California Legislative Jewish Caucus chair Ben Allen (arm extended) speaks with Gov. Gavin Newsom at a meeting in March 2019 .(Photo/Courtesy California Legislative Jewish Caucus)
California Legislative Jewish Caucus chair Ben Allen (arm extended) speaks with Gov. Gavin Newsom at a meeting in March 2019 .(Photo/Courtesy California Legislative Jewish Caucus)

Draft high school ethnic studies curriculum ‘anti-Jewish,’ say California Jewish orgs

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“Ignored.” “Erased.” “Inexplicably snubbed.”

A proposal by a state education committee for a high school course in ethnic studies is roiling Jewish groups from across the political spectrum. The concerns are that the draft — currently in a public comment phase — excludes Jews and Judaism from its discussion of ethnic groups, is one-sided in its view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, does not deal seriously with anti-Semitism, and even uses an anti-Semitic trope.

The complainants represent a diverse coalition of groups, from the Anti-Defamation League to the Progressive Zionists of California to JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Several have sent letters to the state education department expressing their concerns.

In an open letter on July 29, Jewish state lawmakers said the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is “inaccurate and misleading in several critical respects and is drafted in a manner that reflects an anti-Jewish bias.” The letter was sent by the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, a group of 14 lawmakers chaired by Democratic Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica.

More than 20 Jewish organizations, including the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, signed onto another letter spearheaded by the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California to oppose the current draft and propose changes.

“We found it very concerning,” said Jeremy Russell of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, another of the letter’s signatories. “It did not reflect the diversity of the state.”

In September 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2016, which required the State Board of Education (SBE), the policy-making body of the California Department of Education (CDE), to develop a course in ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color. The bill cites research that the subject “has a positive impact on pupils of color” and encourages, but does not require, school districts and charter schools statewide to offer the course. A different bill now moving through the Legislature, AB 331, would make the teaching of ethnic studies a requirement.

In January, the SBE appointed a Model Curriculum Advisory Committee of 18 people, mostly college professors and high school social science teachers, to supervise the drafting of the curriculum framework. In May, the more than 300-page draft was presented to the state’s advisory Instructional Quality Commission, which made 12 amendments and voted to post it for public comment.

Since then, the CDE has gotten an earful, a spokesperson said.

“We’re getting a lot of concerns, and rightfully so,” said public information officer Scott Roark.

The public comment period began earlier this summer and will remain open until Aug. 15, when the Instructional Quality Commission will review the input. The SBE is expected to finalize the curriculum in early 2020.

Among the complaints raised by Jewish groups are that the curriculum, which by statute must be adaptable to “reflect the pupil demographics” in school districts, focuses heavily on power structures and forms of oppression including white supremacy, sexism, classism, Islamophobia, transphobia — but excludes anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish bias receives only a passing mention during a discussion of intersectionality in a proposed course on Pacific Islander studies.

A 22-page glossary and bibliography has entries for Islamophobia and racism, but none for anti-Semitism. “The draft curriculum effectively erases the Jewish American Experience,” the lawmakers wrote. “Despite the significant contributions of Jews to California’s history, politics, culture, and government — and our community’s longstanding struggle against hatred and discrimination.”

In its own Aug. 4 letter, JIMENA, the group representing Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, said that it supports ethnic studies instruction in public schools, but that the draft’s omission of meaningful discussion about Middle Eastern Jews — despite large populations living in California — was a troubling oversight.

“Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are a racially diverse ethnic sub-group that is both proudly Jewish and proudly Middle Eastern,” the letter states. Citing an estimated 60,000 Iranian Jews in the Los Angeles area, “There is no possible way that the Arab American Studies Course curriculum, as it is currently written, can adequately reflect Mizrahi demographics, needs and interests in the state of California.”

Israel also receives sharp criticism in the draft curriculum, with little background information about the history of the Jewish state. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war, known in Israel as the War of Independence, is referred to as the “1948 Palestine War,” and the creation of Israel is referred to as the “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe.”

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is linked to protests like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as a historical social movement for class discussion. In the glossary, BDS is defined as a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”

The lawmakers’ letter said the draft curriculum “singles out Israel — the world’s only Jewish state — for special critique and condemnation that is both out of context and factually inaccurate.”

Of further concern, the letter said, is a proposed lesson on “Hip Hop as Resistance” that uses a controversial lyric by the Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour that some consider an anti-Semitic slur. Translated from Arabic, the lyric says, “for every free political prisoner, an Israeli colony is expanded” and Israel supporters “use the press so they can manufacture.”

The American Jewish Committee expressed its dismay in an Aug. 2 statement from Dganit Abramoff, Los Angeles chief of staff, and Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, director of AJC Northern California, who urged the Legislature to revise the law establishing the curriculum to include “safeguards against biased and inaccurate educational guidelines.”

The curriculum “mischaracterizes Jewish history and identity, especially Mizrahi Jews, who comprise a significant portion of the state’s Jewish population, neglects the history of anti-Semitism and demonizes the state of Israel,” Abramoff said.

Members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, many of whom supported the original 2016 bill to develop an ethnic studies curriculum, now strongly oppose moving forward with its implementation “without significant revisions” to the draft model.

According to the letter, “It would be a cruel irony if a curriculum meant to help alleviate prejudice and bigotry were to instead marginalize Jewish students and fuel hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community.”

The full Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is available to the public online. Public comment can be sent to [email protected].

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.