Justin Feldman
From the Jewish Grassroots

If I Knew Then What I Know Now: A Demand for Ethnic Studies Representation

My Prior Experience With Ethnic Studies in CA

Four years ago, I was still a budding student at Cleveland Charter High School in Los Angeles, California. As a graduate of the distinguished “CORE” magnet program in humanities, I was a proud student of interdisciplinary courses, ranging from ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, philosophy, sociology, and more. My high school education was certainly unique for its time, which I’m both grateful for and concerned by. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been steadfast to reform my ethnic studies curriculum to be more inclusive of my Jewish identity. In fact, many more minority students may have difficulty reforming theirs, if they aren’t equipped to shape state proposals for CA Ethnic Studies curriculum as it is being standardized right now.

Not only did my high school education significantly shape my views about the world, but they also informed my relationship with myself, my people, and my culture. As an Israeli-American Jew and Zionist, learning about terms and methods of social justice in academia forced me to dive into the complex history of various minorities in America. Furthermore, with my many identities, it forced me to look inward and question my place within the fabric of America and the world at large. Let’s explore some of the controversial experiences I faced that could have been prevented had my education been more transparent and inclusive.

Imposing “Whiteness” and Downplaying Antisemitism, Past & Present

Hefty readings, lectures, and conversations on the systematic oppression of Black Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and South Asian/Middle Eastern/Arab/North African (SAMEAN) Americans dominated discourse particularly in my junior year’s race unit. I cherished learning about it. Curriculum on the gradual integration of Irish, German, Italian, and other Euro-Americans into “white society” also was part of the program, but this is where my identity was often left between.

Jewish representation was frequently discussed under the lens held to Euro-American integration into the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. It was confined to an Ashkenormative approach, where the diasporic European Jewish (Ashkenazi) history of my dad’s family was told yet reduced to a story of gradual assimilation and a success of almost no hurdles. The Sephardi Moroccan-Israeli story of my mother’s family was simply not discussed, nor was that of any other “Jew of color”. This was a convenient structure – which was encouraged and exacerbated by a retired faculty member who returned to volunteer teaching periodically, declaring that “antisemitism is no longer an issue, decades after the Holocaust”. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have been able to respond to this teacher with confidence.

Contrary to her bias, we know today in 2020 that nearly 60 percent of Californian students my age and younger have no knowledge that 6,000,000 Jews were murdered at the hands of Nazi Germany (nonetheless, for not being “white” natives of Europe) — directly contributing to the preservation of antisemitic tropes and notions that Jews comprise “the peak of the privileged”. I’m sure that these students were just as ignorant on the diversity of the Jewish people and the genealogical and cultural Levantine ties we share with each other. As ignorance about Jewish people prevails and white supremacists continue to terrorize our Jewish communities at synagogues, rallies, cultural centers, universities, and so forth, our story of continued struggle for acceptance must also be included in ethnic studies and taught to future generations of Americans.

In the same breath, while discounting the lasting role of violent antisemitism, disproportionate antisemitic hate crimes, and institutionalized Jew-hatred via biased education, this faculty member would also vent about Jewish financial success amid the generational trauma and systemic racism against other marginalized minorities. It instinctively felt like a reductionist dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed – imposing both “whiteness” where it was conditionally granted to us and revoked at seconds-notice. This was clearly antisemitism to me, amid due representation for others, but because of that phenomenon of emphasizing justice (without Jews) — the very idea of accountability was squarely ignored by this teacher and her colleagues in the classroom.

Erasing the Ethnic Dimension of Jewish Identity

In another significant instance, I can vividly recall one of my ninth grade teachers proclaiming during a sudden discussion of antisemitism that “Honey, Jews are not a race”. She proceeded, “Jews are a religion. I have Jewish friends…”. At the time, I knew deep inside that we’re not a separate “race”, but looking around the room at other speechless Jewish peers, I had a hard time mustering up the courage to explain that we are an ethnic and religious people, similar to Armenian and Hindu Americans. She may have had good intentions, but like a “colorblind” optimist, this instructor stifled conversation surrounding how to combat the way Jews are treated, and even how we manifest our peoplehood.

While this error was later acknowledged by another teacher in class two years later, one can imagine how stumped Jews like myself felt seeking solidarity, as peers “racialized” us and simultaneously stripped us of any claim to ethnicity. If you can’t name it, you can’t shame it – and if I had known then what I know now, I could have empowered Jews of my generation to speak for ourselves before an authority figure could distort the narrative.

Overlooking the Antisemitism of “Anti-Racist” Authors & Speakers

Getting into the particular content of my ethnic studies curriculum, it was not even an afterthought that various authors of assigned readings and book titles had an avid track-record of antisemitism, including anti-Israel expression. So often, we just had no idea until we read the content ourselves. Sparsely was it acknowledged by my teachers that Karl Marx, St. Augustine of Hippo, and F. Scott Fitzgerald – authors of Western ideological canons or modern literature – expressed antisemitism in their writings.

However, never was it spoken that Alice Walker, African American acclaimed author of our assigned book, The Color Purple, had endorsed antisemitic conspiracy theorists and even propelled her own anti-Jewish poetry. The contribution of this distinguished author to our understanding of the African American experience, including the bitter legacy of slavery is critical. However, Walker’s antisemitic conspiracy theories must also be addressed. Her narrow-minded bashing of Israel’s existence and stripping of Palestinian agency (amid intransigence and bigoted incitement of Palestinian leaders to anti-Jewish violence), affirmed the moral failure of my school program’s unquestioning endorsement.

