Small groups of teachers recently gathered, first in Los Angeles, then in Orange County, for workshops on topics such as Arabic music, the role of women in Islam and Islamophobia.
The goal was to teach teachers, to give them information they could apply in their classrooms. Ultimately, the thinking went, all students would benefit, particularly Muslim students facing bullying and discrimination.
But the workshops–"Learning about Islam and the Arab World"–have come under fire by some who say they are an attempt to indoctrinate teachers with a one-sided view of the Middle East conflict, portraying the state of Israel as the villain and Palestinians as the victims.
The two-day workshops were organized by the Greater L.A. chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization that supports the 'boycott, divest and sanction' movement against Israel, a movement known by the initials BDS that's gaining traction on college campuses across the country.
The Israel Group, a Southern California-based organization that works to counter the BDS movement, filed complaints with both the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Orange County Department of Education.
"...It is apparent that the workshop was designed, not as a neutrally balanced presentation about a complex situation, but rather as a propaganda platform intended to vilify Israel and the Jewish people as being responsible for all suffering and for the entire refugee problem in the Middle East," Jack Saltzberg, the group's executive director, wrote the Orange County Board of Education in an Oct. 24 letter.
Critics questioned why an organization that takes an anti-Israel position is allowed to offer such workshops, why the Middle East conflict was discussed at all in courses that lead to teachers' salary points, and why the districts offered workshops on one religion and not others. In Los Angeles, hundreds of teachers have taken the workshops for years without any apparent complaints.
Vivian Ekchian, the acting superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said in a statement that teachers participated "to build cultural competency and develop effective strategies to connect with the diverse communities we serve.
"Learning About Islam and the Arab World' was reviewed for multicultural awareness, respect for diversity, dialogue, and non-violent conflict resolution, and alignment to the California History Social Studies Standard 7.2," she wrote.
The L.A. Unified staff "did not observe evidence of the concerns raised," Ekchian said.
In response, L.A. Unified is making some changes that could impact whether future workshops will continue to be counted as teacher credits that can lead to salary increases.
In Orange County, Dennis Cole, one of three Orange County Department of Education administrators who attended the workshops held in Anaheim, said he also did not see biased presentations. But due to concerns expressed, that department is re-evaluating future workshops.
Vicki Tamoush, who led the Orange County workshops, did not directly address the criticisms, saying her organization did not receive any complaints.
"To the contrary, the attendees' comments over the years have been overwhelmingly positive," Tamoush wrote in an e-mail.
"Many have commented that this workshop opened their eyes to their own misconceptions or even prejudices; others have asked us to provide more information to them outside of the workshop. All of them have expressed their gratitude for the materials, information, and speakers presented and commented on the depth, breadth, and quality of the presentations and have consistently told us that this is one of the best professional development sessions they have ever attended."
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the annual two-day workshops have been offered for at least a decade.
Although fewer than 10 educators signed up for the most recent programming in Los Angeles, on Oct. 14 and Oct. 21, some 500 teachers have attended the workshops through the years, Tamoush said.
The program held in Orange County, on Oct. 4 and Oct. 25, was the first time it has been held in that location. About 15 people attended the second workshop, and of those only four said they were current teachers. Others included observers from the Orange County Department of Education, the Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County, Orange County Human Relations, (which co-sponsored the local workshops,) and retired teachers.
Attendees were provided a quick portrait of who Muslims are in the United States and around the word, and what they believe. There also was discussion about gender roles, why some Muslim women wear head coverings and how Muslim women are portrayed in the media.
There were lessons on the meaning of Islam – "It means the peaceful submission to God"; and a definition of the Arabic word "jihad" not commonly heard in mainstream media: it means to exert an effort for the sake of God, and not holy war, one speaker said.
A panel with mostly high school students concluded the second day workshop with a discussion about how those who are Muslim navigate their lives on campus, including thoughts about dating and fasting during Ramadan.
Despite the small turnout, the speakers in Orange County featured some heavyweights in the Southern California Muslim community, including Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles-area chapter of the Council on Muslim-American Relations, or CAIR, and Shakeel Syed, until last year the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council.
