Will California adopt an ethnic studies curriculum without Jews?
As California inches closer to creating a statewide Ethnic Studies curriculum for public schools, Jewish groups say their cultural history and experiences are being left out.
As approval deadlines approach for finalizing a model early next year, advocates for the Jewish story are largely on the fringe and playing defense. With the four major study groups set for inclusion — African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans — proponents of Jewish studies are only pushing to balance presentation: They have campaigned to eliminate any content that would disparage Jews and Israel or would teach racism and bigotry without including anti-Semitism.
“There’s no issue about the four main groups,” said Julie Zeisler, executive director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, a statewide association of non-profit Jewish organizations. “If California were to expand the ethnic studies curriculum, the Jewish experience could be included. But I don’t know if there will be an expansion.”
Many public schools in California teach ethnic studies of one group or another as designed by the school or district, and any model program approved by the state would not be a requirement for teaching. However, the state legislature is considering two separate bills, one that would make an ethnic studies course a requirement for high school graduation and another that would make it mandatory for acceptance in any of the 23 schools in the California State University system.
California is the nation’s most populous state with more than 39 million residents and 6 million K-12 students (under non-coronavirus circumstances). Only 3.2% of the general population is Jewish. According to 2018 Census Bureau estimates, the largest ethnic groups in the state are Hispanics (39%), whites (37%), Asian (15%) and Blacks (6%).
Jewish groups conceded the unlikelihood of a unit on Jewish studies as the first draft was completed last year. Even so, Jewish groups and the legislature’s 16-member Jewish caucus objected to elements of a subsection of the Asia unit on Arab-American studies, such as references to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), references to bigotry without a discussion of anti-Semitism and a one-sided view of Palestinians in the context of Israeli politics and policy.
The second draft of the proposed curriculum, to be released on July 30, is expected to address most of them: The Arab unit is expected to be dropped.
Further, leaders of the 16-member state Legislative Caucus — Senator Ben Allen of Santa Monica and Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of the San Fernando Valley, both Democrats — said in a statement that the state Superintendent Tony Thurmond “assured us that our concerns have been clearly heard and that we can be confident that the new version of the curriculum will not include any content that is, or can be perceived as, anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.”
“We wanted to get the bad stuff out,” Gabriel said in an interview. “Our real focus was making sure it was accurate and free of anti-Jewish bias.”
At least one group has mounted a vigorous effort to retain the Arab subsection. The Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, has led the campaign with an online effort to resist “bending to the desires of pro-Israel groups who simply don’t agree.” It also contends it has been “opposed by a well-funded right-wing campaign aimed at eliminating the Arab American content and branding any mention of Palestine as anti-semitic.”
This month it posted an open letter to the state Department of Education signed by college and university professors of ethnic studies from Stanford, Yale, the University of California at Berkeley and several dozen other schools, saying, “We fear the possible exclusion of Arab American studies from the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is due to its consideration of Palestine, Palestinians, and Palestinian Americans as topics worthy of high school study.”
The Arab Resource and Organizing Center did not return several messages seeking comment.
The revised draft of the ethnic studies curriculum is scheduled to be reviewed by the state’s Instructional Quality Commission on August 13. Next, a 30-day period opens for public comment, after which the Commission meets again to consider additional changes.
Once that process is complete, the document goes before the State Board of Education for final approval at a meeting scheduled for March 2021.
Jewish history and culture are not absent from public school curricula in California. Parts of literature and history courses relate to issues important to the Jewish experience, like the Holocaust and Israel.
Whether Jewish studies is expanded in the future depends upon many factors, not least the zeitgeist of the times. With Black Lives Matter a rising cultural force and episodes of police brutality a too-common occurrence, along with issues relating to immigration at the southern border, it only made sense to include units on the experience of blacks and Hispanics before creating subsections to satisfy other groups with large populations in California, like Armenians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Persians and Pacific Islanders.
There could be a Jewish future, however.
Gabriel said Thurmond has begun conversations with the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to develop a curriculum related to anti-Semitism.
“We’re in the early stages,” Gabriel said, stressing that it will take time. “But what we’ve heard has been encouraging.”
Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.