As the public comment period on California’s revised draft of an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) draws to a close, Jewish organizations are mobilizing to address what they perceive as the draft’s failings. Efforts have included calls to add a sample lesson on the Jewish-American experience and a meaningful definition of anti-Semitism—neither of which are currently included. Jewish groups have also demanded that derogatory language about Jews, Israelis, and Israel—explicit in the first draft of the ESMC but removed in the revised draft—not be allowed to creep back into the curriculum. Yet another concern is that a sample lesson on Arab American Studies will be added to the curriculum in November, too late to be scrutinized by the Jewish community.
While these concerns are justified, to understand the real threats posed by the ESMC to Jewish students, it’s essential to look beyond what is included in the curriculum, and instead ask why these acts of omission have been perpetrated in the first place. The answer to that question lies in the very nature of the version of ethnic studies embraced by state education officials.
AB 2016, the bill mandating the development of the ESMC, calls for a non-political, multicultural approach to ethnic studies that will prepare students “to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.” The vast majority of Californians have embraced that worthy goal. However, the Guiding Principles of both ESMC drafts indicate that the curriculum will be firmly rooted in Critical Ethnic Studies. Make no mistake, Ethnic Studies and Critical Ethnic Studies are two very different beasts.
Critical Ethnic Studies is a movement within ethnic studies that limits its focus to four groups and frames society as oppressed or oppressors. It encourages instructors to use their classrooms to teach and disseminate specific political beliefs. It is a form of academic political activism.
And although the tenets of Critical Ethnic Studies have a divisive impact on all students, they are particularly threatening to Jewish students.
According to this theory, Jews are perceived as “white” and “privileged,” squarely on the oppressor side of the race-class divide. This negative perception of Jews is apparent in a unit in the curriculum’s appendix on “Irish and Jewish Americans: Redefining White and American,” the only lesson to even touch on the Jewish-American experience. The unit requires all students to write a paper “detailing certain events in American history that have led to Jewish and Irish Americans gaining racial privilege” and asks them to “think critically about why and who is allowing this evolution in white identity.” At a time when anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise, asking students to view Jews as “white” and “racially privileged” while implying that such “privilege” is the result of some conspiracy, reeks of anti-Semitism, and is tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of Jewish students.
At a time when anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise, asking students to view Jews as “white” and “racially privileged” while implying that such “privilege” is the result of some conspiracy, reeks of anti-Semitism, and is tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of Jewish students.
Second, since its inception, Critical Ethnic Studies has falsely and negatively portrayed Zionism as a “racist,” “colonialist,” “system of oppression” that must be vigorously opposed. Anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaigns have been the weapons of choice for the discipline’s scholars, teachers, and students. For example:
- The conference launching the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA) and each subsequent conference has included numerous panels and workshops dedicated to the demonization of Israel and the promotion of BDS. All 13 members of CESA’s founding board support BDS, and CESA was among the first professional organizations to endorse an academic boycott of Israel.
- Critical Ethnic Studies: A Reader, a required textbook in introductory courses on Ethnic Studies, includes several essays that demonize Israel with false accusations of “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “ethnic cleansing.” An essay by the volume’s chief editor, Nada Elia, “calls on academics and others to mobilize support within the academy for the BDS Campaign.”
- San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies, a founding institution for the Critical Ethnic Studies movement that trained a large number of the state’s K-12 ethnic studies teachers, has many faculty who support BDS, including the chairs of two of the college’s departments. The college offers numerous classes and hosts many events each year that include anti-Zionist content and promote BDS.
Given the strong anti-Zionist orientation of the discipline, it is hardly surprising that most of the ethnic studies experts hired or appointed by the CDE to develop the first draft curriculum have publicly expressed support for BDS or other anti-Zionist sentiments. Nor is it surprising that the first draft of the ESMC had a clear anti-Zionist bias and openly promoted BDS. And although explicit anti-Zionist language was removed from the draft currently under public review, this does not preclude similar language to be re-inserted into the curriculum once the Arab American Studies sample lesson is added to the revised ESMC.
But even without such a lesson, anti-Zionist sentiments are likely to find their way into Critical Ethnic Studies classrooms, since several of the social movements showcased in the curriculum—Movement for Black Lives, MEChA, and the Brown Berets, among others—have taken anti-Zionist stances and endorsed the BDS movement. These anti-Zionist sentiments, in turn, are likely to incite further hatred of Jews and harm to Jewish students, consistent with the empirical studies showing strong correlations between anti-Zionist expression and anti-Semitic acts targeting Jewish students.
As we fight for the right ESMC, the one laid out in AB 2016, we must look deeper than what’s in and what’s out. Already, many of the Jewish groups aware of the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel biases inherent in Critical Ethnic Studies have urged Governor Newsom to veto AB 331, the bill making an ESMC class a graduation requirement. At a minimum, however, we must demand our governor and our state legislators require that state-approved instructional materials are free from political bias, and that K-12 teachers are prohibited from using their classrooms to advance political causes.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is co-founder and director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.