Social media and inboxes in California have been buzzing this week with headlines claiming Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that is anti-Israel and pro-BDS. One problem: the headlines are false.
There is confusion regarding distinct and separate efforts to mandate ethnic studies in California’s high schools and colleges.
So, let’s clear it up.
Model Ethnic Studies for High Schools
To be sure, ethnic studies has been a high profile topic of great concern in California over the past year. It all started with a piece of legislation signed into law back in 2016 by former Governor of California, Jerry Brown. This bill mandated the development of a model ethnic studies curriculum for high school students. The California Department of Education released a draft of the model curriculum last summer. The result was less than excellent.
Following the release of the draft curriculum, a Los Angeles Times Editorial headline read, “California’s proposed new ethnic studies curriculum is jargon-filled and all-too-PC.” Another editorial at the Times found “distinct signs of anti-Jewish bias in this curriculum.” And, they were right.
The model curriculum contained outright anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and pro-BDS content. It was so bad that the city councils from West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles all condemned the draft. And ultimately, Governor Newsom promised concerned Californians that the proposed ethnic studies curriculum for high schools “will never see the light of day.”
The Governor kept his promise. A few weeks ago, a new version of the model ethnic studies curriculum for high schools was released. The anti-Israel, pro-BDS, and anti-Semitic content is no longer part of the curriculum. And, now the Los Angeles Times editorial board reports, “a new state ethnic studies proposal hits closer to the mark.” And, they’re right.
As reported in JWeekly, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, Vice-Chair of the Jewish Caucus, praised California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. “He made some very firm and unequivocal promises to us that there would be nothing anti-Israel or anti-Semitic in the draft or anything that could be perceived as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic,” Gabriel said. “Based on the preliminary draft, that appears to be true.”
And, Senator Ben Allen, Chair of the Legislative Jewish Caucus in a statement said, “While California’s Jewish community is incredibly diverse, and while many organizations – including the Jewish Caucus – are continuing to review the finer details of the curriculum, the broad consensus in the Jewish community is that the new draft addresses the most critical concerns raised by our community last year.”
Some Jewish and pro-Israel groups have lingering concerns about the model curriculum only including African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American studies. And, there are complaints about a few references to academic work that is unfairly critical of Israel.
However, this new draft curriculum for high schools is not final. It is still undergoing revisions and seems to be heading in the right direction thanks to the vigilance of Jewish groups, legislators, and leadership from Governor Newsom.
Ethnic Studies for California State Universities
A distinct and separate legislative initiative, AB 1460, requires students at the California State University system to take an ethnic studies course to graduate. Governor Newsom signed this bill into law last Monday, August 17th, triggering the hysterical social media posts and email forwards. Headlines screamed, “Governor Newsom signs anti-Israel pro-BDS ethnic studies bill into law.”
But, this bill contained no anti-Israel or pro-BDS content. It contained no reference to any curriculum. It has no connection to the high school ethnic studies curriculum referenced in the previous section of this article.
So why the concern?
When the bill passed out of the California legislature earlier this month, some Jewish groups launched a last-minute campaign urging Governor Newsom to veto the bill. Why?
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of the AMCHA Initiative, which spearheaded the campaign urging the Governor’s veto, explains her concerns:
“We are deeply concerned that without adequate safeguards, these courses could become vehicles for one-sided political advocacy and activism that will both subvert the academic mission of the university, and incite bigotry and harm against some CSU students.”
“In particular, we fear that the anti-Zionist orientation of Critical Ethnic Studies – the version of ethnic studies likely to be taught in response to AB 1460 — coupled with the willingness of many ethnic studies faculty to bring anti-Zionist advocacy and activism into their professional spaces, will foster a toxic climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students and foment harm against them.”
Note the portions of AMCHA Initiative letter that we bolded for emphasis: “courses could become vehicles for one-sided political advocacy,” and, “the version of ethnic studies likely to be taught.”
Rossman-Benjamin’s anticipation of problems related to biased course content is not without merit. But, biased content being taught in universities is nothing new. Moreover, many majors at the Cal State system already required one ethnic studies course to satisfy general education requirements.
The bill the Governor signed was a modest and incremental policy change that most certainly was neither anti-Israel nor pro-BDS.
So why the false headlines?
High School Curriculum and Cal State Confusion
The AMCHA Initiative letter to the Governor seems to have triggered confusion between the two distinct and separate ethnic studies initiatives: last years’ high school ethnic studies curriculum, and the new California State University ethnic studies graduation requirement.
Partisan bloggers, eager to paint California’s Governor as an anti-Israel extremist, lied about new ethnic studies bill, frightening and misinforming the public.
Newsom’s Record on Israel
As Mayor of San Francisco, Newsom visited Israel to encourage economic development. As Governor, his administration has stated that it supports the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the former governor and wishes to foster more cooperation between Israel and California. Newsom’s hands-on approach and insistence that the high school curriculum contains no anti-Israel content is a testament to his care and concern for California’s Israeli community. And, let’s not forget that in the aftermath of the Poway synagogue shooting, Newsom, in coordination with the Legislative Jewish Caucus, ensured that nonprofit security funding would be increased.
While matters related to Israel and California are moving in the right direction, we must remain vigilant and engaged, but we must also be truthful. The truth is that Newsom is a friend to Israel and a friend to California’s Israeli community, and we should be thankful for the partnership.