It’s Ethnic Studies ‘Groundhog Day,’ This Time in Massachusetts
When California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the state’s ethnic studies high school graduation requirement bill last month, he handed a huge victory to a dedicated cadre of activist educators who had undertaken a multi-year crusade to ensure their highly politicized and overtly antisemitic “critical” ethnic studies curriculum would be adopted by every school district in the state. With the same stroke of his pen, Newsom handed a painful defeat to those of us who had struggled to prevent the statewide adoption of such antisemitic curricula. More importantly, the move struck a major blow against Jewish students and the Jewish community — in California and beyond.
And now a similar ethnic studies saga is unfolding in Massachusetts — where a politically-charged version of the bill that set California’s ethnic studies saga in motion, is making its way through the Massachusetts House and Senate. The proposed legislation mandates the establishment of a commission responsible for developing an ethnic studies curriculum that uses a “critical approach and pedagogy.”
Just like California, the version of the discipline being mandated by the Massachusetts bill is not the multicultural version that most parents expect and want for their children. Instead, it is a radical and highly politicized “critical approach” that dominates the college ethnic studies scene, and is now infiltrating K-12 classrooms. It is also rooted in ideologies well-known for their antisemitic portrayals of Jews and the Jewish state of Israel.
Viewed through this “critical” ethnic studies lens, Jews are perceived as “white,” “privileged,” and squarely on the oppressor side of the racial divide invoked by the discipline, and Zionism is portrayed as a “racist,” “colonialist,” “system of oppression” to be vigorously challenged.
And as in California, the “critical” ethnic studies activists behind this bill are determined to ensure that their antisemitic curriculum will be foisted on children throughout Massachusetts.
According to the bill, the proposed commission is to include representation from a number of organizations. Most prominent among these are the state’s teachers unions, whose activist members have already been aggressively promoting a highly politicized version of ethnic studies that will undoubtedly inform the commission’s work.
For example, since 2018, the Ethnic Studies Now! organizing committee of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU-ESN) has been promoting a “critical” ethnic studies course whose framework looks suspiciously similar to the one used by California’s highly controversial first draft model curriculum — which was roundly rejected by California education officials because of outrage over its blatantly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist content.
This is not surprising, given that Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, the co-chair of the committee responsible for producing the rejected first draft California bill, serves as the University Consultant for the BTU-ESN group. Another first-draft author, Samia Shoman, who was directly responsible for the most antisemitic lessons of the draft, is on the team of a consulting firm that has run multiple BTU-ESN-organized teacher training workshops for Boston teachers.
With significant support from Boston Public Schools, the BTU-ESN’s “critical” ethnic studies framework is already being taught in district schools. And the group’s influence in the district will undoubtedly grow following the recent hiring of BTU-ESN leader Katie Li to serve as the district’s full-time “ethnic studies coach and coordinator.”
Another major union player to be represented on the bill’s proposed commission is the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), which, in 2018, participated in an amicus brief vigorously defending the right of Newton, Massachusetts, public school teachers to use a history curriculum containing anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist material.
In addition, the MTA’s president, Merrie Najimy, who threw her union’s full support behind the bill at a recent public hearing of the Joint Committee on Education, founded the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and served as its president when the group hosted or sponsored numerous virulently anti-Israel events.
She was also ADC-MA president when her group endorsed a Palestinian BDS National Committee position paper submitted to the UN Durban Review Conference, which called for using boycotts and divestment to “eradicate Israel’s regime of apartheid, colonialism and occupation against the indigenous people of Palestine.”
The Massachusetts bill also specifies that the Collaborative of Asian American, Native American, Latino and African American Institutes (CANALA) of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, must have a member on the commission. A few years ago, UMass Boston Asian American Studies professor Paul Watanabe, who represented CANALA at the recent meeting of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, joined several of his school’s ethnic studies colleagues in signing a statement in support of an academic boycott of Israel.
Finally, it’s important to point out that the Massachusetts bill was spearheaded in the state’s House of Representatives by members Nika Elugardo and Erika Uyterhoeven, both of whom have publicly expressed animus towards Israel.
When asked in an electoral questionnaire sponsored by the Boston Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) whether she would publicly support “a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid,” Eluguardo replied, “I support BDS. I am willing to call for BDS in my capacity as a public official. … I would be happy to work closely with DSA and other BDS groups on a campaign.” House Member Uyterhoeven participated in an open letter pressuring a US senator to condemn “Israel’s illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”
In California, the state-mandated model curriculum had to go through three revisions before it was deemed acceptable by most of the Jewish community. And while that final version is an improvement over the blatantly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist first draft, the reality is that it remains rooted in an inherently antisemitic “critical” ethnic studies framework.
The fact that no less than seven guardrails were deemed necessary by Jewish legislators for preventing the widespread promotion of antisemitism in state-mandated ethnic studies classes is itself a stunning indictment of the dangers that a “critical approach” poses to Jewish students (and frankly, to all students).
And yet, despite the addition of guardrails, school districts are still free to use the state-approved version, the rejected first draft of the curriculum, or an even more overtly antisemitic “liberated” curriculum being vigorously peddled by the first-draft authors.
In addition, even in those California school districts that choose to use the state-approved model curriculum in required ethnic studies classes, teachers are given full flexibility in how and what they teach.
For example, the state-approved curriculum informs teachers that its guiding values and principles, rooted in “critical consciousness,” should be included in every ethnic studies lesson. Teachers who take these instructions to heart and understand that ethnic studies courses are intended to “critique. .. power and oppression” may choose to leave out the optional lessons on Jewish Americans or antisemitism — or worse, they may teach these lessons in a way that demonizes Jews as racially privileged oppressors or belittles antisemitism.
Similarly, teachers who aspire to stay true to the curriculum’s values of challenging “imperialist/colonial beliefs and practices” and connecting to “social movements that struggle for social justice and … promote transformative resistance” may choose to enhance the curriculum’s lessons on Arab Americans with their own anti-Zionist content and BDS promotion.
With the California teachers’ unions and higher education community fully behind the original antisemitic draft and its more extreme “liberated” cousin, things surely look grim in the Golden State.
So, it’s too late for California. But there is still time for Jewish communities and leaders in Massachusetts and beyond, to expose and reject the antisemitic nature of “critical” ethnic studies, and to unite in opposition to any legislation that would facilitate its adoption. The safety and well-being of Jewish students — and all students — depends on it.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the U.. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years, and she was the first to expose how Critical Ethnic Studies is deeply antisemitic and anti-Zionist.