April 11, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek.
Randi Weingarten is no antisemite, but her comments, in a JTA interview regarding Jewish critics of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union she heads, are nonetheless offensive and unforgivable. She dismissed Jewish critics of her union's resistance to opening public schools now as being members of the "ownership class," who should have no voice on the issue.
Weingarten's remarks were particularly puzzling as the organized Jewish community has not taken on the issue. Individual Jews may have, but that hardly justifies speaking of Jews as a class, a common tactic of antisemitic bigots.
If such remarks had come from Minister Farrakhan or a leader of the Proud Boys, they would correctly have been condemned as raw, unadulterated antisemitism.
The sweeping claim that Jews are in the "ownership class," and thus have no business criticizing public school teachers and their unions for resisting reopening public schools due to Covid, will inevitably aid and comfort those who thrive on propagating the imaginary notion that all Jews are rich and use their wealth to somehow control everyone else.
This is not speculation. The mainstream Jewish community in California just invested substantial efforts resisting a proposed ethnic studies curriculum that, among other things, dismissed the Jewish community as tainted bearers of white privilege. Supporters of that noxious notion, who came close to carrying the day in California, can now point to a prominent Jew who has essentially said the same thing.
How, they will say, can it be antisemitic for us to talk about Jews being in the "ownership" or privileged class, using their wealth to exploit others when the wife of a well-known rabbi says the same thing?
Not all Jews are rich, and public-school teachers, members of the AFT, are hardly the underclass. But the notion that all Jews are wealthy is a recurring theme of antisemitism in all of its forms, whether from the right or the left.
As a reality check, many Jews, of various economic situations, send their children to public schools and, therefore, have a direct interest in the issue of when and how to reopen schools, no less than the families of other ethnicities, faiths, and groups.
Moreover, as teacher unions remind us when urging greater expenditures on public education, all Americans have a stake in the functioning of public schools. After all, those schools are charged with educating the overwhelming majority of American students, who will comprise the next generation of citizens. Jews no less than others have that abiding concern.
Perhaps Weingarten did not mean to suggest that Jews do not have a right to express themselves on public issues. But it's hard to read her remarks otherwise. Her words certainly will be invoked by those who want to exclude Jews from our national discourse, especially regarding public education.
Equally troubling were Weingarten's remarks that her Jewish critics seek to deny other minorities "the ladder of opportunity" that they enjoyed as immigrants decades ago. The inescapable implication is that Jews are selfish, and want to deny others, minority students, the very benefits they enjoyed.
Those putative Jewish opponents, it will be recalled, are urging the schools to open exactly so that all students can get the education they deserve. That said, whether or not the school should be open, it cannot remotely be alleged that those who urge their opening are, at the same time, seeking to deny students an education.
The unfortunate economic myth of the hovering shadow of Jewish wealth, so beloved by antisemites, was reinforced in another way by Weingarten in her JTA interview: When asked why private Jewish schools were able to open, she referred to their substantial economic resources, PPP loans, and high tuition.
Anyone intimately familiar with Jewish education knows that only a handful of Jewish schools have access to those resources. Most of the rest struggle economically, in part because the AFT has opposed government aid to any parochial schools. They were not in a position to raise tuition. They opened, and their teachers taught, precisely because they thought they could not fully discharge their sacred mission otherwise.
It's fair to debate when and how schools should open. It's fair to argue about what weight to accord teachers' views and fears of Covid on that question. It's fair to debate whether private schools, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, were too dismissive of risks when they opened.
It is distinctly unfair to debate these issues by invoking antisemitic tropes. It is utterly unacceptable to gratuitously inject myths about class and religious and ethnic groups in the hope that it will silence some voices.
I end where I began: Randi Weingarten is not herself an antisemite. But left uncorrected and unrepudiated, her remarks are a gift to the nation's antisemites. It's her obligation, indeed her urgent responsibility, to seek to undo the grievous harm her remarks are triggering.
Marc D. Stern is American Jewish Committee (AJC) Chief Legal Officer.