The controversy over California’s ethnic studies curriculum, explained
(JTA) — How and where do Jews fit into America’s minority communities?
That’s the question at the center of a debate that has raged for more than a year over new school curriculum guides that are being adopted in California. Lawmakers there required the creation of an ethnic studies curriculum, and the effort to fulfill their mandate has spurred a yearslong process that has included multiple opportunities for public comment.
Jewish groups strenuously objected to the first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, or ESMC, saying it did not reflect the American Jewish experience and even advanced some forms of anti-Semitism.
Many of those same groups praised the third draft of the curriculum when it was released in December. The revision responded to their concerns, they say: Two sections of the curriculum deal principally with the American Jewish experience, and many of the sections that they had identified as objectionable were gone.
Not everyone is happy with the latest draft: On Wednesday, the authors of the original curriculum disavowed the project in protest of the revised versions, which they feel “silenced the voices of Ethnic Studies teachers/educators, who are all from racially and politically underrepresented groups.”
And other Jewish activists say that regardless of how the project discusses Jews, its basic ideology is unacceptable. They see this as the latest front in an ongoing battle over critical race theory, an approach to education that views race and racism as embedded in, and central to, society and its institutions. Opponents of critical race theory see it as a threat to open debate and a return to classifying people based on their race, which they see as a danger to Jews.
In recent days, two long articles have been published in Jewish publications — both objecting to the revised version from those two opposing sides of the debate. Whatever the final draft looks like, California law does not require schools to use the proposed materials it is making available.
Here’s what you need to know about California’s ethnic studies curriculum and why it has roiled Jews in the state.
An attempt to reflect California’s diversity in its school curriculum
The goal of California’s ethnic studies curriculum is to increase understanding of the state’s ethnic minorities and have them feel more included in the state school system. After state lawmakers required an ethnic studies curriculum, a panel of 20 ethnic studies scholars convened and drafted a version focused on four minority groups: African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans. The curriculum discusses the experiences and contributions of those minorities in the state, as well as the growth of their communities and the ongoing discrimination they face.
But when the first draft of the curriculum was released in the middle of 2019, numbering hundreds of pages, Jewish organizations in the state and across the political spectrum were upset that it did not include the experience of California’s Jews. The state has more than 1 million Jews, with Los Angeles and the Bay Area hosting two of the nation’s largest Jewish communities.
In one example JIMENA, an organization representing the state’s Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern Jewish, community was dissatisfied with the draft. The Mizrahi Jewish activists felt that their experience, which includes fleeing their home countries, was excluded from the curriculum, even though the experience of Arab Americans, whose communities hail from some of the same countries, were featured.
Jewish groups were upset, too, that the curriculum included a number of anti-Israel sections. It counted the movement to boycott Israel among social movements to discuss positively alongside Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, among others. Critics complained that the inclusion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement effectively discriminated against Jews and was an outlier among movements that otherwise focused on domestic issues.
The initial draft also referred to Israel’s War of Independence as the Nakba, the Palestinian term for the conflict and meaning “catastrophe.” The curriculum also included a song lyric that appeared to accuse the Jews of manipulating the press, a long-standing anti-Semitic stereotype.
“The ESMC is inaccurate and misleading in several critical respects and is drafted in a manner that reflects an anti-Jewish bias,” read a July 2019 letter from a coalition of California Jewish state lawmakers. “We cannot support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss antisemitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism, and would institutionalize the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our public schools.”
Jewish organizations were not the only ones to object to exclusions in the first draft. Advocates for Sikh-American and Armenian-American interests also called for their communities to be included. A letter signed by a coalition of organizations representing Middle Eastern immigrant communities, spearheaded by JIMENA, protested what they saw as a lack of representation in the curriculum.
“We fear that our exclusion from a curriculum, which we support, would contribute to the ongoing cultural genocide and erasure of minority voices from the Middle East and North Africa,” read the letter, which also was signed by representatives of the Assyrian, Coptic, Kurdish, Iranian, Baha’i and Zoroastrian communities. “Our inclusion in the curriculum would affirm the important and compelling minority voices from the MENA region.”
A revised version reflects Jewish groups’ concerns
Following the backlash to the first draft, the state’s Education Department said it recognized changes were needed. Ahead of the release of the latest draft, according to the department, members of the public sent in 57,000 comments on the curriculum.
“A model curriculum should be accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Governor Newsom’s vision of a California for all,” read a statement made in August 2019 by the leadership of the state Board of Education. “The current draft model curriculum falls short and needs to be substantially redesigned.”
The following year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, citing the controversies over the draft as a reason.
A number of Jewish groups campaigned for the inclusion of the Jewish experience in later drafts. The latest curriculum does include two lessons on American Jews, including one on the Mizrahi experience. JIMENA drafted the lesson plan on Mizrahi Jews last year.
