A complaint filed by the Brandeis Center and the ADL to the U.S. Department of Education alleges: "Teachers and staff at BHS organized, promoted, and participated in a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. The event took place on the school's theater steps during school hours on February 2, 2024." (Photo/Screenshot)
A complaint filed by the Brandeis Center and the ADL to the U.S. Department of Education alleges: "Teachers and staff at BHS organized, promoted, and participated in a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. The event took place on the school's theater steps during school hours on February 2, 2024." (Photo/Screenshot)

The trickle-down effect: Antisemitism seeps into California’s K-12 schools

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Throughout California and other states, we are seeing a wave of antisemitism directed at children in kindergarten through 12th grade similar to the one that has overwhelmed college campuses since Oct. 7.

After the day that Hamas massacred, tortured and kidnapped Israeli civilians, including babies and young children, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and other Jewish groups began receiving scores of calls from parents, especially from the Bay Area, alarmed by what their children were experiencing. 

They’ve told us about:

• Second-graders being directed to write “stop bombing babies” on sticky notes and placing them on the door of their elementary school’s only Jewish teacher.

• Teachers encouraging middle school and high school students to walk out during the school day to “march for Gaza” without notice to parents or any of the usual safety protocols.

• Jewish students being forced to decide whether to stay behind or to join the rallies and listen to their peers shout, “Gas the Jews!” as well as “KKK” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” meaning free of Jews.

• Teachers instructing students of all ages that Israelis are responsible for the massacre of their own families on Oct. 7.

• Schools moving Jewish students whose parents complain about antisemitic teaching, allowing the teachers to continue indoctrinating the rest of the class and leaving the Jewish students feeling isolated, marginalized and ostracized while navigating mid-semester schedule disruptions.

All of this continues through today.

Last month, the Brandeis Center and the Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint against the Berkeley Unified School District with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, asking them to investigate the scores of antisemitic instances that have plagued the district since Oct. 7. 

In addition, the Brandeis Center and ADL, with help from StandWithUs and volunteers from four law firms — Covington & Burling, Dechert, Akin and Davis Polk — have opened a helpline for parents

The new helpline, which went live on Feb. 29, is similar to the helpline for college students that was created in November, with two key differences. The new one is for parents and is available only for California for now. 

California is the “pilot” state because of the record numbers of calls that Jewish groups have received from parents since Oct. 7. Eventually, ADL and Brandeis hope to include New York and other states experiencing similar levels of problems.

Even before Oct. 7, antisemitism was a growing problem in California schools that chose to implement AB 101 — the 2021 law requiring a semester of ethnic studies as a graduation requirement — by devising their own curricula instead of using the state-approved model curriculum

Unfortunately, many of these schools have contracted with groups like the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium that offer lessons demonizing Jews and Israelis — lessons that were deliberately removed from the model curriculum. 

Numerous California statutes, including AB 101, contain provisions banning teaching materials that reflect bias against any protected group, including Jews, a majority of whom understand that connection to the State of Israel is an integral part of their ethnic identity. Some educators flout these laws, along with the school rules specifying that controversial issues, such as the Middle East conflict, may be taught only if they are based on fact, present multiple sides of a controversy and are not used to indoctrinate pupils. Some teachers use materials that their districts have not approved or have asked teachers not to use.

In presenting biased curriculum, these teachers not only foment antisemitism, they also undermine the very purpose of ethnic studies, which is to give students a better understanding of the challenges and contributions of the many ethnicities that make up the Golden State. Such groups include African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. 

Ethnic studies was never meant to vilify one or more ethnicities in the process of educating pupils about the role their ancestors and their classmates’ ancestors played in developing California. Educators who believe that a “core pillar” of ethnic studies requires blaming Israel for all of the problems suffered by Arabs in a distant continent are not only spreading false and dangerous propaganda, they are destroying the promise of AB 101 and the well-being of California’s children. 

The bottom line is that Jewish students deserve an educational environment free from bullying, harassment and discrimination. California school administrators must enforce the state’s anti-discrimination laws. And for those who do not, California parents can report their children’s experience to civil rights legal advocates.

Rachel Lerman. (Photo/Courtesy)
Rachel Lerman

Rachel Lerman serves as vice chair and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.