Los Altos High School in May 2020 (Photo/Wikimedia-Ovinus Real CC BY-SA 4.0)
Los Altos High School in May 2020 (Photo/Wikimedia-Ovinus Real CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jews should oppose radical ethnic studies curriculum in Silicon Valley schools

Ever since California first entertained adopting a statewide mandate to teach ethnic studies in public high schools, the Jewish community has been split into two distinct camps: those who oppose the explicitly antisemitic aspects of some of the ethnic studies curricula that have proliferated around the state, but go along with the overall ideological framing — and those who reject the larger ideological framing, which they see as dangerous, even when the content doesn’t explicitly deride Jews or Israel.

The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area has been from the get-go a leader of the first camp, seeking to improve the portrayal of Jews.

Concerned that those in the second camp are interfering in their efforts to modify the ethnic studies curriculum of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District (MVLA), which includes material from the controversial Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, the JCRC sent a message to its email list imploring community members to let the JCRC handle the delicate negotiations with the school district.

“Objections to MVLA’s curriculum,” the JCRC letter stated, “appear to be ideologically-based, with some questioning the inclusion of concepts such as systems of power and oppression… While segments of our community may object to teaching these concepts, these concerns are not related to Jewish identity, antisemitism, or Israel, and should not be conflated with anti-Jewish bias.”

I beg to differ.

The authors of this letter undoubtedly mean well and see themselves as acting in the Jewish community’s best interests. But they are badly misguided. 

Make no mistake, the MVLA curriculum is extremely problematic for the Jewish community and those who support Israel.

For example, under “Ethnic Studies Scope and Sequence: Historical Roots of Systems of Power – Enduring Understandings,” the MVLA curriculum states that “Students will grasp how settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery were foundational to the development of the US as an empire within and beyond North America. Students will understand how land theft, genocide, and slavery fueled the rise of US capitalism.”

In addition to attacking the American economic system, the MVLA curriculum focuses on “settler colonialism,” a term that’s often used in similar curricula to delegitimize Israel as a “settler colonial state.” While the MVLA curriculum may not explicitly apply the term to Israel, its prevalence gives license to teachers, some of whom were trained by the Acosta Educational Partnership, to apply it to the Jewish state. AEP, which has ties to the anti-Israel Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, is no longer working with MVLA, according to the JCRC, but the curriculum it helped put in place remains. 

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Imagine if Arizona introduced legislation to make an “America First” curriculum a graduation requirement. Say that it was based on the fallacy that “years of uncontrolled immigration and liberal trade policy have decimated America’s middle class and replaced native-born American workers with low-paid, often illegal immigrant labor, who flouted our nation’s laws and flooded our labor markets.”

Pretend that this fictional curriculum also included language contributed by white nationalists that “American Jewish political organizations have been instrumental in maintaining such immigration policies that have rendered our border towns unlivable, and are affecting a major shift in demographics.”

In this imagined scenario, Jewish leaders spring into action and succeed in excising the language about Jewish organizations. Should they be satisfied now that the America First curriculum no longer explicitly mentions Jews? Or should they continue to oppose a curriculum that will likely foment antisemitism?

I strongly suspect they would continue to oppose the America First curriculum, and rightly so.

Indeed, mainstream Jewish organizations have always maintained that it’s not enough to fight hatred against Jews, but rather they must fight for social conditions in which all minorities can thrive. A society that countenances radical ideologies will render Jews vulnerable as well. Too often, however, Jewish groups, fearful of alienating progressive allies, have been far less assertive in combating ideological extremism on the political left than on the political right.   

The people behind radical ethnic studies are every bit as extreme as the hypothetical white nationalists shilling for the hypothetical America First curriculum. One of the key activists behind the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, denounced the United States as a “Eurocentric, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal, hetero-patriarchal, and anthropocentric paradigm brought from Europe.” 

Even if Tolteka and his fellow travelers won’t get all their noxious rhetoric in the MVLA and other school curricula, the basic anti-American, anti-Western substructure remains firmly in place. And that substructure will condition a generation of Americans who have been schooled in the settler colonialism paradigm, often but not always in relation to Israel, to think about Jews, the Jewish community and Israel as oppressors and colonialists. 

The Jewish community should reject the entire curriculum and seek to teach non-ideological ethnic studies that truly imparts respect for all ethnic and religious communities. 

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

David Bernstein
David Bernstein

David Bernstein is the founder of the Maryland-based Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and author of “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.