‘Liberated’ ethnic studies curriculum fails to liberate California schools from anti-Semitism

The governor promised that California’s original ethnic studies curriculum “would never see the light of day,” but Hayward Unified School District has approved a new model that sparks similar concerns.

The California Department of Education building in downtown
Sacramento. Credit: ZikG/Shutterstock.
The California Department of Education building in downtown Sacramento. Credit: ZikG/Shutterstock.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Last week, California’s Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve a new $40 million ethnic studies policy. In its press release, the district noted, “The policy and efforts to develop an Ethnic Studies framework are informed by and will include Critical Race Theory and the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.” This is exactly what the Jewish community feared and fought tirelessly for nearly two years to prevent, as the state wrote, and rewrote, its Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). Now, however, the Jewish community finds itself back at square one.

A little background is in order.

During the summer of 2019, California’s State Board of Education released a proposed ethnic studies curriculum, intended to be used in all California public high schools, that was blatantly anti-Semitic.  It omitted information on American Jews and anti-Semitism, used classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, and was blatantly anti-Zionist.

And the reaction was fierce. Twenty-thousand Californians, all 16 members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus and dozens of organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council, Anti-Defamation League, Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs, American Jewish Committee and Israeli-American Council, raised serious alarms over the proposed curriculum. The Jewish Caucus stated the curriculum would “marginalize Jewish students and fuel hatred and discrimination against the Jewish community,” and Governor Gavin Newsom promised the original curriculum “would never see the light of day.”

The State Board of Education (SBE) went back to the drawing board and, a year and a half and numerous revisions later, a fourth iteration that included lessons on Jewish Americans and eliminated overt anti-Semitic content was approved by the SBE. However, there was still one very big problem – individual school districts are autonomous and can use any ethnic studies curriculum they choose, including the original rejected version. And for the last two years the original dethroned drafters have been hard at work lobbying individual school districts to do just that.

Which brings us back to the present. The “Liberated” curriculum adopted by Hayward is the brainchild of the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute (LESMC), a for-profit educational consulting firm established by the authors of the rejected first-draft of the ESMC as a lucrative means of peddling a version of their rejected draft — including its anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist lessons — in school districts throughout the state. The anti-Zionist tenets of the “Liberated” curriculum were on display at a May 26 ethnic studies teacher training workshop for HUSD teachers, where they learned, “In Palestine…the people who are seeking to maintain systems of oppression and racial domination are sharing ideologies, strategies and weapons. For example, police strategies have been transnationalized, with the US and Israeli police departments exchanging tactics… Let’s continue to share ideas and resources and hold brave conversations [in classrooms]…We continue to see the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians due to settler colonialism.”

Although HUSD may be the first school district to publicly commit to adopting and implementing the anti-Semitic “Liberated” curriculum, other school districts in California may not be far behind.

Salinas Unified School District recently approved an LESMC member and former co-chair of the first-draft ESMC advisory committee to design its ethnic studies course and provide consulting services (at $1,500 an hour). Not surprisingly, several parents in the Salinas District have expressed outrage over the highly politicized and divisive nature of the curriculum. San Diego Unified School District is expected to approve a $77 million spending plan to emphasize ethnic studies in all K-12 subjects that will be overseen by an Ethnic Studies Team chaired by a member of the LESMC and former Department of Education-hired writer of the first draft of the ESMC. And Jefferson Elementary School Board approved a $40,000 contract with the consulting services of an LESMC member and co-chair of the first-draft ESMC advisory committee, to develop a curriculum for 8th grade ethnic studies classes.

LESMC founders and members have also provided their ethnic studies consulting and teacher training services to the California Department of Education, California State University and Stanford University’s Instructional Leadership Corps established by Linda Darling-Hammond, President of California’s SBE. In addition, the two largest teachers’ unions in the state — the California Teachers Unions and United Teachers Los Angeles — have both expressed support for LESMC and will undoubtedly encourage their members to adopt the Liberated Ethnic Studies curriculum and utilize the teacher training services of the LESMC group.

Although the LESMC’s success in bringing the “Liberated” curriculum and ethnic studies expertise to school districts is cause for alarm, it’s not the Jewish community’s biggest problem by a long shot. AB 101 is. That’s the bill currently making its way through the state legislature that would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. If it becomes law, hundreds of school districts that do not currently offer ethnic studies courses will be scrambling to adopt a curriculum and find professional help implementing it, and LESMC and its “Liberated” curriculum will be there to oblige.

The Jewish community simply does not have the bandwidth to oppose LESMC and its anti-Semitic curriculum in each of the hundreds of school districts where it is likely to be considered. That’s why it is crucial for members of the Legislative Jewish Caucus, who led the way in opposing the anti-Semitic first draft of the ESMC, to speak up about the clear danger that AB 101 poses for Jewish students.

Although Jewish Caucus members in the State Assembly voted to support AB 101 despite calls from nearly 70 rabbis, more than 1,000 Californians and hundreds of other supporters of the California Jewish community nationwide, there is still time for Jewish Caucus senators to stand up for Jewish students and oppose this bill when it comes for a vote on the Senate floor this summer.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

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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