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 proposed 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)

Jewish studies profs: Ethnic studies curriculum substitutes political concerns for historical accuracy

This is an open letter to California Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond, sent March 16 by three Jewish studies professors, regarding the ongoing controversy around the California ethnic studies curriculum.

Dear Dr. Darling-Hammond and the California State Board of Education,

We don’t need to tell you how difficult the process facing the California Ethnic Studies requirement has been. It has endured rounds of public comment, editorializing, political organizing, and, finally, the resignation of some of the effort’s most prominent early promoters and the eventual approval of some of its harshest critics. Much of the most acrimonious debate has centered on the place of Jews in the curriculum, and how or whether they should be included in it.

Our intent in this letter is not to weigh in on the question of whether Jews belong in the Ethnic Studies curriculum. Rather, we are writing to express our concerns over the way Jews are represented in the latest draft. We find it substitutes current political concerns for historical accuracy. It is misleading and counterproductive, and it confuses rather than clarifies questions central to both Jewish Studies and Ethnic Studies: questions born of diasporic histories, minoritized populations, and the racialization of American communities.

We applaud the model curriculum for its attempt to include an account of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry (from North Africa and the Middle East). In this effort, it offers an important corrective to assumptions about the European, Ashkenazi normativity in many educational approaches to Jewish life. Unfortunately, though, the intention of the model lesson is not carried through in its presentation. Instead, it presents a highly selective, overtly politicized, and only partial portrait of Jewish people and cultures.

Pedagogically, the trouble begins with the lesson’s opening gambit, which prompts teachers to post “the words ‘Antisemitism’ and ‘Jewish Americans’ to engage students in a discussion of who Jewish Americans are and about the discrimination that they face.” The model lesson moves antisemitism to the center of the discussion, offering only the barest insight into the richness and diversity of Jewish life. Certainly, discrimination is a focal point of Ethnic Studies, but centering it in this way makes as much sense as presenting a Black History Month curriculum around anti-blackness, or a Womens’ History Month lesson around misogyny. All three efforts locate the power to define their subject in the forces and people that oppose it.

But the troubles continue. The lesson instructs teachers to tell students that “they are going to delve deeper into the experience of discrimination, hate, and violence against Jewish Middle Eastern Americans at present while imagining a response to it.” The formulation of “Jewish Middle Eastern Americans” raises far more questions than it answers and obfuscates more than it clarifies. To be sure, many Jews from Middle Eastern countries live in the US (and Israel, and elsewhere), and, again, we support the model lesson’s intention to account for the ethnic and ancestral diversity of American Jews. But the homogenizing nature of this framework (which is also true of the homogenizing efforts that privilege Ashkenazi experience) misuses the figure of the Middle Eastern Jew to try to argue that all Jews, including European Jews, are “indigenous” to the Middle East. This framing seeks to bolster the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life and draw equivalences between criticism of Israel and antisemitism more generally (a central concern of the curriculum that is reinforced by the model lesson’s endorsement of the much-contested IHRA definition of antisemitism).

If we were California high school students faced with this lesson, we might reasonably walk away with a partial understanding of how to define antisemitism and a distorted sense of the diversity of Jewish communities in both historical and contemporary settings.

While we found the model curriculum’s treatment of these important issues to be clumsy at best, we were not sure how a high schooler might understand it. So we called Ari’s nephew, a fairly knowledgeable Jewish-identified California public high school student. We asked him to complete the lesson, paying close attention to its three focal questions. In response to the second of the three highlighted questions, he wrote, “Jews of middle eastern descent were people who were ashkenazi or another type of Jew from the Middle East.” Ari’s nephew gave an accurate response, but only if understood through the skewed logic of the model lesson. In every other possible framing of Jewish ethnicity, heritage, ancestry, culture, tradition, Ashkenazi Jews would be identified as European and not Middle Eastern, even as their historical relationship to whiteness in the American context has shifted over time, in line with the concerns of American Jewish communal leaders.

The model curriculum reflects contemporary concerns, not historical facts. By centering the purported indigenous Middle Eastern status of Jews in general, it exposes the fact that it is not really concerned with Middle Eastern and North African Jews after all. Rather, the model lesson uses and then dismisses their experiences to advance a different political goal: the unquestionable centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life and culture. By reducing Jewish history to antisemitism and the rich tapestry of Jewish cultures to a singular concern for the State of Israel, the model lesson endorses certain political concerns at the expense of California students and at the expense of the larger enterprise of Ethnic Studies (to say nothing of Jewish Studies).

We cannot imagine a teacher or student equipped with this model lesson emerging from a class session with a better, fuller understanding of American Jews as a diverse community with a long, complex, global history that intertwines powerfully with many of the central concerns of ethnic studies: diaspora, migration, systematic oppression, language, mutual aid, and so on.

We realize that these comments come rather late in the public process, so I hope you’ll forgive us for our belated entry into the discussion (parenting, pandemics, day jobs and so on have kept us from engaging throughout). But we hope you are able to read this letter with an appreciation of how important we feel this issue to be, and the aspiration that you take it and its concerns seriously in advance of your meetings this week.

We, of course, do not speak on behalf of anyone other than ourselves: a professor of North African Jewish history, a professor of Sephardi Jewish history, and a professor of Education and Jewish Studies. But we do think our concerns would be shared both by other scholars of Jewish Studies, and by a significant segment of the California Jewish community, whose voices have not been well-represented through the public process and whose experiences are not well-represented in this model lesson.

We are writing to share our concerns with you and your colleagues on the Board of Education. We do not have a recommendation about what ought to happen with the Ethnic Studies curriculum; we simply want to draw attention to the flaws in the draft as it currently stands and our concerns about how it might not serve the needs of those it is intended to benefit. We trust in your leadership to do right by California’s students, teachers and all its residents.

Sincerely,

Ari Y Kelman
Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University

Devin E. Naar
Isaac Alhadeff Professor of Sephardic Studies, University of Washington

Jessica Marglin
Ruth Ziegler Early Career Chair in Jewish Studies, University of Southern California

Ari Y. Kelman
Ari Y. Kelman

Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.

Devin E. Naar

Devin E. Naar is the Isaac Alhadeff Professor of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington.

Jessica Marglin

Jessica Marglin is the Ruth Ziegler Early Career Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Southern California.