How California's Jewish Community Won the Battle Over the State's Ethnic Studies Program

Is a Californian model ethnic studies curriculum trying to cleanse Jews from history, as some critics have claimed? Not according to the Jewish groups who helped revise it

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A Los Angeles Unified School District student attending an online class last summer.
A Los Angeles Unified School District student attending an online class last summer.Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP

American Jews recently discovered an indignity their California compatriots had long warned them about: Children in the state were about to be subjected to in-class lessons that demonized and belittled the Jewish people.

Sounding the alarm was veteran journalist Emily Benedek. In her Tablet Magazine article “California is Cleansing Jews from History” last month, she wrote how the state had mandated the establishment of a model ethnic studies curriculum, to be taught at all K-12 public schools.

The curriculum’s first draft, published in 2019, underwent a few different iterations since its release at the behest of Jewish groups who felt excluded from it. But Benedek wrote that even its latest version, published in December, describes Jews as uniquely “privileged,” goes to great lengths to never mention antisemitism in its over 300 pages, assails Israel at every opportunity and props up the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – of which its original compilers were members.

The article tore through the Jewish press, social media group chats and Shabbat dinner conversations. Journalist Bari Weiss shared the article and stated: “There is no more important story in the Jewish world this month. Read it. You think you know how bad the California ethnic studies curriculum [is]. It’s way, way worse.”

But this, it turned out, was not quite the whole story.

Powerful forces

Born out of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, the academic discipline of ethnic studies has its roots in California. In 1968, after a number of demonstrations at San Francisco State University, the Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front – a coalition of organizations representing Black, Latino, Filipino, Asian and other minority students – demanded the formation of an ethnic studies department. They held a five-month-long strike, which ended with the establishment of Black and ethnic studies programs at the university – America’s first.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which already teaches an ethnic studies course, describes it thusly: “Ethnic Studies courses operate from the consideration that race and racism, have been, and continue to be, profoundly powerful social and cultural forces in American society. Courses are grounded in the concrete situations of people of color, and use a methodological framing that emphasizes both the structural dimensions of race and racism and the associated cultural dimensions.”

In 2016, California’s then-governor, Jerry Brown, signed a bill with bipartisan support to develop a model curriculum for ethnic studies for high schools. The legislation called on the California Instructional Quality Commission to develop the curriculum, alongside faculty from the state’s universities and public-school teachers, which would be adopted by the State Board of Education.

The Tablet story on California's ethnic studies curriculum.Credit: Screenshot/Tablet

The first draft of the curriculum, compiled by 20 educators and education professionals at the elementary through college levels, was released in May 2019.

The curriculum’s first draft included sample course models, appendices, a glossary and a bibliography for further reading. It provides course outlines for the four American ethnic groups who have been at the core of ethnic studies since its inception in the 1950s: African American studies; Chicano and Latino studies; Asian American studies; and Native American studies. Also included was a module on Muslim and Arab Americans.

The backlash was swift, and from multiple directions. Activists and experts from different ethnic groups demanded inclusion as well, including the Armenian, Korean and Sikh communities.

In an August 2019 editorial, the Los Angeles Times, said that while offering ethnic studies at the high-school level was important, the draft was an “impenetrable mélange of academic jargon and politically correct pronouncements.” It added that the curriculum felt like “an exercise in groupthink, designed to proselytize and inculcate more than to inform and open minds.” It also expressed reservations about the draft’s championing of the BDS movement against Israel.

Left out

Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA – an advocacy and education organization founded by and for Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa – received word of the draft relatively early, after a leader in the Bay Area’s Sephardi community found out about the model curriculum.

“Our first critique was that it lacked rigor,” Levin tells Haaretz. “It didn’t look like anyone edited it.”

But the organization’s primary issue with it, she recalls, “was the one shared by many other members of the Jewish community. It was that antisemitism was woven into certain lesson plans.”

California is home to more than a million Jews, or 3 percent of the state’s population, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. And for its Jewish community, the first draft of the model curriculum was significant both for what it included and what it excluded.

