Groups such as AMCHA Initiative , the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have successfully lobbied for alterations to California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), which they accused of being overtly antisemitic and anti-Zionist. However, the attitudes of these well-funded groups are not representative of the entire Jewish community of California. Since the release of the ESMC, progressive Jewish Californian students and scholars have pushed back against conservative lobbyists, disagreeing with this appraisal and contending that these lobbying efforts violate the core tenets of Ethnic Studies to provide a critical analysis of race and comprehensive histories of historically marginalized groups.
“[The] priorities of Ethnic Studies in K-12 education are to do justice to Ethnic Studies as a field that emerged from many decades of grassroots peoples struggles,” said Christine Hong, University of California Santa Cruz’s Department Chair of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies.
In 1968-1969, radical student organizations like the Third World Liberation Movement organized to implement Ethnic Studies at many Northern California public universities such as SF State and UC Berkeley. The original goals of Ethnic Studies were to bring histories of marginalized racial groups into school curriculum, teaching students how to use a critical lens to analyze larger social structures in the world around them, such as colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. In the last six years, Ethnic Studies has since made its way in K-12 classrooms, culminating in California Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2021 signing of Assembly Bill 101 which will require all California public high school students to complete one semester of Ethnic Studies in order to graduate starting for the graduating class of 2025.
Since 2016, Pro-Israel organizations voiced concerns about the contents of proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum. According to the Summary of Public Comments collected in 2020, 18,457 out of 20,245 public comments received during the field review period of the original model curriculum were about “concerns with a lack of inclusion of Jewish Americans and anti-Semitism, and concerns with the inclusion of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.” Specifically, groups took issue with the Arab-American section of the 2019 ESMC model curriculum which included sections such as “Direct Action Front for Palestine and Black Lives Matter,” “Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel,” “Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico,” as well as a citation of the Nakba, the historic displacement of Palestinians in 1948 at the hands of the state of Israel, as a central reason for many Palestinians’ migration to America.
However, for many progressive Jewish students, the EMSC represents a key opportunity to help fight antisemitism by educating K-12 students on the pervasive misunderstanding that Zionism and Judaism are the same, which they believe has exacerbated anti-Jewish sentiments on campus. These students are part of a growing population of Jews who believe higher quality education around Israel and Palestine can protect Jews and increase awareness of antisemitism by not conflating the state of Israel with the global Jewish people.
“[The curriculum needs to] be super clear about how principled opposition to colonization is not opposition to the Jewish people, and to situate anti-Zionism within other decolonial struggles of which Jews have historically had a role in shaping,” said Alida Jacobs, a Jewish student at UC Davis.
In recent years, Jewish students have faced great risk from the institutional Jewish community for speaking critically of Zionism on college campuses. Many Jewish students interviewed chose to remain anonymous due to the safety risk of being publicly known as an anti-Zionist or critic of Israel, with their pseudonyms marked with an asterisk. Still, despite requesting anonymity, these student voices represent an overlooked yet significant constituency within the Jewish community and the historical debate over curriculum in public education – including those who believe that Ethnic Studies helps students of all backgrounds to better understand the history and stakes of Israel-Palestine.
“Once you have a foundation of Ethnic Studies, you know that when you create a state, there comes the whole idea of border imperialism, which are oftentimes very violent. So anytime a state emerges you need to ask ‘who is displaced’ and that is a part of the new way of thinking. This new way of thinking is looking and understanding the stakes of narratives. We can ask what is being left out,” said Alex*, a Jewish student from UC Santa Cruz.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Director of the AMCHA Initiative, the first Zionist organization to speak against California’s Ethnic Studies requirement, castigated the inclusion of these details about Arab-American and Palestinian history as “anti-Zionist advocacy and activism,” believing those sections of the curriculum “will incite further hatred of Jews and harm to Jewish students.” AMCHA further criticized the EMSC, feeling that it contained false charges of settler colonialism and apartheid for the state of Israel.
Some California Jewish students shared Rossman-Benjamin’s anxieties, fearing that campus critiques of Israel may constitute a broader threat to Jewish existence, especially at school. “People don’t realize that anti-Zionist rhetoric can sometimes increase antisemitism,” said Rivka Keith, the Hillel president at UC Davis.
