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September 4, 2023 2:24 pm

California Professor Leading Push for Mandatory Ethnic Studies Classes a Staunch Anti-Zionist, Activists Warn


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

An anti-Zionist demonstrator in Ireland wears a hat calling for Israel’s destruction. Photo: courtesy of David Collier.

Over 70 religious, civil rights, and educational organizations led by the AMCHA Initiative, an antisemitism watchdog group, have sent a letter to the California Legislative Jewish Caucus — a voting bloc in the Golden State’s legislature — warning that a University of California (UC) professor leading the effort to require high school students to pass an ethnic studies class in order to graduate is also a prominent anti-Zionist activist.

Christine Hong, chair of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department at UC Santa Cruz, recently co-founded the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ), which declares on its website that Zionism is a “colonial racial project” and that Israel is a “settler colonial state.”

Last month, Hong argued during a podcast interview that ethnic studies should teach “the extraordinary violence of Zionism, the settler colonial violence, [and] the militarism that is inflicted on Palestine and Palestinian people.” She added that “a critique of Zionism is part and parcel of the field of [ethnic studies].”

In the same interview, ICSZ’s co-founder Emmaia Gelman said academics should “tie [Zionism] to this much larger Western supremacy and white supremacy” and “de-link the study of Zionism from Jewish studies.”

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The letter notes that Hong co-chairs a working group in the UC Academic Senate tasked with developing a proposal that would require applicants to schools in the UC system to take an ethnic studies course. The idea — inspired by AB 101, legislation approved in 2021 to make passing ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation in California — outlines what UC would consider an acceptable ethnic studies course for admission.

The UC measure is backed by the university’s Ethnic Studies Council, which represents over 300 ethnic studies faculty on UC campuses. The authors of the admissions proposal are members of the council’s leadership team. At a meeting of the Academic Senate in April, they argued the proposed requirement developed by university “experts” would help “set the standard of what a college preparatory ethnic studies course would consist of,” according to minutes from the meeting.

The letter warns that such a scenario would likely include antisemitic content in the mandatory ethnic studies class that students would have to take or risk being ineligible for UC enrollment.

“This is a deeply frightening prospect, given the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiments of the UC ‘experts’ behind this proposal and their contention that their sentiments about Jews and Israel constitute core elements of ‘authentic’ ethnic studies,” the letter states, noting that Hong supports an academic boycott of Israel and has made it a central part of her work.

Hong is organizing ICSZ’s first conference next month — part of which will take place at UC Santa Cruz — titled “Battling the ‘IHRA Definition’: Theory and Practice.”

The conference will focus on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been widely accepted by Jewish groups and well over 1,000 global entities, from countries to companies. Beyond classic antisemitic behavior associated with the likes of the medieval period and Nazi Germany, the examples include denial of the Holocaust and newer forms of antisemitism targeting Israel such as demonizing the Jewish state, denying its right to exist, and holding it to standards not expected of any other democratic state.

Critics argue that applying double standards to Israel and opposing Israel’s continuation as the nation-state of the Jewish people may not necessarily be antisemitic, creating tighter standards around when anti-Israel speech and activity is antisemitic.

The letter describes the conference as “an antisemitic broadside attack on Jewish identity and the Jewish state,” lambasting attempts to argue that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

The conference is co-sponsored by Hong’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department and UC’s Ethnic Studies Council.

Jewish groups initially opposed California’s ethnic studies proposal, arguing schools would be required to adopt curricula that included anti-Zionist material. However, the legislation eventually gained the support of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which moved to add civil rights measures to the bill designed to prevent schools from teaching any content that promoted bigotry and discrimination. According to a leading critic of California’s ethnic studies plan, however, these changes are no longer holding up with many school districts adopting the very curricula that the guardrails were intended to combat.

“The Jewish Caucus were the ones who convinced the Jewish community that ethnic studies would be safe for Jewish students because they added guardrails to the bill that would essentially prohibit the kinds of curricula that the Jewish community was worried about, particularly those that there were anti-Jewish and anti-Israel,” AMCHA Initiative Director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told The Algemeiner. “Fast-forward two years, and those guardrails are providing as much protection as a toothpick fence against a tsunami.”

Rossman-Benjamin added that one way to stop the ethnic studies mandate in California public schools could be stopping the appropriation of taxpayer funds to AB 101. “If the AB 101 requirement comes into effect, it’s game over,” she warned, adding that it is crucial for Jewish state lawmakers to see the connection between ethnic studies and anti-Zionism and stop the graduation requirement from being implemented.

End Jew Hatred, a grassroots nonprofit organization, echoed the AMCHA Initiative’s concerns, telling The Algemeiner that ethnic studies in California is “being used to push a false narrative that denies the indigeneity of the Jewish people to our ancestral homeland, and to the Middle East as a whole.”

The group added, “They also deny the reality that the Jewish people are a minority people entitled to equal protecting under the law and respect for our civil rights.”

Hong did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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