Transferring kids to nearby districts, parents decry systemic antisemitism in Oakland
At least 30 Jewish families are moving their children to neighboring schools as the Department of Education opens a probe into alleged discrimination
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Shira and her husband settled in Oakland, Calif. a few years ago, expecting the San Francisco Bay Area would, unlike their previous home in Florida, would provide an inclusive educational atmosphere in which to raise their son. Instead, Oakland’s K-12 school district has become a center of anti-Israel sentiment, and is now the target of a Title VI investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“We left Florida because I could see the tide turning there, I could see what was happening in the school boards there in trying to erase historical narratives, and I didn’t want my son to grow up around that,” Shira, who requested her last name be withheld to discuss a sensitive matter, told eJewishPhilanthropy.
The family decamped to Oakland “because of its inclusivity. It does not rewrite history.” Then Oct. 7 happened.
Shira’s idealistic view of the city first changed in early fall when her son entered seventh grade in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Now, Shira and her husband are among at least 30 Jewish families transferring their children out of OUSD in the wake of the DOE investigation into Oakland and San Francisco’s school districts about whether an unauthorized teach-in for Gaza by educators last month amounted to discrimination against students on the basis of their shared Jewish ancestry.
Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, antisemitism has increased dramatically in the Bay Area, with 61% of local Jewish residents now reporting they feel less safe in their day-to-day lives. But Shira said the situation was fraught even before the attacks.
“When registering my son there is an ethnicity survey and nowhere to put Jewish or Israel as country of origin. But there is Palestine,” Shira, who is Israeli, recalled.
When Shira attended back-to-school night, she noticed her son’s English teacher hung “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” posters around the classroom. Soon after, he came home with assignments that Shira calls “political in nature and made him uncomfortable.”
One such assignment, according to Shira, involved “looking at pictures of a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rally where people were carrying pictures that said, ‘Stop the genocide.’ They were given multiple choice options as to what would be a good vocabulary word to describe the photos. Options included ‘bravery.’ My son chose the word ‘incite’ because he felt it incited violence or hate towards Israel and Jewish people. He failed that assignment.”
“I asked the teacher about it and he ignored me. His reaction was to add more posters. I started communicating with the administration about getting the posters taken down. The teacher was spoken to, but it was handled pretty loosely,” Shira said. (The teacher has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation).
“The administration decided it was best for my son to not go to that English class anymore, but there was no other English class for him to go to so he ended up sitting in the office for over a month,” she continued.
In the wake of Oct. 7, “the problems magnified,” she said, pointing to an unauthorized teach-in at Oakland public schools on Dec. 6, which featured dozens of teachers incorporating the conflict in Gaza into their curricula.
The school board condemned the teach-in, with OUSD Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell writing in a letter to the community on Dec. 4, “I want to make clear that the District does not authorize this action… From our initial communication on October 11 to subsequent messages, we have remained unwavering in our stance against antisemitic, anti-Israeli, Islamophobic, or anti-Palestinian prejudice or discrimination within our District. We are aware of some recent incidents that may have cast doubt on the District’s commitment to this fundamental expectation, and I want to be clear – we are taking immediate and decisive action within our authority to address these issues.”
Johnson-Trammell did not immediately respond to eJP’s request for comment about the flood of Jewish families leaving the district.
The representative council of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the local teachers’ union, meanwhile, endorsed the teach-in.
In since-deleted Instagram posts, which eJP obtained screenshots of, the OEA wrote that it expresses “unequivocal support for Palestinian liberation and self-determination and “we condemn the genocidal and apartheid state of Israel.”
The council also voted, in November, to call for a cease-fire. In December, OUSD canceled a planned school board meeting, where the body would have considered a cease-fire resolution, at the last minute, apparently out of safety concerns.
California is one of 18 states to mandate some form of ethnic studies education in public schools, and the process of establishing a curriculum, which began long before Oct. 7, has been mired in controversy, according to Jewish leaders.
When the state was first considering making a semester of ethnic studies a mandatory graduation requirement, the original draft curriculum faced strong pushback from California’s Jewish community for its hostility toward Israel and support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. It also did not include education about antisemitism. A coalition of Jewish activists then worked with legislators to draft a model curriculum that was more inclusive, and which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat.
Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, told eJP that “the hatred we have witnessed in Oakland — notably perpetuated by public school administrators and educators — is unprecedented.”
“As Jews across the region were reeling from the horrors of Oct. 7, they looked to their neighbors for support,” Gregory continued. “Instead of being met with empathy and compassion, they faced a flood of intolerance, discrimination and hostility that continues today. Over the past four months, there have been few safe non-Jewish spaces in Oakland for our community. Unfortunately, this includes OUSD public school classrooms for even the youngest students.”
Gregory called on Oakland’s teachers’ union and school board members “to show the country it is taking its antisemitism problem seriously and is making the changes to ensure our shared spaces — especially our schools — are safe for everyone.”
Shira, who plans to apply in the spring for a school district transfer to enroll her son in the neighboring Piedmont Unified School District, citing safety concerns, said she is “baffled, disappointed and in shock about what’s happening now here.”
Having heard about the experiences of other families in her Oakland community, Elaine, who requested to be identified only by her middle name, said she was gripped by fear about the situation in the schools. Although her 10-year-old son had not personally dealt with antisemitism in his OUSD school, Elaine, an Oakland resident for more than two decades, said she didn’t see any reason to stick around and wait. She made the decision ahead of winter break to transfer her son to an elementary school in Piedmont.
Elaine said the final straw for her was the union’s consideration of a cease-fire resolution. “We had awareness that there was sentiment among teachers at his school that not only was that OK but also that it was representative of their views, and so from that point on my health took a downfall, my blood pressure was through the roof.”
She said that her family “has suffered blowback,” including comments from neighbors, because of their decision to pull out of OUSD.
Shira’s decision to leave the district has been more complicated. At her son’s request she and her husband will allow him to finish the school year at OUSD. “Middle school is hard enough, he has a great group of friends and doesn’t want to leave but also doesn’t want to stay in a school where they are going to teach students to hate him.”
She continued, “I live in Oakland, this is where I pay my taxes, I should be able to send my son to public school here. We’re supposed to be a very diverse community and it seems those protections are not offered to Jewish people.”
Jewish Insider’s senior national correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed reporting.