As a lawyer who represents people who have been discriminated against in educational settings because they are Jewish or pro-Israel, I followed California’s ethnic studies saga for years. I remember the cheers and collective sighs of relief when the original version of California’s A.B. 101 was yanked, and Governor Newsom announced that the antisemitic and other biased material in the original version would “never see the light of day.”
Those celebrations were premature. It appears now that the proponents of the earlier version, the folks peddling “liberated ethnic studies,” twisted the Governor’s words into a strategy for infiltrating the same anti-Jewish material into California’s public schools. They are injecting that material into the schools in a way that is hard to see by ordinary observers — by stealth. By going “below the radar,” they are shielding that material from “the light of day.”
This is what we at The Deborah Project, a public interest law firm, discovered through documentary research and interviews of dozens of parents, teachers and other education advocates. We have now launched a legal challenge in federal court in Los Angeles: Concerned Jewish Parents and Teachers of Los Angeles v. Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium, et al.
Our lawsuit seeks to expose the use in Los Angeles public schools of the same hateful teaching materials previously rejected by Governor Newsom, materials that denounce Zionism as white supremacy and Israel as a “white,” “western” and “colonialist settler” state founded and defended through apartheid and the commission of genocide. This material also falsely instructs students that attacking the Jewish state is not antisemitic because Judaism and Zionism are completely ‘distinct.”
Our lawsuit seeks to expose the use in Los Angeles public schools of the same hateful teaching materials previously rejected by Governor Newsom.
We do not intend to allow these educators to evade the law by counseling ideologically-aligned teachers to conceal what they’re doing, and so our case also seeks to enable Californians to learn what’s actually being taught by the proponents of these materials.
Let me explain what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we got here.
Jesse M. Fried, a Harvard Law School professor, started The Deborah Project (TDP) after he’d witnessed increasing hate and violence directed at Jews in universities and other academic settings over the past two decades. TDP’s mandate is to defend students, teachers, and university faculty in the United States facing harassment and persecution because they are Jewish or pro-Israel. It uses legal tools to expose and resist efforts to demonize Jews and Israelis in universities and other academic arenas.
TDP’s mandate is to defend students, teachers, and university faculty in the United States facing harassment and persecution because they are Jewish or pro-Israel.
TDP filed our Liberated Ethnic Studies case after Fried learned of an effort by the Los Angeles Teachers Union to pass an anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) measure in the wake of Israel’s conflict with Hamas in the Spring of 2021. The language of the proposed resolution wasn’t just one-sided. It was full of mistruths and nontruths, all of which were used as springboards for broadsides against the lone Jewish State. It asserted that the Israel Defense Forces had unleashed on Gaza “an intense campaign of bombing and mortar fire” and mentioned the numbers of Gazans who were killed or wounded. But it ignored the thousands of missiles Hamas launched at Israel before there was any Israeli military response and it was completely indifferent to the death of Jews — a topic about which the resolution was entirely silent.
The resolution also claimed, falsely, that “1500 Palestinians in Jerusalem” were facing “displacement and home demolitions.” The resolution’s supporters accused Israel of committing apartheid and genocide against the Palestinians. Of course, the numbers belie such oft-repeated claims. There has been no genocide; indeed there are far more Palestinian Arabs in and around Israel than ever before. And apartheid? The ruling coalition in Israel’s Parliament contains a faction made up only of Palestinian Arabs. Israeli courts, police departments and its diplomatic corps are also populated with Palestinian Arabs.
The Union’s hostility goes far beyond opposition to the Jewish state, as evidenced by the fact that it placed Dr. Melina Abdullah on a joint Union-LA School District committee on Ethnic Studies. Asked to condemn shouts of “F**k the police and kill the Jews” during BLM riots in 2020, Abdullah pointedly refused, insisting it was “an uprising, a rebellion, a revolt.” Abdullah also tweeted her distaste for American Jews, echoing other haters: “we must dismantle patriarchy! specifically jewish patriarchy offending muslims & controlling our economy & campuses” and “more & more jews invading campuses, causing islamophobia, racism & intolerance!” That people who regularly make statements of this nature are given the authority to decide how to teach Ethnic Studies in LA’s public schools should concern everyone.
