Anti-Jewish school courses approved in secret by California district

Historical misrepresentations in educational settings can obscure the rich contributions of American Jews in various aspects of society.

The California Department of Education building in downtown
Sacramento. Credit: ZikG/Shutterstock.
The California Department of Education building in downtown Sacramento. Credit: ZikG/Shutterstock.

The anti-Jewish and anti-Israel climate in local schools is rapidly increasing. Some activists are attempting to exploit ethnic-studies courses to promote their hateful agenda. But a host of Jewish organizations are challenging recent efforts in California that alarm much of the Jewish community.

Jewish groups initiated a lawsuit against the Board of the Santa Ana Unified School District—in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles—for violating California’s open meetings laws when it approved its ethnic-studies curricula. The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs and a local law firm allege that there was a long-running effort to conceal controversial curricula from the public.

“We have witnessed the detrimental effects of such ideologies on our community, resulting in bullying, hatred, harassment and threats directly towards visible and inherently Jewish students, staff and families, even under the watchful gaze of this school board at the last meeting.”

— Jewish resident of Santa Ana Unified School District

The complaint notes that the committee developing ethnic-studies curricula solicited input from groups with a record of antisemitism in response to what they called “the Jewish question” and were selective in responding to input from members of other minority groups, advising that all community members needed to be carefully “vetted.” The phrase, “the Jewish Question,” has a long, negative history for the Jewish people, particularly as it was used by the Nazis before and during the Holocaust.

In 2021, California became the first state to mandate an ethnic-studies course as a graduation requirement. The bill was passed only after several drafts of ethnic-studies model curricula were reviewed and rejected based on biased content. The current model curriculum was stripped of this content and approved by California’s Board of Education. The curricula are not required but are meant to guide school districts in teaching the histories, struggles and contributions of historically marginalized groups and the bigotry they experienced in the United States.

School districts across the state may choose to implement their own ethnic-studies curriculum. They may not include biased materials taken out of earlier drafts or any content that reflects prejudice, directly or indirectly, against a particular group.

School districts that do not use the Model Curriculum are required to make the public aware of the content of “locally developed” ethnic-studies curricula. The notice requirement offers the public the opportunity to weigh in on the courses in the context of the statute that requires locally developed “curriculum, instruction and instructional materials for a course” to be free from bias or bigotry. The lawsuit alleges that the Santa Ana school district failed to follow these requirements.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office sent a letter to California school leaders in August, urging them to closely scrutinize any proposed curricula to ensure they do not violate a state prohibition against allowing use of biased content.

Local Jews Feel Threatened

Several Jews who attended a May school board meeting described the hatred they faced for supporting the inclusion of the Jewish perspective and the exclusion of anti-Jewish hatred. Two Jewish high school students commented at the meeting that “students have no knowledge of Jews beyond the antisemitic jokes that they hear and repeat.” While they were speaking, meeting attendees shouted “You’re racists!” and “You’re killers!” They were also taunted by banners stating ‘Free Palestine.’”

Jewish attendees expressed the anguish they felt while watching audience members “snicker at the Jewish student wearing a kippah (yarmulke)” and at speakers who “were calling me and other Jewish community members colonialists simply because we were asking for accurate inclusion of the Jewish people in ethnic studies.” Some attendees hissed as the names of Jewish attendees were called and applause broke out in response to anti-Jewish slurs. A Jewish student was harassed and followed to her car after the meeting.

Past Controversies

The original California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum proposed in 2019 reflected “an anti-Jewish bias.” The curriculum excluded a discussion on the hatred of Jews; omitted stories about Middle Eastern Jews; asserted that Israelis control the media; and promoted the anti-Jewish Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Active opposition from many Jewish and pro-Israel organizations led to major changes in the proposed curricula including the elimination of offensive material about Jews and Israel. California’s State Board of Education approved the nation’s first statewide Model Curriculum in March 2021. The final draft curriculum includes two lessons on American Jews and does not mention BDS.

Many school districts have limited resources and hire curriculum consultants when implementing new educational programs. The Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium and others like it leverage this opportunity to promote the use of their materials that include anti-Jewish and anti-Israel views.

The Liberated Consortium is staffed by activists dedicated to the original Ethnic Studies curriculum proposed in 2019, and rejected by Newsom and the State Board of Education. The group’s core contentions are that Israel is committing “apartheid,” Jews are framed as colonizers in Israel—their ancestral homeland—and Zionism is referred to as a form of oppression. The consortium argues that its preferred course content does not display hatred against Jews. The California Legislative Jewish Caucus called the original draft version “a narrative about Jews that echoes the propaganda of the Nazi regime.”

“The school board’s inaction gives tacit approval for others to intimidate and bully Jewish students and staff. It’s embarrassing that this board accepted the antisemitic public comments such as holding Jews accountable for the actions of a foreign government, ridiculing Jews for wearing articles and artifacts of their cultural identity and you allowing the audience to make people feel unsafe because of their Jewish heritage.”

Jewish resident of Santa Ana Unified School District

Points to consider:

  1. Ethnic-studies courses are important but must not promote anti-Jewish hate.

California’s ethnic-studies program is an important component of children’s education. Inclusive curricula teach students to appreciate the challenges and contributions of different ethnic groups in California. Jewish organizations know all too well the importance of such educational programs for preventing bigotry and discrimination. Newsom, California Superintendent Tony Thurmond and California legislators had already developed an ethnic-studies curriculum that teaches about historically marginalized communities. It is the duty of California school districts to follow the law and exclude curricula that include anti-Jewish hate.

  • The American Jewish narrative must be defined by Jews.

American Jews are woven into the fabric of U.S. history. The patriotism of American Jews was proven on the battlefields; Jews marched arm-in-arm with African-American leaders in support of the civil-rights movement; and American Jews have made important cultural and scientific contributions throughout U.S history. There is also a misconception about Jewish identity. Jews are not only a religion but an ethnic group descended from ancient Hebrews—a people, nation, culture and heritage. Like many other immigrant communities, American Jews also maintain their cultural identity and connection to their ancestral homeland, Israel—and its capital Jerusalem.

  • Misrepresentations of history have consequences.

The California lawsuit comes days after the Palestinian president fraudulently asserted that Hitler killed 6 million Jews because of “their social activities,” rather than their religion and ethnicity. Holocaust denial or distortion not only dishonors the memory of the millions who perished but also perpetuates anti-Jewish stereotypes and hatred. It can contribute to an environment where antisemitism thrives. Historical misrepresentations in ethnic-studies courses can obscure the rich contributions of American Jews in various aspects of society. This erasure of positive historical narratives can have a lasting impact on the self-esteem and identity of Jewish students. A factually correct Jewish history is vital not only to preserve the truth but also to combat discrimination and prejudice.

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