Berman stands at the front of a room addressing an audience
Assembly member Marc Berman discusses the state high school ethnic studies curriculum at the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

State ethnic studies curriculum should define ‘antisemitism’

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According to a new American Jewish Committee poll, only 53 percent of U.S. adults say they are familiar with the term “antisemitism” and know what it means. A stunning 21 percent say they never heard the word, and 25 percent have heard it but are unsure what it means.

Given Americans’ lack of awareness and understanding of antisemitism, educational initiatives that seek to counter hate and bigotry must include a clear definition of antisemitism.

California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is one such initiative, mandated by the state legislature in 2016. But the California Department of Education produced a first draft in 2019 that did not contain any definition of antisemitism, nor a lesson plan on how to recognize and combat it.

After protests by the Jewish community and thousands of comments on the draft, the CDE released an updated, revised version in August 2020. A definition of antisemitism still was missing. The only reference to Jews in the current draft likens Jews to Irish-Americans, asserting that they have gained racial privilege in America.

California has experienced a 72 percent increase in antisemitism over the last three years. Jews are the state’s primary religious hate-crime target and third most frequently targeted ethnic group.

Students must learn what antisemitism is and that it did not end with the Holocaust.

That’s why the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum must include it.

Antisemitism in California has multiple sources. It comes from far-right white supremacists, as was demonstrated by the fatal attack at Chabad of Poway last year. It comes from the far left, where contemporary manifestations include glorifying terrorists who carry out violent, fatal attacks against Israel (thus denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination).

We see antisemitic acts from religious extremists and even from segments of minority communities. We see it in the form of Holocaust denial and distortion, and conspiracy theories about Jewish “power,” “privilege” and “control.” We see it especially on the internet and on social-media platforms.

If California’s educational leaders are serious about combating antisemitism and hate, they should include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism in the ESMC. An apolitical body of scholars, policy experts and researchers from around the world created the original Working Definition in the early 2000s, and the IHRA adopted it in 2016.

RELATED: Students at Foothill College pass antisemitism definition resolution

The definition is simple: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This “certain perception” — often connected to conspiracy theories and tropes of power, control and money — makes antisemitism distinct from other forms of hate and bigotry.

Antisemitism is more than just a hatred of a specified other. It is connected to an alleged evil in the world, which morphs across society and the political spectrum in different ways, making it exceedingly challenging to combat.

Today the IHRA definition is recommended by the European Parliament, European Council, UN Secretary-General, and Secretary-General of the Organization of American States. It has been adopted by almost 30 countries. It is the definition referenced in the House of Representatives’ Never Again Education Act (H.R. 943), which was co-sponsored by 302 representatives, including 45 from California: Jackie Speier, Ro Khanna, Ted Lieu, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Adam Schiff and others.

The State Department under President Barack Obama endorsed this definition. But when the Trump administration recommended its use in an executive order for the Department of Education, it sparked an outcry by Trump opponents who asserted that his action would somehow limit freedom of speech, especially around issues of Israel on college campuses. It was disappointing to see such a useful tool fall victim to partisan politics.

Some critics argue the definition will undermine the First Amendment or have a “chilling effect” on free speech and silence all criticism of Israeli policies. But it is intended to define antisemitism — not sanction speech.

The First Amendment protects all speech, including racist, xenophobic, homophobic and antisemitic speech. Where such intolerance has consequences, as in determining the motivation of hate crimes, it is vital to know what antisemitism is.

Without understanding new forms of antisemitism, such as those on the internet and social media, the “chilling effect” often falls on Jewish students. Jewish students often feel afraid to openly identify as Jewish, given the significant surge in antisemitism in schools, including rhetoric denying Israel’s right to exist and other criticisms of the Jewish state that clearly are antisemitic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom should endorse the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. He would send a powerful message that California cares about protecting its Jewish students and lead by example as other states include ethnic studies in their schools.

The ESMC can be a model for educators across the country. It should teach students civic responsibility and empathy toward others who look and think differently. But it should include Jewish Californians, who have historically faced intense discrimination and remain targets of hatred today. The future well-being of American Jewish communities depends on it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J. This piece first was published by the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

Holly Huffnagle
Holly Huffnagle

Holly Huffnagle is the AJC’s U.S. director for combating antisemitism. The Southern California native served in the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism at the state department under President Obama.