State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (center) met with Jewish leaders on Jan. 7 to discuss the controversial draft ethnic studies curriculum for California high schools. (Photo/Twitter-Rick Hirschhaut)
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (center) met with Jewish leaders on Jan. 7 to discuss the controversial draft ethnic studies curriculum for California high schools. (Photo/Twitter-Rick Hirschhaut)

Ethnic studies model curriculum no longer includes BDS, state officials say

As conflict continues to flare up in the Bay Area and across the state surrounding a draft of an ethnic studies curriculum for public high schools — which was highly critical of Israel and omitted Jews as an ethnic group for study — officials with the California Department of Education have told Jewish lawmakers that at least one requested change has been made: References to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement have been deleted.

The development comes as a modest win for Jewish and pro-Israel groups pushing for revisions to the draft, which the California Legislative Jewish Caucus said reflected an “anti-Jewish bias.” But significant questions remain about the more-than-400-page document, which will be used as a guide for state high schools. Revisions are ongoing at the CDE.

Many state senators and Assembly members in the 16-person Jewish caucus supported the 2016 bill to create a statewide model for ethnic studies — the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color.

But the model released last summer was roundly criticized by a host of Jewish interest groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish caucus, which drafted a joint letter calling it “inaccurate and misleading in several respects” and saying it “effectively erases the American Jewish experience.”

Spokespeople for Armenian, Hindu and Korean ethnic groups also complained of being left out, and still others criticized the draft for being overly ideological; an editorial in the Los Angeles Times called it “jargon-filled” and “all-too-PC.”

The draft curriculum is in the process of being revised to address many of these concerns.

Months remain until the new version will be released, as the CDE plans to present an updated version to the state Instructional Quality Commission on Aug. 13 (the presentation was scheduled for April but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic). Usually the IQC publishes documents for discussion 10 days in advance.

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum will then enter another public comment phase — the first round saw more than 10,000 submissions — which will lead to a final draft.

By law, a final version must be approved by March 31, 2021, a deadline already postponed one year by the state Legislature.

The CDE assured the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California and the Legislature’s Jewish caucus that BDS does not appear in the current version of the draft, representatives of those organizations said. However, it could still be reintroduced during the next public comment phase.

“They took it out. They did make those assurances,” said Julie Zeisler, executive director of JPAC, speaking about conversations she has had with officials at the CDE since the release of the draft.

“I think they were taking out all of the really specific items, the inflammatory things people were very concerned about,” she said, including references to BDS and to a controversial Palestinian rap lyric.

If a celebration at the end of this could be possible among the multiplicity of cultures that is California, that would be beautiful.

Seth Brysk, the S.F.-based regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said he believed removing references to BDS aligned with public statements made by Gov. Gavin Newsom and schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond.

“They talked about eliminating forms of bias and problematic language,” Brysk said. “We are keeping a close eye on the process to ensure that that happens.”

And yet Jewish groups have many other concerns about the curriculum model — including topics presented in a course outline on Arab American studies.

While ethnic studies traditionally has focused on four core groups (Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos), critics say a lesson focusing on Arab American history opens the door to a broad array of ethnicities and subgroups. Supporters say Arab American studies falls squarely under the rubric of Asian American studies.

Complicating matters, the Arab American module includes instruction on Muslim American figures who are lightning rods within the Jewish community, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, prominent Israel critics in Congress. It also includes a discussion of Palestinian migration to the United States that references the “Nakba,” an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe,” referring to the creation of the State of Israel and the “dispossession and dispersal of many Palestinian Arabs” that followed. There is no pro-Zionist counterpoint included in the draft.

The Arab American studies issue was at the center of a resolution that went before local school boards in recent weeks urging support for the current version.

The resolution, titled “Affirming Support of AB 2016 California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Draft,” was spearheaded by Save CA Ethnic Studies, a group of teachers and supporters of the curriculum (many of whom were on the state advisory committee that revised the original draft).

The resolution passed in school districts including Castro Valley, West Contra Costa County and San Francisco, but was tabled at the May 6 school board meeting in Vallejo after an outcry from members of the Jewish community.

Even as a wide chasm seems to exist between supporters of the draft and its opponents, some — including many who were inside the CDE while the curriculum was being written and revised — have expressed willingness to work with critics on modest revisions.

“Most everyone has agreed to certain reasonable revisions in the draft moving forward,” wrote R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a Los Angeles social studies teacher and one of the founders of Save CA Ethnic Studies.

Cuauhtin was on the 18-member advisory committee that helped revise the first draft before its public release. But he is now looking for ways to bring its critics and supporters together in support of a final version.

“Ideally, if a celebration at the end of this could be possible among the multiplicity of cultures that is California, that would be beautiful,” he wrote.

Cuauhtin said he supported, for example, including a discussion of anti-Semitism in the curriculum. Anti-Semitism received only a passing mention in the first iteration, which Cuauhtin called a form of oppression “all too relevant in these times of resurgent white nationalism.”

On the question of BDS, Cuauhtin said it had become — to the surprise of some on the advisory committee — the “single most controversial and intensely publicly polarizing topic in the curriculum.”

The draft mentioned the BDS movement twice, once in a sample lesson titled “Social Movements and Student Civic Engagement” and again in a glossary of definitions, where it was defined as “a global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”

Cuauhtin advises finding a solution that is digestible to high-schoolers so “both sides feel their perspectives are being adequately represented.” It will “likely be a curriculum item that many, including the IQC, will be focused on how to best navigate” come August, he said.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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