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Demanding transparency on antisemitic ethnic studies

We’ve asked a California Superior Court to compel Hayward Unified School District to answer the Public Record requests they’ve ignored.

A stack of books. Photo: jakkaje879/Shutterstock
A stack of books. Photo: jakkaje879/Shutterstock
Lori Lowenthal Marcus
Lori Lowenthal Marcus

Why do so many California school districts ignore the explicit requirements of California law? That’s the question our public interest law firm The Deborah Project is asking after filing requests for public documents from dozens of California school districts. We want to know what they teach their students about ethnic studies and in particular about Zionism, Israel and her neighbors.

The California Public Records Act requires public agencies such as school districts to turn over responsive documents sought by the public. But in too many cases, our requests have been either completely ignored or we have been told the district has no responsive documents, though we know this to be untrue.

We just put our question to someone very important: a California judge. We’ve asked the Superior Court in Alameda County to compel Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) to answer the Public Record requests we sent months ago—requests they’ve completely ignored.

Hayward’s failure to answer us at all cannot be because they’re not teaching this subject. We know they signed a “consulting” contract with an organization publicly committed to teaching wildly antisemitic and demonstrably false claims about Israel, her neighbors and the age-old Jewish commitment to the Land of Israel. Such content is not permitted in California public school curricula.

Here’s the context: After a tortuous and fraught battle in which citizens engaged at an extraordinary level, California passed a mandate in 2021 that in order to graduate, all public-school students must take at least one class in ethnic studies. The battle was over the content of these ethnic studies: Should all students learn respectfully about all of California’s cultures? Or should they learn what its proponents called the “liberated” view that four groups are victims of white supremacy and everyone else is a racist perpetrator of that white supremacy?

In particular, should all of California’s kids learn that Zionism is a recent invention of white Jews, used to justify the genocide of Palestinian Arabs and the theft of their “sovereign territory”? Or should they learn the truth: That the Jewish commitment to Zion and to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel has been chiseled into the Jewish Bible, prayerbooks, calendar and rituals for thousands of years?

As the ethnic studies law was finalized, proponents of a “liberated” curriculum that constituted the divisive version of ethnic studies were outraged not only when the most antisemitic parts were removed, but also when the California government explicitly forbade the teaching of that “liberated” content. Signing the law to put the ethnic studies mandate into effect, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the antisemitic content “will not see the light of day.”

Though it is clearly illegal, a small but zealous minority is soliciting California’s school districts, offering their services as “consultants”—sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per district—so they can instruct teachers on how to teach exactly the material forbidden by California law.

Because the antisemitic material is clearly illegal under California law, a key part of the “liberated” playbook is to hide what they’re doing from the public. To ensure that parents, the public and responsible school administrators don’t find out when this illegal and racist content is taught and then put a stop to it, “liberated” leaders instruct their fellow travelers to “fly under the radar” and “close their door” when they teach children that Zionism is an exercise in white supremacy—even though most of Israel’s Jewish population is made up of people of color.

That is why the Deborah Project is conducting a campaign across California to flush the “liberated” materials out into the open. And it’s why we’ve initiated the first lawsuit to press this important step towards transparency in public education.

In the beginning of January, HUSD received the standard Deborah Project Public Records requests, seeking documents related to the district’s teaching about ethnic studies in general and the antisemitic material in particular, as well as documents on the district’s retention of outside consultants to help in this effort. When the ethnic studies law was under debate, Hayward passed a resolution supporting the inclusion of the content California ultimately banned as antisemitic. More recently, HUSD signed a contract awarding tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to leading proponents of impermissible “liberated” curriculum content.

So, HUSD clearly has documents responsive to our Public Records requests. HUSD’s official response to our requests? Nothing. After a short administrative instruction as to whom we should send our request, the communication stopped dead. They’ve stonewalled us from the beginning of January until now despite our repeated efforts to prod a response. So, we had no choice but to go to court, demanding that HUSD be ordered to open its files and reveal what it’s doing.

Unresponsiveness in the face of pushback against antisemitism seems to be a feature, not a bug, at HUSD. For over a decade the district had on staff an English teacher named Henry Bens, whose curriculum included a 42-page tract purporting to reveal a Jewish plot to achieve world domination. He instructed his students that the Jews stole Judaism from black people and routinely gave the Nazi salute in front of his class.

Not surprisingly, students and teachers complained to HUSD about such hateful lunacy. But nothing was done until the matter finally hit the news media. In February, Bens was suspended from teaching. However, Nazis everywhere will be relieved to know that he was put on “administrative leave” rather than fired. HUSD’s website reveals he’s still in the same HUSD position he held for over ten years.

HUSD administrators’ toleration of their Heil Hitler-ing teacher Bens and his race-hatred is troubling on its own. Perhaps the same people responsible for it are the ones who hired “liberated” consultants to teach HUSD teachers how to teach ethnic studies.

For now, those administrators are still hiding behind closed doors. But with the prosecution of our effort to enforce the public’s right to know about teaching materials at HUSD, these people and the content they’re pushing on students at public expense won’t be under the radar for much longer. They are very much on our radar screen and soon the materials we seek will be made public, which is where all public-school teaching materials belong.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the Legal Director of The Deborah Project.

This article was originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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