Barbara Dresel, a retired California Teachers Association employee who attended the workshops in Orange County because she wanted to learn more about Islam, said she heard no bias. Instead, she said, she found the sessions educational.
"The consistent message about Islam was that ... it's about being a good person and being accountable to God," she said.
But other attendees took exception, especially to some of the presentations and materials offered in the Los Angeles workshops.
Linda Cone, a retired teacher from Yorba Linda who attended the workshops in both communities, said the Los Angeles seminars were overly political. "The focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was out of line... in terms of bias and distortion of facts."
The speakers and discussions were not identical in Los Angeles and Orange County. In L.A., for example, more sessions delved into the Middle East Conflict, including one titled "Palestine Today: No way to treat a child."
Marcia Jacobs, a Jewish Culver City resident who attended the L.A. workshops, said many segments were dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, with references to "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians.
"That's a political situation. I don't think it's appropriate to have a discussion without having the other side heard. It was very biased," Jacobs said. "It made the Israelis look like torturers and monsters. They had nothing good to say about the Jews."
Both Cone and Jacobs said they went on their own, not representing any organization. Both are members of conservative groups, including ACT USA, which bills itself as a national security grassroots organization that has been labeled by some as anti-Muslim.
After the L.A. workshops came to the attention of The Israel Group, other Jewish organizations alerted their constituents.
One of them was Stand With Us, a pro-Israel organization. While that group stated on its website that it neither opposes the seminar, or the idea of encouraging teachers to be sensitive to diverse classroom cultures, it criticized some of the presentations in both Orange County and Los Angeles.
One presentation in Los Angeles titled "Palestine/Israel" offered by a part-time instructor at Santa Monica College drew particular attention.
Both Stand With Us and the Anti-Defamation League called it "problematic." Both groups cited "substantial misrepresentations, distortions of established historical facts, omissions of relevant facts, and inflammatory language."
Officials with ADL are following up with the educational agencies to make sure all perspectives are presented moving forward, said Peter S. Levi, ADL's regional director for Orange County and Long Beach.
Lisa Armony, a director with the Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County, attended part of the presentation held in Anaheim and said she saw no bias during the sessions she attended.
The Orange County training "was not anti-Semitic," wrote Rusty Kennedy, of the OC Human Relations, which co-sponsored the workshops, which were held in Anaheim.
"Given the spate of hate targeting Muslims and Arabs, among other victims this year, it seemed a good idea to promote understanding of these diverse communities," wrote Kennedy, whose group was not involved with the Los Angeles workshops.
"Middle East issues are nuanced and complicated and we vow to educate ourselves on those nuances as we move forward," he said.
Kennedy added that he would support training about Judaism and Jewish communities, a population that has also seen an increase in discrimination and school bullying.
Since the workshops ended, various parties connected to the seminars have been in talks that could change the way the teacher education is provided.
School officials in Los Angeles said they are changing the make-up of the committee that reviews courses that give teachers points toward salary increases. Instead of a panel made up solely from the human resources department, the new committee will include educators and a representative of the district's human relations, diversity and equity division.
Nick Melvoin, the Los Angeles Unified School Board vice president, said he urged the district to improve the course approval process "to prevent any future (seminars) from presenting one-sided material."
Melvoin, who is Jewish, said he had no problem with the stated objective of the workshops. Instead, he said, "the course materials raise serious questions." He added that he has asked district officials to re-evaluate the course's objectives, instructors, and materials.
"I wasn't convinced that the allegations of bias were without merit."
Educators in Orange County also are re-thinking teacher workshops.
Perhaps other groups will come in and give presentations from different points of view, or maybe the county will put on its own programming, said Cole, one of the Orange County Department of Education administrators who attended the Anaheim workshops.
"The topic of how do we care for Muslim students so they don't feel bullied is welcomed, just like with other students — insert any religion here — that's the topic that will go forward," Cole said.
"Will this particular workshop go forward? That's left to be seen."