(JTA) — The statement, issued the day Israel passed a controversial bill defining itself as a Jewish nation-state, could have come from any number of liberal American Jewish groups.
“We condemn this despicable law, as well as the anti-gay surrogacy law the Knesset recently enacted, and the detainment of Rabbi Dov Haiyun for conducting a non-Orthodox marriage,” the July 19 statement said. “These anti-democratic and nativist actions make it more imperative to support the progressive voices in Israel who are fighting to reclaim Israel’s place as a functional, thriving democracy in the Middle East.”
The author is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten is Jewish. Her union, which counts 1.7 million members in 3,000 chapters, is not. It’s typically more concerned with issues like raising teachers’ pay and strengthening public schools than with, say, the actions of a local police department in a country on the other side of the globe.
But in an era when a growing number of unions back the movement to boycott Israel, Weingarten says supporting a progressive vision of the Jewish state is part of her union’s mission. And in recent years, AFT’s position on Israel sounds like that of a liberal Zionist group: Rather than boycott Israel or disengage from it, the teachers’ union is embracing left-wing Israeli activists — and criticizing the country from a place of love.
“I think that Bibi and his followers are moving in the wrong direction just like I believe that Trump is moving in the wrong direction,” Weingarten told JTA on Monday, referring, respectively, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. “What we need to do is work with progressive voices and activists in Israel, of which there are many, to help bring Israel to its better angels.”
AFT is not the only union to have a history of supporting Israel. American labor unions had heavy Jewish representation at the time of Israel’s birth, and the country’s socialist roots and still-powerful national union appeal to American labor leaders. Labor officials have told JTA that notwithstanding its right-wing government, there’s a lot they admire in Israel — from universal health care to robust workers’ rights.
In 2007, a long list of major labor leaders signed a statement opposing BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Labor unions have also given millions of dollars to the Yitzhak Rabin Center, a museum and educational center honoring the assassinated Israeli Labor Party leader who signed an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
The Jewish Labor Committee, which acts as the Jewish community’s representative in the American labor movement and organized the 2007 anti-BDS statement, released its own condemnation of the nation-state law as “ill-conceived and ill-timed.” The group’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, said he is worried about Israel losing the support of U.S. progressives, but that major unions still support Israel.
“Labor remains committed to a strong and secure Israel,” Appelbaum told JTA. “I think there is a shared commitment to democracy and workers’ rights.” He said support of Israel has not lessened, “but there are serious concerns about the current government.”
Weingarten in particular has leaned into AFT supporting Israel’s progressive camp. In 2016, Stav Shaffir, a young liberal Israeli lawmaker from the Labor Party, spoke at the AFT convention.
That year, the union also passed a resolution to partner with Hand-in-Hand, an Israeli network of bilingual Hebrew-Arabic schools with a mixed Jewish and Arab student body. Weingarten said she visits with both Israeli and Palestinian unions on her trips to the region. She has spoken at multiple conferences of the liberal Israel policy organization J Street.
Weingarten said the union’s work in Israel is of a piece with its international work as a whole. She points to AFT’s support for labor movements worldwide, from supporting the Solidarity movement in communist Poland and progressive causes in Latin America to opposing apartheid in South Africa.
“We were part of the democracy movement, of helping, first, that fledgling democracy, and then ultimately being a supporter of the democracy in Israel,” she said. “There’s been a longstanding relationship between our unions and Israel because of the fight for democracy, and that relationship has continued during my tenure as president of the AFT. It is part of our long-term worldview of the importance of democracy.”
Supporting Israel is also a personal cause for Weingarten. She grew up in an involved Jewish home and attended Camp Ramah in New England. She is a member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City and is newly married to its senior rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum. And she is the latest Jewish AFT president, following predecessors like Sandra Feldman and Albert Shanker.
“I am a Ramahnik,” she said. “I grew up as a progressive Zionist. I grew up believing that Israel was an inclusive, democratic Jewish state that you needed to fight for, but inclusive and democratic was as important as Jewish. And just like the work that we do in America can make things more inclusive, more focused on justice, more focused on opportunity, that’s the work that I try to do in terms of Israel.”
Some local unions, like other progressive organizations, support BDS in expressing their values on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A handful of unions in the United States have joined major unions abroad in endorsing BDS. In the past school year, a local branch of AFT, the Graduate Employees’ Organization of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, backed a divestment campaign on campus.
“We are saddened and disappointed in the hostility that AFT leaders such as Randi Weingarten have expressed to the internationally-respected and non-violent tactic of BDS,” a June statement by the local union read. “Such leaders are out of touch and out of step with the rank and file of our union.”
Weingarten said she is worried about calls for BDS from American progressives. But she does not believe broad progressive support for Israel has become untenable. She feels that just as American progressives oppose the agenda of the Trump administration, they need to oppose the policies of Israel’s government while still engaging with the country.
“The occupation and the influence of the settlers and lack of recognition for steps toward the two-state solution has corroded a lot of faith that a lot of progressives have around the world in the democracy of Israel,” she said. “We need to actually support the progressives in Israel. I think Bibi Netanyahu wins if people support the extremes and if people despair.”