Preparing for a Yemenite Jewish wedding in the Bay Area. (Photo/Punam Bean)
Preparing for a Yemenite Jewish wedding in the Bay Area. (Photo/Punam Bean)

Mizrahi Jews needed to balance ethnic studies curriculum

When most of us in the Jewish community think about ethnic studies, we imagine classrooms exploring the histories, cultures, contributions and struggles of America’s diverse and marginalized ethnic communities which haven’t been given their proper attention and voice in school curriculum.

Thus, it was a no brainer for the Jewish community to rally in support of AB 2016, a law requiring California’s State Board of Education to adopt an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that public high schools throughout California would be encouraged to use.

Unfortunately, the first draft of the ESMC included content in its Arab American studies section and glossary that Jewish institutions across the state called out as hostile to Jews. To make matters worse, Jewish concerns and voices were missing from the curriculum — including any substantive reference to antisemitism.

The state agreed to revise the curriculum and Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction, made explicit promises to include American Jews and antisemitism in the next draft of the curriculum.

When the second draft was released July 31, many in the Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief as the blatantly antisemitic material was removed and a unit mentioning Jewish Americans — specifically how American Jews have received white privilege — was added.

As an organization that speaks on behalf of Mizrahi Jews, JIMENA expressed concern, as the second version still does not adequately address antisemitism or accurately represent California’s Jewish community, including the Middle Eastern Jewish community. (A nonprofit based in San Francisco, JIMENA stands for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa.)

Then, minutes before the start of the state’s first, long-awaited public meeting on the model curriculum, the state Department of Education slipped into the agenda its recommendation to add another lesson on Arab Americans, in concept.

The Department of Education had decided — only for the new Arab American studies section — to deny our community and the Instructional Quality Commission (the Board of Education’s advisory body) a formal public comment period for a section that previously contained very troublesome content for Jews.

This is a highly unusual deviation from standard practice.

Where should the Jewish community go from here?

First, we must demand that the state of California uphold its promises of transparency and public input.

It is unconscionable that the public is not allowed the same full and fair opportunity to review and comment on the Arab American studies section, especially given its inaccuracies and vitriol the first time around.

Second, we must advocate for a truly inclusive curriculum.

The Board of Education’s approved standards and guidelines are clear — curriculum must be balanced and portray peoples proportionately.

Yet, in the only section pertaining to Middle Eastern peoples, only Arab Americans are represented, even though at least 60 percent of the Middle Eastern and North African population in our state come from diverse backgrounds (and many do not identify as Arab at all).

Whether that’s an Armenian student in Glendale, a Persian Jewish student in West Los Angeles or a Coptic Christian student in Fresno, minority Middle Eastern/North African students constitute the majority of MENA Californians.

In response, JIMENA has formed Advocates for Inclusive Middle Eastern Education, a coalition of organizations representing non-Arab minorities indigenous to the Middle East.

Our request is quite simple. Representing more than three out of every five Californians of Middle Eastern descent, we deserve a place in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, so that California students have a balanced and equitable representation of those who live in their communities and our state.

To advance this goal, JIMENA has called for a straightforward solution that benefits all of the stakeholders involved. Our community of Mizrahi Jews has experienced persecution and exile from our countries of origin in the Middle East, and we’ve experienced the same racialization in the United States as other Middle Eastern communities do here, including Arabs.

So we asked the Department of Education and its Instructional Quality Commission to expand the model curriculum’s Arab American studies section to one embracing the diverse Middle Eastern communities residing in our state.

This Middle Eastern studies section would fall under the model curriculum’s “broadly defined umbrella of Asian American Studies,” where Arab American studies landed, simply renamed “Middle Eastern Studies.”

Islamophobia could be taught alongside antisemitism in this curriculum. This is why we worked with a Middle East scholar and educator to produce “Antisemitism and Middle Eastern-Americans” — a unique lesson plan that centers the stories of Mizrahi American Jews in an effort to teach all students about antisemitism, a structural and societal form of oppression experienced by Jews in North America that often is the foundation for other forms of hate, too.

Third, we must draw red lines for our elected officials.

Outside activists are pressing the Department of Education to reinsert BDS and the conflicts of the Middle East into the model curriculum (and into our classrooms) instead of focusing on the lived experiences of minority and marginalized groups here in California, as AB 2016 intends.

As we’ve seen on college campuses, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel (BDS) is divisive — with Jewish teens the target — and runs counter to ethnic studies’ goal of inclusivity.

Adding BDS to the model curriculum would be a tragic mistake.

Research consistently shows that a strong ethnic studies curriculum increases school attendance, student engagement, grade-point averages, graduation rates and post-secondary education.

In a state in which 4.8 million of our 6.2 million K-12 students in public schools are people of color — and the 1.4 million white students can benefit from learning multicultural skills — it simply makes sense for it to be taught in high school classrooms. But before it becomes a requirement, we need to know that teachers have a solid guidebook for teaching this course of study.

California students can certainly benefit from a strong ethnic studies curriculum. But California students need our state to get the curriculum right.

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

Sarah Levin
Sarah Levin

Sarah Levin is the executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution based in San Francisco dedicated to advancing the rights and the heritage of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.