American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten is the target of frequent criticism for her statements on education policy in the United States. And rightly so. Given her vociferous advocacy for Covid school closures, her efforts to shield bad teachers from professional consequences, and her opposition to school choice, Weingarten has arguably done more to hinder student learning than any other figure in American public life. So when she laments the state of student learning, she’s acting like “an arsonist who pretends to be a firefighter,” as one critic put it.
Weingarten’s arsonist-as-fireman shtick isn’t exclusive to matters of student learning. She recently took to X (previously Twitter) to condemn an anti-Semitic mob that forced a Jewish, pro-Israel teacher to barricade herself from students at New York City’s Hillcrest High School—but this detour into common sense doesn’t erase her own record when it comes to anti-Semitism.
Take, for example, her comments in a 2021 interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Responding to a question about public frustration with Covid school closures, Weingarten singled out Jews for criticism, claiming that “American Jews are now part of the ownership class,” and “want to take that ladder of opportunity away from those who do not have it.”
In singling out Jews for opposition to school closures, Weingarten wasn’t evoking an edgy yet intellectually defensible idea. No evidence suggests that Jews were particularly outspoken about school closures. Indeed, given the historical partisan leanings of Jewish voters (voting for Joe Biden by a 3:1 margin in 2020, for example), the political contours of the school reopening debate would suggest that Jews were more sympathetic to Weingarten’s position, compared with the median American voter.
It raises the question: Why scapegoat Jews? To which a chorus of bad actors from the past four millennia might respond: because it’s easy. As Ruth Wisse has argued, anti-Semitism isn’t necessarily born from ignorance or even deeply held convictions about the nature of Jews. Rather, it comes from recognition that the alien status of the diaspora allows Jews to be cast as foils for diverse political causes, hence the anti-Semitism of both Communists and fascists. Weingarten, an ultra-secular and progressive Jew, doubtless doesn’t wish ill upon Jews. But she’s alarmingly quick to rationalize the act of selling them down the river when doing so benefits her union.
When Weingarten isn’t lighting fires herself, she’s been willing to bankroll other arsonists. In 2018, the AFT paid Women’s March, Inc., $25,000 for event sponsorship. In an X post from December of that year, Weingarten labeled Women’s March leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour “friends” and “warriors for justice.” Sarsour has a long history of trafficking in anti-Semitic rhetoric, including a recent charge that “provocateurs” were baiting supposedly innocent people with “their little posters” of kidnapped Israeli children. Mallory’s background includes a long history of public support for the Nation of Islam and its rancorous leader, Louis Farrakhan. Weingarten admits that she and the former Women’s March leaders “don’t agree on everything,” but those disagreements are apparently of minor concern.
On other occasions, Weingarten has clumsily attempted to wield accusations of anti-Semitism for political ends, thereby cheapening the charge. In March, she claimed that “MAGA politicians” who were criticizing district attorneys for their financial ties to George Soros were being anti-Semitic.
What makes Weingarten’s cynical act so disturbing is that she is a democratically elected spokesperson for the nation’s second-largest union for public school teachers. Her behavior suggests how incidents like the one at Hillcrest High School can happen.
Teachers’ unions have been righteous on anti-Semitism in the past. In 1968, a community-controlled school board in Brooklyn’s majority-black and Hispanic Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood dismissed 18 predominantly Jewish teachers and administrators in what it labeled an exercise of “community control.” The decision to dismiss the teachers was rooted in the tenets of the Black Power movement and the anti-Semitism that it regularly adopts. But United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker, at the cost of drawing the ire of New York City mayor John Lindsay, confronted the anti-Semitism head-on. Shanker printed and shared hundreds of thousands of copies of a repugnant letter placed in the mailboxes of teachers at a school in Ocean Hill–Brownsville declaring that black children were being “brainwashed” by “The Middle East Murderers of Colored People . . . Those Bloodsucking Exploiters and Murderers.”
Shanker was an effective advocate for public-sector unionization, but he never lost sight of greater principles or the earnest belief that public education should be an instrument for uniting rather than dividing Americans. It’s an example to which Weingarten and her union should aspire.
Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MomsRising Together