The union’s BDS resolution was withdrawn, at least for now, as a result of widespread outrage at its one-sided support of Hamas violence and indifference to the threat Hamas posed to Jewish lives. But our work on that issue led us to another product of the same hostility to the Jewish state: The Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium (LESMCC), a group dedicated to implementing the original Ethnic Studies curriculum that was vetoed by Governor Newsom. Filled with denunciations of the Jewish state and Zionism, the LESMCC issued a press release on the Gaza war which was essentially identical to the Union’s, ignoring the Gazan rockets into Israel and disregarding the death and maiming of Israeli civilians. The Consortium also slapped back at California’s government and its citizens for revising the earlier version of A.B. 101, while revealing its determination to put back into the public schools’ curriculum exactly what had been removed by California lawmakers. In their own words:
“Finally, as educators, it is our responsibility to do what others will not, to teach truth. The refusal to acknowledge Palestinian history and human rights by those in government and by the media mirror the actions taken by the California Department of Education when it rejected inclusion of Palestine in the California Ethnic Studies model curriculum. This week’s events make it crystal clear why our students need to learn about Palestine. In this light, we refer you to our colleagues at teachpalestine.org for support in curriculum and resources on Palestine and how to bring Palestinian voices into your classrooms.”
The contact information on the Consortium’s press release is Dr. Theresa Montaño, one of the defendants in our case.
After discovering the Consortium’s press release, we learned about the Liberated curriculum itself, which seeks to carve hostility to the Jewish state into the minds of California public school children. We also came in contact with a number of Jewish parents and teachers who were deeply concerned about the campaign to teach anti-Israel sentiments in LA’s public schools.
We also came in contact with quite a number of Jewish parents and teachers who were deeply concerned about the campaign to teach anti-Israel sentiments in LA’s public schools.
The Consortium prepares, disseminates and trains teachers on how to teach Ethnic Studies in California. Its lesson plans and teachers’ manuals claim that Israel is a “white” and “settler colonial state” — that is, the Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East and have no connection to the land of Israel. And with that falsehood as a foundation, they teach that Arabs are among the four favored “racialized” groups, because they are Asians and Pacific Islanders — that is, because they originate in Asia (which the Consortium seems to think embraces the region of the world usually called the “Middle East”). But Jews who’ve lived in the same places as Arabs for millennia don’t fall in that special category. Jews, apparently, all originated in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. Because this is how the Consortium wants to teach Ethnic Studies, it should be no surprise that, as the parent of a LAUSD student told me while I was doing research for this case, when his daughter asked why there was no mention of antisemitism in an ethnic studies discussion, she was reprimanded by the teacher: “that’s not what this is for.”
The Consortium’s lesson plans and teachers’ manuals claim that Israel is a “white” and “settler colonial state” — that is, the Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East and have no connection to the land of Israel.
You should know that the Consortium doesn’t only malign or exclude Jews from its ethnic studies curriculum. The advocates of liberated ethnic studies insist that it must be based in “critique[ing] empire, white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of society.” It asserts this position in contrast to what the California legislators decided to include in place of such language, which the liberated proponents flatly reject: “Promote critical thinking and rigorous analysis of history, systems of oppression, and the status quo in an effort to generate discussions on futurity and imagine new possibilities.” In other words, the LES folks don’t see ethnic studies as having as its goal a positive future for all. Their goal for ethnic studies is to create a forum for some previously excluded groups to call out and punish those whom they view as “oppressors” and ignore — or worse — any other groups which don’t fit their victim template.
The Deborah Project doesn’t believe this negative weaponization of ethnic studies should be acceptable for any group whom those proponents denounce or ignore, but the plaintiffs we are representing in this case are Jewish parents and teachers.
The first step taken by the liberated ethnic folks to harm our plaintiffs and all Jews, is to disaggregate Israel from the Jews, insisting that they are unrelated, that Judaism is distinct from Zionism. Once you’re convinced that the Jews have no roots in the land of Israel, you need another reason to explain what they are doing there now. The Consortium solves this problem by drawing on its deep well of hostility to Western civilization, explaining that the Jews’ presence in Israel is an exercise in Western imperialism, and so an exercise of power by white people over people of color. The measures Israel takes to defend its citizens (all of its citizens, one might point out, if one actually wanted to understand reality, including the 20% who are Arabs) from the efforts to eliminate them are thus transformed into “genocide,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.” If this is where you start, it’s no surprise that the end result was a public LA Teachers’ Union seminar on how to teach Ethnic Studies at which Palestinian advocate Celine Qussiny taught the teachers that “we have to always be confronting Zionism.” Qussiny went on to explain that when she’s talking about Zionism, she’s “talking about a political, settler-colonial ideology that justifies ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their central homeland,” and described Israel as a “fascist dictatorship.”
