Oakland Unified School District teacher Joshua Diamant at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a statement by the teachers' union they deemed antisemitic, Nov. 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)
Oakland Unified School District teacher Joshua Diamant at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a statement by the teachers' union they deemed antisemitic, Nov. 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)

Fighting anti-Jewish bias in classrooms is more urgent than ever

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Antisemitic incidents are skyrocketing and intensifying in America. Attitudes that lead to such hateful actions form early, and education plays a critical role in shaping young minds. 

That’s why the Institute for Curriculum Services was created in San Francisco 19 years ago. We already recognized back then that we needed to promote accurate instruction and instructional materials about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history in K-12 education nationwide. 

Our request for accuracy about Jews is not so different from those made by other ethnic and minority populations to reflect their experiences. If we expect to get ahead of hate and assure a future in this country where all people, including Jews, flourish, then conscientious education is an essential step toward meeting the moment.

Twenty years ago, K-12 history and social studies textbooks across the United States painted an inaccurate and biased picture of Jews and Judaism. For instance, textbooks routinely suggested that Judaism became obsolete once Christianity emerged. Textbooks also reinforced antisemitic ideas about Jews and Judaism and misrepresented many aspects of Jewish history and experience. Instructional content was rife with errors, and key historical context and events were missing altogether. 

Students reading these textbooks would be hard-pressed not to develop antisemitic attitudes.

This reality, coupled with the fact that millions of K-12 students learn about Jews, Judaism and Jewish history as part of their state curricula each year, underscored the importance of a comprehensive national solution. While some organizations focused on professional development related to Holocaust education, no organization was focused on K-12 education and Jewish content writ large.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, the visionary executive director emeritus of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, launched the institute in 2005 — along with consultants Jackie Berman and Susan Mogull, both of whom have since passed away — as a $150,000 special initiative. 

Since then, ICS has provided free instructional materials, trained more than 18,000 educators and administrators in all 50 states, and effected 21,000 specific changes to instructional materials and state standards related to Jewish topics. 

To lead ICS in its next stage of growth, we are spinning off from the JCRC as an independent nonprofit as of Monday. We are building an inaugural board of directors and are conducting a national search for the organization’s first CEO.

Passover was once inaccurately explained in four textbooks for sixth-graders as a celebration of the killing of the Egyptian firstborn. 

We believe that accuracy is a value in and of itself, and we believe it is critical for building a strong civil society for all people.

We must have zero tolerance for propaganda. There are alternate perspectives, but not alternate facts. For example, Passover was once inaccurately explained in four textbooks for sixth-graders as a celebration of the killing of the Egyptian firstborn. This is flat out false, and no Jew anywhere celebrates this. In fact, at Passover seders everywhere, Jews remove drops of wine to recall the 10 plagues and remember the suffering of the Egyptians. 

I could give you dozens of similar examples that, if allowed to take root in the minds of the young, would lead to false beliefs about Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish history. As subject matter experts committed to accurate education, we see it as our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

In response to rising antisemitism across the United States, the White House last year released a National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. The first pillar of the strategy calls for increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism, including its threat to Americans, and broadening appreciation of Jewish American heritage. 

Its first strategic goal identifies the importance of what is taught in classrooms. This is precisely what ICS offers in our instructional materials and professional development on topics such as “Teaching about Judaism,” “Jewish Immigration to the U.S.,” “History of European Antisemitism” and “Jewish Americans.”

To be sure, teaching some topics like the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts is not without controversy. However, ICS is committed to historical accuracy and to best practices in history education, including alignment with state education content standards and frameworks, as well as with the national C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards. ICS does not endorse sides or specific solutions. Rather, we support accurate and nuanced history education grounded in diverse primary sources.

ICS has grown steadily and thoughtfully in response to the demand for our services and to meet the current moment of antisemitism and misinformation in education.

Today, ICS is a $2.5 million national initiative with a growing team. With recognition of our effectiveness, increased national investment and strong strategic plan, ICS is well situated to strengthen K-12 education so that all students can receive accurate and nuanced information about Jews. ICS has a clear roadmap and vision for expanded impact nationwide.

Just as history education around the U.S. is expanding to include information about the identity and experiences of more groups of people, so too must history education include the identity and experiences of Jews. All students benefit from learning about the diverse communities that make up this country. 

The Jewish community as a whole owes it to Jewish and non-Jewish children alike to ensure that they learn about Jewish history, identity and experience. ICS has the capability to lead in this area, and we hope you will help us meet current and future moments by sending talented professionals our way and by reaching out to learn more.

a smiling middle aged white woman with glasses and dark hair
Aliza Craimer Elias

Aliza Craimer Elias is interim CEO of the Institute for Curriculum Services. Aliza joined ICS as its first full-time staff person at ICS in 2006 and served as director since 2013.