Lawmakers, Jewish groups accuse Massachusetts Teachers Association of bias

AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE 

AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE  AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-15-2024 12:39 PM

AMHERST — Two Massachusetts state senators and several Jewish-affiliated groups are calling on the Massachusetts Teachers Association, led by an Amherst resident and University of Massachusetts professor, to distance itself from recent actions that they contend were biased, anti-Israel and may serve to fuel antisemitism.

“Teachers, students, and parents share our worry that our commonwealth’s largest teachers union appears to be promoting a one-sided ideological view that, if perpetuated, would further isolate and potentially endanger Jewish and Israeli people in our schools and communities,” reads a portion of the April 3 letter sent to MTA President Max Page by Sens. Rebecca L. Rausch of the Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex District, and Jason M. Lewis of the Fifth Middlesex District.

“Please take this opportunity to remedy past counterproductive actions with new efforts to repair rifts, combat hatred and bigotry, and strive for better inclusion and safety. We offer our partnership to you in such efforts.”

The letter comes after two specific events. The first was a Dec. 9 statement from the MTA Executive Board, which the senators contend adopted “a factually inaccurate and inflammatory action,” didn’t mention the horrors of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas or call for the safe return of hostages.

“The action smacked of antisemitism and lacked compassion and empathy for Jewish and Israeli people in our communities, including many among the ranks of the MTA’s membership,” the senators wrote.

The second event occurred on March 21, when the MTA’s Anti-Racism Task Force hosted a webinar “The Struggle Against Anti-Palestinian Racism,” timed to the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The senators say that the presentation contained a slide identifying Jewish organizations that purportedly should be condemned as part of the Zionist “machine” and included a photograph of President Joe Biden, “directly invoking age-old and false antisemitic tropes of power, influence, and control and harkening back to the antisemitic ‘Mapping Project’ published in 2022.”

“We share concerns for the plight of Palestinian people. We agree that legitimate critiques of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing government and policies are not antisemitic,” Rausch and Lewis write. “But neither of these should be coupled with racism or antisemitism. When such bigoted coupling occurs, so too does dehumanization, and any space for meaningful discourse dissipates. There must be compassion enough to go around.”

Page could not be reached for comment Friday or Monday. 

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The American Jewish Committee, which has New England Regional Office in Boston, called the MTA’s webinar “a thinly veiled effort to advance a political agenda that takes sides in the complex conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and makes false and malign claims about Israel, Zionism and Jews.”

“Teachers are supposed to help students study diverse views in a safe environment and support them in arriving at their own conclusions,” reads a statement from Rob Leikind, the New England regional director. “The MTA appears to be embracing a different model and will encourage teachers to become propagandists for a particular point of view that has its own victims and villains.”

The Anti-Defamation League of New England took to Twitter with its concerns. “By expressly rejecting anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism and invoking frameworks of ‘colonialism and imperialism’ in a discussion regarding Israel/Palestine, this programming reinforces antisemitic and anti-Israel falsehoods.”

Jeremy Burton, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, also wrote an open letter, asserting that some leaders and members of the MTA have contributed to an erosion of trust that is harmful to Jewish teachers and students and affects the long-term educational objectives of fostering a culture of exchange, meaningful dialogue, and an embrace of different perspectives and worldviews.

“These actions have produced a critical mass of messages and actions that are exacerbating mistrust and discord rather than engendering trust and healing in schools across the commonwealth,” Burton said. “While we are immensely disappointed with several of the MTA’s recent actions, we are confident — in our conversations with grassroots members of the MTA — that there is potential for a future where through relationship building and shared dialogue we can work with educational partners to heal rather than harm, for the sake of every teacher, student, and community member in our fragile yet precious society.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.