Bringing Light to the Media Darkness

The problem with ethnic studies isn’t just how it treats Jews

Anti-Semitic content was removed from a proposed California public-school curriculum. But the real danger is a radical and divisive ideological agenda at the heart of this effort.

The California Department of Education building in downtown
Sacramento. Credit: ZikG/Shutterstock.
The California Department of Education building in downtown Sacramento. Credit: ZikG/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Some Jews are declaring victory. Their long battle to alter the draft of the proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) for California public schools ended with an outcome that left the Simon Wiesenthal Center “encouraged.” The effort to remove overtly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel content from the document was approved by the California State Board of Education succeeded. Yet the center remains “concerned” about the program. The American Jewish Committee agreed. It referred to the ESMC as “fundamentally flawed.” StandWithUS concurred, calling it “problematic.”

At stake was a new school course requirement for schools from K-12 that would make the study of the histories, struggles and contributions of Asian, African-American, Latino and Native American communities an integral part of public education in the nation’s most populous state. The fourth and revised draft of the curriculum now includes material about, among others, Jews, Armenians and Sikhs.

The first draft, which provoked a strong protest from Jews, included anti-Semitic and anti-Israel language. It effectively endorsed the boycott of Israel by listing it alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo protests against sexual harassment as praiseworthy activities. It referred to the establishment of modern-day Israel by the term nakba, the Palestinian word for “catastrophe.” It spoke of Jews gaining “race privilege” because of their skin color, which makes them part of the oppressive majority grinding down minorities. And it even included a song lyric that spoke of Jews manipulating and controlling the press.

That’s all gone from the final draft that’s been approved and included in it now are lesson plans on American Jews, including one on the Mizrachi Jewish experience that discusses anti-Semitism. Both contain the widely accepted definition of Jew-hatred, according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, as well as material on anti-Semitism from the Anti-Defamation League.

That’s enough to satisfy some in the Jewish community. The California Legislative Caucus and the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council have withdrawn their objections entirely. Tyler Gregory, executive director of that JCRC, said in a press release that “we need ethnic studies now. Ethnic studies gives marginalized communities the agency to define and share their own stories, cultures and histories. As Jewish Americans, we relate to this urgent need.”

So why do many Jews remain worried about the implementation of this curriculum?

Part of the reason stems from justified concerns about how it will be implemented in the 1,037 school districts around the state, where local boards of education will have considerable leeway in interpreting the curriculum. That could lead to endless controversies as the various groups seeking to be represented demand that their preferred lesson plans be the ones used, as well as fights over the emphasis that individual teachers and schools may choose in teaching about ethnicity.

But the problems with this curriculum go much deeper than just a matter of implementation. The idea of ethnic studies sounds like an anodyne concept that everyone should embrace. It’s actually a terrible idea tainted by what even the liberal-leaning American Jewish Committee rightly termed “a rigid ideological worldview.”

For all of the talk about ethnic studies empowering marginalized minority populations and giving children positive role models, the concept at the core of this effort is critical race theory. That’s an idea that views all Americans solely as members of racial and ethnic groups, not as individuals. As with other permutations of this toxic idea, the goal of the curriculum isn’t so much to fight racism as it is to enshrine race consciousness at the heart of every discussion and topic.

The Critical Ethnic Studies Association, which was the original driving force behind this program, isn’t really interested in celebrating diversity and adding the stories of different groups to the accepted narrative of American history. What they want is to replace the old story of America as born in a fight for liberty and seeking, despite problems and the sin of slavery and racial discrimination, to progress towards freedom for all with one that views it as an irredeemably racist nation.

The point of the curriculum they inspired, even in its revised form, is not one of inclusion of minorities in the story of America, but rather, to indoctrinate all students in the idea of “translating historical lessons and critical race theory into direct action for social justice.” Its purpose is to reinforce a leftist worldview that sees what earlier generations celebrated as the “American creed” of opportunity, meritocracy and liberty as merely a “dominant narrative” that serves white privilege and racism.

I understand why Jewish groups scrambled to be included in the mix of ethnic, racial and religious narratives that could be taught. The danger, however, is not so much that those stories will be lost amid the importance that the curriculum places on teaching about minorities who are viewed as marginalized rather than about Jews who are not seen as protected victims that must be extolled.

The trouble with ethnic studies is that even with the more overt symptoms of anti-Jewish prejudice removed, the curriculum is still a political catechism rooted in intersectional ideology about Third World nations and people of color locked in a never-ending struggle against white oppression. The subtext is therefore still one that puts Jews in the unfortunate position of either denying their own “privilege” or being enlisted in a political struggle that has little to do with a celebration of diversity, let alone the manifold blessings of American liberty.

The disturbing aspects of this teaching go beyond the trouble it makes for Jews. After all, in California, students are only required to take three semesters of English and two of math to graduate high school. But while subjects like biology, chemistry, physics, geography, civics, history and foreign languages are merely optional, this ideologically tainted ethnic studies curriculum will be mandatory. Think about what this means for the future of a country in which important disciplines, including those that were once correctly viewed as essential for an informed citizenry in a democracy, are ditched in favor of lessons about prioritizing race and tearing down the country.

Those who are trying to remind Californians of the struggles and achievements of Jews in America have a good story to tell that is deserving of attention. The same is true of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans and a host of other groups. But Jewish success in the United States is rooted in the core truths about that so-called “dominant” narrative about the country in which immigrants from a variety of backgrounds joined together to embrace the values and the ideas of the Founding Fathers about political and economic freedom. The same is true for the successes of every other group, including those who were subjected to far worse discrimination than the anti-Semitism that Jews had to face.

By enshrining an ethnic-studies course into law in this manner, California has set up a destructive competition along racial, religious and ethnic lines that makes race the primary way we all define ourselves rather than as individuals and Americans. It glorifies a struggle for “equity” in which some Americans will get privilege and power based on their group identity, rather than demanding that all are given an equal chance and be judged on their own merits.

We should know the stories of all groups that make up the mosaic of American life. But the critical race theory animating this curriculum and other versions of it infiltrating into American society is a poison that undermines national identity and patriotism. Instead of Jews demanding their piece of the ethnic pie and begging that the core ideology of intersectionalism that dismisses them as privileged whites be watered down, we should be rejecting the entire edifice of this deplorable curriculum as something that will hurt all Americans.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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