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

California’s letter to public schools is not enough to stop state-sponsored antisemitism

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration issued a letter to public school officials across California warning that ethnic studies curricula should not promote bigotry. The letter comes after numerous school districts adopted radical curricula for teaching the state’s high school ethnic studies requirements that were directly at odds with the legislation that originally mandated it. The curriculum being adopted in some school districts upholds a “settler-colonialist” perspective that treats both the U.S. and Israel as “settler-colonialist states.”

In October 2020, Newsom vetoed a draft curriculum that was explicitly biased against Israel and Jews, and left out antisemitism as a form of bigotry. The legislation that eventually passed attempted to erect “guardrails” to prevent these extremist views from entering into local school curricula. Nevertheless, some school districts like Hayward, Santa Ana and Castro Valley, simply ignored the guardrails with zero intervention from the state.

On the one hand, it’s a good thing that the Newsom administration issued the letter. It can be used by Jewish groups and others during local fights against radical forces such as R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a major figure behind the radical versions of the curriculum and a scholar who denounced the United States as “Eurocentric, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal, hetero-patriarchal and anthropocentric paradigm brought from Europe.”

With the letter in hand, some school officials may now be more skittish than they would be otherwise to work with such radical players.

On the other hand, the letter breaks no new ground. Rather, it repeats word for word the original legislation that curricula should “not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis of any category protected.”

RELATED: Jews should oppose radical ethnic studies curriculum in Silicon Valley schools

Indeed, the letter falls short in that it neither specifically identifies the problematic groups pushing Liberated Ethnic Studies, such as XITO, the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies (CLES) and Acosta Educational Partnership (AEP), nor does it give any examples of what constitutes bigotry and violates state standards.

Once ethnic studies courses were mandated, the extreme versions of them became very hard to stop. Liberated Ethnic Studies and its model curriculum is based on the writing of Paolo Freire, who taught that “The oppressors [white people] who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.”

The Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum specifically states that its objective is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice on global and local levels to ensure a truer democracy.” Liberated Ethnic Studies is more than just a class, it’s a pedagogy. Radical groups are not offering just a curriculum but professional development to receptive school districts in lessons such as “Teach Palestine.”

That the Newsom administration issued such a letter is an admission that the guardrails have failed to hold amid a major pressure campaign from Liberated Ethnic Studies groups. Does the governor regard speaking of Israel as a settler-colonial state as bias or bigotry against a protected class, in this case Jews?

The letter implies that he does — but doesn’t say so explicitly, leaving too much room for local school districts to interpret otherwise.

The letter could have but doesn’t say that portraying Zionism and Jews in this manner would constitute a “hostile environment,” language with legal overtones that would deter wayward school districts from adopting antisemitic curriculum.

Jewish organizations that supported the model curriculum … are now condemned to spend nearly all their time and resources in countering the inevitable outcomes of such a pedagogy.

The governor has also failed to put into place procedures for parents or community groups to petition the government when school districts cross the line. Once schools adopt disparaging curricula, the only recourse as of now is filing lawsuits against school districts, some of which have even refused to turn over records as required under the California Public Records Act.

The state put in place guardrails against extremist teachings and it should be left to the state, not private citizens, to monitor and enforce its own mandate.

So here we are nearly two years after California adopted ethnic studies, and we are relying on a letter from the governor to preclude schools from engaging in what is essentially state-sponsored antisemitism.

The original model curriculum sought to impart “critical consciousness” to California’s 5.9 million public school kids and charged schools to “critique empire building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism and other forms of power and oppression.” Such language invites educators to impart a specific worldview to kids.

With such an ideological framework in place, it’s no wonder that the bad actors behind Liberated Ethnic Studies are able to go one step further and name Israel, and Jews, as being complicit in “empire building” and being in “relationship to white supremacy.”

Jewish organizations that supported the model curriculum two years ago are now condemned to spend nearly all their time and resources in countering the inevitable outcomes of such a pedagogy.

Let the debacle in California be a lesson to Jewish communities in other states: fight ethnic studies while you can or thereafter you will do nothing but.

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.

Brandy Shufutinsky
Brandy Shufutinsky

Brandy Shufutinsky is director of education and community engagement at the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.