Authors of California Ethnic Studies Curriculum Decry Cuts to Arab Studies

California ethnic studies advocates say new additions to a statewide curriculum, including those pushed by Israel-advocacy groups, don’t align with the discipline’s mission.

Gabi Kirk
February 3, 2021
In a February 2nd webinar hosted by the Save Arab American Studies Coalition, the original authors of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum announced they would remove their names from the current draft.

IN A PUBLIC LETTER addressed to the California Department of Education on Wednesday, all 20 original authors and members of the advisory committee for the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), a guide to help the state’s K-12 schools design their own ethnic studies courses, announced they were removing their names from the current draft. Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and a founding co-chair of the ESMC Advisory Committee, described the scholars’ anger in her comments at a Zoom webinar hosted by the Save Arab American Studies Coalition. “I am outraged that some of the loudest voices being heard and making decisions about what ethnic studies should or should not be in California have never even taken an ethnic studies class,” she said. “Many of them are not even educators, and they are making decisions about what we are allowed to learn.” The authors could no longer be associated with a curriculum they considered “not . . . worthy of California students,” she said. “I am outraged that a curriculum that should have been about our liberation has now been watered down.”

The authors’ disavowal is the latest chapter in a more than four-year saga, in which the once promising effort to make ethnic studies a key facet of K-12 education in the most populous state has produced what many supporters say is an almost unrecognizable document. Criticisms of the curriculum—ranging from debates over which ethnic groups should be included to complaints about capitalism’s appearance on a list of oppressive systems—have prompted repeated overhauls. The disagreements have jeopardized a plan to make ethnic studies—a discipline that emerged from radical student movements in the 1960s and ’70s to highlight stories of anticolonial struggle and the experiences of communities of color—a graduation requirement for all California students; Governor Gavin Newsom has said he won’t enact such a rule until the troubled curriculum has achieved “balance.” The authors had hoped that their work might serve as a model for how issues of race and racism should be taught nationwide. Now, they argue that the latest draft barely reflects the intellectual and political principles of their field. 

The campaign against the ESMC that produced this impasse has been led by Israel-advocacy groups, whose opposition originally focused on the inclusion of material related to Palestine—including mention of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—but has since broadened to encompass larger complaints about the project. In December, these forces declared multiple victories: The CDE had excised all Palestine-related content from the draft, along with much of the content about Arab American studies in general, while agreeing to add two lesson plans on Jewish American experience and antisemitism. (The draft makes brief mention of Palestinian Americans, but does not consider their relationship to Palestine or include any mention of Palestine as a place.) At first glance, these lessons, which focus on Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews and Jews’ relationship to whiteness, seem in line with ethnic studies’ goal of teaching about the experiences of marginalized groups. But several Mizrahi and Sephardi scholars and community organizers say one of the new lessons, created by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), instead uses the stories of Jewish minorities as an excuse to include popular right-wing talking points about Israel, such as the controversial argument that criticizing the state is a form of antisemitism, and the assertion that Jews are “indigenous” to the Middle East. The result is a version of ethnic studies unrecognizable to scholars and community organizers engaged in the field—and heavily influenced by those who oppose the discipline’s very existence. The changes to the curriculum demonstrate the power that right-wing Israel-advocacy groups have amassed in California—and shows how their work forecloses opportunities to frame the fight against antisemitism as part of an intercommunal effort to oppose white supremacy. 

The battle over the curriculum has attracted the attention of a range of Israel-advocacy organizations. JIMENA, a San Francisco Bay Area-based group with a focus on Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, has been joined by StandWithUs, known for its anti-BDS organizing on college campuses. StandWithUs recruited high school interns to publish numerous op-eds claiming the original ESMC was antisemitic, in both Jewish publications and mainstream media outlets such as CalMatters. Even after extensive revisions, the group continues to call for further alterations, claiming that the curriculum “celebrates or glorifies current and historical figures who have promoted antisemitism” because the original proponents of ethnic studies, the leaders of the Third World Liberation Front, “celebrated oppressive communist dictators.” StandWithUs also contends that the curriculum should revise a lesson on “Important Historical Figures Among People of Color” to cover figures from “marginalized communities,” and add prominent Jews such as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and writer Bari Weiss. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has also partnered with a coalition of groups opposing the original ESMC, the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, which includes the anti-affirmative action organization Californians for Equal Rights. The Alliance contends that critical race theory creates a “hostile classroom environment,” promotes “Neo-Marxist” ideology, and is insensitive to the “threat to human rights . . . communism still poses.” These accusations have led to the harassment of ethnic studies supporters, such as Professor Dylan Rodríguez, president of the American Studies Association and a professor at University of California Riverside, who received a death threat containing racist slurs to his university email after the right-wing group retweeted his profile in January. 

While Israel advocacy groups have objected to the inclusion of Arab American studies since the ESMC was first released in 2019, the excision of the material happened gradually. Last summer, after critics convinced the CDE to eliminate the original Arab American studies module, California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond and members of the state’s Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) indicated that a shorter sample lesson would take its place. But when the CDE released the new draft on December 7th, the content came as a shock to supporters of Arab American Studies. The single Arab American lesson plan had been changed from one on Arab immigrant stories to one on combating anti-Arab stereotypes, and had been moved to an “interethnic bridge-building” section rather than included with Asian American studies as originally planned. Lara Kiswani, a representative of the Save Arab American Studies Coalition, which includes authors of the original curriculum, and which communicated with the state about the lesson’s revision, said that the lesson on the immigration stories of notable Arab American leaders was removed from the first ESMC draft for mentioning the Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians from the future state of Israel during Israel’s War of Independence in 1947-1949). But when Arab American studies educators scrambled to put together a new multi-day lesson that did not include the Nakba, the CDE objected to its mention of Representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman in Congress, because she publicly supports BDS. Further, the CDE objected to listing “Palestine” as a place, claiming instead that such a reference needed to align with the US State Department’s naming convention of “Palestinian Territories.” In the end, the CDE removed the entire lesson plan, replacing it with  one on combating anti-Arab stereotypes. (The CDE did not respond to requests for comment on why the plan was replaced.)  

