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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Students Should Learn About Arabs — and Jews

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California public schools should teach students about the Arab American experience. On that point, the state’s Department of Education and I are very much in agreement. But I also believe that if our children are being taught about Arab Americans, then they also should learn about Jewish Americans.

Unfortunately, the department — and our elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond — don’t seem to think that’s nearly as important.

When the state legislature first considered a bill to establish a mandatory ethnic studies course for California’s public schools, the draft curriculum was so laden with anti-Israel language and so glaring in its omission of anti-Semitism in a discussion of hate crimes that Thurmond, Gov. Gavin Newsom and even the bill’s own author beat a hasty retreat, and the legislation was removed from consideration until the draft could be rewritten. Since then, the Jewish Legislative Caucus and the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) have forced the removal of the most objectionable material, including repeated laudatory references to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; use of the Arabic translation of the word “catastrophe” as a description for the creation of the state of Israel; and the inclusion of anti-Zionist music lyrics.

The Jewish Caucus’ work largely was successful — but it came at a price. While Jewish leaders strongly believe our experience should be a central aspect of any ethnic studies course, this request ultimately was shelved, and the final agreement limited the scope of the curriculum to the histories of the African American, Latino, Asian Pacific and Native American communities in this country.

The primary argument against including the Jewish experience as a central focus of the curriculum is that the scholarship of ethnic studies in higher education has limited itself to only those communities listed above; so, a high school course should be established with those same restrictions. Similar entreaties from several of the state’s other ethnic communities were rejected as well.

 JPAC has not argued against including material on Arab Americans, but rather renewed their argument that the Jewish community should be included as well.

Basing this decision on a higher-education precedent ignored a critical distinction: There is a fundamental difference between a college student who chooses to take an elective ethnic studies class (or decides to explore the history of other ethnic groups) and a high school student who would be required to take a mandated class with this limited scope. However, recognizing the broader political landscape, the Jewish Caucus and JPAC deserve credit for cutting the best deal possible. Being marginalized in the ethnic studies syllabus was less than ideal, but forcing the removal of the most odious anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic language was a significant victory. And while the reasoning about why to limit the curriculum to only four specific ethnic groups may have been flawed, at least it was consistent: Armenians, Hindus, Persians, Sikhs and other communities that are an essential part of our state’s culture and history were discounted on similar grounds.

But then, an exception emerged — one that was not granted to American Jews or any of the other groups that had petitioned for inclusion.

Arab Americans originally were excluded from the revised draft presented earlier this year because that community historically had not been included within the traditional definition of ethnic studies. However, barely an hour before a key drafting committee meeting in August, the Department of Education submitted new language that did provide for the study of Arab Americans as part of the ethnic studies curriculum.

The dubious rationale provided was that lessons on Arab Americans should be included as part of the Asian Pacific portion of the curriculum (an argument quickly undermined by any world map). But if the Arab American experience is worth our students’ time, then certainly American Jews are equally worthy. To their credit, JPAC has not argued against including material on Arab Americans, but rather renewed their argument that the Jewish community should be included as well.

An ethnic studies class that requires California students to learn about Arab Americans and not Jews is unacceptable. Responsible legislators should know better than to pass a bill that suggests Jewish Americans are inferior to these other groups. They will have the opportunity to demonstrate that understanding in the days ahead.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine.

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