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Monday, March 1, 2021

A Jewish Community Playbook on Ethnic Studies

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As the state awaits a final vote on California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in a few short weeks, the controversy surrounding the educational plan  has seized the Jewish community’s imagination — and its fears.

Now is the time to take stock of our achievements and continuing challenges as a community, after 18 months of efficacious advocacy to eliminate anti-Jewish, anti-Israel content and for including Jewish narratives in the curriculum, which will be taught in California’s K-12 public schools.

But first, we must understand the purpose of ethnic studies, the goals of its advocates and how we, as Jewish Americans, relate to it.

At its core, ethnic studies is about marginalized communities telling their own stories. Throughout history, students of Color have not seen themselves accurately or adequately represented in the classroom. Fifty years ago, African American, Hispanic and Latino American, Asian Pacific Islander American and Native American academics and leaders founded the ethnic studies movement to put forth academic disciplines that take back ownership of their stories, cultures and customs.

As Jewish Americans, we can certainly relate. For too long in the classroom, our identity has been flattened primarily to that of a white religious minority, taking little note of our global history, cultures, traditions and oppression — not to mention erasing Jews of Color and Middle Eastern Jews almost entirely. Ironically, those seeking to exclude us from ethnic studies are resting their laurels on this very distortion, despite overwhelming evidence of rising anti-Semitism in this country. Our crucial inclusion in the curriculum presents the chance to impart — on our own terms — the richness of our multicultural, multiracial, multidenominational people.

To be sure, there are key individuals within the ethnic studies movement clearly opposed to our community’s goals. Yet our primary concern with ethnic studies lies not with communities vying to tell their own stories but with special interest groups manipulating the discipline for anti-Jewish political purposes and for advancing anti-Semitic tropes as well as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Thanks to a diverse statewide coalition of Jewish organizations — including my own, the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) — and tens of thousands of community members petitioning their elected leaders and the authors of the curriculum, the plan’s original denigrating content about Jews and Israel, such as anti-Semitic rap lyrics, has been removed. Moreover, two Jewish American lesson plans have been added: one on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, the other a holistic Jewish American lesson plan.

The holistic lesson plan obliterates the notion that Jews are a monolithic group and clearly defines anti-Semitism. It teaches that Jews hold intricate identities that cannot be defined by religious, racial or ethnic terms alone. It also makes a central argument for Jewish inclusion in ethnic studies: that while white, white-passing and light-skinned people in this country maintain very real and systemic advantages — something that we inside the Jewish community must rectify when it comes to Jews of Color — the color of our skin as Jews has never shielded us from hatred from both extremes in our politics.

The holistic lesson plan obliterates the notion that Jews are a monolithic group and clearly defines anti-Semitism.

So where do we go from here?

While the current draft of the model curriculum is dramatically better than earlier iterations, the groups seeking our exclusion have advocated for a reversal of our gains. We must remain engaged and vocal in this process until the final adoption of the state curriculum in just a few weeks.

And as every city and school district across California considers how to best implement the ethnic studies mandate for its own unique populations, JCRC will continue organizing and educating parents, students and community leaders to ensure that all districts’ curricula are consistent with the law, do right by our community and foster pride.

It is often said that as goes California, so goes the nation. School districts and state education departments across America are taking note of our process and are starting to explore adopting ethnic studies — either as a semester course similar to California’s or by integrating ethnic studies into their social studies framework. In short, our end result here will shape the national landscape for years to come.

In the coming months, we must remain clear-eyed: Again, our fight is not with ethnic studies itself but with those manipulating our state process to drive a wedge between us and other marginalized communities.

The Jewish community has much in common with the founders of the ethnic studies movement. We share the understanding that to protect and advance justice for our community, we must define the narrative about our own history, oppression, culture and traditions, rather than allowing others to define our narrative for us.

All communities engaging with this discipline, including ours, must learn to navigate difficult issues of privilege and race, which also means having the courage to engage with uncomfortable truths. If we expect our neighbors to understand both the richness of our identities and the many dog whistles of our oppression, we must be prepared to do the same for them.

Our continued success in California — and the nation — depends on it.


Tyler Gregory is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. He is originally from San Diego.

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