PAT promotes one-sided narrative on Gaza

PHOTO: A Portland Association of Teachers Facebook post, dated Dec. 8, 2023, advertising a "Palestine 101Joint Struggle Panel."

The Jewish Review
While waging a successful strike for a better member contract, the Portland Association of Teachers was making a foray into another conflict; this one larger, more divisive and infinitely more complex than teacher pay and benefits. 
This time, it was the War in Gaza. And like their campaign against Portland Public Schools, they were definitely taking sides. 
That decision has left Jewish teachers feeling betrayed, Jewish parents concerned over what their children might be subjected to in school and those advocating on behalf of the Jewish community feeling “played.”
The first signs were literally that – signs that popped up among picket lines throughout Portland. The same sign, over and over. 
“They’re all the same sign, accusing Israel of genocide,” Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Director of Community Relations Bob Horenstein explained. “They were allowing either teachers who were picketing or outside activists to infiltrate their picket lines to hold these signs. I think mostly they were teachers.”
Noga Vilan is an Israeli, the leader of ongoing demonstrations for the return of Oct. 7 hostages from Gaza (See “’That’s my approach’ – Vilan stands for hostages,” The Jewish Review, Feb. 14, 2024) and is the parent of two Portland Public Schools students. When she saw strikers in her neighborhood suddenly carrying signs and Palestinian flags, she was alarmed. 
“They asked us, ‘come join us every morning and every afternoon and we will march in the neighborhood’” she recalled. “And then, when they decided to take that on, then I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Meanwhile, at a meeting of the union’s Representative Assembly in November, attendees were greeted by what David Goldstein, a teacher at Robert Grey Middle School, described as “activists” with pro-Palestinian signs. Goldstein was handed leaflets demanding the union call for a ceasefire, deploring “75+ years of genocide,” and encouraging teachers to utilize a curriculum program called “Project48,” which includes a session that “addresses the pervasive Zionist narrative that continues to ‘justify’ the Nakba, despite clear and compelling facts, historical documentation, and experiences of Palestinians.” 
“Teachers told me they didn’t recognize who they were,” Horenstein said of the meeting. “They didn’t believe them to be building representatives, but they were all passing out fliers that one could consider anti-Israel.”
Days prior, the union’s executive board had signed on to a letter calling for a ceasefire. 
“It’s not horrible,” Horenstein said of the statement, crafted by a national coalition of labor unions which also advocated for the return of hostages held by Hamas. “If that was the only thing they had ever done, we wouldn’t have made an issue of it.”
It wasn’t the only thing.
When the strike ended, the union’s involvement in events in Gaza did not. 
Days after their contract was ratified, the Portland Association of Teachers’ Facebook page encouraged members to attend a Children’s March for A Ceasefire Saturday, Dec. 2, wearing union apparel. The march, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the home of Rep. Earl Blumenauer, decried “unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the Israeli military” on their website. 
The following week, a similar post was made promoting a “Palestine 101 Joint Struggle Panel” at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. The event was organized by the Oregon to Palestine Coalition and included among its topics a discussion of “how to support the fight for Palestinian liberation from the belly of the beast.”
Someone forwarded these posts to Mel Berwin, the director of congregational learning at Congregation Neveh Shalom and the parent of a PPS student. 
“I was really horrified by what I was seeing,” she said. “I was aware from teacher friends of mine that it hadn’t been put to a vote, that these were social media posts were being put up without having consulted the teachers that they were supposedly representing and also obviously that they’re weighing in on a topic that is so complex and that has deep roots in history.”
In a conflict as multifaceted and with as many layers as this one, and with the ramifications that have already been seen in the United States in terms of violence toward Jews following Oct. 7, such promotion is threatening.
“It doesn’t feel benign,” Berwin said. “It doesn’t feel like these statements, taking a side, even if it’s couched as concern around Palestinians, which most of us feel, but without appropriate condemnation of Hamas and without any recognition that this started with the brutal murder, rape and kidnapping of Jews and Israelis by Hamas, it feels like it has the potential to incite more violence and more antisemitism.”
