For more than a-year-and-a-half, StandWithUs has worked tirelessly together with concerned citizens and partners to remove anti-Semitism, anti-Israel bias and other destructive ideas from California’s draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). At the same time, we have pushed for the inclusion of positive education about anti-Semitism and the Jewish people. The stakes are extremely high because California public schools serve 6 million students, and the ESMC is likely to be used as a model in many other states as well.
As the ESMC receives increased national attention, we are providing an update about this critical challenge for California and the nation as a whole.
It is important to put this issue in context.
We face a massive statewide and nationwide threat: Extremists are shamelessly exploiting ethnic studies to promote hate and one-sided political agendas. We cannot allow hatred and ignorance about Jews and Israel to be institutionalized in American public education.
At the same time, we have a huge opportunity: The subject of ethnic studies is meant to give marginalized communities better representation in the classroom. The bill that led to the creation of the ESMC envisioned a “culturally meaningful and relevant curriculum,” educational standards guided by “equity, inclusiveness and universally high expectations,” and an “objective of preparing pupils to be global citizens with an appreciation for the contributions of multiple cultures.” These are goals we fully support for other communities and for our own. We can counter anti-Semitism and ignorance by teaching millions of high school students about the struggles and successes of the Jewish people.
The threat is amplified by the fact that a significant faction in the field of ethnic studies, represented by the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, institutionally promotes anti-Zionism and discriminatory boycotts against Israel. Too often, this faction engages in outright anti-Semitism by framing Jews as “white, privileged, colonial oppressors.” This is why, in September 2020, a program within San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies hosted an anti-Semitic event shamelessly glorifying convicted terrorist Leila Khaled. It is also why the first draft of the ESMC was so deeply problematic.
The opportunity is illustrated by the fact that there are major school districts with inclusive ethnic-studies curriculums that reject one-sided political agendas and promote critical thinking.
Since the first draft of the ESMC was released in August 2019, StandWithUs staff, students, community activists and partners across the state have fought tooth and nail to counter the threat and seize the opportunity.
Together, we have persuaded California education officials to make significant positive changes. These include the removal of much anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content, the addition of guidance promoting critical thinking, and the inclusion of material about Jews and anti-Semitism. For example, thanks to a lesson plan submitted by our friends at JIMENA, the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism is currently included in the ESMC. Additionally, Californian Gov. Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement, demanding a more balanced and inclusive curriculum. We should acknowledge what all of us have accomplished and be proud of it.
At the same time, there are still significant problems with the ESMC, and anti-Israel extremists are actively trying to reverse the progress we have made so far. For example, the latest draft includes a lesson plan that celebrates numerous prominent figures who have promoted anti-Semitism and other destructive ideas. In multiple areas, the ESMC does not live up to its own requirements calling for balance and critical thinking. If we become satisfied or complacent, California will approve an ethnic-studies curriculum and graduation requirement that may cause significant harm across the state and beyond.
Where do we go from here?
Education officials are reviewing a massive number of critical comments they received prior to Jan. 21, including thousands we submitted together. This review will result in recommended changes to the curriculum, which will be sent to the State Board of Education for a vote on March 17. StandWithUs will engage with relevant leaders and share additional calls to action with the public throughout this process.
Bigger picture, we are using all the lessons we have learned since August 2019 and preparing to tackle this challenge as it spreads to California school districts and across the country. We are in this for the long haul and will never stop fighting for your children and ours.
Roz Rothstein is the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an international, nonpartisan Israel education organization.