“Palestine in Comparative Ethnic Studies Frameworks" will be offered at UCLA this fall. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
“Palestine in Comparative Ethnic Studies Frameworks" will be offered at UCLA this fall. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s ethnic studies in universities that need watching

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While California’s Jewish community has been focused on how ethnic studies curricula and legislation will affect Jewish children in K-12, far too little attention has been paid to ground zero in the state’s ethnic studies controversy — namely, ethnic studies departments on University of California and California State University campuses.

Consider, for example, UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department. This fall, AASD will be offering a new course, “Palestine in Comparative Ethnic Studies Frameworks.” The course will examine Palestine and Palestinians “through interdisciplinary ethnic studies optics and frameworks … including but not limited to settler-colonialism and indigenous sovereignty; policing, prison and circular regimes; class consciousness; war, empire and imperialism; sexual and gender politics, refugee/migrant activist remarks; [and] apartheid.”

This description is deeply troubling.

First, it strongly suggests the course will be less a scholarly investigation of “Palestine and Palestinians” than the convening of an academic kangaroo court in which Israel is falsely charged with multiple crimes against humanity — including settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, white supremacy and apartheid — and judged to be guilty as charged, with students encouraged to help carry out Israel’s sentence by engaging in “social justice” activism, such as BDS, to dismantle the Jewish state.

How can one know this from a course description that never mentions Israel? Consider the source: Loubna Qutami, the assistant professor teaching the course, has been an avid anti-Zionist activist for nearly two decades. A founder and past international general coordinator of the Palestinian Youth Movement, Qutami helped shape the organization’s mission of uniting transnational Palestinian youth around the singular goal of liberating historic Palestine (i.e., modern-day Israel) from the “ongoing Zionist colonialist occupation of our homeland.”

As a member of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, she wrote a lengthy policy document referring to Israel as a “Zionist settler-colonial and apartheid regime” that is “inherently a project of gendered violence,” calling on Palestinian activists “to strengthen a global movement that is anti-Zionist,” reminding them that the “end goal” of their activism is “an end to Zionist colonialization.”
Qutami is also an ardent supporter of academic BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). She has pledged to work against “the normalization of Israel in the global academy” and committed to advocating “in the classroom and on campus” for BDS, including for an academic boycott of Israel that would directly subvert her own students’ ability to study about or in Israel

Even more troubling is the fact that Qutami’s new course could not have been offered this quarter were it not vetted and approved by UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department, the same department that, in May, posted an official “Department of Asian American Studies’ Statement of Solidarity with Palestine” that embraced the same “ethnic studies optics and frameworks” as Qutami’s course.

Despite thousands of Hamas-launched rockets that rained down on Israel’s major cities and incited Israel’s military response, the AASD statement mentions neither Hamas nor the terrorist organization’s deadly rockets, but instead vilifies Israel with baseless charges of “settler colonialism,” “ethnic cleansing” and “racial apartheid,” and issues a BDS-compliant demand that the Biden administration “halt all funding to Israel” until it “stops its crimes against humanity.”

Tellingly, the statement justifies the department’s unabashedly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel bias by claiming it is firmly rooted in ethnic studies’ “critique of imperialism, militarism and settler colonialism,” as well as rooted in the discipline’s “ethical, scholarly and pedagogical commitment to knowledge relevant for justice and freedom”.

While Qutami’s anti-Zionist course and AASD’s discipline-based anti-Israel bias and commitment to anti-Zionist advocacy and activism are sure to whip up hatred for Israel and its on-campus supporters, their harmful impact is likely to be felt well beyond UCLA.

In January, the AASD faculty, including Qutami, sent a letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond vigorously opposing California’s adoption of a revised draft of a K-12 Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) that omitted highly politicized lessons on Arab American Studies which had been included in the first draft.

Those lessons, which contained overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist material and promoted BDS, outraged the California Jewish community, state legislators and the governor, and was a major factor in the State Board of Education’s rejection of the original draft of the ESMC in 2019.
Nevertheless, the AASD letter demanded that the state superintendent re-incorporate into the model curriculum these antisemitic Arab American lessons, or ones similarly “anti-racist, decolonial and liberatory” that would “foster critical pedagogy which can challenge the ideological and structural forms of oppression.”
And AASD was not alone in its protest.

The CSU Council on Ethnic Studies, representing ethnic studies departments on 22 Cal State campuses, and numerous University of California ethnic studies departments dubbed the antisemitic first draft “an authentic [e]thnic [s]tudies curriculum” and demanded that it be adopted as the state’s official model curriculum.

Although the final curriculum approved by the State Board of Education did not include the original antisemitic lessons, that will not stop faculty like Qutami and departments like AASD from encouraging their students intending to teach ethnic studies in K-12 classrooms to use a “liberated” curriculum based on the antisemitic first draft that is currently being peddled to school districts throughout the state.

Indeed, if AB 101 — the ethnic studies high school graduation requirement bill currently being considered by the California Legislature — becomes law, overtly anti-Zionist classes not unlike Qutami’s may soon find their way to every high school in the state.

AB 101 must be stopped, but much more than that: Legislators must fundamentally rethink their commitment to an antisemitic discipline whose core tenets promote the demonization, delegitimization and destruction of the Jewish state — and will inevitably lead to the hatred and harassment of Jewish students at taxpayer-funded universities and public schools throughout California.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.


Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a co-founder of the Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses. She was a lecturer in Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz from 1996 to 2016.