That’s not lost on Goldstein – his grandfather fled Vienna, Austria in 1938 in the wake of the Anschluss and he himself experienced significant antisemitism while studying at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Goldstein said that he hadn’t seen anything from the organizations promoted on PAT’s feed that suggested they had any interest in condemning Hamas.
“I have yet to hear of a pro-Palestinian advocacy group that isn’t glorifying resistance and essentially justifying violence,” Goldstein said. “Except for the most extreme people, they’re not going to say things like, ‘What happened on Oct. 7 was good,’ but they will downplay it. They will deny it. They will say, ’What do you expect? It’s justified.’”
Berwin emailed the President of the Portland Association of Teachers, Angela Bonilla. She received no response.
Goldstein has also emailed Bonilla asking her not to use the union’s social platforms to advertise marches. He, too, received no reply. 
Horenstein had, by this point, emailed Bonilla twice. 
After the first message, Horenstein said, “She wrote back within a couple days and said, ‘We’re in the middle of the strike. I’ll get back to you.’ OK. So, I waited. The strike ended, and I wrote to her the day after the strike ended and said ‘OK, strike’s ended. We’d like to meet.’ I didn’t hear from her.”
By the time Horenstein received a reply, Willamette Week published a story on the union’s pro-Palestinian advocacy. The piece (“Fresh Off a Strike, Portland Association of Teachers Turns Its Attention to Israel,” Dec. 14, 2023) details a “teach-in” held Dec. 10 at the union’s headquarters, though not sponsored by the union, which addressed “U.S.-backed war crimes in Palestine, the Philippines, and around the world.” Goldstein told Willamette Week about a truck that was part of a Nov. 3 strike march in Southwest Portland which bore Palestinian flags and people chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a popular protest chant that is widely considered to advocate for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Bonilla emailed Horenstein the day the Willamette Week story was published. A meeting was arranged for Dec. 21.
“We [Horenstein and several members of the Jewish Community Relations Council] made our case why this was inappropriate,” Horenstein said. “Why would a teachers’ union be taking sides in a complex conflict knowing there’s going to be an impact on a local community? What impact do you think you’re having in the first place? Why haven’t you ever done this on any other conflict before?”
The meeting felt positive at the time, Horenstein recalled. Bonilla mentioned that PAT was planning events for Jewish and Muslim constituencies. It concluded with hugs.
“She seemed like a very nice person. She listened; she took notes. She said she was going to share her notes with her executive committee. She couldn’t make any promises about not promoting these rallies, but she told us there’d be a moratorium on social media posts at least till the end of the year,” Horenstein said. “We didn’t know what that meant.”
On Jan. 2, 2024, PAT announced a “social media break” on its platforms. 
“The volunteer run PAT social media team is taking a break to recharge and plan new content in the new year,” a post on Facebook said.
That break lasted through January. During that time, The Oregonian reported on the situation, including the meeting between Bonilla and the JCRC and the union’s social media absence. (“After strike and criticism over posts on Palestine, Portland teachers union presses pause on its social media presence,” Jan. 10, 2024, paywalled)
“Bonilla did not directly respond to questions about whether the social media pause was in response to the group’s concerns,” the newspaper reported. 
Goldstein attended the “Jewish Community Night” organized by PAT. Bonilla was in attendance as well.
“There were probably 20 of us that showed up and we were able to talk about how this situation makes us feel,” Goldstein said. “We were able to connect with one another. But it wasn’t really well advertised, and it was just for Jewish PAT members.”
By Feb. 16, PAT was again posting about pro-Palestinian activities. One was the counterpart event to the union’s Jewish Community Night, an event called “Centering Palestinian Experiences,” held Mar. 7 at the union’s headquarters. The event was promoted as “highlight[ing] the necessity of teaching about Palestine” and was open to “all educators, community members, and students interested in advocacy for Palestine.”
