Israel/Palestine and campus BDS battles

When I was in college I got very involved in Israel/Palestine activism. It was never my plan, or what I had imagined myself spending four years doing. But I went on a Birthright trip winter break of my freshman year, just because a friend and I then agreed to try the free trip together. It was certainly an exciting and meaningful experience, and I came home feeling more invested in exploring my Jewish identity. What that meant exactly, I wasn’t sure.

A few weeks after returning home, I was talking about my fun trip. Someone asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have lived on the land for generations who face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only was I unable to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about regarding “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew very little.

What followed were several intense years of learning, writing, and changing. I heard about J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, and it struck me as a potentially good place for young Jews like me to engage with the thorny issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict openly and honestly. I ended up founding my campus’s J Street U chapter, and after my sophomore year I went back to Israel, this time traveling to the West Bank, too. It was exhausting and no Jewish Disneyland experience, but it was eye-opening and humbling. We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of diaspora Jews. We met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, with Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, with leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

My senior year I served on J Street U’s national student board. I’m very proud of a lot of what we did, and grateful for the friends I made as a result of that work. So many of them are truly extraordinary leaders today in so many fields.

I also left college deeply frustrated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s government seemed to be trending ever more right-wing, and John Kerry’s peace talks had all but floundered. The summer after I graduated was also a new seven week period of violence between Israel and Gaza, in a disturbing time known as “Operation Protective Edge.”

Overall, I felt I really needed a break from all of it. And so I took that break, for the last few years. I threw myself into other issues, mostly all much closer to home. At the same time some of my J Street U friends were busy starting new organizations, including IfNotNow, which is now one of the leading Jewish groups in the U.S. focused on protesting the occupation. But I needed a break.

Today two of my J Street U friends are now leaders at Jewish Currents, a leftist magazine founded in 1946. One of them asked me recently if I would interview Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at the Jewish Daily Forward, about a series of articles he’s published over the past half-year detailing the more aggressive tactics being used to fight the boycott divestment and sactions (BDS) movement on college campuses.

I agreed, and started catching up on Nathan-Kazis’s reporting. I’m someone who considered myself pretty darn familiar with the dynamics of Israel-Palestine campus politics, but reading his articles made me realize a lot has changed, even since I left school about five years ago.

I interviewed Josh this month, and several days later, the Forward announced it would be ending its print edition and laying off nearly 30 percent of its staff. Josh is staying on, but it’s a huge blow to independent Jewish journalism.

Today my interview with Josh was published. I think it offers a decent primer for people who (like me) weren’t paying very close attention to the recent issues and developments.

Also two days ago, Michelle Alexander, the acclaimed civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, published an op-ed in the New York Times about injustice in Palestine and Israel. It’s a great piece, timed to MLK Day, and one well worth reading.

But Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., called the op-ed a “strategic threat” to Israel. The Anti-Defamation League called it “dangerously flawed, ignoring critical facts, history & the shared responsibility of both parties.”

ADL@ADL_NationalWe have great respect for Michelle Alexander & her path-breaking civil rights work, but her piece on the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dangerously flawed, ignoring critical facts, history & the shared responsibility of both parties to resolve it.

Some of the same Jewish organizations that came out to attack Alexander’s op-ed are the same ones behind the new anti-BDS strategy on college campuses that Josh reported on and I spoke to him about. I do think our interview offers some important context to what we’re seeing going on.

I’ll end this post with part of Alexander’s op-ed:

I am left with little doubt that [MLK’s] teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

I won’t lie, the conflict still exhausts me, frustrates me, and makes me very sad. I can’t and won’t focus my energies on it in the same way I did while in college. But I can’t stay silent and look away, either.

L.A. teachers strike for first time in 30 years

Today marks day two of the Los Angeles teacher union strike, a labor stoppage from the nation’s 2nd largest public school district. It’s the first strike for the union since 1989.

I published a story last week in The American Prospect that aims to answer basic questions about why L.A. teachers are striking, and the larger political factors undergirding this whole fight. (Spoiler: there’s a high-stakes school board election in March, a new superintendent’s plan to reorganize the whole district, and a lot of distrust over funding and school privatization.)

The second story was published today in The Intercept, and looks at how national Democrats have responded to the L.A. teachers’ strike. While contract negotiations have jammed up primarily over funding for smaller class sizes, and hiring more teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians — the teachers are also protesting school privatization, and the union has called for a cap on new charter schools in L.A. Today the union protested outside the offices of the California Charter Schools Association, the lobbying arm of the state’s charter movement.

I contacted all 47 Senate Democrats to ask them their position on the strike and general stance on charter school growth. I heard back from seven. Of the other House members who voiced support for the striking teachers, almost none mentioned charters or privatization in their comments. While voicing support for teachers and public education is relatively safe territory for any politician, weighing in on the teachers’ opposition to charter schools comes with more consequence, possibly upsetting powerful donors or the growing number of families who choose charters (or would like to send their child to a charter in the future.)

I’ll end this post with some cute pictures of kids.

