Group pushing Arabic-language curriculum in SF schools faces backlash over remarks

A San Francisco-based Arabic community group could be excluded from helping to create Arabic-language curriculum it championed to the school district earlier this year because of alleged discriminatory comments the organization and its leader made about Jews.

Last May, the Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution for the San Francisco Unified School District to explore implementing Arabic- and Vietnamese-language pathways programs for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

The resolution also called for the district to work with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, among other community groups, to develop “culturally appropriate professional development opportunities” for teachers at certain schools. Incorporating community input is standard practice for the SFUSD when creating new curriculum.

But language used by AROC to allegedly “push a radical Anti-Israel and Anti-Zionist agenda in San Francisco,” according to a June 17 letter from the Jewish Community Relations Council to school district leaders, has prompted local Jewish community leaders to urge the SFUSD to eliminate the group from the resolution.

“We fully support implementing language pathways in Vietnamese and Arabic. [The opposition] is of this group that has been named in the resolution [and] made these really ugly and divisive statements,” said Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the Jewish council.

District officials have not confirmed whether the Arab group will remain listed as a resource in the resolution, and the Board of Education in the coming weeks intends to collectively respond to community concerns regarding the resolution.

“We are reviewing that,” Board President Emily Murase said of continuing to work with AROC. “A lot of information came to us after the resolution was passed. We’re in the process of evaluating partners. We want to do it in a very deliberate, thoughtful way.”

In the letter from the Jewish council to Superintendent Richard Carranza and Murase, examples of such discriminatory comments include a Tweet by @AROCBayArea on Dec. 15 saying: “Help us kick Zionism out of the Bay Area. Donate today.”

Other comments highlighted in the letter were purportedly made by Lara Kiswani, the group’s executive director, at a Nov. 12 forum on how organized labor can help Palestine: “Bringing down Israel really will benefit everyone in the world, and everyone in society”; “As long as you continue to be on that side, I’m going to continue to hate you.”

“Any group that espouses hatred really should not be a partner for the school district,” Russell said.

The Arabic group considers the Jewish council’s attempt to remove the group from the resolution to be little more than an intimidation tactic.

“We see this recent development consistent with the way that JCRC operates on a regular basis where they ignore the impact their actions have on children,” Kiswani wrote in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. “They are literally willing to take educational opportunities away from children in order to feed their need to defend the state of Israel.”

Kiswani noted that the group is already discussing the possibility of establishing a community committee to help inform the design and implementation of the Arabic-language program.

The school district, for its part, is trying to steer the conversation away from politics and focus on the task at hand: exploring the feasibility of adding Arabic- and Vietnamese-language classes.

“The resolution directs me to begin the process for assessing whether or not we will even be able to implement Arabic and Vietnamese world language pathways,” Carranza said in a statement to the Examiner. “This means we have yet to determine whether the programs would be feasible and whether we have what we need to develop them, contingent on Board of Education approval.”

At a board meeting in June, Carranza also emphasized that school officials, and not community groups, have the ultimate say in lessons that wind up in the classrooms.

“While we may solicit input from knowledgeable individuals, or organizations, the SFUSD is the sole determiner … of what becomes part of the curriculum and what is taught,” Carranza said at the meeting. “We are not interested in engaging in any geopolitical discussions, or for providing an environment where any group of people will feel disparaged or unwelcomed. This resolution is about studying the development of language pathways, and that is all.”

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