Photo Credit: Joe Wolf via Flickr
San Mateo, CA High School (archive).

Thursday was the final day for public comment on the third draft of California’s Department of Education’s ethnic studies curriculum in state high schools. To put it mildly, this is bad news for California Jews and by extension to American Jews everywhere.

In 2016, California state legislators passed a bill, AB 2016, mandating that the state’s Department of Education (CDE) develop a model ethnic studies curriculum for use in high school ethnic studies courses.

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Although the bill stated that the goal of such courses was “preparing pupils to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures,” the politically motivated educators appointed by the CDE to help draft the model curriculum had other ideas.

In June 2019, when the first draft of the model curriculum was released for public comment, it was firmly rooted in Critical Ethnic Studies, a narrow, politicized conceptualization of the field that limits its focus to specific identity groups, and is firmly rooted in ideologies that divide society into oppressed and oppressor groups based primarily on race and class. Also, as part of its disciplinary mission, Critical Ethnic Studies uses the classroom to indoctrinate students into narrow political beliefs and activism.

The first draft of the curriculum focused exclusively on “four core groups” and a few others favored by committee members, such as Arab Americans. It also diverged sharply from the politically neutral AB2016 in its promotion of partisan political agendas and activism, for instance: equating capitalism with racism, lionizing “revolutionary warriors,” and advocating for student engagement in “tactics of resistance” and “direct action” such as anti-Israel boycotts.

Not surprisingly, the first draft was met with enormous outrage from the public, especially many in the Jewish community who were incensed by the anti-Zionist thrust of the curriculum and its promotion of BDS, and by the fact that Jewish Americans and instruction on anti-Semitism were left out of the document.

Members of the Jewish Legislative Caucus also roundly condemned the first draft, as did the Governor, who promised that it “would never see the light of day.” And the head of the State Board of Education agreed and sent the draft back to the drawing board for further revision in August 2019.

A year later, this past August, a second draft of the curriculum was released to the public, and a third was released just last month. On the surface, both of these revised drafts seem much improved over the rejected first draft: the overtly anti-Zionist material has been removed, some of the more highly politicized language has been deleted or watered down, and material on Jewish Americans and anti-Semitism was added.

However, what has not changed is the curricular framework of the drafts, which remains firmly rooted in the principles of Critical Ethnic Studies, with its division of society into oppressed and oppressor based on race and class, its commitment to challenging “forms of power and oppression” as defined by neo-Marxist ideologies, and its encouragement of “transformative resistance.”

In addition, and most profoundly of concern to the Jewish community: while both revised versions include lessons on Jewish Americans, the portrayal of Jews, filtered through the lens of Critical Ethnic Studies, is as “white” and “privileged” – clearly on the oppressor side of the race-class divide.

At a time when anti-Jewish sentiment, hostility, and violence have reached truly alarming levels, indoctrinating students to view Jews as “white” and “racially privileged” is tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of every Jewish student.

The third draft curriculum is now being reviewed by the State Board of Education and is likely to be approved in March with few changes.

But there’s another twist in the ethnic studies curriculum story we must be aware of. While the state educational offices have been busy revising the rejected first version of the curriculum, the original authors of that draft have been on a crusade to promote their highly politicized curriculum—including the anti-Zionist and BDS-promoting lessons—throughout the state.

Immediately after their draft was rejected they started an organization called Save CA Ethnic Studies and launched a petition demanding that the State Board of Education adopt their draft. After that, they lobbied individual school districts throughout the state to vote on a resolution in support of their curriculum, and to date, at least 20 districts have adopted it. More recently, members of the original drafters established the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum coalition to further promote the rejected first draft as well as to offer school districts their educational expertise in implementing the curriculum in their schools.

Their plan will be signed, sealed and delivered in March. There may still be time to stop it through public action.

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Tammi Rossman-Benjamin teaches Hebrew at the University of California at Santa Cruz and is the co-director of the Amcha Initiative.