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August 2, 2022 1:38 pm

The Next Ethnic Studies Battleground: Look Who’s Teaching the Teachers

avatar by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin


An empty classroom. Photo: Wiki Commons.

It looks like the California Jewish community has dodged a major bullet in the war to keep antisemitic “critical” ethnic studies curricula out of high school classrooms. At least for now.

A University of California proposal requiring high school students to take a highly politicized, “critical” ethnic studies course to be considered for University of California (UC) admission, which was on track to be approved by the systemwide Academic Senate and the Regents in the Spring, was derailed after it met with strenuous opposition from UC faculty and members of the public.

The objections to the proposal were numerous and substantial.

Critics pointed out that there was absolutely no justification for adding to UC’s nearly century-old, universally accepted lineup of admission requirements (that include math, science, English, etc.) an ethnic studies course that — judging from the proposal’s accompanying course criteria — would be extremely controversial, ideologically driven, and without educational merit. They also exposed the proposal as an unethical attempt by a small group of activists to circumvent state law and manipulate the UC governance process in order to coerce every public and private high school in the state to adopt a “critical” ethnic studies curriculum, which was already rejected by the State Board of Education and governor because of its overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist content.

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Finally, critics warned that the forced adoption of such a course couldn’t help but incite ethnic division and bigotry, particularly antisemitism, in high schools throughout the state.

Fortunately, at least some of these objections succeeded in giving the UC Academic Council pause. Instead of forwarding the proposal to the full Academic Senate for a vote and then to the Regents for final approval, they sent it back to the Academic Senate committee that had proposed it — the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) — for substantial revision.

Back in committee, several BOARS members “were not persuaded” that revisions made by the original criteria’s authors in response to the objections were sufficient, and some questioned whether the proposal even advances the educational goals BOARS is responsible for upholding. As a result, the proposal was shelved, at least for the foreseeable future, which means that some UC faculty have come to their senses about the long-lasting harms of substituting ideology and politics for knowledge and scholarship. This is true for some, but not all, faculty members. And therein lies the problem.

A frightening new front is opening in this war, and UC ethnic studies faculty are helping to lead the charge. While they may have lost the battle to make their discipline a UC admission requirement, their rapidly growing influence in the training of primary and secondary teachers highlights the pivotal role these faculty hope to play in bringing antisemitic “critical” ethnic studies courses to K-12 classrooms throughout the state.

It’s crucial that the Jewish community take a closer look at the nature and scope of this looming threat, and the UC faculty who are behind it.

A good place to start is with a press release entitled “UC Ethnic Studies Under Attack: UC’s Racist, Anti-Black, Anti-Indigenous, and Anti-People of Color Policies Must End,” authored by the head of the committee responsible for writing (and revising) the course criteria for the ethnic studies proposal, UC Santa Cruz Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department Chair Christine Hong, and fellow committee member UC San Diego Ethnic Studies Department Chair Andrew Jolivette.

As its highly inflammatory title suggests, the statement is a politically motivated screed intended to shame the UC system into adopting a proposal it clearly doesn’t want. Instead of addressing legitimate concerns raised by fellow UC faculty and members of the public, Hong and Jolivette, who refer to themselves as “leading ethnic studies experts,” have fashioned the jargon of their discipline into a proverbial club with which to pound their critics — thereby unwittingly demonstrating the validity of their critics’ chief concerns.

In their press release, Jolivette and Hong accuse fellow faculty members on the Academic Council and BOARS of “allow[ing] for racist external pressures to inform its deliberation around its proposed…ethnic studies requirement,” and of capitulating to “white supremacist backlash” and “spurious charges” advanced by people “with a known history of racism.” Airing their grievances in a subsequent news story and radio interview, the ethnic studies duo repeated these defamatory charges, with Jolivette calling the proposal’s critics “white supremacist organizations … and fringe UC professors,” and Hong accusing them of having a “white nationalist, ‘Make America Great Again’ sort of agenda.”