Another lesson plan focuses on the complex nature of American Jewish identity, including the ways in which some Jews experience “conditional whiteness and privilege.” Both lesson plans discuss anti-Semitism — includes definitions of anti-Semitism from the Anti-Defamation League as well as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The sections echoing anti-Jewish stereotypes and discussing the movement to boycott Israel have been removed. So have references to the Nakba. The latest draft also includes lessons on other communities, including Sikhs and Armenians, who had protested their earlier exclusion.
Jewish groups that had campaigned for the changes said they were pleased with the latest draft.
“We are encouraged by the IQC’s support this week for including the Jewish American experience as a part of the new ethnic studies model curriculum for all the state’s public schools,” Tyler Gregory, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council, said in a statement ahead of the release of the latest draft, referring to the committee that put together the curriculum.
“The IQC has endorsed holistic and equitable changes to the curriculum that protect our community and other communities through the inclusion of language that seeks to prevent discrimination against any group in the classroom.”
Objections persist despite — and because of — the changes
Some Jewish commentators and activists still aren’t happy. Even with the changes, they say, the curriculum advances a narrow ideology despite aiming to increase tolerance and inclusion. Some critics, including the former New York Times editor and writer Bari Weiss, have called for the philosophy underpinning it to be rejected.
“The Ethnic Studies Model curriculum proposed for K-12 California public schools is divisive, encourages victimization, and promotes a narrow political ideology,” reads the website of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, a group mobilizing opposition to the curriculum that was co-founded by Elina Kaplan, a Jewish activist who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and is a self-identified Democrat. “The Ethnic Model Studies Curriculum should be revised to provide a balanced range of perspectives, remove the political agenda, and inspire mutual respect and dignity.”
In a January tweet criticizing the curriculum, Weiss wrote, “There is no more important story in the Jewish world this month.”
Corresponding with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this week, Weiss said her issue with the curriculum is its embrace of critical race theory.
“There are some people who think CRT can be made kosher,” Weiss told JTA. “It cannot. It is, at its root, hostile to Jews, to liberalism and to American values. And it is the framework for every single draft that has been proposed.”
Opponents of critical race theory have generally come from the right, and last year President Donald Trump instructed federal agencies not to fund any program that employs critical race theory or anything that “suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
In the case of the ethnic studies curriculum, some of its opponents are not Trump supporters. Kaplan is a Democrat and Weiss has been vocally critical of Trump. The members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, who objected to the initial draft and praised the later ones, are all Democrats.
The curriculum has gained renewed attention of late, including from liberal activists like actor Josh Malina, due to a critical article in Tablet magazine, which has published a number of articles in recent years about the perceived dangers of “woke” thinking. The article features the objections raised to the first draft, claims the latest version includes anti-Jewish language and notes that school boards have been lobbied to teach the original draft rather than the revised one.
But two of the story’s objections to the latest draft are either inaccurate or misleading. In one instance, the article said the curriculum includes a resource with an anti-Semitic statement, but the essay with the offensive statement is not actually cited in the draft. The article’s author, Emily Benedek, has countered that the anti-Semitic statement in question is found in a larger publication linked to in the draft.
An author’s note appended to the Tablet article following criticism of its claims does not address the apparent inaccuracies. In the note, Benedek took aim at critical race theory, which she called “dangerous” and “fundamental” to the curriculum. She wrote that the revisions celebrated by Jewish groups are insufficient.
“The exclusion of Jews from the original ESMC, which was what the various organizations spent their energies on, was offensive,” she wrote. “But focusing on that is akin to painting a house that is rotted from the foundation.”
An article about the curriculum in the left-wing Jewish Currents magazine also featured objections to the revised version, but for the opposite reason. The piece, by Gabi Kirk, reports on the resignation of the original draft’s authors, who contended in an open letter that the principles of ethnic studies have been “compromised due to political and media pressure.”
“Our association with the final document is conflicting because it does not reflect the Ethnic Studies curriculum that we believe California students deserve and need,” they wrote.
The Jewish Currents piece also reviews Jewish groups’ advocacy regarding the curriculum. And it quotes Devin Naar, one of the professors cited as a resource in the lesson on Mizrahi identity, saying that his work has been misrepresented because the lesson does not discuss Ashkenazi Jewish discrimination against Mizrahi Jews.
In the article, Kirk wrote that the latest draft of the curriculum puts forward “a version of ethnic studies unrecognizable to scholars and community organizers engaged in the field — and heavily influenced by those who oppose the discipline’s very existence.”
The Jewish Currents piece also appears to include an inaccuracy. It said the current draft “excised all Palestine-related content from the draft,” when in fact there’s a story about a Palestinian American experiencing anti-Arab discrimination. The curriculum also includes a line about Palestinian population centers in the United States. Kirk wrote to JTA that “There is no mention of ‘Palestine’ as a place in any section” of the current curriculum and that more extensive exploration of Palestinian American identity that was present in earlier drafts has been taken out.
The Education Department is required to make a final decision on the curriculum by March 31.