In Los Angeles County, Jews made up 83 percent of victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2018. But even in the curriculum’s passages about white supremacy, Jews – who are central characters in that bigotry – were absent, as was any mention of antisemitism among the document’s listed manifestations of hate.

Jews got a minor mention, alongside Italians and Poles, in the “European immigration” section.

A unit in which students were asked to compare and evaluate oral histories “as an alternative to mainstream media’s representation of ethnicity” encouraged them to conduct research on each group’s experiences during World War II. The groups were listed in order: “Japanese Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans.”

There was also a brief mention in a lesson plan of “an immigrant Jew” who was able to build his wealth in America because of his access to property rights, named alongside European Christian immigrants who also struck success.

JIMENA criticized this part, noting that this framing of the Jewish community runs counter to the curriculum’s first requirement: to reflect pupil demographics within their communities. The organization estimates that some 236,000 of California’s Jews are of Middle Eastern and North African descent, including the largest Persian-Jewish community outside of Israel.

The Arab-American sample course model was the center of the controversy for the Jewish community. It had little to say about California’s Sephardi and Mizrahi population, aside from one reference to Jews as part of the Arab immigration to California in the late 19th century.

“Within the first draft, that guideline was not followed,” Levin says. “Our community was not looked at or considered. We represent a sizable Middle Eastern population within the state of California – the largest, actually – and we were left out of the curriculum.”

JIMENA’s 2019 response to the draft stated: “If the curriculum is to be consistent with an intersectional frame that is supportive of multiple users, then it must identify the histories, perspectives, voices and oppression of diverse Middle Eastern communities – including those that diverge from dominant Middle Eastern narratives.”

Although other lesson plans were confined to the experiences of ethnic minorities in the United States and their catalysts for immigration, the Arab-American lesson plan was different. It repeatedly brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the text, with sample topics such as “Direct Action Front for Palestine and Black Lives Matter” and “Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico.”

A rap collaboration between a Chilean rapper and a Palestinian one was included in one lesson plan; it featured lyrics like “The child (divine) Mary doesn’t want your punishment, she is going to free the Palestinian soil.” In the glossary, a definition for the BDS movement was longer than that of capitalism.

A protest by BDS supporters.Credit: AFP

Blue alert

In April 2020, Tyler Gregory was not even a day into his new position as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco when five of his team members drew his attention to the curriculum. “The antisemitic lyrics, the pro-BDS slant – it really set off major alarm bells,” he recalls.

Since then, he says, it’s been a major focus for the council. It received so much attention because it goes far beyond the state of California, he notes. “We’re working on something that matters for the state and the country. This is something that’s going to spread to other parts of the country, especially to blue states and blue cities.”

Sensing the gravity of the issue, Jewish organizations mobilized, galvanizing community members to send tens of thousands of public comments to the Instructional Quality Commission in order to revise the curriculum.

Levin says the position JIMENA took “was pretty clear: We’re not asking you to remove anyone. We’re asking for antisemitism to be taken out, for BDS to be taken out, for focus on conflicts in the Middle East to be taken out.”

“We did mobilize a huge response after the first draft,” Levin adds. “And I think that’s something we should be proud of, and that’s something that should be noted by other communities in the United States.”

The California Department of Education listened, Gregory says. The second draft came out in the summer of 2020, “and at first we were fairly pleased.” It included only the four core groups on which the ethnic studies program was originally centered: African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. It removed the Arab-American studies section entirely.

“It was about the four core communities, and all the negativity that we saw in there was taken out – all the BDS references, the antisemitism references, those were gone. And because it was focused on these four disciplines, there wasn’t an advocacy component for Jewish inclusion yet.”

Jewish organizations were generally content with the revisions. “We agreed internally that this movement was about four communities of color, and as long as it stayed that way, we were OK so long as this didn’t offend or dehumanize Jews,” Gregory says.

The Jewish community was not the only one mobilizing. After their removal from the second draft, the Arab-American community advocated to be added back in. At the eleventh hour, it was announced that the group would be readmitted to the curriculum, Gregory says, even though the draft was already published. He adds that the Department of Education did not elaborate as to what the unit would include. Jewish activists feared the unit would act as a Trojan horse to reintroduce anti-Israel and antisemitic elements.

