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August 13, 2021 3:30 pm
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Group of ‘Alarmed’ Holocaust Survivors, Descendants Press California Lawmakers on New Ethnic Studies Bill

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

California State Capitol in Sacramento. Photo: Wayne Hsieh / Flickr

Over 100 Holocaust survivors and their descendants issued an open letter on Thursday asking the California lawmakers to oppose a bill that would make ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation.

Addressed to the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, the letter continues a campaign against Assembly Bill 101 (AB 101) by AMCHA, a nonprofit that advocates against antisemitism on college campuses.

The group and other critics have argued that by allowing school districts to select any ethnic studies curricula with no state guidance, the bill paves the way for the adoption of the fiercely disputed first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) in California K-12 schools.

“We are Holocaust survivors and the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who are deeply alarmed by AB 101,” wrote the letter’s signatories. “We are aware the AB 101 would allow local school districts to use any curriculum they approve, including the highly controversial first draft of the ESMC, whose lessons on Arab Americans included the antisemitic portrayal of Jews [and singled out] the Jewish state for condemnation and opprobrium.”

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Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Co-Founder and Director of AMCHA and principal organizer of the letter, told The Algemeiner that the curriculum “raises a million alarm bells and we as a Jewish community need to face that.”

“The goal of this letter was to give a voice to people who have experienced in their own lives the attempts to kill them and their people,” she said. “They feel it everyday and pass it onto their kids, and their kids live their lives understanding that.”

The ESMC first draft was rejected in July 2019 by Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the California State Board of Education, for not being “accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state,” and in line with “Governor Newson’s vision of a California for all.”

Following the Board’s decision, on August 23, 2020, Governor Newsom said the curriculum was “offensive in so many ways” and would “never see the light of day.” Nearly seven months, later, on March 18, 2021, the Board of Education approved and recommended a fourth draft of the curriculum, ESMCD4, without its most controversial content.

But those behind Thursday’s letter argued that AB 101’s provision leaving school districts in charge of choosing a curriculum risks making the state-approved curriculum irrelevant.

“The rejected first draft — including its anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist lessons — was enthusiastically supported by the state’s two largest teacher unions,” they continued, “as well as dozens of ethnic studies departments on California State University and University of California campuses.”

“With the support of the state’s two biggest teachers unions and the ethnic studies higher education community, it is clear that many if not most school districts in the state will choose to adopt and implement such a virulent antisemitic curriculum if AB 101 becomes law.”

Citing samples of the content of the Liberated Curriculum, as it is also known — which accuses Israel of apartheid, settler-colonialism, and white supremacy — the letter said it teaches “an eliminationist ideology that denies Israel’s very right to exist.”

Naya Lekht, Director of Education of Club Z in California, told The Algemeiner that harassment of Jewish children at school is already a reality for her mentees at the program, which encourages Jewish pride among youth.

“I work with teens, so I actually see how antisemitism affects Jewish students in the classroom because of ethnic studies courses that already exist,” she said. “Some of my students already have ethnic studies in the classroom and I hear stories upon stories. In, one example, my students had to unscramble a word with the hint ‘What is the Holy Land,’ and the answer was ‘Palestine.'”

Rossman-Benjamin argued that the Jewish community should closely follow the ethnic studies debate in California and conversations about antisemitism happening worldwide.

“We know the Jewish Caucus is sensitive to this,” she said. “If the Jewish Caucus hadn’t stood up against the first draft of the ethnic studies model curriculum, that would be curriculum. We need them to stand up again.”

The bill, which has already been passed by the state’s Assembly, will face hearings in the state Senate over the coming weeks.

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