All of these ideas are incorporated into the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. This is what that Consortium wants your kids, and all kids, taught about Israel, starting in pre-kindergarten. When those kids grow up and are shown pictures of children someone claims were killed by the Israeli army, what reaction do we think those children will have? How much evidence will they need to collectively convict the Jewish State and Jews?
One of the key claims of Israel’s opponents, including the Consortium, is that they oppose only Zionism and not Judaism; they say the two are “distinct,” so it’s not antisemitic to oppose the existence of the Jewish state. This idea is a common justification for hostility to Israel—it showed up recently, for example, at the Harvard Crimson, where the claim was made that endorsing “Palestinian liberation is not antisemitic.” That’s why a linchpin of our case is the sincerely held religious belief of our clients — the Jewish belief in, and commitment to, the return of the people of Israel to a free and sovereign existence in the land of Israel. This is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained long ago when condemning the UN’s despicable, and since-repealed, resolution denouncing Zionism as racism — that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
One of the key claims of Israel’s opponents, including the Consortium, is that they oppose only Zionism and not Judaism; they say the two are “distinct,” so it’s not antisemitic to oppose the existence of the Jewish state.
Though advocates of Liberated Ethnic Studies claim the right to define both Judaism and antisemitism, they seem ignorant about both. Our case details how the commitment of the Jewish people to their return to Zion is manifest throughout the Jewish bible, its oral law, its prayer books and its calendar. And that’s true across all Jewish denominations, not just the Orthodox. The Reform movement’s official platform, for example, is wholeheartedly committed to the State of Israel. It states:
“We believe that the renewal and perpetuation of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael is a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity. While that day of redemption remains but a distant yearning, we express the fervent hope that Medinat Yisrael, living in peace with its neighbors, will hasten the redemption of Am Yisrael, and the fulfillment of our messianic dream of universal peace under the sovereignty of God.”
The Reform siddur includes the blessing for the State of Israel as “reishit tsmichat geulateinu” – “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”
No one can speak for every single Jew in the world—not even Moses was up to that job. And our case certainly doesn’t presume to take on such an impossible task. But the broad consensus among Jews that the existence of a Jewish state of Israel is a good and even necessary thing reveals just how dangerous is the falsehood that one can propose to eliminate the Jewish state without meaning to attack the Jews. After two thousand years of wandering the planet, and having absorbed the disastrous consequences of Jewish weakness and dependence on the kindness of strangers, most Jews know that the Jewish people needs a room of its own, at least one small place where they can be a free people in their own land. Denouncing that aspiration, or libeling it, is an attack on Jewish peoplehood and on Jewish people — actual flesh and blood people who will get hurt or die if the Jewish state does not defend them and their aspiration to live as Jews. That’s why it’s no coincidence that the people who claim to be outraged about Israel’s defense against the terror rockets from Gaza took out their anger on Jews. Not Israelis and not even Zionists. Just Jews. Remember last year’s attacks by Palestinian flag-wielding thugs on Jews dining at a Sushi restaurant? Before attacking, the thugs demanded to know “who are the Jews?”
In a backhanded way, the Consortium folks acknowledge that all Jews are Zionists — at least Zionist enough to be categorized as bad. As part of its effort to defeat attacks on its curriculum, the Consortium warns that its enemies—whom it refers to as Zionists—include organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, and even the Simon Wiesenthal Center, not to mention organizations such as the Zionist Organization of America. People who actually are Jews know that there’s a very wide space between the ADL and the hawkish ZOA. But for the Consortium, all Jewish organizations look alike.
In a sense, the Consortium is right: Virtually all Jewish organizations do support the existence of the Jewish state. What the Consortium fails to accept is that this is so because, throughout the Jewish canon, customs, holidays, and history, the yearning of the Jewish people for sovereignty in the land of Israel is built into the DNA of Judaism.
