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April 8, 2021 4:19 pm

Jewish Groups Blast ‘Incendiary’ Remarks by Teachers Union Head Calling US Jews ‘Part of Ownership Class’ Over School Reopening Debate

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Social distancing dividers for students are seen in a classroom at St. Benedict School, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Montebello, near Los Angeles, California, US, July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Leading US Jewish groups condemned as “extremely disturbing” and “deeply harmful” recent remarks by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Weingarten, when asked by the outlet about critics of the resistance by teachers unions to return to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, dismissed American Jews voicing those concerns as “part of the ownership class,” who are trying to take away from others opportunities for advancement that they had once used themselves.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Algemeiner it was an “incendiary attack” making use of “class warfare.”

“If it had come from someone who wasn’t Jewish, I would imagine we would be talking about classic antisemitism, about demonizing a community. I’m assuming that’s not what she had in mind,” Cooper said.

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But whether intended or not,  he continued, it risked fueling “more antisemitism, it will justify more separation between communities … and between economic levels. That’s not what a true leader should do, especially not in the educational realm.”

In the April 1 interview, Weingarten was asked about “skeptics” of the influence of teachers unions. “They look at, for example, the ongoing struggles in Los Angeles, where they see this big dollar figure of aid being given for school reopening and are baffled by the perceived resistance of teachers to going back to work,” asked JTA’s Laura E. Adkins.

“I have a very pointed response here for Jews making this argument,” Weingarten answered.

“American Jews are now part of the ownership class,” she said. “Jews were immigrants from somewhere else. And they needed the right to have public education. And they needed power to have enough income and wealth for their families that they could put their kids through college and their kids could do better than they have done. Both economic opportunity through the labor movement and an educational opportunity through public education were key for Jews to go from the working class to the ownership class.”

“What I hear when I hear that question is that those who are in the ownership class now want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it. Am I saying that everything we do is right? No. Are people in Los Angeles fearful? Yes,” she continued.

Weingarten did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Algemeiner. 

Rabbi Cooper emphasized that many Jews of earlier generations grew up in poverty, and that “no one handed to American Jews, anything for free. They had to fight, and scrap for it,” Cooper added. “We don’t need lectures from anyone, including [Weingarten], about social responsibility and commitments to floating the boats for everyone.”

“We’re counting on the teachers of America, including the vast millions of members of teachers unions, for the growth of our children, the health of our society going forward — we want them all to be extremely successful. They’re not the enemy, and they certainly not our enemy. And this kind of language is not helpful,” he said.

In a joint statement, B’nai B’rith President Charles O. Kaufman and CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin said, “We vociferously condemn the deeply harmful comments about the Jewish role in school re-openings made by Weingarten,” which “invoked sinister tropes about Jewish ownership, power and control.”

“What is Weingarten thinking here? Her comments are dangerous to the Jewish community, setting it up as an obstacle to a fair and equitable public education system. In casting the school re-opening debate as one of ‘privilege,’ Weingarten is feeding into the stereotype of Jews as all-powerful,” the joint statement said. “As someone who works directly with educators, Weingarten should know that words matter.”

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