Is There An Acceptable Level Of Anti-Semitism?
Charter school industry promoter, Ben Austin, says we should ignore ads in an LAUSD School Board race that he admits were anti-Semitic.
-Ben Austin to his Charter Industry compatriots
In order to achieve their goal of privatizing education, the charter school industry knows that they must “weaken [the teachers’ union] politically”. However, following last year’s strike, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) were flexing their political muscle and had managed to get all of the school board members but Nick Melvoin to vote in favor of asking for a moratorium on new charter schools. In the meantime, the charter school industry’s reputation had taken a beating after the felony conviction of Ref Rodriguez and indictment of Vielka McFarlane had exposed corruption within their ranks.
In an email unearthed by Michael Kohlhaas dot org, education “reformer” Ben Austin laid out the charter school industry’s strategy for reclaiming the public narrative. Included on the thread were officials from the California Charter School Association (CCSA), the public relations firm Del Sol Group, the public opinion firm Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, political consultant Mike Trujillo, STEM Preparatory Charter Schools, Green Dot Charter Schools, Parent Revolution, Speak Up, Students for Education Reform, Great Public Schools Now and defeated candidate for State Superintendent of Education, Marshall Tuck.
The proposed initiatives of the privatization zealots included a call to recruit, train, and support candidates for LAUSD school board elections “while building a sustainable campaign operation to support these candidacies.” While Austin admitted that this plan would have “0” impact on the empowerment of parents and students, it would “represent a critical opportunity to recapture our reform [SIC] board majority.” Replacing Scott Schmerelson in Board District 3 was listed as a “key [opportunity] for [a pickup] that would flip the board.”
Schmerelson is a lifetime educator who has previously served as a teacher, counselor, vice-principal, and principal. The candidate the charter school industry recruited to challenge him was Marilyn Koziatek, who then worked as Granada Hills Charter School’s Director of Communication and Development. The incumbent has a solid record from his first term of saving special education centers from closure and marching with parents during the teachers’ strike. In comparison, Koziatek’s claim to fame was introducing an app to increase parental engagement in a school that had eliminated the right of those same parents to vote for their representatives on the governing board. Clearly, the charters would have to focus on something besides their candidate’s qualifications if they wanted to retake the board seat that they had lost in 2015.
The strategy that the charter industry settled on was to appeal to the biases some voters hold against Schmerelson’s Jewish faith. They would play off what “is among the oldest Jewish stereotypes” that “Jews are wealthy, greedy and stingy, obsessed with material goods and profit, and that they exploit their economic advantages to help their own people, to the detriment of the public good.” The CCSA and their allies concocted a mailing campaign that reduced Schmerelson to a caricature in the form of Scrooge McDuck. As part of the group who participated in Austin’s discussions, Speak Up, played a key role in this campaign, running the fake news stories that would be quoted in the mailers to give them the air of authenticity. In fact, the allegations were sourced from another charter school operative, Kenchy Ragsdale, who had failed to qualify for the ballot.
Austin admitted in a Tweet directed to me that this campaign against Schmerelson was indeed anti-Semitic but felt that a billboard placed by UTLA was “far more anti-Semitic than any mailer” sent out in the campaign. Concerned that a union representing teachers would engage in such tactics, I asked Austin to explain exactly how the UTLA billboard is anti-Semitic. His reply: “it’s based on a bizarre lie that I support Trump.”
First, the billboard does not make the allegation that Austin supports Trump. It does, however, include Austin and Trump as part of a group labeled “Corporate Special Interests” who are against “Our Public Schools.” If Austin is concerned that picturing him next to the president suggests guilt by association, then perhaps he should ask himself why they share the same views on the privatization of our schools.
Especially unclear about Austin’s argument was how he linked accusing someone of being pro-Trump with anti-Semitism. I asked him to explain and he again insisted that “claiming I support Trump is a lie.” Since this did not answer my question, I pointed out that he was retreating from his original allegation. He reiterated that “I don’t support Trump.”
Austin continued by stating that the billboard “also implies that I’m trying to ‘buy’ democracy which is a common attack on Jews” and that this makes it “more anti-Semitic” than the CCSA ads against Schmerelson. The billboard does not imply this allegation, it states directly that corporate special interests want to buy our democracy. If UTLA were doing so with a picture that only included Austin or a group of people of the Jewish faith, then the school privatization activist might have a point. However, as he noted himself, the picture also includes Trump, who does not identify as being Jewish. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is also pictured. She is a conservative Christian who has given nearly $50 million to Christian organizations. It is hard to see how UTLA’s billboard singles out Austin’s Jewishness. Compare that to the attacks on Schmerelson which Austin himself admitted was anti-Semitic. Even the lie that he voted to give himself a raise (which was actually granted by an independent commission) excluded any criticism of any other board member, including the ones that the CCSA supported who had also received the same huge pay increase.
Unlike Schmerelson, whose investments were made by a stockbroker watching over his retirement accounts, those pictured in UTLA’s billboard actually did perform the actions to which they were accused. The Fair Political Practices Commission twice ruled that failed candidate Ragsdale was incorrect in his allegations that Schmerelson had a conflict of interest in the votes that he made as a board member. In contrast, the charter school industry and its supporters spent $2,621,642.93 in negative ads in the last election cycle. Isn’t this the very definition of buying our democracy?
Austin ended his first Tweet by suggesting that we ignore the anti-Semitism used against Schmerelson and instead “reserve charges of anti-Semitism for the frightening wave of real anti-Semitism that has spiked under @realDonaldTrump.” After making his own questionable allegation of the UTLA ad being anti-Semitic, he doubled down on this viewpoint by stating that the “larger point is neither should be characterized that way b/c it cheapens the frightening national spike in real anti-Semitism.”
Let’s be clear, there is no acceptable level of anti-Semitism.
The bigots who have been empowered by Trump’s presidency did not start out by carrying torches in the streets and chanting Nazi slogans or shooting up a synagogue. They began their journey taking baby bites of hateful tropes. If Austin recognizes that attempts to buy influence “is a common attack on Jews”, then he should understand the importance of staying away from these dangerous stereotypes. Unfortunately, attempting to score a win for his ideology is more important to Austin than standing up against the dangers of anti-Semitism. Otherwise, he would condemn the CCSA for their ads rather than making feeble excuses to avoid holding them responsible. However, like Koziatek, he just looks the other way while the seeds of bigotry continue to be sown.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, and a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” His past blogs can be found at www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.