Nor was it shared in classroom activities that some of the civil rights leaders we were taught to glorify and follow had conflated the Jewish people with their deepest enemies. It took some news headlines, years after graduation, for me to understand how these figures felt about people like me. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most prolific anti-apartheid activists who I campaigned for in a class South African “mock election”, had uttered support for terrorist organization Hamas to the detriment of Jewish (and Arab) civilian life.

Not a single word of comfort or nuance was provided by my teachers when Tim Wise, author of White Like Me and anti-racist speaker entrepreneur, spoke to my entire program class (an annual program expense) ultimately to invoke his paternal Jewish ancestry, tokenize himself, and virtue-signal about “how Israel is (unilaterally) oppressing the Palestinians”. Wise’s support for the B-D-S movement also proved concerning much later than I would realize. BDS is a hate campaign that has established itself globally for the past two decades in tandem with organizations responsible for international Jewish civilian murder, like Hamas and the PFLP, under the false brand of “non-violence” and “social justice”.

Likewise, it was completely out of hand for my 12th grade teacher in digital humanities to randomly assert before my class that the world’s only Jewish state composed a lingering form of “colonialism” and “apartheid”, during a lecture on Algerian literary reflections of French colonialism and existentialism — all while staring me (a proud Israeli-American) dead in the eye and silencing any response. Amid clear historical distinctions between Israeli democracy and South African apartheid, this inappropriate and slanderous comment created a moment of discriminatory intimidation I will never forget.

The connection between my curriculum and the air of anti-Jewish hostility produced on campus was remarkable. Microagressions cut deep over time, undetected or even peddled by non-Jewish peers. However, the antisemitic ‘dogwhistles’ and even overt antisemitism patched together throughout our studies as an example of what “American society has historically been”, was often there to see for all. Jewish students shrugged and became desensitized. Our non-Jewish friends took note at our complacency, and likewise, just moved on.

Abusing “Intersectionality” to Homogenize Diverse Experiences & Alienate

The deliberate and irredeemable criminalization of Israel in each of the aforementioned settings of authoritative education was no less than the criminalization of my identity etched in stone and the minds of my peers. This is just my impressionable high school experience — not my college experience at UCLA, where in a friend’s ethnic studies lecture, the Jewish community was conflated with our white supremacist killers for our majority support of Jewish self-determination. We were lucky to have acted then, urging our Jewish peers to snap out of complacency, organizing more effectively to make a broad-reaching difference with a series of demands to our administration and Title VI cases, of which I have been a proud part of.

Across the board, many instructors in my home state have taken the legal philosophy of intersectionality  – originally intended to address the nexus of bigotry that people with multiple oppressed identities face – and abused the concept to create a politicized discourse of uniformity among different struggles that oppressed communities face. They have homogenized diverse experiences ranging from Native American genocide, to Japanese internment, and the making of Palestinian refugees as a pretense for selectively alienating or excluding entire communities of color that do not fit their paradigm – including Mizrahi Jewish refugees and their descendants (like myself). This disparity has been noted by scores of coalitions for comprehensive ethnic studies curriculum, namely JIMENA, the AJC, Amcha Initiative, JCRC, Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, and many more organizations.

This gap includes a lack of education as well on other indigenous MENA minorities, such as Kurds, Copts, Assyrians, Armenians, Imazighen, and more, who, in their homelands, embody oppressed minorities under a non-white (and non-Western), Arab regional hegemony. These facts transcend simplistic formulas of power propelled by an inequitable ethnic studies curriculum, which omits the experiences of minorities in other parts of the world (and in diaspora in CA) — for which representation and nuance is so crucial for sustainability.

Taking Action Today For A Better Tomorrow

My experience with California ethnic studies — prior to its current mandate (AB-1460) — is just a drop in the ocean of what institutional marginalization Jewish minority students have encountered on campuses nationally in the past several years. It’s not about what I knew then anymore, it’s about now. As the California Department of Education (CDE) finalizes its official required ethnic studies curriculum with skewed and problematic sources, modeled for dozens of states to come, it’s no longer an option to grieve over the past – we have to mobilize our community and demand that our voices, histories, contributions, and representation be included for our future.

Sign the petition now to ensure that the Jewish and Israeli-American voice is heard and that no bias or discrimination against our community is included by the CDE. Share the voices of Jewish students with Include Our Voices on Instagram to spread the conversation. Email the CA Dept. of Education to secure our future inclusion in the fabric of America and build relationships with your local school board members. Leave a thank-you message to the office of CA Governor Newsom for withholding his signature from AB-331’s hasty and biased ethnic studies proposal and for ensuring more time and inclusivity. Lastly, share this article to keep this momentum going and educate others to positively shape years to come.

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not reflect that of his employer, the IAC.

About the Author
Justin Feldman (Yitzchak Eishsadeh) is a researcher, writer, and professional speaker. Formerly the National Activism Manager for the Israeli-American Council Mishelanu, a member of the Students Supporting Israel National Committee, and the youngest staff speaker in North America for StandWithUs, Justin has engaged thousands on Israeli history and advocacy strategy. Today, Justin has standardized and facilitated activism strategy guides for Zionist university students nationwide. In his spare time, Justin enjoys cooking, calligraphy, travel, and graphic design. He holds a B.A. in Political Science & Middle Eastern Studies from UCLA and is currently pursuing his M.A. in International Relations at NYU. You can follow Justin on Twitter @eishsadehy.
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