While “racist” and “white supremacist” seem to be the professors’ epithets of choice for anyone who criticizes their discipline, they reserve a particularly derogatory invective for those who express concern about the antisemitic nature of “critical” ethnic studies, accusing them of being liars: “UC caved to spurious charges … that our proposed criteria are ‘anti-Semitic’ and disparaging to Jewish Americans. This is a LIE.”

The real dishonesty, however, is coming from Jolivette and Hong.

The deceit begins with their disingenuous misrepresentation of the Jewish community’s concerns. “Nowhere in our course criteria do we mention Israel, Jewish people, or Judaism,” insist the professors, implying that only liars would accuse these “leading ethnic studies experts” of being anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist.

Yet the concerns about antisemitism referenced by Jolivette and Hong were raised in a letter signed by nearly 2,000 UC stakeholders — students, parents, faculty, donors, and California taxpayers — which explicitly located the source of the bigotry not in the criteria per se, but in the “critical” discipline embraced by Jolivette, Hong, and their fellow UC ethnic studies faculty, upon which the criteria’s implementation is wholly dependent.

The signatories pointed out that the discipline’s portrayal of Jews as “white, privileged oppressors” and Zionism as a “racist, colonialist system of oppression,” coupled with the disciplinary imperative to “fight the oppressor” and “dismantle oppression,” can’t help but promote animus towards Jews and the Jewish state, and incite acts of aggression towards Jewish students and the Jewish community.

Jolivette and Hong are also less than forthcoming about their own personal and professional anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist biases.

For example, both actively championed the overtly antisemitic first draft of the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) and denigrated members of the Jewish community for their efforts to have content about Jewish Americans included in the curriculum and antisemitic content kept out of it.

In a webinar last year promoting the state-wide adoption of an even more virulently antisemitic, “liberated” version of the first-draft ESMC, Jolivette flatly rejected the idea that Jewish Americans should be part of an ethnic studies curriculum: “We’re talking about racialization when we talk about ethnic studies … [and] Jews are not racialized. You might have Sephardic Jews and others who will say, ‘well yes, we are racialized’ — but as white people.”

Jolivette also intimated that Jews had “privilege” and the “power to [impose their will] as a group over other people,” and he argued that complaining about Jewish Americans not being included in ethnic studies “is, in and of itself, a racist statement.”

In a similar webinar, Hong accused Jewish groups that raised concerns about the anti-Zionist content of the first-draft ESMC, particularly its promotion of BDS, of “terror-baiting” Palestinians and Muslims, and “consenting to unbridled state violence against those subjects.”

Both professors are open advocates of an academic boycott of Israel, or Academic BDS, whose guidelines call on faculty to take steps to ensure that Israel is not “normalized” in the academy. Academic BDS supporters are urged to use their academic pulpits to demonize and delegitimize Israel and its supporters and actively work to shut down opportunities for students and faculty to learn in or about Israel.

Hong goes further, arguing that anti-Zionism is a fundamental component of ethnic studies in general, and Asian American Studies in particular, and she has expressed pride in her own sub-discipline for its anti-Israel stance, gushing over the Association for Asian American Studies for being “the first national academic organization that came out formally in support of BDS.”

It’s important to understand that Hong and Jolivette are not outliers in the UC ethnic studies community, but at the very heart of it. In the press release itself they write, “Over 1000 individuals across the state of California, among them hundreds of vibrant scholars hired into the UC system … have signed a statement in support of our…ethnic studies course criteria.”

That statement, drafted and circulated by the UC Ethnic Studies Leadership Council, which claims to be a “collaborative forum” for advancing ethnic studies on all UC campuses, was endorsed by members of every UC ethnic studies department and most of their departmental chairs.

Almost every member of the UC Ethnic Studies Leadership Council, co-chaired by Jolivette and UC Davis Chicana/o Studies Professor Natalia Deeb-Sossa, had also previously signed statements in support of the antisemitic first-draft ESMC, as did most of the UC ethnic studies departments and faculty that signed the Leadership Council’s statement. In addition, Deeb-Sossa, along with several of the statement’s individual signatories, signed a letter last year demanding that the California Department of Education reject the final version of the ESMC, calling the curriculum’s inclusion of lessons on Jewish Americans “intellectually dishonest and arguably racist” and decrying the curriculum’s support “by racist anti-Ethnic Studies legislators like Jesse Gabriel,” former chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus.

