A coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish teachers in Minneapolis schools has joined forces to repair harm and divisions they say were caused by a recent, controversial statement by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) on the Israel-Hamas conflict.
At a closed meeting of MFT members Wednesday night over Zoom, the group of educators presented a new resolution they said was centered on students' well-being and creating a safe and inclusive learning environment for all, regardless of religious background — a core mission of the MFT which, they said, its statement failed to uphold.
The resolution passed 115 to 69, with eight people abstaining.
"While it was not MFT members' intent, the 'Israel-Palestine' resolution passed at our October 25 meeting harmed many Jewish members, students, and families while causing unnecessary division within our union," the new resolution says. "We are reaffirming the purpose of this union: the welfare of all members and students. We never want to cause harm to anyone, and we must stay united as we move forward."
Nearly three weeks later, the federation — representing thousands of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) teachers and support workers — posted the Oct. 25 resolution on its Facebook page. The resolution criticized American support for Israel and called for the repeal of the state's anti-BDS (Boycott Divest Sanctions movement) legislation. It also condemned violence against civilians on both sides, and urged an immediate cease-fire to de-escalate the conflict and allow humanitarian aid delivery into Gaza.
Anne Silverman, a licensed school social worker and a program facilitator with the school district's Special Education Department, said that in approving the original resolution the union deviated from its mission to unify members and provide a safe learning environment for all students.
"The union is supposed to speak for all members and certainly when you bring in this geopolitical piece, it is distracting and divisive," said Silverman, who introduced Wednesday's resolution.
Following the passage of that resolution, a different group of Minneapolis educators attempted to pass a resolution similar to MFT's Oct. 25 statement that was approved at the district's support workers chapter meeting on Nov. 2. But it failed to garner enough support.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), which has been working closely with Silverman and other members of the school community, called MFT's original statement and the failed resolution divisive, anti-Semitic and hostile to Jewish students and teachers in the Minneapolis school district.
But a group of the district's Jewish educators came out this week against the JCRC's stance and in support of MFT's original statement. They issued a letter highlighting the importance of free speech and denouncing Minnesota's anti-BDS law, which they said hinders efforts to engage in legitimate criticism of the Israeli and U.S. governments.
The group drew connections between anti-free speech attacks on BDS and attempts to ban critical race theory and trans inclusion in schools, arguing that they are rooted in suppressing dissent and meaningful discussions.
"Equating criticism of the State of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism is dangerous for us as Jews, for Palestinians, and for those working for a future of peace and liberation," the letter read.
Impact on children
As the MFT grapples with internal divisions, some of the district's parents continue to question why teachers tasked with educating students are taking a stand on a conflict "incredibly complex, incredibly painful, and do[es] not have an impact on whether my second-grader can receive education," said Jeremy Cohen, a Jewish parent.
"Until the MFT retracts this statement, and acknowledges the harm that it's done, they've put every teacher in MPS schools in a position where they now have to take a stance," he said. "This is not something that they need to be involved in."
In an interview last week, Marcia Howard, the federation's acting president and a longtime member, defended the union's Oct. 25 resolution. She noted that addressing the conflict between Israel and Hamas was an attempt by some members "at promoting a means of safety for children around the world."
Wednesday's resolution "also spoke of healing," Howard said after it was approved. "It appealed to enough members of the attending body that it passed."
While the federation's Oct. 25 statement hasn't caused families to flee the school district, which is already grappling with declining enrollment, "It's a very real conversation that some parents are having," Cohen said.
District officials recently issued a statement clarifying the distinction between the union and MPS. They said the district cannot limit the speech of MFT, but has clear protocols for its staff about expectations in the classroom when in the presence of students.
Cohen disagrees with the way the district has managed the situation. He said it's the responsibility of district leaders to publicly condemn MFT's original resolution and take a stand for the safety and well-being of students, families and teachers.
"The continued silence from the MPS administration is beginning to feel like an implicit approval of this type of dangerous rhetoric," he said.