“Arab Americans face discrimination. They face Islamophobia, they face difficulties in this country. But there are actors within the movement that wanted them in there to use that as a vehicle to put BDS back into the curriculum, so we were rightfully concerned,” Gregory relays. “If you’re going to bring in new groups, great. We should talk about them and their experience, and Arab Americans have been denied the opportunity to tell their own stories like the other four groups – but so have we. So why are you adding some groups but not others?”

The Jewish community again took action. This time, some 11,000 comments were submitted by the community to the Instructional Quality Commission. Levin says the Department of Education was willing to address their concerns, “and for that I think they deserve some acknowledgement. They worked very hard to amend the problems.”

The department accepted two lesson plans, one produced by the community relations council on Jewish Americans, and another produced by JIMENA specifically focusing on the Mizrahi and Sephardi community – a pioneering move for public schools. The third draft was published last December, and includes units on many more ethnic groups. For instance, the Armenian and Sikh communities are now represented as well.

The third draft was something of a victory for Jewish groups, even if some still point to aspects they want to change. The Israel education organization StandWithUs cites the continued inclusion of figures who have made antisemitic statements, while JIMENA notes that the lesson on the Middle East and North Africa region gives the false impression that the region’s population is completely Arab and Muslim. However, the rest of the section is now devoid of references to faraway conflicts, shifting its focus instead to the community’s experience in America, bringing it in line with the other lesson plans.

Tyler Gregory, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco.Credit: Courtesy

Blindsided

It’s against this backdrop that Tablet published its article at the end of January. While the article sparked outrage in Jewish communities across the United States, its contents surprised the Jewish activists in California who had worked hard to revise previous versions of the curriculum.

Levin recounts how the week after the article was published was a firestorm. “I think all of us in California did want to keep a low profile … every action taken [to amend the curriculum] was done with an incredible amount of thought and strategy. So we were kind of blindsided, and concerned.”

David Schraub has followed the curriculum’s progress from its inception. Now a visiting professor at Chicago’s DePaul University College of Law, he spent most of the time the curriculum was being developed as a lecturer at UC Berkeley. He submitted comments of his own during the draft processes, and consulted with some of the Jewish groups that demanded revisions.

A day after Benedek’s article was published, he wrote a blog post that leveled grave accusations against it. Because the author sees ethnic studies as inherently antisemitic, Schraub wrote, the curriculum’s success story, in which the Jewish community played its part, represented a problem. “What does one do when one’s favored ogre appears to have turned over a new leaf?” he asked.

The Tablet article focused on previous drafts and information that has fallen out of the current curriculum. The two Jewish lesson plans, Schraub quoted Benedek as writing, “teaches that Mizrahi Jews coming to the United States from Arab lands were mistreated by ‘white’ Ashkenazim. The other suggests that Jews of European descent have white privilege.”

Schraub noted that the first claim does not appear in the curriculum, and the second discusses how “the ‘conditional’ whiteness of certain Jews in certain contexts is always revocable, particularly when Jews refuse to assimilate or insist on maintaining ourselves as a distinctive people.”

Schraub also noted that the only quote the article ostensibly offered from the third draft – “The Jews have filled the air with their cries and lamentations in an effort to raise funds and American Jews, as is well known, are the richest in the world” – is found neither in the body of the curriculum nor in its footnotes or elsewhere.

There is only one way a student can stumble upon it. To help students find “Deserts of Fact and Fancy” by Arab-American writer Ameen Rihani, which concerns the stereotypical depiction of Arabs in American cinema, the curriculum provides two links: One to The New York Times archive, and another to a 1929 volume in which it also appears. If the student decides to ignore the assigned article, which appears on page five of the volume, immediately after the table of contents, and instead scrolls down to page 46, they will find it in another, unrelated article not included in the curriculum.

“The fact that one had to dig so deep into the weeds to find something objectionable … is, in its perverted way, another testament to just how well the Jewish community did in securing necessary reforms,” Schraub wrote.

Speaking to Haaretz, Schraub says the drafts are each lengthy tomes. “It’s a very long read. The vast majority of the Jewish community is going to be relying on our media to summarize and be forthright about what’s in it.”

