The greatest threat to the survival of the Jewish community is neither Iran nor intermarriage. Rather, it is our increasing political and cultural isolation, and the resulting hostility that we face from both ends of the ideological spectrum.
The fringes of the nationalist hard right continue to traffic in Charlottesville-style blood-and-soil anti-Semitism, and such ugly racism will always constitute an intolerable threat to Jews around the world. But the growing anti-Zionism of the far-left fringe represents a less obvious but equally dangerous menace, when hostility toward the Jewish homeland expands into hatred of the Jewish people.
The most recent front in the latter of these two battles is reflected in the argument over whether to impose mandated ethnic studies classes in California’s public schools. The vast majority of ethnic-studies supporters see such a requirement as a helpful way to teach students from underrepresented communities about their own heritage and to expose young people from varying backgrounds to each other’s traditions, histories and perspectives. These people are prospective allies for the Jewish community. Right now, most are not.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal faction of ethnic studies advocates see such programs as a means through which to disseminate reprehensible anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic falsehoods. The initially proposed curriculum included numerous examples of objectionable language and ugly stereotypes against Jews. It was fiercely opposed not only by the Jewish community, but by Governor Gavin Newsom as well. A second effort was only marginally less odious. To his credit, Newsom vetoed that bill.
The legislative Jewish caucus has since been working with other stakeholders to fashion a solution that could highlight the experiences of a range of communities, both those customarily included in ethnic studies research (African Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders and Native Americans) as well as other ethnic groups whose stories are an integral part of California’s diversity (Sikhs, Armenians, Jews and others). The caucus fought successfully to remove the distasteful language from the original proposal and to ensure that the Jewish experience was included in lesson plans. They ultimately helped forge a compromise that included an imperfect but vastly improved model curriculum. Earlier this month, Newsom signed this new version into law.
The final legislation still has significant shortcomings, most notably allowing local school districts to ignore the proposed model curriculum and instead use the earlier, uglier version. Already, proponents of the original proposal are aggressively moving to convince principals, teachers and school administrators to adopt their alternative—anti-Semitic tropes and all.
But while the final version is flawed, it’s difficult to see how a better outcome could have been achieved. Had the Jewish caucus continued to fight the bill, the result would have been the already strained relationship between Jewish Americans and other minority communities becoming even more difficult. A scorched-earth battle over ethnic studies would not have prevented the bill from passing, and would likely have led to even worse relationships—and subsequently to even more troublesome legislation.
Ultimately, the path to better policy must begin with stronger relationships that will allow California Jews to work more closely with these other communities rather than continue to be pitted against them. Newsom’s creation of a Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education and his signature on legislation that authorized a California Commission on the State of Hate create an opportunity for the Jewish community here to join with other marginalized ethnic, racial and religious communities to confront common challenges and look for joint solutions to push back against prejudice regardless of its target.
Strengthening relationships with those minority community leaders who do share our goals through these two projects will also allow us to shape an ethnic studies program that teaches our students productive lessons about the benefits of California’s remarkable diversity. Those promoting the divisive and hate-filled alternative ethnic studies curriculum already have a head start. We are much more likely to defeat their challenge if we can bring new allies on our side to the debate—and soon.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.