California’s Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote this week on AB 101, a bill that would require the state’s students to take a one-semester course in ethnic studies in order to receive their high school diplomas. The bill may sound benign and even beneficial. But in fact, it’s dangerous. If enacted, AB 101 would permit local school districts to use the ethnic studies curriculum of their choosing. The ones developed in California so far have been anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. If any of them are used, high-schoolers will be encouraged to hate Israel and Jews based on lies—something that should be intolerable to us all, including the appropriations committee.
Take the first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) that was under consideration in California in 2019. Jews were barely acknowledged as an ethnic group. According to the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which opposed the draft, excluding Jews was purposeful and reflected the prejudice of the drafters.
Among its many failings, the draft included a glossary defining seemingly every “phobia” and “ism” under the sun, including terms we had never heard of. But it excluded “anti-Semitism,” which is a glaring and unacceptable omission in a state that year after year has one of the highest reported numbers of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.
The draft also promoted the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel BDS movement, as well as misrepresented its goal—namely, of eradicating the State of Israel. The draft’s glossary defined BDS as “a social global movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”
Encouraging students to believe that Israel is imposing apartheid conditions on Palestinian Arabs is outrageous and offensive. There are approximately 2 million Arabs who are citizens of Israel, with full and equal rights. They serve in the Knesset and on the judiciary, and work alongside Jews and others in Israeli hospitals, universities and businesses. The Arab political party Ra’am recently became part of Israel’s coalition government. Any notion that Israel embraces an apartheid system of discrimination and segregation against Arabs is ridiculous, and a curriculum that encourages students to believe such a lie is irresponsible.
The draft was correctly rejected and revised. The version that the California Department of Education ultimately approved last March is better—at least now, it includes Jews and acknowledges anti-Semitism—but it’s still deeply problematic.
Anti-Semitism in the final draft of the ESMC is addressed in the context of Jewish Middle Eastern Americans only. That’s a narrow and inaccurate lens for understanding anti-Jewish bigotry. In fact, many Jews have experiences with anti-Semitism, regardless of where they come from, the level of their religious observance or their skin color.
Also, the final version of the ESMC now includes a definition of anti-Semitism, but the definition fails to acknowledge that some of its manifestations are masked as anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism. In our experience, that is exactly the form of anti-Semitism that most college students experience on their campuses. California students who must take an ethnic-studies course should surely come away understanding how anti-Semitism is currently expressed, including when it relates to Israel, so that they will be prepared to recognize all forms of Jew-hatred and stand up to it.
Troublingly, many teachers’ unions and college and university professors supported the horrific first draft of the ESMC. They are now supporting a curriculum created by the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute (LESMC), an organization created by those who prepared the first draft. The LESMC is encouraging teachers to teach about “Palestine”—a misnomer itself, since “Palestine” was a region; it is not and never has been a country—and is offering teachers a “toolkit” as a guide. The claims in this “toolkit” are downright alarming.
The LESMC falsely describes Zionism, which is the expression of the Jewish people’s right to live in their religious and ancestral homeland, as “a nationalist, colonial ideology.” The LESMC repeats the false and absurd accusation of Israeli “apartheid.” It also accuses “Zionist organizations” of “stepping up their efforts to silence discussion of Palestine/Israel,” when in fact the ZOA and other groups are not trying to silence anyone. We are simply calling out anti-Zionist and anti-Israel lies that are masks for anti-Semitism and protecting the civil rights of Jewish students who are being harassed simply because they support Israel.
If AB 101 is enacted and students are mandated to take an ethnic-studies course in order to graduate high school, then there will be enormous pressure on school districts to find a curriculum they can use to comply with the law. Districts will naturally adopt a curriculum that’s already available and ready to go, especially if it’s got the seal of approval from some teachers’ unions and college professors. That could be the first draft of the ESMC, which excluded Jews; the final version of the ESMC, which is still so problematic; or the upcoming LESMC curriculum, which, based on the LESMC’s “toolkit” for teaching about “Palestine,” will no doubt vilify Jews and Israel.
All of these possibilities are disastrous. None of them will truly build an understanding and appreciation of Jewish ethnicity or acknowledge that for many Jews, Israel is an integral part of their identity. Instead, these curriculums will encourage hatred of Jews and Israel, which we fear graduating high school students will bring with them to their college campuses and beyond.
For all these reasons, the appropriations committee should take the right and responsible step on Aug. 26 and reject AB 101.
Susan B. Tuchman is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice. Morton A. Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
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