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“[I] f I were a Jewish child in a school using this curriculum,” reads a public comment from a clinical psychologist at UCLA about the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), “would I feel called out, that I deserve to be shamed and isolated and that any bias, prejudice or hatred directed against me or my ethnic group would be deserved and justified?”
It’s a valid question. A recent article by Pamela Paresky (one of this article’s authors) and Joel Finkelstein expressed dismay about the ESMC and what it had to say about American Jews.
Tyler Gregory, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, was, among others, instrumental in getting Jews included in the curriculum and suggests that we should be celebrating the “efficacious advocacy” that eliminated “anti-Jewish, anti-Israel content” and won “Jewish inclusion and representation.” He argues that “For too long in the classroom, [Jewish] 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.”
But after completing this curriculum, students will have learned almost nothing about any aspect of Jewish culture, history, or traditions. About oppression, however –– which is mentioned over 60 times in other parts of the curriculum and just once in reference to Jews –– what children will be taught about Jews is that “internalized oppression” leads Jews to change their names in order to hide their jewishness. And they will learn that “this practice of name-changing continues to the present day.”
What children will not be taught is the actual history of the oppression of Jews. They will not learn about the forced conversions of Jews under Islam or The Inquisition. They will not learn about the long history of discrimination, pogroms and expulsions from scores of countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. They will not be taught to recognize anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, many of which are still circulated today. They will not even learn about the atrocities perpetuated against Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. (Notably, of the five instances of the word “Nazi” in the entire curriculum, only two have anything to do with Jews –– and only tangentially.)
Even the section titled, “Jewish Americans: Identity, Intersectionality, and Complicating Ideas of Race” is not exactly about Jewish Americans. It is more accurately a lesson about identity, intersectionality, and race, and it uses Jews to illustrate those concepts.
Perhaps this was the only way for Jewish Americans to be included in this curriculum. But in 2021 in the United States, Jews should not be pleading to be given a place alongside other ethnic minorities in a curriculum that professes to be about inclusion and cultural understanding. And the separation of Jews into “white-presenting” and “Jews of color,” a distinction that the critical ethnic studies paradigm requires Jews to adopt, does not emanate from Jewish culture or religion. We should not be compelled to conceive of ourselves in racial terms.
By contrast, a section of the curriculum titled “Antisemitism and Jewish Middle Eastern-Americans” correctly teaches that Jews come from the Middle East and that after being expelled by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE, some Jews remained while most found homes farther afield. This part of the curriculum could do a better job of emphasizing that whether or not Jewish immigrants arrived in the US from the Middle East, we all trace our heritage to Israel.
Defining Jews as either having or lacking “racial privilege” not only divides Jews into “us” and “them,” it erases realities that are inconvenient to the critical ethnic studies narrative. For example, one third of America’s Holocaust survivors — the vast majority of whom this paradigm classifies as having “racial privilege” — live at or below the poverty line, and more than 60% earn an income below the median.
Defining Jews as either having or lacking “racial privilege” erases realities that are inconvenient to the critical ethnic studies narrative.
Despite what the curriculum teaches when it asks, “How did the Holocaust shift Jewish Americans’ position in American society?” (the curriculum’s answer is that Jews “gained conditional whiteness”) the Holocaust was not an initiation into whiteness for Jews. It was evidence of how dangerous race consciousness is as a compact for identity — not just for Jews but for us all.
Jews should never again accede to being defined and divided in racial terms.
According to California state guidelines, the ethnic studies curriculum must “Be inclusive,” “Encourage cultural understanding of how different groups have struggled and worked together” and “Include accurate information based on current and confirmed research.” Whether it succeeds at the first two imperatives is dubious at best. But that “accurate information based on current and confirmed research” is replaced by ideology is undeniable.
The narratives that form the foundation of this critical ethnic studies curriculum are explicitly ideological — about whiteness, oppression, colonization, racial privilege, identity and intersectionality. Educators have every right to subscribe to this ideology. And it is a worthwhile endeavor for students to learn about critical ethnic studies and compare that paradigm to other ways of interpreting the world. But K-12 education is not the place for ideological indoctrination.
Although Mr. Gregory notes that “the plan’s original denigrating content about Jews and Israel has been removed,” there is much denigrating content about Jews that remains. I encourage parents, educators and concerned citizens –– whether Jewish or not –– to think critically about this critical ethnic studies curriculum. And let your voices be heard.
Pamela Paresky, PhD , (@PamelaParesky) serves as Senior Scholar at the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) and is a Visiting Senior Research Associate at the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge (SIFK).
Lee Jussim, PhD , (@PsychRabble) serves as Senior Scholar at NCRI and is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Psychology Department at Rutgers University. He has published over 100 articles and six books, and much of his scholarship addresses, issues of stereotypes and prejudice, including antisemitism.