Ethnic studies, the Third World Liberation Front and my grandmother

As ethnic studies integrates itself into institutions of public education, it is ironically institutionalizing its own set of uncritical narratives and biases. That starts with TWLF—the origin story of the field.

Tsilya Reitburd-Mendzheritsky, third from the right, was clearly up to no good. Photo courtesy of Max Samarov.
Tsilya Reitburd-Mendzheritsky, third from the right, was clearly up to no good. Photo courtesy of Max Samarov.
Max Samarov
Max Samarov

In 1979, my grandmother, Tsilya Reitburd-Mendzheritsky, was taken to a Soviet prison in Dmitrov, a small town about an hour from her home in Moscow.

The KGB—Soviet Russia’s infamous spy agency and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former employer—put her in a cell with hardened criminals. They figured Tsilya’s cellmates would rough her up, she would beg for it to stop, and then they would make her talk. They were disappointed to find her getting along quite nicely with her new friends and moved her to a different cell with only one other person. She immediately identified her new companion as a snitch and revealed nothing. The KGB released her after failing to extract anything of use but later sent “muggers” to assault her.

Why all the fuss over my grandmother?

She was guilty of a serious crime by KGB standards: fighting for her people’s right to exist as proud Jews, free of the discrimination and repression they faced at the hands of the Soviet authorities.

In 1965, a young Elie Wiesel visited the Soviet Union as a reporter and found “a country in which its Jewish citizens were … afraid to discuss Jewish subjects or Jewish people” and “lacked fundamental knowledge of Jewish things” yet still wished to remain Jews. The Soviet regime was so committed to denying Jews a positive sense of identity that my father didn’t know he was Jewish until he went to school. He found out at the age of 6 when his teacher singled him out as a Jew in front of the class.

As such, Tsilya, her husband Emil and their fellow activists initially focused on legalizing education about Jewish history, traditions, culture, language and Zionism as a liberation movement. The inevitable opposition of the Soviet authorities propelled the struggle of Jews to leave, landing many of them behind bars as political prisoners. Tsilya got on the KGB’s radar by smuggling in literature that was banned by the regime, among many other risks she took for the cause.

My grandmother’s struggle lasted decades until the Soviet Union collapsed and she was allowed to immigrate to Israel. She passed away in Jerusalem on June 27, 2020, at the age of 95. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how her life relates to mine.

One of those connections is my work at StandWithUs and my involvement in the debate over California’s proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) for K-12 public schools. I’ve spent nearly two years working with colleagues, students, community members and partners from all over California to submit critical feedback about various drafts of the ESMC. In the process, I’ve learned many things that remind me of my grandmother’s story.

Ethnic studies is an academic field that grew out of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a student movement formed at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1968. TWLF wanted “a university that was more diverse, less Eurocentric and ready to prove that it valued people of color and their perspectives.” After intense strikes and protests that lasted for months, SFSU established the first-ever College of Ethnic Studies in 1969.

Fast forward over 50 years, and this is how California’s State Superintendent presents the case for ethnic studies:

“Our schools have not always been a place where students can gain a full understanding of the contributions of people of color and the many ways throughout history—and present day—that our country has exploited, marginalized, and oppressed them. At a time when people across the nation are calling for a fairer, more just society, we must empower and equip students and educators to have these courageous conversations in the classroom.”

Despite the many differences between the United States and the U.S.S.R., I often think of my grandmother when I listen to ethnic studies advocates. She risked her life in the face of anti-Semitism so Jews could learn about who they were and develop pride in their identity. In aiming to empower communities of color against racism, ethnic studies isn’t so different from what she was fighting for.

And yet, I’ve also learned that the movement which inspired ethnic studies promoted some of the same destructive ideas my grandmother fought so hard against. The “Liberation Front” in TWLF’s name was taken directly from the communist “National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam,” also known as the Viet Cong. The oppressive actions of the Viet Cong created a refugee crisis with thousands of people escaping to California.

TWLF also drew significant inspiration from Mao Zedong, the communist dictator of China whose actions killed tens of millions of his own people and led millions more to flee. According to a firsthand account from a TWLF activist, “there was no such thing as not having [Mao’s] Red Book” on hand during the movement.

In a 1969 speech, a prominent TWLF leader said, “It is up to us to make the revolution, to break the system, to smash it, shatter it, and destroy it, as brother Lenin said.” In another speech, he attacked Jews as “exploiters” of black people and “called for ‘victory to the Arab people’ over Israel.”

Vladimir Lenin was the founder of the Soviet Union. This was the anti-Semitic regime that imprisoned my grandmother for wanting to live as a proud Jew. It was a dystopia so bleak that my parents decided to leave behind everything they knew in search of a better life.

How could a movement dedicated to uplifting marginalized voices be so blind to the oppression my family and so many others faced?

Unfortunately, this question remains all too relevant today. On March 18, the California State Board of Education will cast its final vote on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. The first draft of the ESMC reproduced many of the same blatant biases TWLF promoted back in 1968. While the current version is significantly better, numerous problems remain.

The ESMC rightly includes strong guidelines about teaching multiple perspectives and promoting critical thinking. And yet, it instructs schools to tell students about TWLF’s positive role in creating ethnic studies, without mentioning a critical word about the movement.

This may seem like a minor detail in a curriculum over 800 pages long, but it reflects a bigger problem: Ethnic studies focus on critiquing the many biases and blind spots of American institutions. Yet what is happening as ethnic studies integrates itself into our institutions of public education? Ironically, it is institutionalizing its own set of uncritical narratives and biases. That starts with TWLF—the origin story of ethnic studies.

There is no question that TWLF fought for a just cause: the inclusion of communities of color and their stories in our education system. There is also no question that TWLF leaders promoted anti-Semitism and celebrated oppressive dictators responsible for tens of millions of deaths. Both of these things are true and do not cancel each other out. This is also not particularly unique. Individuals, movements and institutions can and often do have good ideas about some issues and bad ideas about others.

Ethnic studies should help students see that complex reality, instead of simply replacing one set of biases with another. On March 18, California’s State Board of Education can choose to sanitize the TWLF or tell the whole, messy story. Let’s hope they do the right thing.

Max Samarov is executive director of Research and Strategy at StandWithUs.

This article was first published by the 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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