Another was a panel discussion titled “What are our Responsibilities to Gaza,” held Feb. 22 at Portland State University. The panel included a cofounder of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, which affiliates with Students for Justice in Palestine, a group which has been barred from several college campuses nationwide for antisemitic activities including harassment of Jewish students, a “Palestinian rights advocate,” a co-founder of Portland’s chapter of the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace and a “former Zionist youth activist.”
Horenstein wrote to Bonilla again, asking why advocacy for pro-Palestinian events had resumed on the union’s social channels. 
“I write you out of growing frustration,” his email, dated Feb. 21 begins; it concludes with “Please help me understand why our community’s concerns have been completely ignored.”
Bonilla’s reply, dated Feb. 26, says that she had committed the union to internal discussions for the Social Justice and Community Outreach Committee, internal discussions around processes for which events the union promotes, and the social media pause. 
“What we were asked was that we have a time for folks to connect to other Jewish members to hear concerns and talk about the impacts of the events happening in Gaza and Israel, and how it has impacted their communities and sense of safety,” Bonilla also wrote. “We also reached out to Palestinian and SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) members of our union, they asked for a chance to share their experiences.”
Bonilla also asserted that “PAT is part of a broader tradition of unions across the country that have spoken out against injustice across the world.”
Goldstein said that Bonilla had told him that PAT would no longer be promoting pro-Palestinian events on the Union’s social media feed. 
“I had her confirm that she is the one that approves all social media posts. So ultimately, all social media posts go through her,” he said. “So, she either lied or changed her mind.”
Bonilla’s office did not reply to multiple emails from The Jewish Review as of press time.
The end result is a situation that’s very concerning to parents like Vilan. 
“I started to question ‘What else do those people teach my kids?’” she said. “That Israel is the enemy, and that Zionism is the devil and that we are causing a genocide?”
She questions PAT’s decision to put so much emphasis on advocacy around this particular conflict. 
“There are many other tragedies around the world that you don’t really put any effort into taking any stand or even informing my kids about,” she said.
Even if that were the case, the outcomes would look different, Berwin pointed out, because of the nature of antisemitism.
"We’re not seeing people condemning Russian Americans," she said.  "You’re not seeing Russian kids on campuses being beaten and being terrorized and being tormented.”
“This isn’t just political, it’s violent, right? It’s not just expressing a political opinion,” she continued. “Even when it does express care for victims, the victims are only seen to be on one side of the border, and that’s problematic.”
Goldstein feels for those parents, and he echoes their concerns.
“I know that there is a significant number of teachers in this union who are strongly pro-Palestinian,” he said. “What are they teaching and what are they doing in their classes? If a student is Jewish or is Zionist, then they may feel unsafe with those teachers, and that is something that is really upsetting and wrong.”
Horenstein agreed in no uncertain terms. 
“It’s not appropriate,” he said. “How do you trust that a teacher is going to teach this topic objectively if this is what they’re doing.”
Goldstein wanted to make clear that he has no interest in bashing his union.
“I’m a passionate union member. I care about my union,” he said. “I care about the public and I care about our students deeply. And the reason I am advocating so hard is because there are kids who are being marginalized, and teachers who are being marginalized, including myself.”
There are those within PAT’s membership who perhaps aren’t as passionate about the union.
“I’m friendly with Jewish teachers who work in Portland, who are horrified at what’s happening, who feel very unsafe, who feel misrepresented, who feel like they’re not necessarily going to stay working at  Portland Public Schools,” Berwin said, "and I don’t blame them. They’re not being represented properly.”
Horenstein, meanwhile, feels like the concerns of the Jewish community have been brushed aside.
“I feel like [Bonilla] played us, to be honest,” he said.
To report similar incidents or to discuss antisemitism in schools, email Horenstein at



Add Comment