a middle aged black man in a suit speaks at a podium
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (Photo/Flickr-Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

JIMENA calls to halt school grants until antisemitism education is included in plans

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A Bay Area-based Jewish group wants the California Department of Education to suspend its Antibias Education Grant Program, which combats racism and bias in public schools, until grantees promise to educate their students against antisemitism.

Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), an organization that advocates for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, spearheaded a letter on March 6 to State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond alleging that the department he leads showed “disregard of antisemitism education” by conferring some of the $20 million in anti-bias program grants to California schools that did not include mention of antisemitism in their proposals.

Copied on the letter were Gov. Gavin Newsom, Bay Area state Sens. Josh Becker and Scott Wiener, state Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Southern California and other state officials. Becker, Wiener and Gabriel co-lead the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, said that only four of the CDE’s 75 grantees budgeted money to address antisemitism. And, according to JIMENA’s letter, 46 of the grantees did not mention the word “antisemitism” in their proposals. The proposals, which were reviewed by J., did mention other forms of bias such as hate against LGBTQ and Asian American individuals.

JIMENA has received no official response to its complaints, Levin said on April 24.

“We see this as a missed opportunity,” Levin said. “We believe that [antisemitism] should be included because the Legislature was clear that that was the intention of the grant.”

Established in 2021 as part of the state’s plan to address an increase in hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the Antibias Education Grant Program awards money to California schools to establish anti-bias training programs and resources for students and teachers. According to Assembly Bill 130, which established the grant, such programs must place emphasis on “preventing anti-Semitism and bias or prejudice toward groups, including, but not limited to, African Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning youth.” Between AB130 and a second bill in the 2022-2023 legislative session, the program received $20 million in one-time funds to distribute. Schools or districts can each receive up to $200,000.

On Feb. 1, the Education Department announced that it had awarded about $14 million to 75 schools and districts across the state. The remaining $6 million has yet to be awarded.

We believe that antisemitism should be included because the Legislature was clear that that was the intention of the grant.

Several Bay Area education agencies received grants. The Marin County Office of Education, San Mateo–Foster City School District, Piedmont Unified School District and Hayward Unified School District, all of which have dealt with antisemitic events at their schools in recent years, received the maximum grant amount of $200,000. Although each of those districts’ grant proposals outlined their intention to address antisemitism, only Marin specifically set aside grant funds for this work, noting that the district plans to work with Jewish Family and Children’s Services to create professional development plans for its educators.

A statewide solution, proposed by JIMENA and several other Jewish groups that signed the March 6 letter, is to suspend grant disbursal until grantees submit revised proposals that address antisemitism.

“What we would like to see is those types of interventions, which were already outlined, be implemented by the schools,” Levin said. “There are a lot of organizations who can do that work.”

In a May 1 statement to J., deputy superintendent Malia Vella said the Education Department administered the Antibias Education Grant Program in accordance with legislative requirements.

“It is a priority of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to address racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bias in our schools; the money that has been allocated through this program is just the tip of the iceberg to making this happen,” Vella said in the statement. “Our schools would all benefit from more resources and funding for this important work.”

JIMENA’s letter was co-signed by the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Karaite Jews of America and other California-based Jewish organizations. KJA president David Ovadia said he supports JIMENA’s efforts because of his experiences with antisemitism growing up Jewish in Cairo. Ovadia, along with many other Karaite Jews, fled Egypt in the late 1960s due to the oppression of Jews in reaction to the Six-Day War.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in an environment of fear and hate as I did 60 years ago,” Ovadia said. “It’s important to really educate people, because that’s the only way in my mind that you can solve that problem.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.