Like Jolivette and Hong, who is also a member of the UC Ethnic Studies Leadership Council, Deeb-Sossa and the majority of council members have expressed public support for Academic BDS.

Deeb-Sossa also signed a petition accusing a Jewish organization opposed to Academic BDS of supporting “practices of settler colonialism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing in Palestine, and white supremacy, McCarthyism, Islamophobia, and racism in the US,” and praising her own professional association — the National Association of Chicano/a Studies — for endorsing Academic BDS.

Indeed, a large portion of the UC ethnic studies faculty and many department chairs who signed the council’s statement have expressed public support for Academic BDS.

Unfortunately, anti-Zionist expression is not limited to individual ethnic studies faculty. In May 2021, in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, ethnic studies departments on five UC campuses issued wholly one-sided, virulently anti-Zionist statements falsely accusing Israel of “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler colonialism,” and “racial supremacy,” with most calling for or endorsing some form of BDS, including an academic boycott of Israel. Crucially, all of the departmental statements positioned their anti-Zionist political stance squarely within their disciplinary missions.

So, despite the disingenuous protestations of Jolivette and Hong, and their repugnant attempt to gaslight a Jewish community justifiably concerned about skyrocketing antisemitism, there is no doubt that “critical” ethnic studies, as defined and practiced by “leading ethnic studies experts” on UC campuses, is anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist to its core.

This, of course, is the bullet that was dodged by the Jewish community when the BOARS committee decided to shelve the ethnic studies admissions proposal, whose adoption would have required every public and private high school in the state to teach such an antisemitic version of ethnic studies in order for its students to be eligible for UC admission.

But a clear and present danger remains, as “critical” ethnic studies faculty shift their focus and efforts to a new theater of war — training the next generation of K-12 ethnic studies teachers to be able to take even the most benign, multicultural curriculum and turn it into a highly politicized, divisive, and antisemitic “critical” ethnic studies course.

For example, when Christine Hong’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies program recently became the first UCSC department outside the STEM fields to include a “4+1” pathway for students to earn a post-BA teaching credential, Hong crowed, “The 4+1 was realized at a time when Ethnic Studies has become a requirement at the high school level throughout the state…We are positioning our students to have union-backed teaching jobs and to help roll out Ethnic Studies throughout the state.”

The San Diego County Office of Education — which was recently awarded five million dollars by the state for “professional development and regional training for teachers … to support creation or expansion of ethnic studies course offerings” — highlighted in its grant application the fact that UC San Diego, where Andrew Jolivette chairs the Ethnic Studies department, would be an important higher education partner in helping to implement the proposed teacher training.

And, based on the recommendations of its Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee, that counts Natalia Deeb-Sossa among its members, the Davis Joint Unified School District recently adopted a comprehensive ethnic studies program involving teacher training and a teacher certification process that will undoubtedly rely upon “critical” ethnic studies experts at UC Davis, such as Deeb-Sossa.

Challenging faculty who wrap themselves in the mantle of academic freedom while they indoctrinate university students with a politically-charged, antisemitic ideology, which these students in turn will force-feed their vulnerable K-12 charges, will certainly not be easy, but it is essential. Courageous members of the UC Academic Council and BOARS, who recognized the inherent dangers of “critical” ethnic studies, resisted the bullying of mendacious and vindictive faculty peers, and put the brakes on a disastrous admission requirement proposal, have done their part. UC leaders must do theirs.

Since 1970, the UC Regents Policy on Course Content has explicitly prohibited faculty from abusing their academic privilege to promote purely one-sided, political propaganda, stating, “Misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing it to be used for political indoctrination …  constitutes misuse of the University as an institution.” The policy adds, “It is the Regents’ responsibility to the very concept of a University to protect the institution from the misuse of the classroom.”

Now is the time for UC leaders to exercise that responsibility. Otherwise, out-of-control “critical” ethnic studies faculty are poised to wreak havoc in the Golden State.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

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