Why California’s third ethnic studies draft is offensive and racist

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It took me longer than usual to push this one out because, admittedly, I couldn’t control my anger when writing it. Had I released the article in its original form, there would have been hurt feelings and division all around. Some friends wisely recommended that I give the article a careful trimming down, if only for the sake of decorum, before submitting it. And so I did.

All the same, it’s still not going to be an easy read, especially for those who find themselves on the receiving end of my slings and arrows. I am extremely pissed off — not only with the CDE (California Department of Education), but with the prominent Jewish organizations advising it — and no amount of creative re-ordering or trimming can disguise that.

First, some context. California’s Ethnic Studies High School model curriculum, set to go in effect sometime this year, was met with consternation when the initial draft was released in 2019, and not without good reason. Its contents barely mentioned antisemitism at all, excluded Jewish voices, and contained what essentially amounted to an open invitation to BDS.

Months of unflagging pressure from Jewish organizations, and bodies representing other aggrieved minorities (no, we weren’t the only ones slighted), compelled the IQC (Instructional Quality Committee) to ask for revisions. A second draft soon followed and, while this one did discuss antisemitism, it did so in a way that can only be charitably described as “insulting”. A thorough dissection of it can be found here.

Having found the second draft to be in many ways even worse than the original, organizations critical of the CDE kept the pressure on and began submitting lesson plans of their own, inducing yet another revision.

So how does the third one measure up?

The first thing I noticed is that it includes JIMENA’s lesson plan submission, which I critiqued here for throwing Ashkenazi Jews under the bus. Despite my loud protests, their lesson plan not only remained unchanged (everything I criticized it for is still in there), but was accepted and implemented into the third draft.

It should be noted that JIMENA’s lesson plan is by no means “bad”. It accomplishes a lot of good, and I am aware that a lot of hard work went into it. However, it is also (inadvertently or not; jury’s still out on that) guilty of a lot of bad. To give a recap of the bad…

1. Although the document acknowledges all Jews as indigenous to Israel, it is interlaced with language and omissions strongly suggesting the opposite. To wit, it is heavily implied throughout the document that only Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are indigenous to the Middle East (e.g. by repeatedly referring to them as “the indigenous Jews”), engendering the conclusion that other ethnic Jews – specifically Ashkenazim – are not. At best, this is merely confusing. At worst, it reads as a wink to antisemites who think Ashkenazim are “Europeans” with only a tenuous, distant link to the Middle East at best (that is, of course, to say nothing of what that implies for Ethiopian Jews, Cochin Jews, etc).

2. It uses the terms “Middle Eastern-American” and “Asian-American” in a way that clearly excludes non-Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews, despite our collective indigeneity to Israel (which is in the Middle East), thereby reinforcing number 1.

3. It essentially calls Ashkenazim “East Europeans” (e.g. “many Jewish Americans trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe”), thus reinforcing numbers 1 and 2. This is compounded by the fact that JIMENA’s lesson plan omits any mention of Ashkenazi origins in Israel, or any history further back than our time in Europe. It also appears to enforce the idea that having had ancestors in the diaspora primarily in North Africa somehow makes one more genuinely indigenous to Israel, to the Levant, than someone whose ancestors were primarily in the Diaspora in Europe; even though in many cases, the ancestors in Europe could have been for centuries closer to Israel than the ones in North Africa (e.g. Jews in Bulgaria or Hungary throughout their Diaspora lived twice as close to the land of Israel as Jews in Morocco).

4. “list the various subethnic groups under the Jewish American column such as Ashkenazi/Eastern European, Mizrahi & Sephardic/Middle Eastern and North African, Iranian/Persian, Israeli, Ethiopian, Russian, and Latinx.” This, of course, would be fine it said something like “all these groups originated in the Levant and left in all directions mostly as a result of invasion and conquest”. But it does not do that.

For a condensed version, I submit this quote from a member of my Jewish advocacy group.

“The whole thing separates Jews from Jews, attributing non-whiteness only to “Jewish Middle Eastern Americans,” which the authors evidently do not consider Ashkenazim to be.”

JIMENA’s lesson plan, in short, sends contradictory signals about Ashkenazi indigeneity to the Middle East and ultimately appears to agree with sidelining us into a “European-American” classification. In doing so, they have situated a historically racialized and marginalized non-European population with the very same people that oppressed them in the first place. Such classification airbrushes their historical and present experiences under white supremacy, specifically the racism, marginalization, profiling, exclusion, Orientalist otherization, and even genocide we faced in large part because of our Middle Eastern ancestry.

Classifying us in this way is also wholly inconsistent with the way other diaspora populations are categorized. For instance, an immigrant to the United States from South Africa who traces most, if not all, of their ancestry to Europe is not likely to be classified as “African-American” on the Census, nor by any serious sociologist. In fact, such a classification would certainly cause umbrage, and with good reason. This is because descent, and hyphenated diaspora identities by extension, are defined by ethnic origins, not where one’s family recently lived (even though some Afrikaners did live in Africa, for hundreds of years). Thus, classifying Ashkenazi Jews as “European-American” not only bleaches out the entire history of Ashkenazim (in Israel and abroad), but also lends credence to antisemitic narratives about us, specifically the “European colonizers”, “fake Semites”, “Khazars”, “white Jews” slurs that are used to libel, erase, and demean us. It is a classification that not only disenfranchises us of our Middle Easternness, but also our entire minority status.

This is everything I was afraid of. And it was these fears that compelled me to call out JIMENA’s lesson plan in the first place.

And then you have this…

Uhhh, yikes. Image source: My screenshot.

