(March 10, 2021 / JNS) In an effort to create a more culturally relevant curriculum that encourages students to feel “more personally empowered,” the State of California’s Department of Education has been mandated with adopting an Ethnic Studies Curriculum. However, despite two revisions in response to concerns that were articulated by Jewish organizations, the curriculum’s representation of Jews lacks authenticity and persists in inviting anti-Jewish sentiment.
The curriculum includes a fact sheet on “Jewish American Diversity” that states, “Jewish American ethnic identity may be expressed through food, language, holidays, celebrations, expressions of peoplehood, remembrances of historical and ancestral experiences, connections to the land of Israel, a commitment to social justice, and cultural elements such as music, literature, art, philosophy that are also part of Jewish life.”
It blatantly omits Zionism as an expression of Jewish American ethnic identity; in fact, there is no mention of Zionism anywhere in the curriculum, despite the fact that 95 percent of American Jews consider Zionism an integral part of their Jewish identity and approximately one million Americans visit Israel each year.
In light of the fact that the first draft of the curriculum included positive references to the BDS campaign against Israel, it is highly probable that this omission was deliberate and politically motivated. The result is an incomplete profile of American Jews and, therefore, an inaccurate body of information.
In keeping with its myopic focus on race, the curriculum then refers to Jews benefiting from what ethnic studies followers refer to as “white privilege.” Despite having removed that term from the second draft, the implication remains clear in the words, “Descendants of light-skinned Jewish immigrants were able to acculturate or assimilate.” And “Light-skinned Jews may experience the benefits of conditional whiteness on the basis of their appearance, for example, safer encounters with law enforcement.”
Juxtaposed with the lesson on “Black Lives Matter and Social Change,” in which one objective reads, “Identify how African-Americans have historically been disproportionately impacted by racial profiling and police brutality in the U.S.,” it is not hard to imagine that a discussion of Jews fearing anti-Semitism might fall on deaf ears among students of color. Thus, rather than encouraging an alliance between black and Jewish students based on shared experiences with racism and anti-Semitism, the curriculum encourages friction between the two groups of students.
Like the BDS campaign that is creating divisiveness on our college campuses, California’s Ethnic Studies Curriculum is going to foster an atmosphere of divisiveness in K-12 classrooms. And, once again, Jewish students (among others) will be targets of anger and resentment.
Classrooms are microcosms of society and offer golden opportunities for teachers to facilitate positive and productive relationships among their students as they develop their cultural competence. That begins with shaping their attitudes and dispositions towards cultural diversity, including respect, openness and curiosity toward classmates from cultures different from their own, attitudes that will serve them well as citizens within American society.
It involves inviting students to explore their own complex identities and family histories as a means to develop a strong sense of identity and an ethno-relative perspective on the world—a foundation for identifying with the life experiences of those around them. It does not mean dictating what it means to be black, or Hispanic or Jewish, as California’s Ethnic Studies Curriculum seeks to do.
For example, black students and Jewish students might recognize the similarities between Zionism and Black Nationalism, as well as the importance of national self-determination to their respective peoples, and then establish a relationship over that shared worldview. Throughout this process, teachers would help students learn about their own and each others’ cultural identities and histories through literature, film and firsthand accounts of representatives from their identity groups, all the while honoring the lives of the students in the classroom.
California’s Department of Education needs to prioritize its students rather than the political agenda of a handful of its educators. I, therefore, urge its members not to ratify the Ethnic Studies Curriculum.
Melissa Landa is a former professor of education at the University of Maryland with a background in cross-cultural competence and anti-bias education. She is the founding director of Alliance for Israel, a Maryland-based nonprofit that opposes BDS activity in schools and communities, and that provides education about Israel’s multi-ethnic society.
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