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Pro-Palestinian Teachers Are Pressing the National Education Association to Renounce Biden Over Israel

By Maddie Hanna
The Philadelphia Inquirer National Education Association bulletin news

(The Philadelphia Inquirer) — Pro-Palestinian teachers are pushing the nation’s largest teachers’ union to support boycott efforts of Israel and rescind its endorsement of President Joe Biden over his role in the war in Gaza. Their campaign is expected to meet with protest Wednesday in Philadelphia, where the National Education Association is meeting.

As NEA delegates gather inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Educators for Palestine group will rally outside at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in support of a series of actions it placed on the union’s annual agenda — including proposals that the union educate members about the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement, and communicate to members that anti-Zionism is not antisemitic.

But organizers of a counter rally say the group’s proposals are antisemitic — and are calling on NEA delegates to vote them down.

“What we’re seeing is a group of extremists who are hijacking the system … and use it as a way to make a statement about geopolitics, which we don’t believe belongs in the NEA’s wheelhouse,” said David Smokler, director of K-12 educator outreach at StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organization.

Smokler, a former public schoolteacher in Massachusetts, said Israel was the only foreign country targeted on the union’s agenda. He called the BDS movement a “discriminatory” campaign that seeks to “delegitimize Jewish self-determination … This is an organization that seeks one thing, which is the destruction of Israel.”

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Samy El-Baroudi, an Iowa teacher involved with Educators for Palestine, said the group was “not for the destruction of Israel.”

“We are not calling for harm to anyone. We are calling for an end to the harm that is happening now,” said El-Baroudi, a member of the Des Moines Education Association who founded the NEA’s Arab-American Educators Caucus seven years ago. “This is about human rights — all humans. We need to stop this process of devaluing the lives of brown people that get in the way of white people.”

The debate comes as tensions have flared in schools around the region since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the Israeli military offensive that has followed. In Philadelphia, the school district censored a student podcast about Palestinian resistance art due to concerns of antisemitism, while board members in area districts have resigned over anti-Israel social media posts.

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Both Philadelphia and Central Bucks are the subject of federal complaints alleging antisemitism by teachers in classrooms and on social media. Muslim students and teachers have also reported incidents of Islamophobia.

El-Baroudi said Educators for Palestine aimed to both “recognize the horrors of Oct. 7,” and shed light on injustices perpetuated on Palestinians before Oct. 7. He also said the group wanted “to clearly make sure we distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.”

Other NEA members, in a statement, explained their reasons for joining Educators for Palestine. “As a unionist, I want my union to be in solidarity with the rest of the labor movement in advocating for what is best for U.S. safety, security, and well-being. That means money for schools, not war,” said Melissa Tomlinson, an Atlantic County, N.J. teacher.

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Among at least 10 items on the union’s agenda that the group is backing: calls for the NEA to use its digital communication tools to “educate members on the Nakba” — the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians after the founding of Israel — and to defend educators’ and students’ speech “in defense of Palestine.”

The group is also calling on the NEA to hold a “secret ballot vote to rescind its endorsement of President Joe Biden until he stops funding the Israeli military, decries Israel’s war crimes, and brings about an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.”

Biden is expected to speak at the NEA meeting on Sunday.

Philly Educators for Palestine said it supports the pro-Palestinian efforts of NEA teachers. (Philadelphia School District teachers are represented by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, a local of the American Federation of Teachers, a union separate from the NEA.)

In an interview Tuesday, the NEA’s president, Becky Pringle, didn’t comment on the specific proposals, which the union’s 7,000 delegates are able to add to the agenda, with petitions signed by at least 50 delegates.

But Pringle noted the NEA’s statement in February supporting a cease-fire, along with the return of hostages by Hamas and the issuance of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Pringle — who said she traveled to the region last year, and was committed to “continuous learning” on the topic — said the union would be defending teachers’ “right to free speech. We’re making sure they know their rights.”

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