Politicized Curriculum Threatens California Jewish and Non-Jewish Communities

August 12, 2019
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California’s Jewish population does not exist, a new state-mandated ethnic studies curriculum for high school students implies.

The draft curriculum being considered by the California Department of Education ignores Jews as a minority group. The glossary defines a wide range of terms including Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, dehumanization, microaggression and the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement — and yet, astonishingly, omits anti-Semitism.

The draft was prepared by a committee of 18 teachers, academics and administrators that includes three individuals openly involved with the BDS movement. The committee members were appointed by the California State Board of Education in January 2019. The curriculum portrays BDS as a legitimate social justice movement without presenting details about the history and true intent of BDS — namely, to single out Israel for punishment.

Connecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to American social justice movements, the curriculum includes subtopics such as “Direct Action Front for Palestine and Black Lives Matter”; “Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel”; and “Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico.” BDS is included on a “List of Potential Social Movements” recommended for students to research.  

The Jewish community isn’t the only group marginalized in the proposed ethnic studies curriculum. Other major California diaspora groups including Indians, Hindus, Armenians, Greeks and Koreans also are omitted.

Certain minority narratives, notably Egyptian Coptic Christians, are erased from the Arab American Studies Course Outline.  

The draft was prepared by a committee of 18 teachers, academics and administrators that includes three individuals openly involved with the BDS movement.

In discussing the Ottoman Empire, the curriculum highlights the Young Turks’ brutal administration in the Mount Lebanon area but fails to mention the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocides, which were carried out by the Young Turks during and after World War I. 

To be effective in preventing this political and narrow-minded curriculum from being approved, we must work in partnership with other communities to elevate our voices. Over the past century, the Jewish community has made enormous strides in interfaith and interethnic coalitions to address injustices. These alliances are a pillar of the American civil society that engages policymakers on critical issues. The effort to prepare an ethnic studies curriculum demands our collective attention. 

California high school students deserve an opportunity to learn the role of ethnicity, race and religion in the life of all of its citizens, including especially those previously ignored. But the proposed curriculum would never achieve this admirable goal. It lacks cultural competency and nuance. It advances a narrow political agenda and doesn’t reflect California’s diverse population. 

More broadly, the intellectual framework of this proposal doesn’t belong in public schools. It isn’t about the study of ethnic groups, but a political statement masquerading as education. It is about advancing the interests of some ethnic groups over others. Students should be given the tools to think analytically about a number of ideologies instead of learning selectively about history through the narrow lens of only one creed.  

Communities featured in the current draft should be recognized, but not at the expense of other ethnicities and faiths. 

To get it right, the curriculum should educate students about the history of California’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian communities, which were shaped by genocide during and after World War I. 

The courses should include demographically significant communities across California, including Koreans, Indians, Hindus, Israelis and others overlooked in the first draft.  

The courses discussing the Middle East should include how, in the mid-20th century, several Arab nations violently expelled close to 1 million Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Most of these Jews had nowhere to go, so they sought refuge in Israel.  As the descendants of these Jews today form the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, it is patently false to portray Israel as a white “privileged” state, as the curriculum currently does. 

Presently, the problematic California curriculum, though not yet approved, is being considered a model in other states across the country. And a similar effort is being pushed at the California State University system, which has two dozen campuses and about a half million students. 

The California Department of Education should move expeditiously to set aside the current draft and oversee the complete redrafting of the curriculum, which will have an indelible impact on a generation of young minds in the largest state in the United States.

Siamak Kordestani is the assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles Regional Office.

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