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Newsom Signs CSU Ethnic Studies Curriculum Into Law Despite Opposition From Jewish Groups

Jewish groups argued that the bill will likely lead to pro-BDS advocacy taught in ethnic studies courses.
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August 19, 2020
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California Department of Public Health on February 27, 2020 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed a bill on Aug. 17 mandating Cal State University (CSU) schools to implement ethnic studies courses as a requirement for graduation.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the bill, AB 1460, requires the ethnic studies courses to “focus on African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans and Native Americans.” The bill requires undergraduate students at CSU schools to take a minimum three-unit course on the subject and will go into effect during the 2024-25 academic year.

The California Faculty Association praised Newsom for signing the bill into law, arguing that the California governor “has demonstrated his understanding of the power of a true Ethnic Studies graduation requirement to change people’s lives and to change the racial trajectory this state and country are on.”

The Times noted that the Cal State University system is the birthplace of ethnic studies, and that Latino, Black and Asian American students are the majority.

Jewish groups, on the other hand, expressed concern about the development.

“The California State University alternative proposal would have helped safeguard against antisemitism as students would have had access to courses about Jewish studies, as well as classes about genocide, immigration, and social justice,” American Jewish Committee (AJC) Los Angeles Director Richard Hirschhaut said in a statement. “All students would have the opportunity to gain broader understandings of diverse dimensions of racism and bigotry. By neglecting the experience of American Jews, this law makes it even more challenging to address campus antisemitism.”

The alternative proposal would have involved “a more inclusive range of courses to fulfill a broader ethnic studies and social justice graduation requirement,” according to the AJC; the Times reported that the alternate proposal would have included Jewish studies as an ethnic studies course option. Democratic Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus who authored the bill, criticized the alternate proposal in the Times for being developed without consulting with ethnic studies experts, arguing that it was “an effort to dilute and to not deal with the real issue of, is ethnic studies required at the CSU.”

AJC Director of Combating Anti-Semitism Holly Huffnagle similarly tweeted, “As someone who went through the CA public school system, this is a tough pill to swallow. If combating antisemitism starts with education, then keeping Jewish life, history, and contribution to society out of the classroom does not bode well for this fight.”

StandWithUs CEO and co-founder Roz Rothstein told Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) it was “unfortunate” that Newsom signed the bill into law, noting that there would have been an ethnic studies requirement regardless of the bill.

“It is now even more imperative that CSU ensures the requirement is implemented in a way that uplifts students and combats hate, rather than reproducing the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias of some prominent ethnic studies faculty members,” Rothstein said.

On Aug. 13, 90 Jewish and pro-Israel organizations signed a letter to Newsom spearheaded by the AMCHA Initiative urging him to veto the ethnic studies bill.

“We fear that the anti-Zionist orientation of Critical Ethnic Studies — the version of ethnic studies likely to be taught in response to AB 1460 — coupled with the willingness of many ethnic studies faculty to bring anti-Zionist advocacy and activism into their professional spaces, will foster a toxic climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students and foment harm against them,” the letter stated. “Unlike the University of California, whose Regents Policy on Course Content prohibits ‘political indoctrination’ in the classroom, CSU does not have a policy that would prevent instructors in Ethnic Studies colleges and programs from using their classrooms for politically motivated and directed advocacy and activism, including the promotion of anti-Zionism and the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

The letter argued that the bill opens the door for ethnic studies courses to teach Zionism as a “system of oppression” that needs to be countered with the BDS movement.

“The 2011 conference that launched the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA) and each of the three subsequent CESA conferences included numerous panels, talks and workshops devoted to the demonization and delegitimization of Israel and Zionism and the promotion of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions],” the letter stated. “In 2014, the full CESA membership passed a ‘Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,’ and similar resolutions were passed by the academic associations of three of the four core groups covered in Critical Ethnic Studies classes — Association for Asian American Studies (December, 2013), National Association of Chicano and Chicana Studies (April, 2015) and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (December 2013).”

The letter also argued that Critical Ethnic Studies faculty are more likely to support academic boycotts of Israel than other faculty members, noting that more than one-third of faculty members who support such boycotts are involved with an ethnic studies program.

“While faculty have every right to engage in political advocacy and activism outside the university, recent studies suggest that many Critical Ethnic Studies faculty are bringing their extramural support for BDS and their anti-Zionist politics into their conference halls and classrooms: departments with faculty who support BDS are five to twelve times more likely to sponsor events with one-sided, anti-Zionist content and BDS promotion, and BDS-supporting faculty are four times more likely to include readings by anti-Zionist, BDS-supporting authors in the syllabi of Israel-related courses they teach,” the letter stated.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White, the CSU Board of Trustees and the Academic Senate had opposed the bill, arguing that it was a “legislative intrusion” and that the CSU alternative proposal provided students with more choices. A spokesperson for White’s office told the Times that the CSU system “will begin work to implement the requirements of the new legislation.”

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