On Jan. 18, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) announced, via press release, that it was calling on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) to prohibit a proposed Black Lives Matter (BLM) week that is being organized by the Racial Justice Committee of the Caucus of Working Educators — a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union caucus.
Each day of the planned week, which is slated to start Jan. 23, takes on different themes from the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter movement: diversity, restorative justice, black women, black villages, globalism, empathy, loving engagement, queer affirming, intergenerational, collective value, transgender affirming, unapologetically black and black families.
“The lessons that teachers are planning are grounded in these topics, which focus on lifting up the experience of the black community and dialogue and conversation about current events related to the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Shira Cohen, a Jewish math teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, and one of the week’s organizers. “We are really looking forward to the fact that these 13 principles are empowering of communities in and beyond Philadelphia, and that our students will have the opportunity to think deeply about social justice and social movements.”
Though the programming is not mandatory, ZOA believes it violates several Philadelphia School District policies.
According to a ZOA letter sent to the SRC — which was signed by ZOA National President Mort Klein, ZOA Center for Law and Justice Director Susan B. Tuchman, Greater Philadelphia ZOA Executive Director Steve Feldman and ZOA Greater Philadelphia Co-President Lee Bender — there are three major reasons that the SRC should prohibit schools from participating in the BLM week.
First, ZOA contends that by recommending this curriculum, the Caucus is “usurping your authority to regulate, supervise, and approve what is taught and how it is taught” and “violate[s] District policies requiring the SRC to develop, evaluate and approve all curriculum materials.”
Secondly, ZOA contends that the materials violate school district policies by bringing politics into the classroom.
“Because the Black Lives Matter movement is political,” the letter writers say, “its principles, curriculum resources, and lesson plans cannot be used in the school district’s classrooms … District policies specially prohibit political activities on school property and on school time.”
ZOA’s third objection pertains to the Invest-Divest section of the platform of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition affiliated with the BLM movement.
The section of the platform, which endorses BDS, reads, in part: “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. … The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”
That platform, ZOA says, “falsely and outrageously claims that the Israeli government is committing ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian Arab people, with the complicity of the U.S.” and “falsely and outrageously identifies Israel — where all people have equal rights — as an apartheid state.”
In response to the ZOA letter, Lee Whack, spokesman for the School District of Philadelphia, said, “Black Lives Matter Week, an effort by the Caucus of Working Educators, is not sponsored by the School District of Philadelphia, nor is it part of our curriculum. However, the District encourages teachers to responsibly engage students around pertinent issues to develop critical thinking skills and a respect for the exchange of ideas.
“The District regularly encourages schools to look to current event topics for appropriate teaching content that is also aligned with grade-appropriate standards.”
The curricular suggestions are divided by age group. Some of the lesson plans are based on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project, while others highlight featured organizations, such as the Museum of African Diaspora, or introduce students to historical figures, such as gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
“There is nothing in the curriculum that is propelling anti-Semitism at all,” said Cohen, who added that there were many Jewish people involved in putting the week’s activities together. “What we’re really focusing on is … empowerment and liberation for all of the diverse communities of African-American people, including for Jewish people who are African-American. I am sure there is not anybody teaching anti-Semitism in our process. We want Black Lives Matter to include people of all religious and ethnic identities, including Jews of color.”
Still, Greater Philadelphia ZOA Executive Director Steve Feldman worries that students could see a teacher wearing a BLM t-shirt and then go online and find the anti-Israel information on the Movement for Black Lives website.
“Is it possible for a teacher or student who has been told about Black Lives Matter to go exploring and get to this website and see this stuff and be told terrible lies about Israel?” Feldman asked rhetorically over the phone yesterday. “Could a teacher go a little beyond the suggested curriculum and introduce these things to students? There’s nothing to stop a teacher from looking a little further and coming across this other stuff.”
“No one is denigrating any of the positive elements or aspects of Black Lives Matter,” Feldman added.
A different local Jewish group — the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace-Philadelphia — endorses the Caucus’ initiative.
“Jewish Voice for Peace-Philadelphia joins the majority of progressive American Jews, and particularly the younger generation, in supporting Black Lives Matter and calling for an end to political and economic systems that disproportionately harm people of color,” JVP’s Matt Berkman said. “We … support the efforts of Philadelphia public school teachers to educate students about the inequalities that affect their communities and their city.”
The week’s programming also includes activities that take place after the school day ends.
On Jan. 25, for instance, there will be a citywide community meeting at City Hall to discuss fostering better communication between families and schools. The conversation will be co-facilitated by Parents United, the organization co-founded by City Council member Helen Gym.
On Jan. 27, there will be a panel discussion titled “Demystify Black Women and Black Girls: Misogyny, Stigma and Power.”
“The events happening at night highlight several of these [BLM] principles,” said Cohen, “The vision for Collective Value specifically highlights this: ‘We are guided by the fact all black lives, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status or location.’”
Asked, via email, if ZOA would oppose these events that take place outside of school, Feldman responded, “ZOA does not object to the two examples that you cited in your email.”
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