Vallejo Unified School District building. (Photo/Rachel Raskin-Zrihen)
Vallejo Unified School District building. (Photo/Rachel Raskin-Zrihen)

Vallejo school board tables vote on ‘anti-Jewish’ ethnic studies curriculum

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During its regular meeting on May 6, Vallejo’s school board tabled a resolution in support of a draft of a statewide ethnic studies curriculum deemed “anti-Jewish” by the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

The resolution, titled “Affirming Support of AB 2016 California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Draft,” was included on last week’s agenda after being introduced by the Vallejo City Unified School District’s superintendent, Adam Clark.

It was scuttled in a 5-0 vote.

AB 2016 is a 4-year-old piece of legislation, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, mandating an ethnic studies curriculum be drafted as a guide for California high schools.

A draft of the proposed curriculum was written by California’s Department of Education and released last summer. It is currently undergoing revisions at the state level after criticism that it was overly ideological, exclusionary of some ethnic groups and hostile to Israel.

In a July 2019 letter, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, a group of 14 lawmakers in Sacramento, called the draft “inaccurate and misleading in several critical respects” and said that it was written “in a manner that reflects an anti-Jewish bias.”

The Anti-Defamation League said last year that the draft had several “troubling aspects,” including “extreme anti-Israel content, including support for BDS,” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The resolution in front of the VCUSD board signals approval of the draft largely as-is.

The May 6 vote came after several members of the Vallejo Jewish community, and others, drafted a letter expressing dismay at the attempt to show support for a document already under revision.

The letter, signed by more than 100 local Jewish and non-Jewish residents, was written by Vallejo progressive political activists Susan George and Matthew Finkelstein.

It argued that a vote to accept the draft more or less as-is would have ignored recommendations made by many officials — including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond — that it be revised.

The letter also contended that a yes vote would ignore the “19,000 public comments of outrage” against the draft and would have “been publicly supportive of something that is obsolete; that has already been determined not to be OK.”

In addition to Jewish groups, a coalition of Armenian, Assyrian, Hellenic, Hindu and Korean civic groups are against the draft curriculum, saying it omits their histories and those of other minorities.

George said she found out about the resolution only three days before the May 6 Vallejo school board meeting.

At that point, George said, “We organized and spoke to our community and got a wide range of support. We fully support the [assembly bill] and an ethnic studies curriculum, but the draft has already been widely rejected. The state needs to finish its process of review and revision, which is due in 2021.”

Longtime school board member Tony Ubalde championed the effort to pass the resolution, citing several Jewish groups in support of the draft. One of them is Berkeley-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which said in an August 2019 press release, “[A] wide range of Israel-aligned, Zionist organizations have publicly attacked the curriculum for being antisemitic and anti-Israel. As usual, they claim to speak for the entire Jewish community, which they do not.”

Ubalde, who did not immediately return a request for comment, ended up voting with the rest of the board to table the matter.

Former school board president Robert Lawson, a former history teacher and current board member, said by text afterward he would have voted against the resolution even if he hadn’t seen the George-Finkelstein letter and a few others before the meeting.

He said he was “quite wary” of ethnic studies programs that have been “a cover for Israel-bashing for years. And often it has been Jewish teachers who have been in on the bashing. People shouldn’t be fooled that ethnic studies are mainly to instill pride in one’s heritage. It’s a means of getting even.”

In his comments on the issue, Clark remained neutral, indicating only support for the concept of ethnic studies statewide.

“The [VCUSD] believes that students should be exposed to a robust ethnic studies curriculum. The curriculum should be inclusive,” he said.

George, meanwhile, said the draft as-is “pits various ethnic groups against the others, and that’s why [it] should never be approved.” She said people should “follow the state board of education,” adding that “we need to let the process finish to come up with the best possible curriculum for our students.”

Rabbi David White, longtime spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel, Vallejo’s only synagogue, weighed in with a letter of his own.

“The diversity in our membership reminds me of how precious Vallejo is as a model of diversity,” he wrote. “Our tradition accentuates teaching children to live with understanding and appreciation of their own culture, and respect and openness to others.

“The draft curriculum you are being asked to consider falls far short of inclusion, nor does it teach to and for students whose background or history has been excluded,” the rabbi continued. “This curriculum ignores Jews as a distinct people indigenous to the Middle East, resulting in misleading inaccuracies and disenfranchising them from their own history.”

The unanimous vote in Vallejo will table the matter until a final version of the curriculum is hammered out.

“We commend our school board for their good intentions,” Finkelstein said, “for their thoughtfulness and willingness to listen to us, once they realized there was a concern.”

He said he supports AB 2016 and the need for a high school ethnic studies curriculum in California. “This could end up becoming a model for the nation,” he added. “So we take it particularly seriously.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.