Deborah Gastfreund Schuss
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss

California’s Ethnic Studies conflict: A sobering lesson for Jews everywhere

California yesterday approved a still-problematic 900-page Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), capping a contentious two-year review process that is replete with teachable moments. Those lessons — chief among them, the need for continued vigilance and engagement — should serve as a guidepost for Jews throughout the US particularly those with schoolchildren.

The ESMC’s issues gained heightened attention in 2019 following the release of its first draft. Among other curricular material many found objectionable, the document’s lesson plan contained lyrics invoking the classic antisemitic trope that Jews control the media and multiple references to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement—in a list of social movements students could research, as a sample topic, in a glossary, and to help define “liberation.”

That draft, which by coincidence debuted within a day of the German parliament’s vote to condemn the BDS movement as antisemitic, was spotted by a watchful California resident who customarily follows education issues and alerted the Jewish community.

“It came out of nowhere,” said Max Samarov, executive director of research and strategy for StandWithUs, a California-based international nonprofit devoted to Israel education and fighting antisemitism. “The vast majority of us, we didn’t realize this was coming… It shook up everybody.”

A network of diverse organizations that included StandWithUs galvanized to educate and mobilize Californians. And they pushed hard for changes in parts of the curriculum they found flawed, including in line edits released earlier this month by the California Department of Education of the December 2020 draft. Achievements were “far from easy” because of pressure from the anti-Israel activists, according to those with direct knowledge.

The antisemitic trope and BDS references included in the 2019 draft were scrapped, two lesson plans on Jews and antisemitism were added and then tweaked, and guidance promoting balance and critical thinking is included as well. Also deleted was a section spotlighting prominent figures known to have promoted antisemitism. But as these and other problems resolve, new ones emerge.

Among other issues, an entirely new lesson plan on Arab Americans was slipped into the March version of the curriculum, leaving little time for public scrutiny. This could hardly be categorized as a line edit, calling into question the transparency of the review process.

That new lesson plan cites a source containing several unchallenged anti-Israel statements such as “the state of Israel was founded on Palestinian land.” Class time is devoted to viewing selected portions of a documentary featuring the author of that work.  But other parts of the video are peppered with anti-Israel commentary, and employ film clips that paint a one-sided portrait of Israelis as killers.

Another source in this lesson plan, slated for a homework assignment, contains a map that effectively erases Israel and replaces it with Palestine.

Significantly, school districts—known as local education agencies, or LEAs—are not required to adhere to the curriculum and have wide discretion when it comes to choosing instructional materials. So all ESMC material, whether footnoted or abridged, can pop up in classrooms in any format.

The ESMC specifically states, “While there is a state-level process by which the SBE (State Board of Education) adopts instructional materials, that process only applies to kindergarten through grade eight materials and LEAs are not required to purchase from the state list.”

Nor are school districts required to adopt the most recent, and approved, version of the ESMC. Such wide latitude naturally invites the introduction of material with particular political ideologies that could be exploited to indoctrinate impressionable young minds.

And that is posing new, associated challenges for the Jewish community. Some members of the advisory committee responsible for writing the rejected 2019 version of the ESMC have formed an independent educational consulting group, called The Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute.

The institute’s mandate is to “work with local districts and schools” to “develop a program and process for the implementation of ethnic studies” and offer educator training, according to its web site. Its glossary contains the same definition and description of BDS that appeared in the ESMC original draft and likewise employs BDS to define the term “liberation.”

We can expect that the group will shop its own curriculum district-to-district as an alternative to the state-approved ESMC. And there won’t be uniform pushback, judging from the signatories to a change.org petition seeking to retain the original 2019 version of the ESMC and “not diluting it or converting it into a non-equivalent field (i.e., multicultural studies, diversity studies, or area studies).” Several supporters were local educators or representatives of area education groups.

The ESMC is the outgrowth of a California law enacted in 2016 that mandates the development of a model curriculum in ethnic studies to guide the state’s school districts and charter schools in crafting their own coursework. Gov. Gavin Newsom in September vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a state requirement, citing continued concerns over the curriculum.

But with an increased urgency among educators to amplify voices of historically marginalized groups in curricula and many California school districts already offering or requiring ethnic studies, it ‘s only a matter of time before ethnic studies becomes a requirement in California.

And the ESMC is bound to go viral. A variety of efforts are underway to integrate ethnic studies into public education in Washington, Massachusetts,Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Nevada, and Oregon.  Adopting a classroom-ready curriculum like California’s is so much easier and cheaper than starting from scratch, making the Golden State a touchstone for educators—and Israel detractors.

So what are the takeaways?

  • We must become involved in our local and state education process—now. And we must build relationships proactively. ‘The rubber hits the road when these things are actually taught in classrooms,” Samarov said. “State by state and country-wide, this is going to be a longstanding fight for our community.”
  • We shouldn’t allow proponents of the original ESMC or similar curricula to lecture us into believing that our objections stem from not understanding the field of Ethnic Studies. None of us needs to be an Ethnic Studies academic to know what we want for our kids, or to recognize that something is patently objectionable.

Activists are promoting that narrative to try to silence opposition. But in doing so, they are dismissing our capabilities as parents. They also are engaging in “Ideological Oppression,” a term described in the ESMC as “The idea that one group is more intelligent, more advanced, more deserving, superior, and hold more power.”

Samarov notes that “with a model curriculum about to be approved and possibly even a bill that would make it a graduation requirement for all public high school students in California, ethnic studies is becoming institutionalized. It’s becoming part of our institutions, and we have to be able to critique it just like ethnic studies wants us to critique every other institution out there.”

  • Parents and other taxpaying members of our communities must demand that all curricular materials, including sources and resources be vetted and publicly reviewed at the local level. It is precisely in these spots that problematic material creeps into the curriculum. The ESMC chapter containing the sample lessons and topics includes a disclaimer at the outset about material, bowing to local districts. Similarly, the chapter containing UC-approved course outlines states that hyperlinked content has not been reviewed.
  • Stewing in silence or venting in our comfortable echo chambers are no longer options. We must speak out. This might be difficult for parents who are fearful of repercussions in the college-application process. But college campuses already are tough environments for Jews because of rampant antisemitic and anti-Zionist activity. Collegiate life eventually could become intolerable for our children if a generation is schooled on propaganda that fuels further division and hate. We must unite in numbers to agitate for change where needed.

StandWithUs issued a statement expressing disappointment that the ESMC was approved in its current form, adding, “We will fight relentlessly to educate local school districts and ensure those courses help and do not harm our community.”

Each and every one of us must join in that battle, wielding our courage, conviction and fortitude as we stand up to an army of detractors. What’s at stake is nothing less than the contours of public education for decades to come.

About the Author
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss is an award-winning reporter and the recipient of a journalism fellowship that supported her graduate education at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe for six years, reported for The Associated Press, and worked for other news organizations as a writer and editor. She also has been published in The Wall Street Journal and on foxnews.com, and blogged for The Jerusalem Post.
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