A new bill passed by the California legislature mandates that all high school students must complete an “ethnic studies” course to graduate.
However, many Jewish voices have raised an alarm over the proposed curriculum of the course, which, among other issues, accuses Jews of possessing “racial privilege.”
The bill, AB-331, is currently on Governor Gavin Newson’s desk awaiting his signature. Last month, Newson signed a similar bill, AB-1460, requiring all California State University students to complete an ethnic studies course in order to graduate.
What the Curriculum Includes and How It Evolved
The plans essentially began as an extension of The 1619 Project, The New York Times‘ account of race history in America which follows the narrative of what is known as “critical race theory.”
A report by The Wall Street Journal explains how The 1619 Project found a nesting space in California’s Department of Education:
- In 2019, California State Assembly passed an ethnic studies bill with a 63-8 vote ratio
- The model curriculum that came out of that bill was halted as result of bipartisan opinion that the curriculum was extreme
- 2020 riots offered a new leverage to supporters in favor of the bill and curriculum
The original curriculum, which was proposed in 2019, was assailed by Jewish groups as outright antisemitic.
It included sections such as “Direct Action Front for Palestine and Black Lives Matter,” “Call to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel,” and “Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico.”
The Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel has been deemed an outright antisemitic movement as per the U.S. State Department’s (and 34 other countries’) definition of antisemitism.
Tammy Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of the California-based AMCHA Initiative, which protects Jewish students from antisemitism, criticized the proposed ethnic studies curriculum in 2019 for its attempt to “politically indoctrinate students with the view that Israel and its Jewish supporters are part of ‘interlocking systems of oppression and privilege.’”
The California Legislative Jewish Caucus (comprised solely of Democrats) responded to the curriculum proposed in 2019 by stating that although they have “consistently prioritized efforts to promote inclusion and have strongly supported efforts to ensure that California students understand our state’s complicated history and rich diversity,” they could not “support a curriculum that erases the American Jewish experience, fails to discuss anti-Semitism, reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews, singles out Israel for criticism and would institutionalize the teaching of anti-Semitic stereotypes in our public schools.”
The 2019 curriculum also included units studying national figures such as:
- Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)
- Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)
- Islamist activist Linda Sarsour
- Actress Alia Shawkat
- The late White House correspondent Helen Thomas
All of these figures are associated with antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, and, in the case of the congresswomen, a push to enact legislation punishing Israel.
The 2019 curriculum also presented students with classic Islamist talking points that included:
- The concept of nakba, (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the term that is used by Islamists to describe the establishment of a Jewish nation in 1948
Due to public outcry, Governor Newsom apologized to California’s Jewish community, vowing that the curriculum would “never see the light of day.”
The revised curriculum does not include sections on the BDS movement. While an improvement, it still “remains incredibly problematic and concerning,” Rossman-Benjamin said.
“The ethnic-studies movement, known as ‘critical ethnic studies,’ which is what this curriculum is a product of, is based on an ‘us vs them’ model,” she told JNS. “It views Jews as white and privileged, and not part of the ‘us,’ and is blatantly anti-Zionist.”
Rossman-Benjamin added, “The goal of ‘critical ethnic studies’ is not to educate, but to indoctrinate students into adopting certain political views and engaging in specific forms of political activism, including those that vilify and harm Jewish students.”
The new curriculum specifically calls out Jews as a privileged white racial group. One model suggests that students “will write a paper detailing certain events in American history that have led to Jewish and Irish Americans gaining racial privilege.”
Large sections of the course detail the experience of Arab/Muslim Americans and other minorities, yet give very little attention to the experience of Jews and even less to the recent phenomena of antisemitism.
Jews are consistently the victims of the most religiously-motivated hate crimes perpetrated in America by a large margin.
The new curriculum calls for content that criticizes capitalism as a form of oppression, and highlights movements for study that were started and run by socialists and Marxists, such as the Third World Liberation Front and the Black Lives Matter movement, both of which hold anti-Israel and antisemitic views.
Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, commented in a statement that while the 2020 curriculum proposal is an “improvement over past versions, some of the supplemental materials that have been included are deeply problematic and exclusionary [regarding this group of Jews].”
Levin noted that the curriculum “[portrays] the Arab American experience as a monolith to represent the [Middle East and North Africa] region,” yet 60 percent of all Californians who originate from the Middle East and North Africa are Jewish.
At the end of August 2020, the California legislature approved the new curriculum.
However, according to the law, the curriculum is offered as a model, but teachers are free to deviate from it, meaning that any part of the objectionable 2019 curriculum or other antisemitic material could theoretically make its way into the classroom.
Hate and Extremism in American public schools
This isn’t the first struggle against what many would classify as extreme curriculum in the public school system.
Yet, Covid-19 lockdowns and remote learning have given parents new awareness of these curriculums.
Astonishingly, when American schools resumed this fall, a recent poll showed that millions of families chose not to re-enroll their children in the public education system, but rather opted for home schooling or charter schools.
While studies have not been conducted as to the reason for this move away from public education, one thing is clear: Remote learning placed tremendous oversight power into the hands of parents.
A Cease and Desist on Institutional Indoctrination
On Sunday, September 5, President Trump announced that the Department of Education would investigate whether or not California schools are using The New York Times’ 1619 Project in public school curriculum.
Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded! https://t.co/dHsw6Y6Y3M
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2020
The previous Friday, September 4, the administration put out a memorandum aimed at the heads of executive departments and agencies in the federal government.
Addressing federal funding for a growing number of (often forced) critical race theory trainings, the memo detailed the president’s order to “ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.”
While the measure is aimed at federal government and critical race theory, it is a decisive and bold step that could impact other institutions and how public funding is diverted, especially considering we haven’t even seen the tipping point in the public school crisis.
The narrative of oppression as a tactic of ideological indoctrination has no place in the neutral field of childhood education. Rather, it only encourages students to walk down the path of hate by first making the student feel unequal and undervalued and then pointing to the “oppressor” as a target.
In short, this narrative does not educate children; rather it weaponizes them.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center accurately points out that if left unchallenged, the curriculum would “be a disaster for all Jews in California.”
He is right. However, the curriculum would not only be a disaster for Jews in California, but a disaster for the children themselves and the type of futures they will go on to build.
Children, when left to their own devices, do not approach the world as either being oppressed or as an oppressor. It is something that must be learned.
The role of identity destabilization is a well-documented radicalization strategy cited in several research papers, including the June 2018 U.S. Department of Justice paper on “How Radicalization to Terrorism Occurs in the United States.”
Radicalization often occurs long before the point of the first contact with recruiters with indoctrination in hate. Whether it’s a child in the Middle East conditioned to hate by community programming or an American child at his or her public school, the abuse is the same.
Moreover, it is that abuse that serves as a primer that fertilizes the landscape for radicalizing elements the child will face in later years through social media, peer pressure and pressure-cooker politics.