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Orange County in Turmoil in Response to Santa Ana School District’s Ethnic Studies Course Outlines

New lawsuit alleges the district board approved multiple ethnic studies courses containing anti-Jewish bias and failed to protect the Jewish community from intimidation and harassment at board meetings.
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September 11, 2023
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On Friday, the Anti-Defamation League, The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, the American Jewish Committee and Potomac Law Group filed suit against the Santa Ana Unified School District.

The lawsuit alleges that, in March and April 2023, the district knowingly circumvented the law and was misleading in its efforts to pass ethnic studies curricula with anti-Jewish teachings that violate state rules and ethical standards. When members of the community discovered the school board’s actions and appeared at a meeting to publicly comment following the curriculum’s covert approval, the lawsuit claims that community members were harassed with antisemitic rhetoric.

“It’s clear that the Santa Ana Unified School District violated the law in their rush to approve antisemitic content within their ethnic studies curriculum,” said James Pasch, ADL Senior Director of National Litigation. “No school board should silence the families and students who have a vested interest in the lessons taught in public schools.”

Like other school districts across the Golden State, SAUSD – which has more than 40,000 students in Orange County — is required to teach ethnic studies in compliance with AB 101, a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 that requires high school students in California complete an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement.

At the state-level, Sacramento has developed a new curriculum, known as the model ethnic studies curriculum, that districts across the state have the option to adopt. However, Santa Ana is one of a handful of school districts that decided to develop and implement its own ethnic studies curriculum. The district began doing so in 2020, nearly one year before AB 101 was signed into law.

Jewish organizations have roundly criticized the district’s course outlines, expressing concern that lesson plans derived from the outlines could introduce antisemitic content into classrooms across Santa Ana. In the draft History 10 Ethnic Studies World History course, for example, teachers are recommended to use in their classrooms, “The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing,” a book by sociologist Michael Mann. The text offers this description of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“Israel is the main contemporary example of settler-conquerors. For half a century, Israelis have been cleansing the occupied territories of native Arabs, most murderously in the late 1940s.”

“The Dark Side of Democracy” is not the only text to offer this position. The course outline for History 10 Ethnic Studies World History also includes an editorial published in Middle East Monitor that accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing. Middle East Monitor was described by the BBC in 2011 as a “pro-Hamas publication.”

“The ethnic studies courses approved by SAUSD’s board falsely portray Jews as colonizers in Israel, erasing 3,000 years of their history and connection to their ancestral home,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a nonpartisan organization that fights antisemitism. “They cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a deeply one-sided and inaccurate way, and completely ignore Jewish refugees who fled or were expelled from Arab states and Iran. This violates the spirit, if not the letter, of California law regarding K-12 ethnic studies, as well as SAUSD policy about how to teach controversial issues.”

The Jewish Federation of Orange County, which works extensively in the Santa Ana community, expressed similar concern about the contents of the course outlines.

“While Jewish Federation of Orange County isn’t a party to the lawsuit filed on Friday,  we are deeply concerned by a number of the ethnic studies course outlines that have been approved by the Santa Ana Unified School District board, many of which contain misinformation and are a direct assault on the Jewish community,” said Erik Ludwig, president and CEO the Jewish Federation of Orange County. “The outlines approved by SAUSD appear to be inconsistent with California law, and we will continue to advocate for the Jewish community to address these issues in collaboration with school districts, elected officials, and other community groups and ensure that the Ethnic Studies curriculum is accurate and balanced.”

In response to community criticism, the school district told the Jewish Journal that it is “working with representatives from Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, and other communities to create and refine our curriculum,” said Fermin Leal, a district spokesperson. “The goal is to provide balanced, multiple perspectives from all groups involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The district did not name the entities, individuals, or organizations with which it has been having those conversations.

“The District itself has no political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like the District would not take a political position on other global conflicts,” added Leal.

This is a developing story.

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