Jewish Youth for Community Action members at a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland. (Photo/Rachel Gottfried)
Jewish Youth for Community Action members at a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland. (Photo/Rachel Gottfried)

Open letter: Keep the original ethnic studies curriculum, with minor changes

Editor’s note: The state Instructional Quality Commission will be discussing recommendations to revise the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for California high schools at a public meeting on Thursday, Aug. 13, beginning at 10 a.m. By law, the State Board of Education must approve a final version by March 31.

To the California Department of Education, State Board of Education, and members of the Instructional Quality Commission and our Jewish community,

We are writing today on behalf of Jewish Youth for Community Action, based in Piedmont, to support the original California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft of August 2019, and to advocate for the implementation of an authentic ethnic studies program in California high schools.

We are a multiracial, multicultural group of Jewish high school organizers. The Jewish youth of color among us marvel at what it would mean to have this curriculum in our schools not only as Jews, but as people of color. The white Jews in our group write as allies, recognizing that ethnic studies is a needed opportunity to decenter white-dominated history and shift toward anti-racist learnings.

As a unified cohort, we affirm that learning from this curriculum would help all Jews and all students establish self and community identity. The National Education Association published a recent review of Ethnic Studies Research that found that an appropriately designed ethnic studies curriculum creates particularly positive outcomes for white students in addition to students of color “since exposure to a systematic analysis of power and cross-racial interaction is newer to white students than to students of color.” This is too important not to be implemented. Simply put, we need ethnic studies, and we need this particular curriculum, now.

As Jews, our ability to own and share our narratives is vital to finding safety. It’s so clear to us that we need to be listened to when incidents of antisemitism happen. In the same way, we must listen when other groups share their experience of oppression. Particular Jewish organizations should not claim to speak for the broader Jewish community, and should not attempt to dictate the curriculum’s content or other groups’ narratives of their own experiences. To do so would, as framed by Jewish Women of Color in anticipation of the 2019 Women’s March, “runs the risk of once again silencing communities of color and dismissing the experience of people of color, falling into the role of the wedge.”

We support and applaud the decision to focus on Black, Indigenous, Xicanx/Latinx and Asian studies. We urge the Instructional Quality Commission to keep that focus and to reinstate the Arab American Studies and Pacific Islander Studies curriculum as part of Asian American Studies. We want to see those narratives and herstories. They help us to think critically about power and oppression, a fundamental goal of ethnic studies. We also urge that the writers of the original curriculum be reconvened and included in the ongoing process.

Those of us who are Jewish youth of color often experience a double-bind of facing antisemitism and racism.

Those of us who are Jewish youth of color often experience a double-bind of facing antisemitism and racism. We take both seriously and want our Jewish siblings to know that our unique positions let us say with certainty that racism functions differently from antisemitism.

We want to be very clear: antisemitism is real, violence against Jews, historical and contemporary, is real. The trauma we experience is real. No one can tell us otherwise because it lives in our families and our bodies. We also believe that antisemitism props up racism, and is often used to discredit the political movements of people of color (see the Soros myth). However, we will not let false accusations of antisemitism be used to tear down the pursuit of justice, history, and an authentic ethnic studies curriculum.

Antisemitism and its connection to white supremacy and white nationalism should be addressed in schools whether that’s in ethnic studies, through an updating of the Human Rights and Genocide curriculum, or in other aspects of classroom learning. As far as we are aware, the coalition that created the ESMC is open to including antisemitism as a form of oppression in the curriculum; we support and encourage that inclusion by adding a definition to the glossary of the original curriculum. At the same time, we do not believe there is harm done to Jews in not including a section on the “Jewish American Experience.” As we understand it, Jewish studies developed separately as an academic discipline that hasn’t been combined into ethnic studies broadly. If there is a decision to change that, it should happen among the respective disciplines first.

It’s important to remember that this ethnic studies curriculum comes out of a long movement of organizing for better representation of histories of people of color in our schools amid great dismissal from our education system. By attacking the ESMC, the people of color who created it, and the histories and herstories shared within it, we are all harmed.

The curriculum and the current review process offer an opportunity for white Jews to create meaningful solidarity with Jews of color and other oppressed groups. Antisemitism and racism are rooted in the same source: white supremacist Christian hegemony. We know that fighting white supremacy in all of our institutions, including education, is key to creating the world we want to live in. The ethnic studies model curriculum is one small part of the fight. To that end, we urge the State Board of Education and members of the Instructional Quality Commission to trust the expertise of the authors and support the initial draft.

Minor revisions are part of the process and are needed; however, the vast majority of the original draft should remain. The originally proposed curriculum enriches our lives and the lives of our friends and peers, in solidarity with each other as multiracial human beings for racial and social justice.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Gabriella Lerman
Gabriella Lerman

Gabriella Lerman is a rising senior at Berkeley High School and a member of Jews Against Marginalization, a program of JYCA for Jewish youth of color and Sephardi and Mizrahi youth in the Bay Area

Rachel Gottfried-Clancy
Rachel Gottfried-Clancy

Rachel Gottfried-Clancy is the Executive Director of Jewish Youth for Community Action.