Where Things Stand With California’s Ethnic-Studies Curriculum and Anti-Israel Activism
JNS.org – For more than a year-and-a-half, our organization has worked tirelessly together with concerned citizens and partners to remove antisemitism, anti-Israel bias, and other destructive ideas from California’s draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC).
At the same time, we have pushed for the inclusion of positive education about antisemitism and the Jewish people. The stakes are extremely high, because California public schools serve six million students, and the ESMC is likely to be used as a model in many other states as well.
As the ESMC receives increased national attention, we are providing an update about this critical challenge for California and the nation as a whole.
It is important to put this issue in context.
We face a massive statewide and nationwide threat: Extremists are shamelessly exploiting ethnic studies to promote hate and one-sided political agendas. We cannot allow hatred and ignorance about Jews and Israel to be institutionalized in American public education.
At the same time, we have a huge opportunity: The subject of ethnic studies is meant to give marginalized communities better representation in the classroom. The bill that led to the creation of the ESMC envisioned a “culturally meaningful and relevant curriculum,” educational standards guided by “equity, inclusiveness and universally high expectations,” and an “objective of preparing pupils to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.”
These are goals we fully support for other communities and for our own. We can counter antisemitism and ignorance by teaching millions of high school students about the struggles and successes of the Jewish people.
The threat is amplified by the fact that a significant faction in the field of ethnic studies, represented by the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, institutionally promotes anti-Zionism and discriminatory boycotts against Israel. Too often, this faction engages in outright antisemitism by framing Jews as “white, privileged, colonial oppressors.” This is why, in September 2020, a program at San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies hosted an antisemitic event shamelessly glorifying convicted terrorist Leila Khaled. It is also why the first draft of the ESMC was so deeply problematic.
The opportunity is illustrated by the fact that there are major school districts with inclusive ethnic-studies curricula that reject one-sided political agendas and promote critical thinking.
Since the first draft of the ESMC was released in August 2019, StandWithUs staff, students, community activists, and partners across the state have fought tooth and nail to counter the threat and seize the opportunity.
Together, we have persuaded California education officials to make significant positive changes. These include the removal of much anti-Israel and antisemitic content, the addition of guidance promoting critical thinking, and the inclusion of material about Jews and antisemitism. For example, thanks to a lesson plan submitted by our friends at JIMENA, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is currently included in the ESMC. Additionally, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement, demanding a more balanced and inclusive curriculum. We should acknowledge what all of us have accomplished and be proud of it.
At the same time, there are still significant problems with the ESMC, and anti-Israel extremists are actively trying to reverse the progress we have made so far. For example, the latest draft includes a lesson plan that celebrates numerous prominent figures who have promoted antisemitism and other destructive ideas. In multiple areas, the ESMC does not live up to its own requirements calling for balance and critical thinking. If we become satisfied or complacent, California will approve an ethnic studies curriculum and graduation requirement that may cause significant harm across the state and beyond.
Where do we go from here?
Education officials are reviewing a massive number of critical comments they received prior to January 21, including thousands we submitted together. This review will result in recommended changes to the curriculum, which will be sent to the State Board of Education for a vote on March 17. StandWithUs will engage with relevant leaders and share additional calls to action with the public throughout this process.
Bigger picture, we are using all the lessons we have learned since August 2019 and preparing to tackle this challenge as it spreads to California school districts and across the country. We are in this for the long haul and will never stop fighting for your children and ours.
Roz Rothstein is the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an international, nonpartisan Israel education organization.