Victor Narro@NarroVictor#UTLAstrong #strikeready
United Teachers Los Angeles@UTLAnowYoung sign holder on the Welby Way Elementary picket line. #UTLAStrong #LAUSDstrike #redfored

Jollene 🍞🌹@jollenelevid3 generations of LAUSD Levids! My Pops (grandpa), my brother Leo, and his son Isaiah, currently an EEC student! We stand with @UTLAnow educators! #StrikeReady #UTLA #UTLAStrong

A win for workers & why New Jersey is getting sued for school segregation

At the end of 2018 a federal appellate court issued a long-awaited ruling that has big implications for subcontractors and employees who work in franchised businesses. The D.C. Circuit held that a company could be named a “joint-employer” (and be held liable for labor law violations) if it exercised a certain degree of “indirect control” over a worker’s wages and terms of employment. Expanding the joint-employer standard to include indirect control was one of the most controversial actions the National Labor Relations Board took up in the Obama administration, and it’s been a top priority of business groups and conservatives to overturn since Trump took office.

I wrote about the decision for The Intercept, including what it could mean for movements like the Fight for 15. While it’s possible the case could still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, for now it’s a rare win for workers in the fissured economy.

* * *
The second story I published looks at why New Jersey is being sued for school segregation. Most school segregation cases you’ve probably heard of, like Brown v. Board, have been in federal court — taking aim at the U.S Constitution. This one is rare and different because it’s taking aim at New Jersey’s constitution instead. (This is only the fourth state to try this strategy.) I wrote about why a lawsuit like this actually stands an unusually good shot of winning in the Garden State, but also why it could fail. It’s also a case that could impact not only school integration, but also longstanding and difficult debates over zoning and housing in the small state with small towns and even smaller school districts. You can read it in City Lab here.

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My favorite work from 2018

2018 was a busy year for me. I published more than 80 stories, across 19 different outlets. I took up a lot more investigative reporting (and discovered I quite like it). I also created this newsletter! I’m grateful for your readership, which has truly helped me make this challenging line of work possible.

In keeping with roundups I did in 2017, 2016, and 2015, I’m going to once again take the end of December to reflect on some of the work I’m most proud of from the year.

1. The Intercept: “Minnesota Attorney General — Now Democratic Frontrunner for Governor — Relied On Government Employees For Campaign Work, They Sayand “It Was All True”: Minnesota Attorney General’s Former Deputy Speaks Out About Participation In Political Work

I spent the summer in Minneapolis, and while I was there published a story about Minnesota’s longtime attorney general, Lori Swanson, who former and current employees told me routinely promoted employees who worked on her political campaigns. The first piece came out on a Monday, and because it partly relied on anonymous sources, the local press and political establishment tried to sweep it under the rug. Swanson’s office also tried to spin it as an attempt by the owners of the Intercept to settle some old feud on behalf of a company Swanson sued years six years ago. But three days later I published a follow-up, one that forced the state and local media to finally take it seriously. I firmly believe that the second story, which featured Swanson’s top deputy of eight years recounting his experiences on the record, would never have been possible without the first.

2. Washingtonian:Has The New America Foundation Lost Its Way?

I published an investigative feature into a DC think tank grappling with a high-profile scandal that raised questions about the role of corporate funding in research and policymaking. I looked at how the organization responded to this scandal, as well as how it handled other, more thorny problems that emerged as it grew in size and scale.

3. Democracy Journal: Is School A Waste of Time?”

I reviewed a trollish book published by a libertarian economist who tried to argue that education is a waste of time and money. I do not recommend the book, but I did use the opportunity to write down some of my broader thoughts on education, its value, and its relationship to the labor market.

4. Washington City Paper: “Turnaround Runaround”

I was very proud of this cover story investigation I did on the wholly unscrutinized world of charter school consulting. This particular company—TenSquare—raked in millions of dollars in DC taxpayer funds since 2012 for “school improvement” services. I looked at TenSquare’s limited level of oversight and transparency, and talked to charter school leaders about how they felt pressured to hire the company, lest they’d face consequences.

5. Washington Post: Public school buildings are falling apart, and students are suffering for it

It was an honor to write an op-ed for the Washington Post, especially on the importance of investing in quality school infrastructure.

6. City Lab: “How Should HUD Count Family Homelessness?

This story looks closely at a debate among homelessness advocates regarding who should be considered homeless. HUD uses a much more narrow definition of homelessness than other federal agencies, and this has major implications not only for who gets aid and support, but also how to understand the statistics HUD publishes about their progress reducing homelessness.

7. The Intercept: “How Labor Is Thinking Ahead to a Post-Trump World

This piece sought to answer the question of what labor leaders might push for if Democrats reclaim power in 2021, and why organized labor’s past efforts failed when Democrats had unified control in 1978 and 2009.

8. Washington Monthly: The Libertarian Who Accidentally Helped Make The Case for Regulation”

This was a magazine story about what happened when a prominent libertarian economist set out to prove that federal regulations are strangling the economy. But no matter how he sliced and diced the data, he could find no evidence that federal regulation was bad for business.

