Battle Over Ethnic Studies in California Schools

The following consists mostly of excerpts from the Haaretz article, “How California’s Jewish Community Won the Battle Over a New Ethnic Studies Program,” which prominently features comments in the mix by TTN colleague, David Schraub (pictured):

. . .  Sounding the alarm was veteran journalist Emily Benedek. In her Tablet Magazine article, California is Cleansing Jews from History, she wrote how the state had mandated the establishment of a model ethnic studies curriculum, to be taught at all K-12 public schools.

The curriculum’s first draft, published in 2019, underwent a few different iterations since its release at the behest of Jewish groups who felt excluded from it. But Benedek wrote that even its latest version, published in December, describes Jews as uniquely “privileged,” … assails Israel at every opportunity and props up the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – of which its original compilers were members.  . . .

. . .  In Los Angeles County, Jews made up 83 percent of victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2018. But even in the curriculum’s passages about white supremacy, Jews – who are central characters in that bigotry – were absent, as was any mention of antisemitism among the document’s listed manifestations of hate.

Jews got a minor mention, alongside Italians and Poles, in the “European immigration” section.  . . .

Although other lesson plans were confined to the experiences of ethnic minorities in the United States and their catalysts for immigration, the Arab-American lesson plan was different. It repeatedly brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the text, with sample topics such as “Direct Action Front for Palestine and Black Lives Matter” and “Comparative Border Studies: Palestine and Mexico.”

. . .  David Schraub has followed the curriculum’s progress from its inception. Now a visiting professor at Chicago’s DePaul University College of Law, he spent most of the time the curriculum was being developed as a lecturer at UC Berkeley. He submitted comments of his own during the draft processes, and consulted with some of the Jewish groups that demanded revisions.

A day after Benedek’s article was published, he wrote a blog post that leveled grave accusations against it. Because the author sees ethnic studies as inherently antisemitic, Schraub wrote, the curriculum’s success story, in which the Jewish community played its part, represented a problem. “What does one do when one’s favored ogre appears to have turned over a new leaf?” he asked.

The Tablet article focused on previous drafts and information that has fallen out of the current curriculum. The two Jewish lesson plans, Schraub quoted Benedek as writing, “teaches that Mizrahi Jews coming to the United States from Arab lands were mistreated by ‘white’ Ashkenazim. The other suggests that Jews of European descent have white privilege.”

Schraub noted that the first claim does not appear in the curriculum, and the second discusses how “the ‘conditional’ whiteness of certain Jews in certain contexts is always revocable, particularly when Jews refuse to assimilate or insist on maintaining ourselves as a distinctive people.”

Schraub also noted that the only quote the article ostensibly offered from the third draft – “The Jews have filled the air with their cries and lamentations in an effort to raise funds and American Jews, as is well known, are the richest in the world” – is found neither in the body of the curriculum nor in its footnotes or elsewhere.  . . .

Speaking to Haaretz, Schraub says . . . “It’s a very long read. The vast majority of the Jewish community is going to be relying on our media to summarize and be forthright about what’s in it.”

He adds, “It’s a serious problem when these basic elements of journalistic integrity aren’t put into practice.”  . . .

Benedek’s article stated that antisemitism does not warrant a mention in the curriculum. However, while that is true of the original draft, antisemitism is not just mentioned but taught [about] in the third version. It is notable, Schraub says, that the Tablet article links to the first but not the current draft.

. . .  Benedek points to other issues with the drafts, but notes that, at its core, her objection is to the curriculum being based on critical race theory rather than any specific details.

Critical race theory, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color.” . . .

Schraub says . . . “Part of what’s happening here is that many of the commentators on this issue really don’t know what it is, and are treating it less as an actual concept and more as a catchphrase for left, identity-based politics that are scary or go too far.”

He adds, “It’s entirely possible to incorporate critical race theory perspectives into an ethnic studies curriculum in a way that not only doesn’t discriminate against Jews, but is in fact more inclusive of Jews and provides a more robust and more compelling articulation of contemporary antisemitism in America.”

Schraub explains that critical race theory tackles the issue of oppression that comes from people who would never consider themselves racist, or antisemitism from people who consider themselves friends or even champions of the Jewish people. It asks, he says, “How do we have racism without racists? How do we have antisemitism when everyone’s denying that they’re an antisemite?” 

Schraub says it also gives explanations as to how Jews could have attended an all-white school in the segregated South while being the primary enemy of white supremacist groups. The theory, with its questions and understanding about what race is, recognizes that social perceptions of race can shift depending on the era, the circumstance and the location. This can help non-Jewish students, he notes, who do not understand how light-skinned Jewish people could face racialized oppression.  . . .  

David Schraub expressed satisfaction in his Feb. 8th blog post on how this issue has progressed:

It has been striking to see over the past week just how decisively the mainstream Jewish community has rallied against attacks from the communal right on the Ethnic Studies curriculum. Tye Gregory of the San Francisco JCRC had an early editorial out defending the latest draft. It was swiftly followed by columns by Sarah Levin of JIMENAHen Mazzig, and JPAC, all blasting the “misinformation” and “misrepresentations” being promulgated about the curriculum. A huge coalition of Jewish establishment heavyweights — the ADL, AJC, Holocaust Museum, even StandWithUs — released a united statement urging support for the Ethnic Studies curriculum and condemning bad faith attacks.