Redwood High School in Larkspur. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Redwood High School in Larkspur. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Citing local incidents, Marin includes antisemitism in ethnic studies curriculum

Amid the long-running controversy over a California ethnic studies curriculum that in an early draft omitted Jews and criticized Israel, a newly released ethnic studies curriculum in Marin County takes a different approach, incorporating a healthy portion of its lessons to teaching about antisemitism, the Holocaust and Jewish emigration to the United States.

It will be finalized in time for the start of school in August and distributed to all three Marin high school districts, which will be able to decide independently how or whether to use it.

According to a copy of the draft dated June 14 and provided to J., the lessons on anti-Jewish hate are framed through the definitions of antisemitism provided by the Anti-Defamation League and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The 44-page curriculum devotes six pages to the topic in a section titled “Antisemitism and its Impact on Jewish Americans in the U.S.”

“Jewish Americans have experienced antisemitism both historically and in [the] current day,” the section overview states. “They have been depicted as the ‘inferior race’ and continue to experience discrimination and exclusion.”

The curriculum addresses antisemitism “from a historical and contemporary perspective,” with lessons on “immigration, systems of exclusion, and historical oppression.” The remainder of the curriculum, taken from the state model, focuses on the experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Chicano/Latinx Americans.

The release of the Marin draft comes three months after the California State Board of Education approved the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in March. The state’s final version includes two lessons on Jewish Americans, absent from an earlier draft, after successful lobbying by Jewish groups. AB 101, a bill currently in the Senate’s Committee on Education, would make ethnic studies mandatory for high school graduation by the 2029-2030 school year.

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)

The Marin curriculum’s authors are Jan La Torre-Derby, the interim superintendent for the Novato Unified School District, and Amie Carter, an assistant superintendent for the Marin County Office of Education. Torre-Derby said work on the antisemitism portion of the curriculum began in September 2020 after the county’s Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke wanted a common response to a spate of recent anti-Jewish incidents, where students at Redwood High School were targeted with antisemitic social media posts. Multiple stakeholders were included in its development, Torre-Derby said, including Congregation Rodef Sholom, Israel activist Mike Harris, the ADL and school superintendents in the county.

David Hellman, a member of the county school board, said ethnic studies generally “has proven to be beneficial to students.” He pointed to a 2016 Stanford study that suggested students who take ethnic studies courses improve their GPAs by an average of 1.4 points. “That is why we should adopt and support it,” he said.

In the first unit on antisemitism, “History of Immigration and the Holocaust,” sections address legal persecution, systematic exclusion, “propaganda (including Blood Libel),” and examples of resistance groups such as the White Rose movement.

The second unit includes an analysis of how “antisemitic myths persist in today’s world” and examines Jewish stereotypes and myths about the Holocaust, greed and power. The unit also includes the curriculum’s only mention of Israel in a lesson on “anti-Zionism.”

In the third unit, students are taught about the “intersection of antisemitism and racism,” including the acknowledgement of Jews of color and drawing “connections between Jews and other oppressed groups to build allyship.”

Resources in the antisemitism curriculum include teaching materials from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the ADL and JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). It also has suggested reading materials including “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah and “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly. Both novels are about young women’s experiences with the Nazi regime.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.