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California’s ethnic-studies mandate cannot be fixed

The Jewish groups that welcomed a letter from Gov. Gavin Newsom about avoiding bigotry are betraying the community. The courses are an invitation to antisemitism.

Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in a meeting in Sacramento on May 31, 2020. Credit: Matt Gush/Shutterstock.
Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in a meeting in Sacramento on May 31, 2020. Credit: Matt Gush/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

You would think that everyone understands that you can’t defend the Jews while supporting something set up to help promote antisemitism. Yet apparently, that basic truth is being ignored by those who ought to know better.

The Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) has put itself in just such an impossible position. The group, which serves as the body tasked with defending the state’s Jewish community to the government of the nation’s largest state, is stuck in a contradiction.

On the one hand, it knows that it should mobilize whatever influence it has to push back against the way California’s ethnic-studies mandate in the public schools is being used to promote hatred for Israel and antisemitism by left-wing activists who dominate the educational establishment, including school boards and teachers unions.

On the other hand, as a group whose liberal politics tie it to the prevailing orthodoxies on the left that produced this problem, it feels equally obligated to defend the ethnic-studies mandate despite the way it has been used to attack the Jewish community.

JPAC has sought to ameliorate the problems created by the passage of the ethnic-studies mandate by the California legislature in 2021 and the creation of a model ethnic-studies curriculum by the state board of education even before that. But all it has done is to make it even harder to accomplish the one goal that ought to be embraced by those who care about defending both the Jews and core American values of liberty and equality: scrapping the entire program.

The latest twist in this long-running battle concerns a letter that has been issued by the California Board of Education to the 1,037 school districts around the state that, according to the ethnic-studies mandate law, have the authority to come up with their own curricula to implement it. The letter cautions the districts that some ethnic-studies materials that vendors have circulated discriminate against individuals or communities. It also reminds them that their courses should not reflect “bias, bigotry or discrimination.”

JPAC can rightly claim credit for using its political influence to force the board to issue the letter with the approval of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The problem it is trying to address is real. Much of the material is being used in classrooms by radical left-wing groups like the ones promoting “Liberated Ethnic Studies” in districts such as the city of Los Angeles. These curricula are based in critical race theory and promote antisemitism by depicting Jews and Israel as “white” oppressors.

Yet mainstream Jewish groups are still declaring victory. They are acting as if issuing the letter will correct the problematic practices that have cropped up in the last two years as it became clear that the ethnic studies-mandate has been, as some foresaw, an opportunity for leftist educators to use these courses to impose a variant of critical race theory in public schools.

But they’re wrong.

The ethnic-studies programs in California’s schools and those that are being implemented elsewhere in the country do far more harm than good—and not just because activists are trying to hijack them. The courses are the product of an intersectional mindset that inevitably leads to efforts to divide Americans rather than bring them together.

They lend themselves to instructional material that promotes notions about equity, rather than equality. The enshrinement of equity—part of the woke DEI catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion—is a formula for the imposition of quotas and discrimination in favor of some favored groups at the expense of others. And it is no surprise that Jews are always among the losers in that exchange.

Seen in that light, it’s clear that the position of the liberals—like those in JPAC— favors the ethnic-studies mandate but then struggles vainly to ensure that they aren’t being used as a vehicle for antisemites. It’s a contradiction in terms.

Even when urging the board of education to warn against the use of the courses to institutionalize prejudice, JPAC was still advocating for ethnic-studies courses, praising the way they deepen “students’ understanding of American history” but also promote “equity and inclusiveness.”

Some in the Jewish community understand what’s going on. 

The AMCHA Initiative, a group that has been fighting this battle for years, denounced the board’s letter rather than celebrating it, as JPAC did. The group’s director, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, correctly said it was “too little, too late.” She said Newsom was ignoring the way that school districts were adopting curricula that contained anti-Jewish material, and his effort “serves to dilute rather than reinforce” guardrails against bias, bigotry and discrimination, and “will only confuse school districts about what, exactly, must be guarded against.”

This is a throwback to the start of the battle over ethnic studies in California a few years back when the first drafts for a Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum by the state board of education were proposed. Those documents sought to make the histories, struggles and contributions of Asian, black, Latino and Native American communities an integral part of public education. But they ignored, among others, anything about Jews, Armenians and Sikhs.

Rather than seeking, as they should have, to sink the entire project, JPAC and other liberal mainstream groups doubled down on ethnic studies while trying to “improve” it by ensuring that the model mentioned Jews, too. Their satisfaction over such petty victories didn’t prevent districts like Los Angeles to adopt the “liberated” version of ethnic studies that is so problematic.

Others are fighting back with lawsuits, like the one launched by the public-interest law firm Deborah Project that targets the antisemitic discrimination that is the product of “liberated” ethnic studies. Similarly, the CAMERA media-monitoring organization issued a report demonstrating how the push for ethnic studies is linked to the antisemitic BDS movement.

It was clear from the start that the problem with ethnic studies went beyond whether or not Jews would be included. But the organized Jewish community, which JPAC represents, is far too concerned with staying in sync with its liberal allies to understand that ethnic studies can’t be fixed to make it less antisemitic.

The claims of their advocates notwithstanding, the goal of all these curricula isn’t really to fight racism as it is to enshrine race consciousness at the heart of every discussion and topic.

The Critical Ethnic Studies Association, which was the original driving force behind this program, isn’t interested in celebrating diversity and making sure that the stories of minority groups are added to the traditional narrative of American history. What it wants is to replace the old story of America as having been born in a fight for liberty and seeking—despite problems, and the sin of slavery and racial discrimination—to progress towards freedom for all with one that views it as an irredeemably racist nation.

The point of the curriculum it inspired, even in its revised forms, is not one of inclusion but to indoctrinate all students in the idea of “translating historical lessons and critical race theory into direct action for social justice.” Its purpose is to reinforce a leftist worldview that sees what earlier generations celebrated as the “American creed” of opportunity, meritocracy and liberty as merely a “dominant narrative” that serves white privilege and racism.

Hispanic American history is important, as are the stories about Asians and other groups, including Jews. Still, the schools shouldn’t be setting in motion a destructive competition among groups, in which they each fight to get mentioned.

The emphasis on the racial, religious and ethnic lines that divide us makes race the primary way we all define ourselves rather than as individuals and Americans. It glorifies a struggle for “equity” in which some people will get privilege and power based on their group identity rather than demanding that all are given an equal chance and be judged on their own merits. This hurts everyone, especially minorities, who are being sold a lie that the basic American values of political and economic freedom won’t help them.

Sadly, legacy Jewish organizations are so tied to liberal partisanship and bend their knees to fashionable ideas like DEI and ethnic studies that grant a permission slip to antisemitism as opposed to speaking up against them. They lack the courage to cut loose from their traditional allies and point out that left-wing groups, and those who purport to speak for racial minorities, are seeking to impose DEI and intersectional ideology on the schools, businesses and even the government.

By accepting inadequate half measures to deal with a toxic ethnic-studies problem that can’t be solved by anything other than its abolition, the Jewish establishment has once again betrayed their mandate to oppose Jew-hatred.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.

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