He adds, “It’s a serious problem when these basic elements of journalistic integrity aren’t put into practice.”

Gregory says the Tablet article conflated the three drafts. “The author didn’t speak to the latest draft – the best draft, in our opinion. She just pulled from the first, second and third drafts without talking about the fact that many of the things she raised were no longer in the curriculum.”

Benedek’s article stated that antisemitism does not warrant a mention in the curriculum. However, while that is true of the original draft, antisemitism is not just mentioned but taught in the third version. It is notable, Schraub says, that the Tablet article links to the first but not the current draft.

Major victories?

Schraub’s revelations generated a backlash from those who felt that the article minimized the accomplishments of California’s Jewish organizations and were bothered by its distortion of the current draft and its contents.

In response, Tablet added an author’s note to the article on February 1, conceding that the Jewish groups did in fact succeed in making “this curriculum less terrible for Jews and for racial comity in America,” and that objectionable material had been excised.

“They see these as major victories,” Benedek wrote, “but I do not.”

Benedek tells Haaretz that both she and Tablet stand by her article. Regarding the quote that does not appear in the curriculum, Benedek points to a disclaimer in the third draft’s appendix, where the sample lesson plans can be found, saying that some of the materials “may espouse the particular author’s/publisher’s own political views, and some others are situated within a broader website or library.” It continues to say that the state’s various bodies working on the curriculum “do not necessarily endorse all of the espoused views or materials found elsewhere within the broader sites. Local agencies and educators should review all content for appropriateness with respect to use in classrooms.”

She calls the disclaimer “an astonishing statement – the [commission] is disavowing the appropriateness of unspecified resources in the very curriculum it has written.” But it seems this disclaimer is here for critics on both sides: The Mizrahi Jewish lesson plan includes a Times of Israel blog post telling of the struggles of Jewish refugees who fled Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran.

Benedek points to other issues with the drafts, but notes that, at its core, her objection is to the curriculum being based on critical race theory rather than any specific details.

Critical race theory, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color.”

One Jewish activist interviewed in the Tablet article articulates her fear: “There’s a state requirement that you have to sit through a class that says to Jewish students they have extraordinary racial privilege and yet forbids them from speaking because ‘this course is not about you’? If you don’t accept it, you’re publicly shamed and ostracized – you can’t even speak up and say, ‘I’m not sure if I think that all white people are racists.’”

Schraub says opponents’ fears over critical race theory are not new. “Part of what’s happening here is that many of the commentators on this issue really don’t know what it is, and are treating it less as an actual concept and more as a catchphrase for left, identity-based politics that are scary or go too far.”

First grade students preparing for class at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California, last November.Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP

He adds, “It’s entirely possible to incorporate critical race theory perspectives into an ethnic studies curriculum in a way that not only doesn’t discriminate against Jews, but is in fact more inclusive of Jews and provides a more robust and more compelling articulation of contemporary antisemitism in America.”

Schraub explains that critical race theory tackles the issue of oppression that comes from people who would never consider themselves racist, or antisemitism from people who consider themselves friends or even champions of the Jewish people. It asks, he says, “How do we have racism without racists? How do we have antisemitism when everyone’s denying that they’re an antisemite?” 

Schraub says it also gives explanations as to how Jews could have attended an all-white school in the segregated South while being the primary enemy of white supremacist groups. The theory, with its questions and understanding about what race is, recognizes that social perceptions of race can shift depending on the era, the circumstance and the location. This can help non-Jewish students, he notes, who do not understand how light-skinned Jewish people could face racialized oppression.

Gregory says that Jews certainly have much to gain from the framing of this particular curriculum. “We are misrepresented as a white, religious minority in this country – that’s how I grew up learning about Jewish identity in public school. And that’s the farthest from the truth.” He adds that beyond the inclusion of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews and Jews of color, which go generally ignored by curriculums, Jewish peoplehood and actual religious practices have also gone unmentioned.

“We are so misrepresented that we can relate to how African Americans, for example, for hundreds of years had to learn about their experiences in history classes written by someone who was probably an older white male,” he says. “So, what they’re trying to do is reclaim their stories, reclaim their history – and we need to do the same thing.”

