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)

Lessons on Jewish Americans added to state’s ethnic studies curriculum

Following a bruising political struggle lasting more than a year, Jewish organizations are marking a modest victory this week after education commissioners approved a statewide model curriculum in ethnic studies for high school that includes two lessons on Jewish Americans.

In the latest draft of the more than 400-page curriculum, the Jewish lessons are preceded by “framing language,” which reiterates ethnic studies’ central focus on four core groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. A lesson on Sikh Americans and another on Armenians also receives framing language.

“The model curriculum focuses on the four ethnic groups that are at the core of the ethnic studies field,” an appendix introducing the added lessons reads. “At the same time, this course … is relevant and important for students of all backgrounds.”

The decision to include the lessons came on Thursday, the second and final day of a meeting of the state Instructional Quality Commission. The 18-member commission is responsible for overseeing the development of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and recommending a final draft to the State Board of Education.

This week it approved a host of revisions, including adding a total of 29 lessons submitted by members of the public during the most recent public comment phase. The proposed lessons were edited by staff inside the California Department of Education.

While steps remain before approval of the curriculum — the first of its kind for high schools in the country — Jewish stakeholders were heartened about the prospect of representation in the final draft, which looked more certain after the IQC vote.

“This week’s IQC meeting proved encouraging,” a statement from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council read. “Most of the CDE’s salutary recommendations were approved, including important protections for all students and the addition of lessons on the Jewish American experience.”

CDE staff members are now assembling the draft based on the IQC’s decisions. The final version will be posted in December for a one-month public comment phase, before review and approval by the State Board of Education. The deadline for final approval is March 31, already postponed one year because of controversy surrounding the model.

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Both of the lessons, submitted by California Jewish organizations, sought to tie the experience of Jewish Americans directly to themes relevant to the field of ethnic studies, the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color.

The first lesson, introduced by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), examines antisemitism “and its manifestations through the lens of Jewish Middle Eastern Americans, also known as Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.”

The second lesson, “Jewish Americans: Identity, Intersectionality, and Complicating Ideas of Race,” was submitted by the Institute for Curriculum Services, a San Francisco organization dedicated to “improving the quality of K-12 education on Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the United States,” according to its website.

The lesson explores “how Jews have been stigmatized as outsiders, sometimes seen as a racialized other, and sometimes have experienced conditional whiteness and privilege.” It asks, among other questions, “how do conceptions of race change over time and place?”

Gina Waldman, president of JIMENA, was buoyant about the IQC decision Thursday.

“This is a really exciting development in the Ethnic Studies process,” she wrote in a statement to J. “Imagine if high schoolers all over California will have to learn the Mizrahi story? Inshallah and mashallah we shall win for the entire Jewish community.”

State Sen. Ben Allen, Democrat of Santa Monica and chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, sits on the IQC and participated in the two-day meeting. He said he was encouraged by the process and by the result for Jewish Americans and other ethnic groups.

“I’m glad the decision was made to include two different lesson plans that relate to Jewish people,” he said. “There was discussion about whether it fully belonged in the ethnic studies conversation. Ultimately the commission felt that it did.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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