The passage of California’s ethnic studies high school graduation requirement bill (AB 101) in 2021 has unfortunately resulted in a growing number of school districts adopting ethnic studies curricula with anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist biases and contracting with consulting groups that promote an antisemitic so-called “liberated” version of ethnic studies. This, despite “guardrail” amendments added to the bill to prevent exactly that. As mainstream Jewish organizations anguish over the abject failure of the “guardrails,” they should keep their eyes on a related, alarming development at the University of California.
The UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council, claiming to represent 300 ethnic studies faculty across the UC system, recently launched an effort to revive a proposal written by members of the Council’s leadership, who wanted the University “to play a defining role in how ethnic studies is rolled out through the state” in the wake of AB 101’s passage. That proposal calls for making a “liberated”-style ethnic studies course a pre-requisite for UC admission and the de-facto standard of ethnic studies courses in California high schools. The proposal was on track to be approved by the Academic Senate last year, but was derailed at the last minute because of strenuous opposition from UC faculty and members of the public.
Whether the proposal will be reconsidered by the Academic Senate in the coming year – or ever — is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, however, recent actions of the Council’s leadership have provided a frightening glimpse into the kind of “defining role” that UC ethnic studies faculty intend to play in the roll-out of AB 101.
Earlier this month, Chair of UC Santa Cruz’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department Christine Hong, who is also a founding member of the UC Ethnic Studies Council and a lead writer of the controversial ethnic studies admission requirement proposal, joined together with a handful of other ethnic studies faculty and activists from across the country to form the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism. The new Institute’s website claims that its purpose is to “support the delinking of the study of Zionism from Jewish Studies, and to reclaim academia and public discourse for the study of Zionism as a political, racial and gendered knowledge project, intersecting with Palestine and decolonial studies, critical terrorism studies, settler colonial studies, and related scholarship and activism.”
Lest there be any doubt that the Institute will focus on promoting anti-Zionist activism rather than genuine scholarship, consider that the six university-affiliated members of the institute’s “Founding Collective,” including Hong, are not only open proponents of an academic boycott of Israel, they have all signed a statement pledging to bring the antisemitic boycott onto their campuses and into their classrooms. And to that end, the group is planning an October conference to formally launch the institute that will take place at both New York University and UC Santa Cruz. Entitled “Battling the ‘IHRA definition’: Theory & Activism,” the conference promises to build knowledge about how the IHRA definition “both amplifies and hides repressive power and state violence,” as well as to help academics and activists who are “battling” the definition to develop “strategies to advance that work.”
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, the most authoritative and internationally-accepted definition of antisemitism today, rightly understands that the vast majority of Jews worldwide are inextricably linked to the Jewish state and identifies physical and verbal threats to Israel’s existence as forms of antisemitism. As such, the Institute’s inaugural conference, whose purpose is to battle the IHRA definition by denying the connection between Zionism and Judaism, constitutes a broadside attack on Jewish identity and the Jewish state that is antisemitic in both intent and effect.
Among the conference’s co-sponsors are Hong’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department and its Center for Racial Justice at UCSC, as well as the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council.
Shockingly, despite the fact that the conference is being held at a University of California campus with official departmental sponsorship and possible university funding, all speakers and attendees are required to “confirm their agreement” with the anti-Zionist “points of unity” that guide the Institute’s work. These include identifying Zionism as “a settler colonial racial project” linked to “group supremacy,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “racism,” and agreeing to “join in resistance” against Zionist repression.
For Christine Hong and fellow UC Ethnic Studies Council members, the anti-Zionist focus of the Institute and its inaugural conference is not just personal, it’s professional – part and parcel of how they understand their discipline, teach it to their students, and believe it should be taught to high school students throughout the state.
Should the Council-backed ethnic studies admission requirement proposal be approved in the near future, high schools gearing up to implement the AB 101 requirement will feel compelled to ensure their students are UC-eligible by choosing a “liberated” ethnic studies curriculum almost guaranteed to incite animosity towards Jews and the Jewish state. Even if the proposal is not immediately approved, schools struggling to meet AB 101’s impending deadlines are likely to opt for a “liberated” course anyway, figuring that a UC ethnic studies admissions requirement could be approved at any time.
Although keeping an antisemitic “liberated” version of ethnic studies out of California classrooms seems hopeless, it may not be.
A recent memorandum published by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism makes a compelling case that AB 101 is not yet operative. A last-minute amendment to the bill, apparently added by legislators who worried the bill’s guardrails could not prevent antisemitic “liberated” curricula from being adopted in many school districts, stipulated that the bill is “operative only upon an appropriation of funds by the Legislature.” Yet since the passage of AB 101, no such funds have been allocated.
If AB 101 is inoperative, high schools are under no obligation to establish an ethnic studies requirement, nor will the large number of schools that have not yet established one be motivated to do so, given its considerable cost and the pressing need to address students’ post-pandemic learning losses.
Although members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus supported AB 101, believing the guardrails they helped to insert would keep the antisemitic “liberated” curriculum out of high school classrooms, they were mistaken. Now is the time to make things right.
The Jewish Caucus must clarify for the Jewish community whether the ethnic studies graduation requirement mandated by AB 101 is operative. If it is not, they must do everything in their power to make sure it stays that way.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a UC faculty member for 20 years.