Levin, meanwhile, says she believes the Jewish community is currently “on a big learning curve about what critical race theory is, and I think it hasn’t been named until relatively recently. There are valid concerns, but being reactionary to things we don’t like in a nonproductive way, like through tweeting, isn’t going to help us navigate these waters.

“Here in California, the critical race theory and ethnic studies train left the station a few years ago,” she adds.

Out of the question

Both Levin and Gregory are concerned that the backlash from Jewish communities, who may not understand the full components of the curriculum, could unravel all their hard work. Both note that they forged ties with California’s Department of Education and other key figures, but that the original drafters of the curriculum have responded to the media coverage as well.

“When there’s this huge, massive amount of criticism coming from the Jewish community, it makes it look as though we’re just divided,” Levin says.

She’s concerned it will make the educational bodies say: “Let’s go back to the original draft and follow the instruction and advice of the original people the state hired to write the curriculum. And if there’s so much controversy within the Jewish community, maybe we need to take them out.”

Gregory, though, is optimistic this won’t happen. “Someone swooping in at the eleventh hour [can] make a lot of noise, but I don’t anticipate that it will affect the working relationships that have paid off in the last 18 months.”

Tanking the entire curriculum, he adds, is out of the question, and the Jewish community needs to show others communities that it will fight for them as well. “We will not succeed in building a one-way street to ask them to support our interests. We’re only going to fight antisemitism and make sure we’re understood as a community if we’re fighting for justice for other communities,” he observes.

‘Significant problems remain’

StandWithUs co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein tells Haaretz that though her organization is proud of the significant changes to the curriculum its work produced, “significant problems remain and anti-Israel groups are actively trying to reverse the progress we have made. If we become satisfied or complacent, California will approve an ethnic studies curriculum and graduation requirement that may cause significant harm across the state and beyond.”

The organization points to a recent email by the Sacramento chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace that decried revisions to the curriculum, including the removal of the Nakba – the Palestinian term for their displacement after the creation of the State of Israel – from the recent draft. “Due to this pressure from outside groups, the revised curriculum has removed all information on Palestine,” it wrote, adding that the lesson plans on Jews and the Mizrahi community “promote a strictly Zionist viewpoint about antisemitism and Israel’s relationship to Mizrahi Jews.”

Levin notes that the drafters of the initial curriculum are organizing and lobbying for their first draft to be reinstated, though the writers of that draft sent a letter to the California Board of Education and Department of Education earlier this month, asking that their names be removed from the current version. “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.

Last September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom unexpectedly vetoed a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, starting in 2029-2030. A bill to mandate the subject at K-12 level, he said, would implement a curriculum still shrouded with uncertainty. “Last year, I expressed concern that the initial draft of the model curriculum was insufficiently balanced and inclusive and needed to be substantially amended,” he said. “In my opinion, the latest draft, which is currently out for review, still needs revision.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom addressing reporters last April.Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

This third draft will be the final one, though, and there is no comment period. The California Department of Education will present the final draft to the State Board of Education on March 17-18.

From there, Gregory says, everything will continue at the district level. “Assuming this is approved, every school district in the state of California will have the opportunity to take the standard of what’s written in the curriculum and apply it to its local school districts. It’s sort of an implementation phase. “How every school district chooses to do that can vary dramatically,” he adds, which suggests the curriculum is still likely to generate more headlines in the future.

The Los Angeles unified school district already included Jews and their experiences before the bigger, state-wide movement, he says. Given the attention on the state and national level, many more will follow. “We need to make sure that as this is implemented, our community is represented in a way we can be proud of,” Gregory adds.

He says the consequences go beyond California. “If it’s approved, it’s going to be a new template. Texas and California are sort of the leaders in textbooks and curricula. So we know that if this is passed, this will sort of be the status quo for what ethnic studies will look like.”

Gregory concludes: “We need to make sure that as other states and other cities look to adopt ethnic studies – which we think is going to happen in many progressive-oriented communities – we need to make sure that our Jewish colleagues are aware of what happened here and learn best practices from our experience, so they can succeed elsewhere.”

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