Rare Victory: Dangerous Ethnic Studies Proposal off the Table — for Now

The Faculty Council’s disastrous ethnic studies admissions requirement is off the table. But vigilance is in order.
December 20, 2023
Photo by nurulanga/Getty Images

The Jewish community and its supporters helped dodge another dangerous ethnic studies bullet, and they likely don’t even know it.

But there it is, buried deep in the November 3rd minutes of an obscure, 12-member committee of the University of California academic senate known as BOARS (Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools). Committee members voted 6 to 5, with one abstention, to halt further consideration of a disastrous proposal for establishing a UC ethnic studies admissions requirement that would result in every high school in the state being forced to offer a “critical” ethnic studies course likely to include antisemitic portrayals of Jews and the Jewish state.

What did the Jewish community and its supporters have to do with this outcome? Here’s the backstory.

In the weeks leading up to the BOARS meeting, the Jewish community was on high alert. Deeply alarming revelations were surfacing about the dangerous antisemitic activity and intentions of the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council, the group behind the admissions proposal whose leaders were responsible for drafting the proposal’s course criteria that would serve as the de facto standard for all high school ethnic studies curricula if the proposal was approved.

In September, the Faculty Council sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom and Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond contending that anti-Zionism should be one of the “animating commitments” of state-mandated high school ethnic studies courses. The Council also stated their firm opposition to the “guardrails” that legislators had added to the ethnic studies graduation requirement bill to ensure that these courses do not “reflect or promote…bias, bigotry, or discrimination,” especially antisemitism.

As if that wasn’t concerning enough, in mid-October, less than one week after Hamas’ horrific massacre, mutilation, rape and kidnapping of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians, the Faculty Council co-sponsored the inaugural conference of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ), an organization committed to delegitimizing Zionism and working towards the dismantling of the Jewish state. The Council-sponsored conference, entitled “Battling the ‘IHRA Definition’: Theory and Practice,” was intended to provide “academics and activists” with tools for delegitimizing the most authoritative and widely-accepted definition of antisemitism, and for denigrating those who use it. Conference participation, and presumably conference sponsorship, was limited to those committed to the ICSZ’s anti-Zionist mission.

Finally, a few days after the conference, the Faculty Council sent a letter to the UC Regents, President and Chancellors that vilified these leaders for issuing statements condemning Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli civilians on October 7th and demanded that the leaders “retract charges of terrorism” and “stand against Israel’s war crimes… and ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people.”  The Council’s letter also condemned the UC leaders for their opposition to BDS, with the Faculty Council claiming BDS “should be celebrated,” not opposed.

By late October, the outrage of the Jewish community reached a boiling point. How could a group of UC faculty who refuse to acknowledge that the Hamas massacre was terrorism and contend that anti-Zionism and efforts to dismantle the Jewish state are core components of their discipline be trusted to establish state-wide ethnic studies standards for all California students? These were the sentiments expressed by 115 groups from the Jewish and allied communities in a letter to the UC Regents and other leaders, urging them to unequivocally reject the ethnic studies admissions requirement proposal that was soon to be considered by BOARS. One week later – and two days before the fateful BOARS meeting – these sentiments were supported by more than 10,000 individuals in a petition to the Regents, that was also copied to every BOARS member.

Although the Regents did not respond publicly to the letter or petition, the message was received. A careful perusal of the November 3rd BOARS minutes reveals that at the very beginning of the meeting, the chair of the academic senate brought word from the Regents that the ethnic studies proposal to be voted on that day “has raised concerns among the Regents due to its association with the recent letter about the war in the Middle East from the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council.” Despite the minutes’ vague language, the Regents’ disapproval of the ethnic studies proposal comes through loud and clear.

For now, the Faculty Council’s disastrous ethnic studies admissions requirement is off the table, and the Jewish community can breathe a collective sigh of relief. But vigilance is in order. The fact that nearly half of the committee voted to approve the proposal despite the Regents’ disapproval and the outrage of the Jewish community suggests it might not be too long before the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council and their enablers on the BOARS committee come up with a new proposal for forcing their antisemitic discipline into every high school in the state.

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.

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