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Jewish groups sue California school district, alleging antisemitic ethnic-studies curricula

The Santa Ana Unified School District allegedly discussed responding to the “Jewish question” internally, without alerting the public to or allowing it to comment upon antisemitic content in courses.

Santa Ana High School, the oldest and largest high school in Orange County, Calif. Credit: Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock.
Santa Ana High School, the oldest and largest high school in Orange County, Calif. Credit: Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock.

The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Potomac Law Group filed a lawsuit against the Santa Ana Unified School District and its education board late on Friday.

The group alleges that the Orange County, Calif. district broke the law by inserting antisemitic content into new ethnic studies courses, and that it didn’t alert the public to or give it the opportunity to comment upon the hateful content in question. The coalition further alleges that the school district didn’t adequately protect Jewish speakers, who were harassed at its meetings and subjected to anti-Jewish hatred.

The 86-page suit, which was provided to JNS over the weekend, was filed on behalf of the nonprofit Brandeis Center and its membership organization the Southern Californians for Unbiased Education.

Many of the ethnic studies courses that the district developed “contain controversial and antisemitic content that is—or would be, if properly made public—deeply disturbing to the local community,” the complaint states. 

“The public was deprived of its legal opportunity to address the content of these courses before the board approved them,” it adds, “because the board failed to give the community the legally required opportunity to learn about the content and comment on it at public meetings of the board.”

‘Jewish question’

The suit states that an item on the agenda for an Oct. 4, 2022 meeting of the district’s committee that developed the ethnic studies courses in question was to “Address the Jewish question—do we have to create a response—consult with XITO, and the Ochoas.”

The suing coalition interprets the “Jewish question” as “potential objections from the Jewish community to antisemitic content included in the courses.”

“Instead of talking to the Jewish community, however, the committee chose to get advice from organizations with a history of antisemitism on how to ‘handle’ the Jews,” the complaint states. 

XITO is “a controversial ethnic studies group that vocally defended the rejected versions of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, and strongly objected to the removal of antisemitic materials from the final Model Curriculum,” it states. “XITO’s teachings and materials equate Israel with ‘settler colonialism’ and call Zionism ‘a nationalist, colonial ideology’ that has called for the ‘creation and expansion of Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine by any means necessary.’”

The coalition believes that the “Ochoas” refers to “Gilda and Enrique Ochoa, professors at Pomona College and Cal State Los Angeles, respectively, who are vocal supporters of the rejected draft model curriculum, including its antisemitic content.”

“Other minority groups were not treated as pariahs but still had to be carefully ‘vetted’ before providing input,” the complaint adds. “The Subcommittee Notes from its June 27, 2021, meeting say, ‘Yes can ask for help from Native American local community, but make sure to vet them.’”

Santa Ana buses
School buses in Santa Ana, Calif. Credit: Steve Bruckmann/Shutterstock.

‘Racist’ country

In late August, the education policy adviser to Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote to school leaders in the state cautioning them that some ethnic-studies materials that vendors had circulated discriminate against individuals or communities. 

Some Jewish groups hailed the letter—which didn’t mention antisemitism in particular—but Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA Initiative, told JNS it was “too little, too late.”

The state law AB 101, which California passed in October 2021, requires that public school graduates take at least one ethnic studies course in order to graduate. The law is slated to go into effect starting with the graduating class of 2029-2030.

Rachel Lerman, the Brandeis Center’s vice chair and general counsel, told JNS that the nonprofit shared the governor’s letter with counsel for the Santa Ana board the day it was issued.

“Counsel told us the next day that the letter did not change anything,” said Lerman. “Counsel told us the board had no plans to change the curricula despite the governor’s letter and our own letter to the board explaining why the curricula blatantly violates AB 101.”

Lerman told JNS that the Brandeis Center told the school board that it fully supports an ethnic studies program that “teaches students to appreciate the challenges and contributions of different ethnic groups in California.”

“Jewish organizations like ours know all too well the importance of courses like ethnic studies which aim to prevent bigotry and discrimination,” she said. “But when these courses are used to spread hate against a particular group, we need to speak out.”  

The complaint also alleges that the Santa Ana district isn’t complying with Newsom’s letter. 

Santa Ana California
Downtown Santa Ana, Calif. Credit: Matt Gush/Shutterstock.

“The governor’s letter directs school leaders to ‘closely scrutinize’ any curriculum or instructional materials for ethnic studies courses before they are selected to ensure they are free from bias, bigotry, or discrimination,” the suit states. “This close scrutiny dovetails with the rules requiring that decisions be made after the public is given meaningful opportunity to review and comment on ethnic studies course curricula so that biased materials come to light.”

Santa Ana is one of several California school districts that haven’t complied, per the complaint.

“Based on the materials available to the public (and it is unclear whether this is everything), at least five ethnic studies courses” which the Santa Ana board approved, “including ethnic studies courses in world history, English and world geography, include one-sided anti-Israel screeds and propaganda,” it states.

The latter “teaches students—falsely—that Israel is an illegitimate, ‘settler colonial,’ ‘racist’ country that ‘stole’ land from a pre-existing country called Palestine and engages in unprovoked warfare against Palestinian Arabs,” it adds.

Antisemitic heckling

Beyond the board’s alleged decision to hide antisemitic components of its ethnic studies courses from the public, it also failed to protect Jewish attendees of its meetings, according to the complaint.

Santa Ana Unified School District
The Santa Ana Unified School District in California. Credit: Google Maps screen capture.

At a general board meeting on May 23, for example, “classic antisemitic tropes as well as threatening and violent language” were hurled at Jews and Israelis.

“Audience members hissed as the names of Jewish attendees were called, applause broke out in response to antisemitic slurs and during a presentation by two Jewish high school students, board meeting attendees shouted, ‘you’re racists’ and ‘you’re killers,’” according to the suit.

The complainants added that a meeting attendee followed a Jewish student to her car and harassed her, and the district’s security “was unable to provide sufficient protection or support.” Video of the board meeting also showed that attendees told a speaker wearing a yarmulke to “go home,” and that due to the board’s “insufficient response, attendees continued to interrupt and heckle Jewish speakers throughout the meeting.”

Lerman told JNS that the lawsuit is so urgent right now because all but one of the ethnic studies courses in question are currently being taught.

“We want the open meeting rules followed, so that the public is made aware of the content of these courses, as the law requires, and has a full opportunity to raise objections,” she said. “These courses are supposed to be vetted publicly, not pushed through under the radar. That is what our open meeting laws are all about.”

JNS sought comment from the Santa Ana Unified School District about the lawsuit.

“We are unable to provide comment on any ongoing or pending litigation, per our standard district practice,” Fermin Leal, the school district’s chief communications officer, told JNS.

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