The move by the roughly 25-member group, a small fraction of the 48,000 UTLA members, caught the attention of the Jewish community, which quickly united in opposition.
UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he advocated canceling the planned Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian gathering because it would have served only to "polarize our union members and members of our community." Instead, he said he supports convening a gathering for a dialogue between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces.
However, pressure from Duffy and some Jewish organizations has galvanized some UTLA Human Rights Committee members, who now want to proceed with the pro-Palestinian meeting at "an undisclosed location at an undisclosed time," according to Emma Rosenthal, a committee member and director of Cafe Intifada, which, along with the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee, officially endorsed the Oct. 14 gathering.
"Some of the Jewish establishment is absolutely intolerant of any discussion of any sort that has to do with Palestinian human rights; anything that's critical of Israel," said Rosenthal, a poet and political activist, who is Jewish. She added that the organizations planning the meeting probably would have canceled the Oct. 14 gathering anyway because of security concerns.
Rosenthal called pro-Israel Jewish organizations hypocritical in calling for "balance" when, she believes, they so rarely offer it at their own meetings and conferences.
The UTLA Human Rights Committee and the Cafe Intifada blog have recently received hate mail and e-mails calling members "terrorists, Nazis and murderers," Human Rights Committee member Andy Griggs said. He added that the committee originally had expected no more than 30 people to attend the meeting.
Founded in the 1980s, the Human Rights Committee has sponsored and hosted a variety of meetings and conferences over the years that have addressed the environment, support for striking Oaxacan teachers in Mexico and immigration rights, among other issues. In April, the group's two-day "Conference on Human Rights and the Environment" featured workshops on topics ranging from the environmental impact of Israel "occupation" on Palestinian communities, to the Gulf War to climate change. A lunchtime plenary session included a discussion of "definitions of genocide and human rights in the U.S., world history and in the Middle East, specifically in Palestine," according to the group's Web site.
UTLA members can join the Human Rights Committee by attending its first meeting of the year, or two consecutive gatherings.
Teacher Elana Dombrower, who is Jewish, said the committee's latest stance has angered her. "I am infuriated," said Dombrower, who teaches fifth-grade at Roscomare Road Elementary School in Bel Air. "How dare this committee try to do something like this that doesn't reflect the UTLA's view or the views of its members."
The committee's planned gathering was to have been sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of a group called Movement for a Democratic Society Inc., a new organization based in Connecticut that, according to its Web site, includes among its board members author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, as well as revisionist historian Howard Zinn. The group has tight links with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s.
Some Jewish leaders appreciated UTLA Duffy's efforts to put distance between the union and the Human Rights Committee.
"I'm proud of what the UTLA has done," said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the western region of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).
Earlier, Rowen Taylor had said that allowing such a meeting to take place on union property would have given the appearance that that UTLA endorsed divestment and a boycott, which it does not.
An Oct. 6 letter to Duffy from several Jewish groups, including The Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee, AJCongress, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others, thanked him for sending "a clear message that UTLA does not endorse the [Human Rights] Committee's action."
To try to prevent future attacks on Israel by UTLA committees, the AJC has encouraged its members who belong to the union "to make their feelings known about the indoctrination programming done by the Human Rights Committee and the hijacking of this committee," said Sherry Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter.
Leaders from several major local Jewish organizations met for two hours at the L.A. Federation on Oct. 4 to discuss how to respond to the planned event. Several participants said Duffy, who attended the meeting, told the group that he is Jewish, supports Israel and sympathizes with their concerns. He told participants that UTLA's 30-plus committees enjoy much autonomy, and that their positions don't necessarily reflect the union as a whole.
Duffy said that he had removed UTLA's Web link to the Human Rights Committee and that UTLA would review its procedures for granting use of its facilities to union committees. Duffy said that he found the brouhaha a distraction.
"Let me put it this way, I'd rather be focusing 100 percent of my time to the contract negotiations going on, rather than this," he said in an interview.
A former special education teacher and dean of students at Palms Middle School, Duffy described himself as a cultural Jew. When he grew up in Brooklyn, "we used to say there were more of us here than in Israel, and it was true," he quipped.
The UTLA Human Rights Committee agreed to host the pro-Palestinian meeting at the request of the Movement for a Democratic Society and after canvassing opinions of Human Rights Committee members. Although only six committee members responded to the list-serve e-mail, all said they supported the gathering, the Human Rights Committee's Griggs said.
Marla Eby, UTLA director of communications, said Duffy will meet on Oct. 13 with the members of the Human Rights Committee to strongly urge the committee not to proceed. Duffy said he will "share the sheer preponderance of communications I've received that translate into our organization having taken a hit from our members. I'm not talking about The Jewish Federation or other Jewish organizations or Jewish teachers. I'm talking about teachers who are absolutely appalled that they think UTLA would sponsoring such an [anti-Israel] meeting."
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said he believes the committee is "made up of a fringe of anti-Semites."
The congressman added that perhaps UTLA should create a new committee for teachers supporting Israel. The Human Rights Committee's mission statement calls for "social justice and the peaceful resolution of conflict for its members and other staff, students, parents, the community, the nation, and the global economy."
In an Oct. 9 letter, the AJC asks the union to "reform its constitutional foundations which enabled the HRC to stray from its stated mission...."
After learning about the planned anti-Israel meeting, local Jewish groups united in their condemnation, characterizing the event as anti-Semitic and criticizing the UTLA for initially allowing its headquarters to be used.
"This is worse than a black eye. This goes to the heart of [UTLA's] credibility," said Stephen Saltzman, western regional director of the Zionist Organization of America, before the UTLA announced the gathering could not take place on its property. "This is the largest teachers' union west of the Mississippi allowing itself to be used by extremist radicals who want to launch a campaign to attack the state of Israel and do so with the implied endorsement of the people teaching our children."
Paul Kujawsky, vice president of the Democrats for Israel, Los Angeles, and a fifth-grade teacher at Germain Street Elementary Street in Chatsworth, said he thought UTLA could make better use of its time grappling with such important local issues as high school drop-out rates.
"As a union member, I'm furious that we are attempting to have our own foreign policy when there are so many important educational issues to be addressed," Kujawsky said before Duffy's announcement.
A release put out by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Movement for a Democratic Society said the meeting's purpose was to support the Palestinian people and call for a boycott, divestment and sanctions.
"When Israel was created in 1948, 75 percent of the Palestinians were forcibly dispossessed of their lands and forced into exile," the release says, adding that "Israel's apartheid and racist system of oppression closely resembles that which South Africa once had...."
A Movement for a Democratic Society spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the strategy for boycott, divestment and sanctions is really a "campaign for the elimination of the state of Israel, spearheaded by extremist groups who use the same hateful rhetoric as states like Iran and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah."