Why was an anti-Semitic activist group invited to a public school to recruit children to its cause?
The group in question, Sunrise Movement, is a “full-fledged advocacy organization with a paid staff of more than 100 people, millions of dollars between its 501(c)3, 501(c)4, and PAC, and thousands of regular volunteers across the country,” as Politico describes. Best known for staging attention-grabbing sit-ins on behalf of its climate agenda, the group garnered some well-deserved negative attention last month when its D.C. chapter refused to participate in a march for D.C. statehood because Jewish organizations were also involved.
Sunrise DC’s statement said it was declining its speaking spot at the rally “due to the participation of a number of Zionist organizations,” including the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the National Council of Jewish Women, which “are in alignment with and in support of Zionism and the State of Israel.” The organization continued: “Given our commitment to racial justice, self-governance, and indigenous sovereignty, we oppose Zionism and any state that enforces its ideology.” Sunrise further accused Israel of engaging in “violent oppressive tactics,” and demanded that the rally’s organizers remove Jewish groups from its coalition.
There are approximately 300,000 Jews in the D.C. area. Nationwide, according to Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Jews said, “caring about Israel is either ‘essential’ or ‘important’ to what being Jewish means to them.” Sunrise’s blatant anti-Semitism flies in the face not only of its supposedly progressive values but of the feelings of a vast majority of the nation’s Jews. As one progressive Jewish activist correctly noted, “If someone ignored the voices and lived realities of 80-90% of any other minority group, most progressives would quickly recognize that as an act of tokenization to shield biases (or worse).”
As the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington observed in a statement, “The ‘opposition to Zionism’ Sunrise DC so proudly espouses constitutes the fundamental denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and is therefore antisemitic at its core.” And as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League argued in the Washington Post, Sunrise DC’s exclusionary activism is part of a larger and growing problem of anti-Semitism on the left. “Despite what others, including some progressive Jewish thinkers, may suggest, denying the right of Jews—alone among the peoples of the world—to the right of self-determination is antisemitism even when you call it ‘anti-Zionism,’” he wrote. “Denying Jews the rights afforded to other people is discrimination.”
Rather than condemning or disavowing Sunrise DC’s anti-Semitism, however, the national Sunrise organization punted on the issue by claiming they had not had a chance to read the statement beforehand. A “reflection” by the group a few days later continued to link Zionism with oppression.
Strange, then, that only one week after the public outcry over this anti-Semitic behavior, a public high school in Washington D.C., promoted a Sunrise-sponsored recruiting effort on school grounds on October 27. Wilson High School in D.C. (where one of my sons is a student) sent a message to students encouraging them to join Sunrise DC (a concerned parent alerted me to the announcement). “Curious about the Green New Deal? . . . Come join the Sunrise Movement at Wilson to talk about the Green New Deal and climate activism during lunch.” The announcement noted there would be “opportunities to win candy!”
In fact, Wilson High School, like many high schools and colleges across the nation, has its own Sunrise Movement chapter; at my son’s school, it is the only group among the school’s many clubs affiliated with a registered lobbying organization or an avowed activist movement. Called “Sunrise Hubs,” these are the recruitment arm of the organization, with detailed scripts to follow and even training worksheets on “anti-oppression” for each hub (notably lacking in Sunrise’s anti-oppression worksheets? Information on anti-Semitism). At Wilson, the group has a staff sponsor and uses school facilities for its activities.
Most parents have no problem with high school students engaging in activism for causes their children care about, but we should draw the line at a school offering support for an organization that is blatantly bigoted in its public statements, as Sunrise DC has been.
Even absent the egregious expressions of anti-Semitism, however, it’s worth examining whether Sunrise DC is an organization that taxpayer-funded public schools should be supporting.
Consider the Guiding Principles of Sunrise DC: Calling itself an “abolitionist” organization, Sunrise DC says it is “anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist.” Further, the group states, “We demand land back for Indigenous people and reparations for Black and brown people” and further claims that “climate justice is racial justice, disability justice, class justice.” Their agenda this fall also includes defunding the police—or “police abolition”—as well as eliminating school safety officers. At a time when the city’s homicide and armed violent crime rates are skyrocketing, Sunrise DC says its “long-term vision is for DC to fully abolish the Metropolitan Police Department, and for all to understand the connection between climate justice and abolition, and other intersecting forms of oppression.”
Or consider the kind of actions they are training their recruits to pursue. As Politico reported, during a Sunrise organizational meeting at a church in D.C. this summer, “dozens of teenagers and twenty-somethings stood in church pews and repeated in unison an empty placeholder phrase—literally, ‘Three-word chant!’—as they pretended to hold signs in their hands and got coached on the best posture to be taken seriously (neither ‘slouched’ nor ‘robotic’).” The chant that replaced the placeholder, and that was deployed in early November when Sunrise protested outside Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s houseboat in D.C., was “Fuck Joe Manchin.”
The organization is also not a fan of our constitutional balance of powers or of political compromise. “For us to really be able to pass the whole vision of what it takes to stop the climate crisis, it’s essential that we abolish the filibuster,” a Sunrise leader told Politico. Constitutional checks and balances are viewed not as the inherent genius of our political system, but as an obstacle to progressive goals: “Every way that you turn, there’s some arcane Senate rule that is corrupting our ability to get the progress that we need,” the Sunrise spokesperson complained.
In another press release issued in the wake of Democratic victories in the special elections for U.S. Senate in Georgia and the January 6 attack on the capitol, Sunrise stated, “There is no middle ground, and Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi cannot ‘compromise,’ ‘negotiate,’ or ‘come to the table’ with the GOP tyrants.” Even the socialist magazine Jacobin has scolded Sunrise for its overly broad agenda and often overheated rhetoric.
Sunrise DC’s anti-Semitism should not be excused. At a time when political polarization is high, and anti-Semitism in the U.S. is on the rise, public schools shouldn’t be supporting an organization that promotes both.