As a legal matter it’s certain that what’s required in our case is a sincerely-held religious belief, which our clients in this case hold, in the idea of Zionism. Our case demands that publicly-funded California teaching materials not denounce that belief, any more than such publicly-funded materials would denounce as racist or apartheid the Muslim commitment to the holiness of Mecca and Medina, and so too the principle of sharia law that denies entrance to that city to any non-Muslim, or the imposition of sharia law by dozens of officially Muslim countries.
As a practical matter it’s hard to see what innocent explanation there can be for the Liberated curriculum’s obsession with Israel, while ignoring countries where slavery is legal; where kleptocratic dictators leave their people starving; where the internet is closed and people are force-fed a restricted diet of state-generated propaganda; or where children labor and die in mines.
Indeed, it’s hard to see quite a number of things about the Liberated Curriculum’s teachings about Israel and Zionism, because the Consortium has taken active steps to hide these elements from the public. Much of the evidence we have quoted is gone from the website. The press release issued last spring condemning Israel is gone; also gone from the website is anything to do with teaching about Palestine/Israel, including lesson plans. That’s why it’s hard to learn not only what they say about Israel and the Palestinians but also where they obtained these so-called facts. Our research also reveals that their teaching materials are verbatim copies of documents found at teachpalestine.org. That material, also since vanished from its website, was prepared by an organization called the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which is aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — a designated terror organization committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. This is the source of the material that the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium wants taught to California public school children about the Jewish state.
It’s hard to see quite a number of things about the Liberated Curriculum’s teachings about Israel and Zionism, because the Consortium has taken active steps to hide these elements from the public.
The Consortium tells teachers they may encounter resistance to teaching from such materials. To avoid resistance, their materials encourage: “Be strategic!” The Consortium asks these teachers, “Is your administration likely to be supportive if you tell them about your plans [to teach from Liberated Ethnic Studies]? Or are you better off flying under the radar or growing strong enough as a group to pressure them?” Use as your role models “other teachers who shut their doors” so that they can “teach their students liberatory curriculum.”
All of this is illegal under California law, but it’s also a slap in the face to all California parents and teachers who pay for and use California public schools. The counsel of secrecy is a direct attack on the right of parents and the public to know what’s being taught in their schools. What would make anyone think that was appropriate? One can imagine, of course, a teacher feeling the need to conceal a child’s personal situation — perhaps a pregnancy, or a decision about sexual identity, or a history of having been attacked — from a parent who is believed to pose a threat. But this LESMCC secrecy is simply to enable the teacher to put the teacher’s own ideas into the heads of her students without any involvement, or “interference,” from parents who might want to know what their children are being taught.
There is no justification for such secrecy, which is why the other relief we want from the court — other than a ban on teaching materials that denounce our clients’ sincerely-held religious belief — is an order requiring public release of these materials, and barring teachers from hiding what they’re teaching Los Angeles public school kids.
When the Ethnic Studies law was first proposed, the Liberated Ethnic Studies folks drafted a curriculum that included every single one of the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist ideas laid out here, along with the calumny that because Judaism and Zionism are separate, it’s not antisemitic to attack the Jewish state. That draft produced a firestorm, led by Jewish legislators and leaders of the California Jewish community, along with non-Jews who know hatred when they see it. That draft was rejected, and the law as enacted explicitly forbids the inclusion of such ideas in California’s schools. And yet here are the same people trying again to include exactly what was ruled out.
The Liberated folks know that what they want to teach is unpopular as well as officially barred from public school classrooms. But they want to teach it anyway, and they’re prepared to go under the radar to achieve their goals if they think that’s what it takes.
This explains the secrecy. The Liberated folks know that what they want to teach is unpopular as well as officially barred from public school classrooms. But they want to teach it anyway, and they’re prepared to go under the radar to achieve their goals if they think that’s what it takes.
They can’t be allowed to succeed.
Many people have become aware of how hostile to Israel college campuses have become. And that’s before California’s public school kids are fed a curriculum with nothing but one-sided attacks on the world’s only Jewish state. If you think things are bad on college campuses now, just wait for the campuses to be filled with a generation of California public school kids educated in discrimination against Israel, Zionism, and any Jew who believes in those things. That’s a lot of Jews to hate.
That is what our case is meant to stop.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, Esq. is Legal Director at The Deborah Project.