Jewish Groups Voice Concern After California Approval of Ethnic Studies Curriculum, While Some Welcome Changes
After years of debate, the California State Board of Education unanimously adopted the fourth draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) on Thursday, prompting concern from Jewish groups, who also welcomed improvements from earlier drafts.
The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the decision to adopt the “fundamentally flawed” curriculum, which provides model courses that school districts may use to teach ethnic studies in K–12 classrooms.
The group said it supported efforts to teach students about the role of ethnicity, race and religion in their communities, and that it was encouraged by the removal of “pervasive” antisemitic material from earlier drafts and the integration of Jewish lesson plans. But, the AJC said, “revisions of curriculum were a salve but ultimately not curative of the fundamental flaws at the heart of the original curriculum, much of which represented a rigid ideological (but sharply contested) world view.”
“For the state with the largest public school system in the nation, this ESMC, which will potentially serve as a model for other states, falls short, and vigilance will be needed as it is introduced into classrooms,” it continued.
The ESMC approved Thursday was the product of several years of wrangling between educators, parents, lawmakers and advocates, following a 2016 law that mandated the development of such a model. Earlier drafts were blasted by Jewish groups for including antisemitic and anti-Israel material, including references to the boycott campaign against Israel, and for lacking material about Jewish communities and antisemitism.
A third draft was released in November 2020, with final changes unveiled in March.
“The Simon Wiesenthal Center, like the majority of Jewish community leaders and organizations, is encouraged that the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum released today does not include any content that is, or can be perceived as, antisemitic or anti-Israel,” said Rabbi Meyer H. May, the Center’s executive director. “While we remain concerned regarding some of the finer details of the curriculum, the consensus in the Jewish community is that the curriculum addresses the most critical concerns raised by our community.”
JIMENA, or Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, praised the evolution of the curriculum following its own and other groups’ efforts to respond to the Jewish community’s concerns.
“We are heartened that our advocacy efforts resulted in California’s State Board of Education’s official adoption of a lesson plan JIMENA produced, which centers the experiences of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish Americans,” said the group’s executive director Sarah Levin, who called it the first-ever lesson on Sephardic Jewish Americans to be adopted in a US public high school system.
“In California, JIMENA will continue to work with the Jewish community and our Middle Eastern partners to address the flaws in the model curriculum that was adopted and to ensure that voices of all minority groups — including Middle Eastern and North African Jews — are equally represented in Ethnic Studies frameworks,” Levin continued.
Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, said that the group is “disappointed that this model curriculum was approved as is, despite massive numbers of students, parents, and concerned citizens calling for reasonable and important changes. We are proud that so many spoke out at today’s meeting and for nearly two years leading up to this vote — especially our amazing students. Without their voices, the curriculum would have been dramatically worse.”
“The ESMC is a model that can and should be changed before implementing ethnic studies in schools. We will fight relentlessly to educate local school districts and ensure those courses help and do not harm our community,” she said.
While the model curriculum approved Thursday serves as a guide for districts who choose to teach ethnic studies classes, a bill currently in the state’s legislature would make such a course required for graduation from high school. A similar bill was vetoed by California Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020, although several school systems, such as Los Angeles and Fresno, have already committed to requiring the course.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, condemned Thursday’s decision and said that the upcoming debate over requiring the ethnic studies courses in high school would be “crucial.”
“While on the surface, the curriculum approved by the state appears improved over the rejected first draft, it remains firmly rooted in the principles of Critical Ethnic Studies, which unlike the broader field of ethnic studies, has a politically- and activist-driven mission that will incite hate and division and is dangerous for all high school students,” said Rossman-Benjamin in a statement. “At a time when anti-Jewish sentiment, hostility and violence has reached truly alarming levels, indoctrinating students to view Jews as ‘white’ and ‘racially privileged’ is tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of every Jewish student.”
The 11-0 Thursday vote came after an hours-long virtual meeting open to public comment, which featured accusations against Jewish groups for “hijacking” the curriculum.
Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Israeli-American Council, said in a statement that “while not perfect, the new curriculum is a vast improvement from the initial draft and it addresses many of our community’s concerns. As district school boards across the state now adopt the curriculum, it is critical to ensure that the content is thoroughly vetted and any antisemitic, including anti-Zionist, elements are opposed.”