A socially distanced classroom. (Photo/File)
A socially distanced classroom. (Photo/File)

Pitched debate on ethnic studies calls for perspective

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The two-year battle over California’s ethnic studies curriculum is approaching an inflection point as Gov. Gavin Newsom has until Oct. 10 to sign, or veto, legislation requiring such a course. 

In the home stretch, Jewish groups are lining up on both sides of the argument. Vitriol is flying, and temperatures are rising. At issue in the latest version of the model curriculum is the fact that it does not have to be used. School districts can design or adopt whatever ethnic studies curriculum they choose, although the bill establishes several “guardrails” that aim to block bias in locally developed curricula.

An emotional response to a certain brand of anti-Israel ideology — including some of what has reared its head during the ethnic studies debate — is indeed warranted. There is no excuse for educators demonizing the Jewish state in high school classrooms, calling it a “white settler state” bent on expansion “by any means necessary,” or attacking Jewish institutions like the JCRC and the ADL. That’s what a breakaway group of ethnic studies educators is promoting for an alternative curriculum, and it must be opposed. 

And yet, sometimes the best response is to take a deep breath, and look at the big picture. To many Jews, demonizing Israel is an attack on our safety (and may simply be ahistorical). Some have painted our state’s ethnic studies debate as an existential one on which the lives of millions of Jews around the world depend. That is patently untrue. 

When we poke our heads out from the trenches and look at the world, what do we see? 

This week, the U.S. House voted by a count of 420 to 9 to fund Israel’s powerful missile defense system, the Iron Dome, to the tune of $1 billion. Rep. Nancy Pelosi called its success evidence of “the great unity in Congress on a bipartisan and bicameral basis for Israel’s security.” An even more lopsided victory in support of the funding, part of a larger military aid plan to Israel, was expected in the Senate.

Looking abroad, there is cause for optimism, too. Israel has a new governing coalition, an ideologically diverse one led by Naftali Bennett, that has opened high-level contacts with Palestinians that were verboten during the Netanyau era. In the past year Israel has normalized relations with Sunni Arab states that were, historically, bitter adversaries.

While acknowledging the ongoing threat posed by Iran and Iran-backed actors and, of course, by the Palestinian conflict, Israel is arguably more secure today than it has ever been in its 73-year history. No high school course in California is going to change that. 

We would do well to maintain our perspective within this debate, and to take stock of advocacy wins Jewish community groups have already achieved — like the removal of BDS from the model curriculum, and the addition of lessons on Jewish Americans. We will remain vigilant, of course, but must choose our battles carefully.

J. Editorial Board

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