Wow. Where do I even begin?

I suppose it would only be natural to start from the top, especially in light of how shockingly racist and flippant the first line is. The words practically jumped right off the page.

This claim that “many Jewish Americans” (and by “many Jewish Americans”, they almost certainly mean Ashkenazi Jews) trace their ancestry “to Eastern Europe” is unbelievably offensive and exhibits a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of Jewish history, identity, and reality. I’d even go as far as to say that not only should academics who make this claim be barred from teaching Jewish history, they should have their teaching licenses immediately revoked on grounds of being antisemitic.

We do NOT trace our ancestry to Eastern Europe. In fact, our entire presence in Europe was the direct result of colonial crimes that were committed against us. Our lives, from the Roman exile all the way up to the Holocaust, were a mostly (i.e. 99%) uninterrupted continuum of colonial captivity, suffering, death, institutional racism, and segregation. All of it culminating in an industrial scale genocide *less than a century ago* aimed at “purifying” Europe of our “inferior” Oriental race.

The fact is, we trace our ancestry to the Levant. Eastern Europe was and is diaspora, just like the United States. I realize that this makes us somewhat unique vis a vis most other immigrants to the United States (the majority of whom arrived directly from their homelands), but it is not an excuse to ignore or throw out those critical aspects of our history.

We are not a European ethnic group. We are a Levantine-Middle Eastern one. Our identity, our culture, our genes, and our “racial appearances” (their words, not mine) all reflect this. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that, when Ashkenazi Jews began arriving to the United States in large numbers, the government classified us as Asian (like Syrians, Arabians, Afghans, etc), specifically as Hebrews, and sought to denaturalize us on those grounds.

There is no historical or empirical basis for the (very recent and very, very wrong) idea that Ashkenazim are “non-WASP Europeans” like Irish, Italians, and Slavs. None of the latter groups were ever targeted by American anti-Asian immigration laws, or subject to discriminatory housing codes along with Black, Chinese, and Mexican Americans. Ashkenazi Jews, on the other hand, experienced all of those things.

Classifying Ashkenazi Jewish-Americans as East European (or, indeed, any kind of European) would be akin to categorizing Indian migrants from the UK to the United States as European-American, or Algerian migrants from France as European-American. It is absurd on its face.

As for the “racial appearances” passage, all I can say is “yikes”. Just when you thought the CDE couldn’t sink any lower, here they offer us this profoundly dishonest and rather telling display of Nazi-esque racial pseudo-science. At what point will they start teaching people skull measurement techniques? One can only wonder.

Just for fun, let’s take a look at what East Europeans typically look like…

Polish people. Image source: Pinterest.

As expected, they look like white people.

Now here’s what Ashkenazi Jews typically look like.

If you think they look even remotely the same, you clearly need to have your eyes examined.

Many if not most Ashkenazi Jews, notwithstanding children of recent intermarriage, are generally olive/brown-skinned and resemble other Levantine-Middle Eastern populations.

Ergo, you cannot say Lebanese, Syrians, Sephardic Jews, non-Yemenite Mizrahim, and Druze are communities of color while denying that label to Ashkenazim. You simply cannot. It is antisemitism, plain and simple.

After all, many Arab Americans have light skin, and in many cases are mistaken as white. Yet nobody demands that Arabs acknowledge their “whiteness”. No one denies their ethnic origins or minority status on the grounds that they “move through society as white”. But this is exactly what is demanded of Ashkenazi Jews, and this disparity is by no means an accident. Anyone with basic common sense can see why they are doing this: to disenfranchise us of our Middle Eastern roots, thus enabling American antisemitism and paving the way for Israel’s delegitimization. It is transparent, tiring, and sickening as hell.

The State of California, theoretically progressive and therefore committed to the scientific belief that race isn’t a real scientific concept, referenced racial science of all things in order specifically to nail the Jews. Despite the fact that their OWN glossary defines race as a “Social construct created by European and American pseudoscientists” for the purpose of organizing things in a hierarchy. So by their own definition, they are engaging in pseudoscience to put Jews in their place in their new reversed hierarchy as “White”. They are using the language THEY despise for the purpose of undermining Jewish people. And going against their own guidelines to “Include accurate information based on current and confirmed research”, especially considering — as the photos above clearly show – how utterly inaccurate their claims about our racial taxonomy are.

That one phrase proves everything they are writing about science is a lie.

Further down, we can see that Mizrahim are classified as “indigenous to the Middle East”, thereby suggesting that other Jews are not.

I am not asking that these drafts be thrown out. Only revised and pruned of the intolerable antisemitism that currently exists within them.

As for what specific changes need to be made, it needs to be made RESOUNDINGLY clear that Ashkenazi ethnic origins and culture are Middle Eastern. Just as North Africa was a place that many of our Mizrahi brethren were exiled to and forced to often live as second class citizens, Europe was where we were exiled to (and forced to live as second class citizens) — that is our only connection to that place. We do NOT belong in the same category as Romanians, Poles, Greeks, Germans, etc. There is absolutely no room for vagueness or mealy-mouthed ambiguities. It must be stated clearly, consistently, and decisively that Ashkenazi Jews, like all other ethnic Jews, are Middle Eastern-American (in accordance with the actual definition of descent, diaspora, and “hyphenated American” identities) and non-white. Minor changes in language can and should be made to the description of Ashkenazim. It’s not a hard thing to do and should be done so the haters don’t try to use indigeneity to drive a wedge between “good” Sephardim and “bad” Ashkenazim.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
Related Topics
Related Posts