An upcoming course on the Middle East for public school teachers has gotten the attention of Jewish organizations for its allegedly unfair tilt toward a pro-Palestinian viewpoint.
Titled "Teaching About the Middle East," the professional development course, which earns participants points toward salary increases, will be given Oct. 14, 15 and 17 at the Wilshire District headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) will send an observer to monitor the sessions. Spokeswomen for both the ADL and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said their organizations are looking into the matter, but withholding judgment.
The heightened scrutiny arises from the complaints of Paul Kujawsky, a teacher at Germain Street Elementary School in Chatsworth and past president of Democrats for Israel. A routine listing of the workshop caught his eye, and on Sept. 1, Kujawsky sent a formal, three-page letter, headed "Propaganda, Not Education" to Superintendent Roy Romer of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and UTLA President A.J. Duffy.
The letter listed two primary observations and allegations:
The course is funded by the Middle East Teacher Resource Project, an arm of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker organization has a long, honorable history of pacifism and aiding refugees (including this reporter's parents), but is considered by many in the Jewish community as leaning consistently toward a pro-Palestinian perspective.
"Overall, the AFSC's position is that the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is the result of European imperialism, not Arab or Muslim refusal to admit that the Jews have any historic or legal right to sovereignty," wrote Kujawsky, who is undeniably and unapologetically pro-Israel.
The initiators and administrators of the workshop have denied any bias, and have rejected Kujawsky's request that the course be reorganized or dropped. However, the course leader said that she was sufficiently concerned to seek a pro-Israel speaker for a session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The course has been officially vetted and accredited by LAUSD, with input by the teachers union. In 16 class hours, it strives to deal with the Middle East's people, art, food, music, literature and cultural stereotypes, as well as Arab Americans, Muslim women and the veil, wars and conflicts, oil strategy, nonviolence, human rights and peace movements.
For better or worse, what the teachers learn will influence what they pass on to their students. At least 40 teachers have enrolled.
In the opinion of Kujawsky, "The Quakers' goal is to end the Israeli occupation, not to end the Arab war against Israel," he said in an interview.
Shan Cretin, the Friends Committee regional director in Pasadena, objected to attempts to "politicize" either the teachers' course or the Quakers' position on the Middle East, which, she said, is to work toward a nonviolent resolution.
"This workshop grows out of our larger concerns for peace in the Middle East," she said. "In the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, we believe that students need to know more about Arab and Muslim culture, history and politics to become informed citizens. This is not a workshop focusing mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Cretin, who worked with Israelis and Palestinians on health care programs in the mid-90s, acknowledged that "many of our speakers have ties to Arab organizations, but given the topics that are to be the focus of the workshop, this does not seem so surprising."
The course was deemed appropriate by Ronni Ephraim, LAUSD's chief instructional officer for elementary schools. She readily provided documents on the course, and explained how it was approved by a three-person committee that included a Jewish member.
The course was proposed and put together by Linda Tubach, an LAUSD staffer in instructional support service who is active in UTLA.
Tubach's involvement is one concern cited in Kujawsky's letter. He submitted that Tubach serves on the advisory board of Cafe Intifada, whose Web site states that it raises funds for "cultural programs in Palestine, highlighting the current plight of the Palestinian people."
Tubach said she was part of the now-inactive advisory board two years ago, when she was involved in a Cafe Intifada pen pal writing project involving American teachers and Palestinian students, but that she no longer had any connections with the organization.
She said that she proposed the course as "a basic survey of Middle Eastern culture, religion and government ... and it is our intention to have dialogues and discussions representing all points of view."
Nevertheless, she became concerned enough about any real or perceived imbalance to ask Deanna Armbruster, who is leading the session on "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," to team up with an advocate of the Israeli viewpoint.
Armbruster is the executive director of American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahab Al-Salam, a community in central Israel, whose 350 Arab and Jewish adults and children live together, study in the same school and share civic responsibilities.
"I'm very passionate about understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of human experiences," said Armbruster, and her book, "Tears in the Holy Land," is based on this passion.
Armbruster, a volunteer with the Friends Committee's Middle East Peace Education Program, said that the Quaker organization "strives for a better understanding of both the Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints, but it tends to delve more deeply into Palestinian issues and the problems they face" -- especially in light of a widespread presumption that the Israeli side gets more favorable exposure, thanks to strong Jewish advocacy.
For his part, Kujawsky perceives a bias in the affiliation of some of the instructors, some of whom have ties to Palestinian organizations.
Among the workshop's instructors is attorney Ban al-Wardi, who is president of the Los Angeles-Orange County Chapter of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He will lead the session on "The U.S. and the Middle East: Before and After 9/11."
The session on "Middle Eastern Cooking, Music and Literature" will be taught by Sami Asmar, who is a NASA physicist and an expert on Middle East music and literature.
None of the assurances of balance and fairness have satisfied Kujawsky.
"This is not a question of Jew vs. Arab, it's about truthfulness in teaching," he said.