn down.

"I've been bullied, but the main issue is the classroom — the intrusion of this anti-Israel ideology into the classroom," he said. "If you just say 'Zionist,' you can say anything against the Jews. It’s like politically correct."

Julia David, an English teacher at George Washington High in San Francisco, said she also has felt more estranged in recent months. David has family in Israel and became the sponsor of her school's Jewish Student Union this year. The club was started to create a community for students to safely discuss the Jewish-American experience and how they feel about the conflict.

David said the group will talk about what it feels like to hear "Free Palestine" in the hallway or when they see anti-Israel graffiti on bathroom walls.

"When I was teaching, I had never worn a Jewish Star of David necklace before. I do every day now," David said. "And I wear it proudly, and I make sure it is seen."

In a January letter to San Francisco families, Supt. Matt Wayne assured families the district would not tolerate bullying and harassment.

"We are aware of these allegations and take them very seriously," a spokesperson wrote in an email to The Times. "Due to our obligation to protect student and staff privacy, we cannot share details of completed or ongoing investigations."

The issue of how and whether to teach about the conflict has also divided Jewish families, most notably in Berkeley, where some residents reject claims of unchecked antisemitism and consider the federal complaint a bogus effort to keep Muslim and Arab voices silenced.

Soon after Berkeley's superintendent finished testifying before Congress, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Council on American-Islamic Relations responded by filing a federal complaint alleging "severe and pervasive anti-Palestinian racism" in Berkeley schools.

"Some [teachers] have been teaching for decades; they have never been silenced on political speech," said Sahar Habib Ghazi, the mother of a sixth-grader and a member of Berkeley Families For Collective Liberation. "We are a political city. ... People don't move to Berkeley to be apolitical."

Ghazi said the war isn't just of global significance for many students but also of deeply personal importance for their families.

"They are very aware that the war is being funded by U.S. tax dollars, and that's the same money that's funding their schools," Ghazi said. "They don't see it as a global issue. They see it as a local issue."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.