Lobbyist campaigns against these sections of the ESMC proved to be successful, as all sections discussing Palestine and any criticisms of Israel were removed from future editions of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. While many members of the Pro-Israel groups who fought for these changes are satisfied with the updated curriculum, they remain concerned that aspects of the first curriculum will still be taught in classrooms, as Assembly Bill 101 allows California school districts to decide which version of the curriculum they would like to use.
However, many other Jewish students feel that Pro-Israel organizations lobbying to omit any mentions of Palestinian perspectives from the curriculum imposes a dangerously biased narrative of Israel-Palestine. “By demonstrating their intention to erase the crucial voices of an entire population, these organizations are revealing the dehumanization that underlies the whole settler colonial project in Palestine today, one in which Palestinians are stripped of agency and the fundamental right to advocate for themselves” said Simone*, a Jewish recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz.
Some Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews have raised other specific concerns. “Many Middle Eastern and North African Jews rejected Zionism well into the 20th century, and saw Zionism as a form of European colonialism,” writes Michal David and Shahar Zaken in Unruly, a blog created by and for Jews of Color, Sephardi, and Mizrahi Jews. David and Zaken highlight the white-washing of Jewish history that often accompanies Pro-Israel lobbying which ignores the reality that Israel is not necessarily a safe-haven for all Jews. “As Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who support the Palestinian right to self-determination and right of return, we know that the increasing violence American Jews are facing is not a result of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), or the growing international movement for Palestinian freedom. Rather, it is rooted in the values of white supremacy on which the United States was built.”
Outside the Jewish community, other students feel that primarily Zionist representations of the history of Israel-Palestine discourage learners from examining larger historical structures and how they relate to the histories of racialized, colonized peoples. “The understanding of Zionism has been super reconstructed when the early Jewish settlers knew that this was a colonial project and now it has been rewritten as ‘this land is ours, we are indigenous,’” said Yara Kaadan, a Lebanese Political Science student at UC Davis and President of the Davis chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.
“What is most threatening to conservatives is that Ethnic Studies teaches kids that this is not the way it’s always been, as opposed to traditional narratives of US history that seek to maintain a status quo,” said an East Los Angeles high school Ethnic Studies and history teacher who asked to remain anonymous.
Rather than erasing Palestinian narratives out of fear, educators and students alike hope that Ethnic Studies can encourage students to build an understanding of how power, race, and nation states are constructed on a global scale, believing that education can help them to form solidarities across borders. “A major aim or goal of Ethnic Studies for K-12 in particular (as opposed to the university level) is to cultivate a sense of empowerment, positive identity, and mutual humanization which is achieved by giving marginalized youth the space and tools to learn about the histories and cultural wealth of their communities—knowledges which are omitted from mainstream curricula where these students only see themselves negatively represented or tokenized, and their lived conditions and realities, the positive and the negative, devoid of any historical or structural contextualization,” said Alex* of UC Santa Cruz.
Many students feel that lobbying from Pro-Israel organizations is one of the leading forces in steering Ethnic Studies in California public schools away from the purpose of Ethnic Studies. “When [Ethnic Studies in the University] was institutionalized, it was broken into different departments,” said Amira Jarmakani, the past-president of the Arab American Studies Association (AASA) and a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at San Diego State University. “Even if the departments broke up in these groups, they were operating on the underlying tenets. The watered down version is Diversity and Inclusion [which is] not based on the core tenets anymore. It took away the critical thinking aspects of Ethnic Studies. Coalitions of conservative groups had a role in diluting the curriculum.”
The success of pro-Israel groups eliminating Palestinian histories and narratives from the most recent ESMC curriculum worries many students and educators, including Israeli ones. “You can’t teach students about the history of the people that comprise the US without talking about the reasons for their migrations and the set ups of their social and economic disadvantages that they brought with them if you start nit-picking what types of stories you want to talk about,” said Eli*, an Israeli UC graduate student.
Both the fight for Ethnic Studies in California universities in the late 1960s and the current struggle to establish an Ethnic Studies program in K-12 schools still find themselves in tension with the status quo of American education systems.
Professor Christine Hong, who has kept a close watch over bureaucratic conflicts about Ethnic Studies, encouraged vigilance among those invested in the fight for liberatory education. “Moments of institutionalization are always moments of danger. [This was] true in the later ‘60s and true today.”