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 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)

Ethnic studies: A meaningful victory in a complicated fight

When state Sen. Ben Allen and Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, both liberal Democrats from Southern California, first read the original draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum released in the summer of 2019, something didn’t sit right.

It wasn’t a single line or lesson that stood out to the then-chair and vice chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. It was that the curriculum, when looked at in its entirety — including its exclusion of any meaningful mention of the Jewish experience –— carried with it an undercurrent of “anti-Jewish bias.”

A textbook-length model curriculum focused on racial oppression that does not include a definition of antisemitism might be considered an oversight. But one that refers to the creation of a Jewish state as a “catastrophe,” celebrates boycotts of Israel alongside mainstream social justice movements, and presents a Palestinian song lyric that says Israelis “use the press” to “manufacture” reality, an oversight can begin to look like something worse.

Still, while ethnic studies has radical roots in the student protest movements of the 1960s, the essential aim of the ESMC is not a radical one: to finally center people of color as protagonists of history, rather than its supporting actors, in one public high school course.

Even with its flaws, the curriculum the State Board of Education passed on March 18 after nearly two years of debate will help do that. And it includes none of the anti-Jewish or anti-Israel elements mentioned above.

Clearly, some were outraged even by those changes. Defenders of the original draft said the edits were motivated by “right-wing groups” and “pro-Israel lobbyists.” To them, public policymakers were strong-armed by pro-Israel interest groups.

What these critics failed to grasp was the possibility that state officials, up to and including the governor himself, were not so much politically pressured into revising the draft, but in fact were persuaded to do so out of a genuine belief that Jewish Americans belonged, and that one-sided criticism of Israel did not.

The head of the California Department of Education, for example, a Black educator named Tony Thurmond, found a brief explanation of terminology helpful when looking at the first draft.

When during an interview with J. he was told the meaning of “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” a politically charged term used to refer to Israeli independence in 1948, he circled the word on his draft — it wasn’t familiar to him.

“As far as I’m concerned, there should be no reference to the creation of anyone’s homeland as being catastrophic,” he said at the time. “There’s no place for that in public education.”

Today many American Jews might feel besieged by political points of view that appear to demonize, erase or whitewash Jews and the Jewish experience. But in a progressive state such as California, where criticism of Israel flows much more readily than do efforts to understand it in its complexity, and where amorphous critiques of political or media influence might sometimes bleed into anti-Jewish tropes, we are pleased that in this case cooler heads prevailed.

The curriculum is not perfect. But it includes two sample lessons on Jewish Americans, it fairly discusses antisemitism, and it does not demonize Israel (nor even mention it).

It may not tell the Jewish story, but at least it tells a Jewish story. And perhaps most importantly, the curriculum provides a new opportunity for high school students of color to finally see themselves not marginalized, but centered in the classroom.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.