The Offensive First ESMC Draft is Alive and Well — And Jews Need to Unite Against It

Let us unite once again around the danger posed by the appalling first draft and the bad-faith actors who are still promoting it.
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It is no secret that the Jewish community in California is divided over the final version of the legislatively-mandated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), which was unanimously approved by the State Board of Education last month. Several Jewish organizations, like the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, have lauded the SBE-approved ESMC, while other groups, such as AMCHA, my organization, have condemned it. Other groups praised some aspects of the curriculum while raising serious concerns about others.

Anyone familiar with American Jewish communal life knows that disagreements like this are hardly surprising — they are the norm rather than the exception. But what is surprising is when Jewish groups from across the religious and political spectrum actually agree on something. And that is exactly what happened after the release of the appalling first draft of the ESMC in 2019. The entire Jewish community rose up in outrage over the blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist lessons that it contained, including its explicit promotion of BDS, causing Governor Newsom to vow that the draft would “never see the light of day.”

I raise this exceptional example of Jewish communal unity to remind us that our unity is our strength and to suggest that we’re going to need all the strength we can muster in the days ahead: The rejected first draft of the ESMC may be coming soon to a school district near you.

While the Jewish community was focusing all of its attention on ensuring that the final draft of the Department of Education’s ESMC would be a drastic improvement over the appalling first one, former members of the Advisory Committee responsible for authoring the first draft embarked on their own crusade. The activist-educators of “Save CA Ethnic Studies” lobbied individual school districts to vote on a resolution supporting their rejected curriculum, and more than 20 districts adopted the resolution.

Some of the original drafters even established the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute to further promote the main elements of the rejected first draft and offer their educational expertise in implementing the “liberated” curriculum in schools. While the group has not “officially” revealed their final curriculum, their website links to a 19-page Glossary, which essentially reiterates that of the highly controversial original ESMC draft. It includes the first ESMC draft’s definition of “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)” as “a global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions,” and it cites “BDS” as an example of a social movement “whose aim is to achieve freedom through equal rights and justice” in the definition of “liberation.”

Meanwhile, a revived bill making ethnic studies a graduation requirement in every California public and charter high school is raising the stakes of the curriculum debate. The original bill was vetoed by Governor Newsom in September 2020 largely because of continuing Jewish anxiety over the not-yet-approved ESMC. Although the revived bill, AB 101, recommends that school districts use the state’s model curriculum as the basis for the required courses, it allows the use of any “locally developed ethnic studies course approved by the governing board of the school district” — even the anti-Jewish one promoted by “Save CA Ethnic Studies.”

These so-called “guardrails” will do nothing to prevent a curriculum based in Critical Ethnic Studies from portraying Jews and Israel in anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist ways.

Despite legislators’ claims that AB 101 prevents courses from promoting “bias, bigotry and discrimination,” this language in the bill is simply a restatement of a state law that has been on the books for decades. As we have already seen from ethnic studies classes taught on the college level, these so-called “guardrails” will do nothing to prevent a curriculum based in Critical Ethnic Studies — whether approved by the SBE or promoted by the Liberated group — from portraying Jews and Israel in anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist ways.

Lest we lull ourselves into believing that there is little danger of school districts opting for the “liberated” curriculum over the state-approved ESMC, it’s important to consider that the California Teachers Association, one of the largest and most powerful teachers’ unions in the country and a proud organizational sponsor of AB 101, publicly supported the first draft of the ESMC, refused to support the final draft and urged teachers to visit the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum website “for ideas about K-12 #EthnicStudies curriculum.”

We can agree to disagree about the final, SBE-approved ESMC draft. But let us unite once again around the danger posed by the appalling first draft and the bad-faith actors who are still promoting it — and the very real possibility that such an anti-Semitic curriculum could be forced on our children if AB 101 becomes state law. As before, we must raise our voices loudly, clearly and unanimously — both as organizations and individuals — to demand that California legislators oppose this dangerous bill. The future of our children depends on it.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the 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.

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