State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14 about the state's proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. (From left) Assemblyman Marc Berman, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Senator Ben Allen, Assemblyman Jose Medina (Photo/Facebook-Abby Porth)
State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14, 2019, about the state's high school ethnic studies curriculum. (From left) Assemblymember Marc Berman, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Sen. Ben Allen, Assemblymember Jose Medina (Photo/Facebook-Abby Porth)

Revised high school ethnic studies curriculum mitigates Jewish bias concerns

After an outcry from the state’s largest Jewish organizations, more than 20 Jewish interest groups, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, the Anti-Defamation League and a deluge of thousands of public comments, an ethnic studies curriculum for high schools that many felt unfairly maligned Israel and “erased” American Jews has been overhauled to remove criticisms of the Jewish state.

Tye Gregory, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said in a phone call Monday that although he was still combing through the more than 400-page document posted July 31 to the California Department of Education website, it appeared to be a “much more positive curriculum for our community.” JCRC has been following the revision process closely and meeting with state education officials.

Tye Gregory
Tye Gregory

“We think that this draft meets all of the major objectives and addresses all of the concerns that we raised over the course of the past year,” he said.

The revision comes as ethnic studies appears set to become a graduation requirement for the state’s more than 1.7 million high schoolers by the 2024-25 school year. Ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color, have been shown to improve grades for non-white students.

A state bill last year mandating an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement earned overwhelming support in the Assembly. The California State University college system last month approved a similar requirement.

Though supported in theory by many Jewish organizations, including the 16-member Jewish caucus, the specific model curriculum released last summer — produced by state curriculum writers and managed by an ad hoc, 18-person committee of social studies teachers and college professors — came under heavy fire. It was faulted for, among other things, its sharp criticism of Israel; support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; omission of any concerted discussion of antisemitism; and inclusion of a controversial rap lyric about Israelis “using the press.”

Jewish lawmakers shared “deep concern” in an open letter, charging that the curriculum was “inaccurate and misleading in several respects” and reflected an “anti-Jewish bias.”

Now, those same lawmakers say they are encouraged by the new version of the draft released in anticipation of a public meeting on Aug. 13, one postponed from April by the pandemic. Months still remain until a final version is approved.

“At least initially, we’re certainly pleased that the most serious concerns that we had about the original draft have absolutely been put to rest,” said state Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, chair of the Jewish caucus. “They followed through on that commitment.”

The curriculum no longer names BDS as a social movement worthy of class study alongside Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and protests for environmental justice. Neither does it reference the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” to describe the creation of Israel in a sample lesson on Arab immigration.

The most serious concerns that we had about the original draft have absolutely been put to rest.

A Palestinian rap lyric implying that Israel uses the press to “manufacture” public opinion was deleted. Also removed were controversial references to Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour in a course on Arab American studies.

BDS had been described in a glossary as a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.” In the second draft, the glossary was cut altogether. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not mentioned.

Not every ask was met. Gregory said the JCRC would like to see the diversity of the Jewish community, including Jews of color, reflected in the curriculum. The S.F.-based group Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, or JIMENA, lobbied for similar inclusion of Mizrachi Jews, and Jesse Gabriel, an Assembly member from the San Fernando Valley and vice chair of the Jewish caucus, said he believes Persian Jews should be discussed, as they make up large numbers in the state.

Jesse Gabriel
Jesse Gabriel

Still, many Jewish leaders thanked state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond for his efforts — attributing the changes at least in part to his hearing their concerns.

“We really appreciate and applaud the superintendent for his commitments,” Gabriel said in a phone call with J. on Monday.

“He made some very firm and unequivocal promises to us that there would be nothing anti-Israel or anti-Semitic in the draft, or anything that could be perceived as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic,” Gabriel said. “Based on the preliminary draft, that appears to be true.”

The model will now undergo a review by the Instructional Quality Commission, the state body leading the Aug. 13 public meeting. Another monthlong public comment phase will take place in September, according to Scott Roark, CDE spokesperson. The State Board of Education is responsible for approving the final model and will take it up on March 17, 2021, Roark said. By law the curriculum must be approved by March 31 of next year.

Of the more than 32,000 public comments submitted to the CDE after the release of the first draft last summer, about 19,000 were summarized as expressing “concerns with a lack of inclusion of Jewish Americans and anti-Semitism, and concerns with the inclusion of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

The CDE summarized an additional 8,500 public comments as expressing “support for the coverage of Arab Americans in the 2019 draft.”

A group called Save CA Ethnic Studies spearheaded resolutions on several local school boards, including in San Francisco and Oakland, to “affirm support” for the curriculum as written, with minor revisions.

An organizer with Save CA Ethnic Studies who was on the advisory committee that oversaw the first draft told J. in an earlier interview that some in the group were surprised at how intensely polarizing the topic of BDS had become, and thought it was likely to remain a point of contention during the next phase.

The revision names antisemitism, which saw only glancing mention in the first draft, as a form of bigotry informed by “white dominated culture,” alongside Islamophobia. However, it does not focus on anti-Jewish bias, and does not include a lesson devoted solely to Jewish Americans, as some had hoped.

There is a proposed unit called “Irish and Jewish Americans: Redefining White and American,” which asks students to “discuss parallels between language used to describe Irish and Jewish immigrants to those used in the early years of the United States to describe Native Americans.”

Gregory said that while the idea of devoting a lesson to Jewish Americans had been raised with education officials, JCRC would not be lobbying to include such a course in the final version.

“It’s not realistic,” he said. “We don’t think it’s going to happen in ethnic studies. We want to honor the four groups ethnic studies was built around.”

The CDE said its primary goal in the revision was to focus on the four core groups traditionally taught in ethnic studies — African Americans, Chicanos/Latinas, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans — while also making the draft more “user-friendly.” Words like “hxrstory” and “hxrstorically,” for example, were struck and replaced with “history” and “historically.”

Gabriel said he would continue to follow the issue closely and is committed to “seeing it through to the end.” In his two years in the Legislature, he said, he’s been struck by just how little is known about Jews and, consequently, how important it is to portray them accurately when given the chance.

“We’re a small community. People sometimes forget that,” he said. “There are a lot of things about our community that other people don’t understand. Our history, fears, struggles, the traumas we’ve endured.

“To the extent that people are going to learn about that in school, it’s important to make sure what they’re learning is factual, and historically accurate,” he said. “We have to get this right.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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