Commission rejects textbooks for bias against Jews, Hindus

sacramento | In a surprise move, an advisory body to California’s board of education rejected a sixth-grade history program that Jewish and Hindu groups blasted as biased, erroneous and culturally derogatory.

During a two-day hearing last week before the state’s curriculum development and supplemental materials commission, Jewish critics lambasted an Oxford University Press textbook and related materials for subjecting early Jewish history to a more rigid standard of proof than Christian or Muslim history, for including stories that have traditionally fomented anti-Semitism and for misstating key concepts of Judaism, presenting it as a religion of reward and punishment rather than one of social justice and morality.

The rejection was a major upset for the prestigious publishing company, which had been trying for the first time to enter the lucrative California market for teaching materials for kindergarten through eighth grade.

California is the nation’s largest textbook purchaser and often sets the tone for what is adopted by other states.

Jackie Berman, educational consultant of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, along with policy analyst Susan Mogull, spent the last few months poring over the offerings of all the programs vying for the California market.

Speaking for the JCRC’s new Institute for Curriculum Services project, they sent extensive reviews of the proposed materials to state commissioners in late August.

Their reviews said that “many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews, and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul — all of these have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds.”

Berman said that while other publishers “worked well with us” to resolve issues of concern to the Jewish community, the Oxford team did not.

Other examples gleaned by Berman and Mogull:

n One textbook implied that Passover is a celebration of the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn.

n Another asked and answered the question, “How did Jewish people feel about Jesus? Most were impressed.”

n A third stated that Pontius Pilate “gave in” to pressure to crucify Jesus, an accurate reflection of the New Testament, but historically out of line with all sources, which record him as apt to mete out bloody justice to a degree unusual even in that era.

In a Thursday, Sept. 27, memo to the curriculum commission, Oxford University Press criticized the Institute for Curriculum Services’ concerns as “an apologetic defense of Judaism” and said the Jewish group was “not looking for historical objectivity but a religious agenda.”

The Oxford response stated it “is not relevant” to bring up how the Good Samaritan parable may have been used by anti-Semites through history. “Many religious texts in all traditions have been used to justify bad behavior,” the memo said.

On the contrary, said Ann Eisenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women. “Teaching religion to sixth and seventh graders is a high-stakes challenge,” she told the commissioners. “Jew hatred still exists and, in some places, thrives.”

Added Berman: “This is a book that millions of children could potentially read.”

David Gershwin of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles laid out for the commissioners Oxford’s depiction of Exodus. Not only, he said, does the Oxford text note that there is no historical record of the Exodus (a caveat not included in descriptions of the seminal religious events of other faiths), it incorrectly states that the story is important to Jews mainly as a way to set themselves off from other people.

When Jewish groups asked Oxford to change that passage to reflect the importance of Exodus as a story of national and personal liberation, they were rebuffed.

One Hindu speaker pointed to a chapter called “Where’s the Beef?” and said it offended him to have his faith presented “in the manner of an outdated television ad.”

Following the public criticism, 14 commissioners voted last Friday against adopting the Oxford materials, and one commissioner abstained. Their rejection came as a surprise because a special review committee had recommended its adoption to the commission.

California has mandated the study of religion since 1985. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in sixth grade, and Islam is covered in seventh grade.

Oxford is one of 12 publishers whose programs were being considered for adoption by the state of California (which means school districts can use state money to purchase them). The curriculum commission rejected the programs of two other publishers as well, both earmarked by the review committee as not meeting state standards.

The state board of education will make its final decisions on all the programs Nov. 3.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].