Gov. Gavin Newsom encourages a crowd to vote against the recall effort targeting him, August 2021. (Photo/Forward-Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)
Gov. Gavin Newsom encourages a crowd to vote against the recall effort targeting him, August 2021. (Photo/Forward-Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)

Veto pressure on Newsom mounts as ethnic studies deadline looms

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Despite winning the overwhelming approval of the Legislature, California’s ethnic studies mandate is generating increasing political pressure for Gov. Gavin Newsom as an Oct. 10 deadline to sign or veto legislation nears.

What seemed to many to be a foregone conclusion — that after the state greenlit a revised model curriculum that satisfied a diverse coalition, Newsom would approve the bill — is being tested, as stakeholders in the Jewish community and in the media are leaning on Newsom to pull the brakes.

Assembly Bill 101 would mandate ethnic studies instruction across California public high schools within the next 10 years. Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year as the state’s model curriculum was being revised, saying there was too much “uncertainty” surrounding the draft.

Despite the model curriculum’s thorough overhaul since then, some Jewish groups are imploring Newsom to act again.

The Amcha Initiative, a Santa Cruz–based antisemitism watchdog organization led by former UC Santa Cruz faculty member Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, released a stark open letter addressed to the governor claiming to have mobilized “hundreds of Holocaust survivors” against AB 101. Rossman-Benjamin has testified against the bill before education committees in the state Senate and Assembly.

The problem, Amcha and other critics say, is the bill’s latitude. Schools do not have to use the long-worked-on Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum — they are “encouraged” to do so — but they may also use a “locally developed” course.

The Amcha letter argues AB 101 still leaves too much room for one-sided, anti-Israel content, and that lessons that malign Israel or delegitimize the Jewish state pose a “genocidal threat to the more than 6 million Jews — nearly half of world Jewry — who live in Israel.” Such lessons also threaten “the safety and well-being of Jews throughout the world.”

Criticism of AB 101 has been loud and unequivocal from staunchly pro-Israel Jewish groups, including Amcha and the teen organization Club Z, as well as from moderate to conservative secular organizations, such as the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies and Californians for Equal Rights.

Now there’s a new factor complicating matters for Newsom — an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, the state’s most widely circulated newspaper, urging the governor to send the bill back. The Times’ editorial board, which takes liberal positions on most issues, echoed some of the arguments about laxity made by pro-Israel groups.

The Sept. 20 editorial argues that AB 101 still does not do enough to head off problems the editorial board identified in the first ESMC draft — which it called “jargon-filled” and “all-too-PC.” The headline read, “California’s latest ethnic studies bill is not quite ready for prime time.”

“Despite the necessity of this course at this time of racial and ethnic division and misunderstanding,” the editorial stated, “the bill should be rejected again … The model curriculum is ready, but the bill itself doesn’t ensure that the curriculum, or at least something very similar, is what students will be taught in schools.”

With criticism mounting, the 18-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which vigorously supports ethnic studies instruction in high schools, is mobilizing to preserve political support for it within the Jewish community. Notably, the bill sailed through the Assembly on Sept. 8 by a vote of 59-12, and was supported 29-8 in the Senate.

In the legislation, caucus members see a means to strengthen alliances, as the bill has broad support within the state’s Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander and Native American caucuses.

But it’s not only good politics, they say, it’s also good policy: Students of color benefit from ethnic studies instruction, and requiring it across the state will expose students who may not otherwise have had access.

Support for ethnic studies is “not only strategic, but consistent with our Jewish values,” Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, who chairs the Jewish caucus, said during a Sept. 23 virtual forum organized jointly by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other groups.

man in suit with mask reads book in state capitol chamber
Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel reads a book handed out by the caucus to other lawmakers on Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 8, 2021.

“When the bill was first introduced, it was not considered to be very controversial,” he pointed out. It was the model curriculum that, in his words, caused the caucus to “pull the fire alarm.”

“Some folks wanted to misuse ethnic studies as a way to attack our Jewish community,” Gabriel said.

Much has changed since then. For one thing, the original model no longer exists. References to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel (BDS) have been removed, lessons on Jewish Americans were added, and antisemitism is taken up more thoroughly.

The document was overhauled so exhaustively that its original drafters removed their names from it, something Gabriel took as a point of pride.

Heightening the debate is a small consulting outfit that has drawn close attention from Jewish groups. Formed by some of the ethnic studies teachers who helped write the first draft of the ESMC, the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute, which has begun working with school districts such as the Hayward Unified School District, supports criticism of Israeli policies within its ethnic studies pedagogy.

In recent months, the LESMCI posted a strongly worded statement on its website, attacking what it calls a “Zionist backlash” against its efforts that has been “organized and financed by Zionist organizations in the United States and Israel.”

The statement criticizes Zionism as a “nationalist, colonial ideology that, from the late 19th century on, has called for the creation and expansion of Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine by any means necessary.”

To allay concerns about alternative curricula being brought into classrooms, AB 101 forbids the teaching of any materials that were rejected from the first ESMC draft. And it requires transparency from school districts on discussions surrounding locally developed curricula.

Gabriel said the caucus had done everything within its power to address the issue within the text of the legislation — taking a “belt and suspenders” or multipronged approach.

With the support of the bill’s author, Assembly member Jose Medina, the caucus inserted seven clauses it calls “guardrails.” According to Gabriel, they block any school from teaching biased anti-Israel material, including uncritical lessons on the BDS movement; the guardrail language does this in part by prohibiting “explicit” or “implicit” bias against protected classes.

Jose Medina presenting AB331 to the California Assembly Education Committee in March 2019. The bill would make ethnic studies a high school requirement. (Photo/Twitter-Jose Medina)
Assemblymember Jose Medina (left) presenting the bill that kicked off the ethnic studies saga in 2019. (Photo/Twitter-Jose Medina)

“The guardrails draw a clear box around what you can teach, and what you can’t,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said that uncritically teaching BDS or staunchly, one-sided, anti-Israel content would violate the guardrail language inserted into the bill. Enforcement of guardrails will undoubtedly prove challenging across California’s more than 1,300 public high schools.

In vetoing the mandate last year, Newsom wrote there remained “much uncertainty” surrounding how to properly teach ethnic studies, adding: “In California, we don’t tolerate our diversity. We celebrate it. That should be reflected in our high school curriculum.”

Uncertainty surrounding the model curriculum has been addressed. Clearly, other uncertainties remain.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

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