(September 6, 2021 / JNS) California Jewish institutions are being tested. And I’m sorry to report that many are failing to protect the Jewish community in their support for state-mandated ethnic studies, which, unfortunately, as it is expressed today, contributes to Jew-hatred in the form of anti-Zionism—today’s most virulent and misunderstood form of Jew-hatred.
To be clear, this has nothing to do with being opposed to teaching ethnic studies, which is noble in construct. The problem is that the first draft of the state-mandated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) set up a terrible precedent, as the curriculum was so saturated in Jew-hatred that it was unanimously rejected by the Jewish Caucus of California, as well as the California State Board of Education in 2019.
While many celebrated the decision to reject teaching hate in the classroom, AB 101—a California bill mandating that ethnic-studies classes be a requirement for graduation from high school—is likely to be approved by the state legislature in the coming days.
Proponents of AB101 do not understand why the Jewish community is alarmed. As one representative of a California assemblyperson said, “What’s the problem? Are you against teaching ethnic studies? We rejected the first draft of the model curriculum!”
The problem is that the two are interlinked.
AB 101 leaves it up to individual schools and teachers to decide which ethnic-studies curriculum they want to use. As such, if they want to use the final State Board of Education-approved ESMC, the rejected first draft of the ESMC or the newest ethnic studies curriculum—the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which has been called “the first draft on steroids”—there are no legal safeguards capable of stopping the school from doing so, with educator activists determined to ensure that their anti-Zionist versions are taught. Teachers who are already overworked and stretched thin will gladly take what is being pushed on them by anti-Zionist educators rather than develop their own units.
Alarmingly, even without this bill’s passage and subsequent boost, Jewish students are already experiencing virulent classroom anti-Zionism that directly harms them.
As director of education at Club Z, a rapidly growing teen Zionist movement, I work with Jewish teens in educating on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Zionism and anti-Semitism. My students’ encounters with Jew-hatred come in the form of teachers showing students a picture of Israel replaced with Palestine in both Las Virgenes Unified School District (LVUSD), when asked what is the “Holy Land,” as well as in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with the latter also involving a student who was mocked for saying an image of the Western Wall is “a very special place for the Jewish people.”
Another student, also from an LAUSD school, was asked by his peers via a group text, “Hey, what’s the most flammable material?” The answer: “Jews.” When the parent went to complain about this, the vice principal of the school explained that they do not teach about the Holocaust because it’s “too controversial” and that it is not “inclusive to other minority groups.”
These stories can remain just that, stories. But they are alarm bells. Countless Jewish students have now expressed that they feel uncomfortable and sometimes even unsafe to identify as Jews in their schools. One student asked if she should continue to wear her Star of David because she doesn’t “want to be labeled a Zionist.” Her concerns are not unwarranted. Another student, now a junior at the University of California Santa Barbara, recalls with pain as a peer in high school came up to her and told her she was a “Zionist pig” for wearing her Star of David.
Language from the unit on “Teach Palestine” in the “liberated” curriculum links Zionism to right-wing politics, vilifies Zionism as being anti-inclusion and demonizes the State of Israel. How will teaching these concepts not contribute to the hounding of pro-Zionist students? And what about the teachers’ union that has already offered their support to BDS—a tool used to also alienate and demonize Israel and Zionism? AB101 will be the permission slip that anti-Zionists can use to ramp up their harassment of Jewish students to frightening levels.
I am disheartened to learn that instead of opposing this dangerous bill and speaking out about how it will put a bulls-eye on Jewish students, the Jewish Caucus has chosen to support the bill.
In the last several weeks, I have spoken to various representatives of senators and assembly members from the California Legislative Jewish Caucus to express my concerns. At a recent meeting with one such representative, I was scolded for my opposition to AB 101. “Don’t you want our kids to learn about other minorities, to give voice to the oppressed?”
Despite my reiterating that I am not against teaching ethnic studies in principle, I asked: “Is it worth it to you to support a curriculum that celebrates and embraces other minority groups while simultaneously expressing bigotry and hostility towards another—namely, the Jewish people?”
We can and should do better; if not for the sake of our Jewish children, then for sake of our humanity.
Naya Lekht is director of education at Club Z.
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