9. The Atlantic: The Teachers’ Movement Goes Virtual

There was a ton of great coverage this year of the teacher protests that swept the nation. This story was about one teacher organizing effort that went under the radar: virtual charter school teachers in California, who organized a union and voted to go on strike.

10. The Nation: “Letting Non-Citizens Vote in the Trump Era

On Election Day, for the first time, undocumented immigrants and permanent legal residents in San Francisco were able to vote for their local school board. I wrote about America's surprisingly long history of non-citizen voting, and the cities now working to bring it back.

11. Talking Points Memo: Democrats Need Voters’ Help To Fix Gerrymandering. Will They Get it?”

I reported a feature looking at the constellation of different advocacy groups—both nonpartisan and partisan—trying to making voting rights a more salient political issue. For a long time, things like voter suppression and gerrymandering have been wonky issues mostly left to lawyers and the courts. But in 2018 there was far greater recognition that defending democracy requires a more all-hands-on-deck strategy.

12. City Lab: “A Five-Decade Fight to Improve Housing Choices for the Poor

This year was the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, and I wrote a few stories to commemorate the civil rights milestone. I especially loved doing this Q&A with Alex Polikoff, a lawyer in his 90s who is considered the grandfather of housing mobility.

13. The American Prospect “Can a Blue Wave in a Blue State Make Ben Jealous Maryland’s First African American Governor?

Well the answer to this headline’s question was no, but I was proud of the magazine story I reported during Jealous’s campaign. (I also wrote “Why Ben Jealous Lostfor The Intercept the day after the election.)

14. Washington City Paper: “D.C.’s Master Facilities Plan Will Shape the City’s Balance Between Neighborhood Schools and Charters

This cover story sought to illuminate an obscure planning process in D.C. that has big implications for the future of public education in the city.

15. The Intercept: “Nearly Every Member of the Progressive Caucus Still Takes Corporate PAC Money

As a host of progressives running for office in 2018 swore off corporate PAC money on the campaign trail, I co-wrote a piece looking at the fast-changing movement to get money out of politics, and the mounting pressure on sitting incumbents to change how they raise money.

Thanks for reading! I’ll see you in 2019.

“I’ve been working on them for over 40 years and only now have ESOPs become cool”

Yesterday I published a story at The Intercept taking a close look at Employee Stock Ownership Plans, or ESOPs, and why they might be a policy idea you’ll hear a lot more about in the next few years. The quick-and-incomplete summary is that they’re a very specific kind of retirement vehicle that involves giving shares of a company to the employees of said company, allowing workers to enjoy some of the company’s capital earnings on top of their wages.

ESOPs have been around since the mid 1970s, but due to a few reasons I explore in the piece, they largely fell out of political favor. Now “employee ownership” advocates (which also includes co-opt advocates) have set a goal to get 50 million workers employed in employee-owned businesses by 2050. There are currently about 7,000 companies today with ESOPs, and more than 14 million current and former private sector workers have participated in them.

ESOPs have long been a bipartisan idea — drawing liberal and conservative support for different reasons.

The idea was originally promoted by a guy named Louis Kelso, a San Francisco lawyer who, in 1956, helped save a local newspaper by allowing employees to buy stock in the company. He later boosted the ESOP idea as a way to “save capitalism.” Conservatives over the years—including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—have been drawn to the idea of expanding the pool of capitalists through employee ownership. Supporters say such ideas also trace long roots in American history, noting the Founding Fathers also worked to expand land ownership as a means to promote greater economic equality. Early industrialists like John D. Rockefeller Jr. of Standard Oil also backed broad-based profit sharing, and in contemporary times, conservative intellectuals have defended employee ownership on the grounds that it’s most certainly not socialism.

Liberals on the other hand have been drawn to ESOPs as a way to strengthen worker power, increase corporate transparency and job security, transfer wealth to the middle class, and reduce economic inequality (a study released last year found the average worker in an ESOP had accumulated $134,000 in retirement wealth from their stake.) A company with an ESOP can be unionized, but most aren’t. Give that they blur the lines between workers and owners, unions have had a complicated relationship with them over the years.

In the piece I also report on a new study by a Danish researcher that looks at the impact ESOPs have on wages using a longitudinal data set. Almost all ESOP studies to date have used administrative and cross-sectional data, so using this kind of longitudinal data is a relatively big deal for people who study employee ownership.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand—both likely 2020 presidential contenders—are ESOP and co-opt boosters and have sponsored legislation in the past two years to promote them. One reason employee ownership is gaining more traction is because an estimated 2.3 million businesses in the United States are owned by baby boomers who are approaching retirement, and these companies employ almost 25 million Americans. While many of these business owners will fold quietly or sell their companies to competitors or private equity firms, ESOPs present retiring business owners with an alternative to sell their company to their workers and perhaps keep jobs more securely within the local community.

You can read the ESOP story here.

(For those who like pieces like this, over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to highlight other economic policy ideas that warrant closer attention: community-development credit unions, a national social wealth fund, and Modern Monetary Theory.)

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