Thursday, November 26

Disregarding Jewish identity

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Anti-Semitism in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

This article first appeared in the first issue of the 2020-21 volume of the Oracle. It has been since been updated.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed bill AB331 on Sept. 30, which would have made the ESMC a requirement to graduate high school. 

“This bill, however, would require ethnic studies to be taught in high school at a time when there is much uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum for ethnic studies… In my opinion, the latest draft, which is currently out for review, still needs revision,” Newson cited as his reasoning for vetoing. 

A third draft of the curriculum is being released in November and the last public comment will begin Nov. 18 before the IQC votes in March 2021. 

As a daughter of Soviet Jews, I was raised on horror stories of rampant anti-Semitism in every corner of the Soviet Union. My grandfather and dad, both brilliant people, didn’t get into university because the schools they applied to had already filled their “Jew quotas.” During attendance in elementary school, my mother would have to call out her name, followed by “Nationality: Jew, present.” My grandmother was threatened with expulsion from high school after attending synagogue for the first time. They were routinely called “kykes” on school grounds, by peers and teachers. 

Recently, at a conference for pro-Israel teens, I sat at my desk and listened to my peers from around the country recount their personal stories with anti-Semitism. Teens are forced to confront people who believe not only that they have no right to live in their ancestral homeland of Israel, but that because of their religious or ethnic identity, they deserve to be ridiculed and threatened. Whether it be their schools vandalized with graffiti swastikas, their friends being called “dirty pigs” because they chose to display their Judaism through a Star of David necklace, or having their lives threatened online for posting about their family’s safety as rockets fly from Gaza into their neighborhoods, Jewish students face blatant racism everyday. 

 For these reasons, the proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is deeply worrisome to me. 

Ethnic Studies was first proposed in 1967, where it was implemented at the University of San Francisco and soon after at UC Berkeley. It is the “interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States”, according to the Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies. 

Recently, efforts to mandate ESMC at the high school level reached the state government.

However, anti-Semitism persits in the initial draft, which many are advocating be returned. It included one-sided narratives of wars and conflicts with Israel and openly supported BDS, an anti-Semitic movement that promotes the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel as a “liberation movement.” It also used a poem by a notoriously anti-Semitic author which includes historically Jew-hating stereotypes such as the common trope that Jews control the media, among other bigoted narratives. It did not mention American Jews whatsoever and completely excluded anti-Semitism as a form of hatred. 

Though imporovements have been made to the original draft, anti-Semitism is still pervasive in the revised curriculum. 

First, the lesson plan focused on Arab Americans excludes Middle Eastern communities such as the Jews, Iraninas, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians Chrisitians, Coptic Chirstian and others. 

Ignoring these communities marginalizes students with these same ethnic backgrounds. It also erases years of a vibrant history and vital stories of oppression, persecution and expulsion that would give students a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by non-Arab Middle Easterners. There is no reason one of these communities should be favored over all others. 

Second, the only unit included in the section devoted to exploring race and privilege that places any significant focus on Jews compares them to Irish Americans and describes them as “gaining racial privilege.” Mention of American Jews lacks stories of Mizrahi Jews, Jews from the former Soviet Union and Jews of color. 

This exclusion ignores the persistent hostility towards Jews by white supremacists groups, as well as the diversity of the American Jewish community. It completely omits stories of anti-Semitism faced by people like my parents. 

Moreover, while other marginalized communities have sections devoted to exploring the hate and bigotry that they face, there is no such mention of anti-Semitism and violence directed at Jews. Data from the FBI shows that the majority of religious hate crimes committed in America are against Jews. For the same reason that a comprehensive definition of Islamophobia is included in the curriculum, so should anti-Semitism in its many forms be taught.

Third, it is clear the ESMC has a stark political bias, which leaves lesson plans open to blatant anti-Israel propaganda.

The “Guiding Values and Principles” references pages from the book Education of War that encourages teachers to “develop solidarity and create linkages” with BDS, an anti-Semitic movement that promotes the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel, and other anti-Israel narratives. No pro-Israel perspesctives are presented whatsoever which goes against the ESMC value of ensuring that “diverse viewpoints are respected.”

Not only do these various issues ignore the diverse stoires of Jews around the world, but they create a learning environment in which Jewish and pro-Israel students feel unwelcome and unsafe. 

Studies by campus activist groups show that anti-Semitic activity including harrassment, vandalism, and assault on college campuses increases when the administration and faculty promote anti-Israel views. Implementing the model curriculum will most definitely threaten the well-being and safety of pro-Israel and Jewish students at the school. 

As a Jew, as a Zionist, and as someone who has experienced hatred on campus, I feel that this curriculum will create an unwelcome learning environment in which staff are encouraged to teach lessons that disregard my identity. 

For the sake of the millions of Jews who continue to face persecution today, for people like my parents, and for the thousands of Jewish youth in America, do not let anti-Semitism be institutionalized. 

I urge you all to read through the curriculum and acknowledge the inherent biases within it before blindly supporting it. Understand the value of an effective ethnic studies course, and take action to ensure the curriculum lives up to its potential of educating students about race in America without marginalizing communities like my own. 

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