Why the Gaza debate is driving Jewish families from Oakland schools: ‘This feels threatening to us’

OAKLAND — Posters, street art and public demonstrations around Oakland might make a city known for its diversity appear to be unified in its response to devastating violence overseas: “Free Palestine.”

But as the rising death count from Israel’s ongoing assault in Gaza continues to stir local activism, numerous Jewish families say their own trauma — from the Oct. 7 attack and taking of hostages by Hamas to local incidents of anti-Semitism — has been ignored or minimized by fellow Oaklanders, as well as the city’s schools.

Several families have pulled their students from the Oakland Unified School District, saying their children could no longer safely represent their culture, especially after some Oakland teachers in December strayed from the district’s curriculum to teach pro-Palestinian materials in the classroom.

The teach-in on Dec. 6 prompted the U.S. Department of Education to start a formal investigation this month, but the parents planning to transfer students out of Oakland are primarily concerned that there’s no longer room in the city’s progressive political landscape for the belief that a Jewish state in Israel deserves to exist.

“It’s not just that we’re off-put by the extremely one-sided stance by the Oakland teachers, but overall the lack of support in the broader community,” said Simon Ferber, who is planning with his wife, Lindsay, to move to Los Angeles for their kindergarten-age son’s education.

The Ferbers say as many as 30 families — maybe more — will notify the district in March that they will transfer their kids out of Oakland Unified for the next school year.

Their departures coincide with the Education Department’s investigation, which involves an allegation that Oakland elementary school students were told during the Dec. 6 teach-in that a “free Palestine means the annihilation of Jews.”

The department’s Jan. 16 letter to Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, first reported by The Oaklandside, does not provide additional context for the statement, which appears to far transcend mainstream support for Palestinian rights heard at rallies around the Bay Area.

Oakland Unified School District board members meet at La Escuelita Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

District officials and the school board president declined to comment on the parents’ concerns, citing the pending legal matter.

Oakland has not been immune to outright displays of anti-Semitic hate. The destruction of a large Menorah at Lake Merritt during Hanukkah in December led Mayor Sheng Thao to declare it an attack on “our entire city and our shared values.”

Other areas of discourse are more complicated.

Shira, a mother of a 7th-grader in the Oakland schools who asked for her last name not to be used due to fears for her family’s safety, was quick to notice a poster on the wall of her son’s English classroom bearing a phrase commonly heard at protests for a cease-fire in Gaza: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

To a younger generation, Shira acknowledged, the rhyming expression might be interpreted as a simple rallying cry for equality for Palestinians amid Israel’s longstanding control of the region, but to her and others it signals a call for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people who live there.

For many families leaving — or planning to leave — Oakland Unified, the problems started after the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada and the European Union, that left 1,200 people in Israel dead and led to the capture of 250 hostages.

Israel’s ensuing assault in Gaza, which by Friday had killed more than 26,000 people, has only stirred antipathy toward the Jewish state in progressive cities such as Oakland, where residents often champion the cause of Palestinian liberation and an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“There is an oppressed/oppressor narrative in Oakland that simply isn’t factual,” said Shira, whose son will transfer to a school in Piedmont next year. “You can feel bad about what’s happening in Gaza and also feel bad about the hostages.”

Claudia Ivette Sanchez and her son Atzin Sanchez Lee, 4, display signs during an Oakland Unified School District board meeting at La Escuelita Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023.  (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

The Ferbers said they never intended to leave the Bay Area, having bought a house in Oakland just a few years ago. After all, they — along with Shira, separately — consider themselves liberal and disagree strongly with the politics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has opposed the idea of a self-governed Palestinian state after the Israel-Hamas war concludes.

On Friday, the United Nations’ top court demanded that Israel avoid unnecessary death and destruction in Gaza after South Africa had accused Israel of engaging in genocide against Palestinians.

Those who similarly view Israel’s assault as an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians have little patience for liberal handwringing about how the issue should be discussed.

“I have a lot of empathy for Israelis,” said Gabriel Kahn, who is Jewish and teaches 8th grade humanities at Life Academy on 35h Avenue. “But do I believe in a Jewish ethnostate? No. Our world doesn’t have room for ethnostates. We have room for democracies.”

Debates over Israel are routine among Jewish people. But when harsh rhetoric comes from outside the community, it leaves families such as the Ferbers believing they aren’t being treated with the same sensitivity as other minority groups.

“People’s suffering belongs to them, and it’s real,” said Rabbi Jaqueline Mates-Muchin, the world’s first Chinese-American rabbi of the Temple Sinai in Oakland. “We need to be open to hearing all those stories. As Jews, we can’t say, ‘This feels threatening to us’ and have people try to talk us out of that.”

Shira, meanwhile, hopes her 12-year-old’s new school in Piedmont next year will present an environment for more mutual understanding.

But she noted that the East Bay at least is better situated for those conversations than Florida, which she left four years ago over similar concerns that her son’s education was too political.

“I think about moving every day” from the Bay Area, she said. “But not back to Florida — somewhere in the middle of the sandwich, because both sides are looking kind of crazy to me right now.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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