While Palestinian narratives have been removed from the model curriculum, two new lesson plans on Jewish American experiences have been added, one on the “intersectional identities” of Jewish Americans, and another on Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewry. The latter lesson, titled “Antisemitism and Jewish Middle-Eastern Americans” and created by JIMENA,  states that its goal is to “introduce . . . students to antisemitism and its manifestations through the lens of Jewish Middle Eastern Americans,” as well as to understand how “the intersectional identities of Jewish Middle Eastern Americans [have] resulted in multiple experiences of discrimination[.]” Yet the lesson plan contains few resources or examples of “experiences of discrimination” apart from antisemitism—meaning it does not mention anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia. Shahar Zaken, a graduate student in sociology at University of California Davis and longtime Mizrahi community organizer, argues that the discrimination Mizrahim face in the US cannot be covered by a curriculum that “deliberately eras[es] Islamophobia from the conversation”: The racial profiling and stigmatization that Mizrahim experience is of a piece with the treatment of Arab immigrants writ large. “Every Jewish Mizrahi that lives in America that looks Arab . . . has had an experience of Islamophobia,” he explained. 

But the lesson’s list of blog posts, podcasts, and news media for students to analyze includes six resources on general rising antisemitism in the US, and only two on racial discrimination faced by Mizrahim and Sephardim specifically—and the author of the latter two resources, Dr. Devin Naar, associate professor of history and chair of the Sephardic Studies program at the University of Washington, says that the lesson dodges the argument at the heart of his work. “It was disconcerting (to say the least) to see the spin and the ways in which the lesson plan totally evades my main point, [which is that] ‘Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews’ have faced extensive prejudice in the United States from other, normative, white Ashkenazi Jews and Jewish institutions,” he wrote in an email. Smadar Lavie, professor emerita of anthropology at UC Davis, submitted a related public comment to the California Department of Education (CDE) about the lesson plan’s exclusion of the Jewish community’s own role in marginalization of Mizrahim: “[A]bsent from the lesson plan is the intra-Jewish discrimination and prejudice [against] Mizrahim among the Ashkenazi majority of US Jewry,” she wrote.

Instead of including such content, the lesson plan puts forth an idea which has gained ground among Zionists in recent years: that Jews are “indigenous” to Israel/Palestine. The lesson plan includes “indigeneity” as one of its “key terms and concepts,” and, in a history section, claims that Jews were indigenous to Israel before expulsions in 586 BCE and 70 CE. But instead of engaging with Indigenous studies literature that explores the complexity of indigenous identity before, during, and after settler colonization, the idea is invoked in this lesson to position the modern state of Israel as a straightforwardly “decolonial” project—and therefore beyond criticism from the left. The claim of Jewish indigeneity has gained traction in recent years among American Zionists, including a large number of Christian Zionists, because of its power to respond to the assertion that Israel is a settler-colonial state by positing a natural and inherent connection between Jews and the land of Israel.

The lesson also includes short excerpts from two controversial definitions of antisemitism that seek to reframe criticism of Israel as a form of hate speech: one from the ADL and the other the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition. The ADL definition asserts that “excessive criticism of Israel” leads to antisemitic acts, while the full IHRA definition has been criticized by Palestinian intellectuals and Jewish anti-occupation groups for conflating Judaism with Zionism and for portraying certain criticism of Israel as inherently antisemitic. While the CDE removed the full links of these definitions from the lesson plan available for public comment, JIMENA has urged its supporters to email the CDE to reinstate the links in the lesson plan.

Ethnic studies supporters agree that studying antisemitism as a form of racism is worthwhile, particularly at this moment of white supremacist violence that also targets Jews in the US. Ethnic studies and Jewish studies have historically operated as separate disciplines, but scholars are increasingly carving out common ground: New scholarship in Jewish studies examines the racialization of white Jews in the US, untold histories of Jews of color, and contemporary issues of antisemitism and racism. At the same time, Jewish studies scholars are wholly absent from the campaign against the ESMC—the Jewish studies content in the curriculum has come instead from Israel advocacy groups. Naar described the JIMENA lesson plan as a “missed opportunity” to better incorporate Middle Eastern Jewish experiences into ethnic studies, where their inclusion could “problematize categories like ‘whiteness’ and ‘racism’” and “highlight the challenge posed by the figure of the ‘Arab-Jew.’” As much as he would like to see more overlap between Jewish and ethnic studies, he said, “I could in no way endorse the manner in which the proposed plan seeks to do it.” 

As California approaches the March 31st deadline to release the final model curriculum, achieving an outcome that pleases all parties will be virtually impossible. Supporters of Arab American studies are cautiously optimistic that public outcry may lead to some restoration of excised material—but the CDE’s actions so far suggest that this is unlikely. The creation of an intellectual frame that considers antisemitism alongside other forms of racism is also off the table as long as Israel advocacy groups hold the power to determine the way the curriculum defines antisemitism.

In response, ethnic studies supporters are embarking on what they see as a necessary alternative: the development, announced Tuesday, of a “liberatory model curriculum” written by many of the original ESMC’s co-authors. This “liberatory model curriculum” will include Arab American studies, and proponents hope it will become the center of a grassroots effort to convince schools and districts to adopt a more complete curriculum rather than be guided by the ESMC. The promise that ethnic studies holds for K-12 students, and its potential to build common cause against antisemitism and other forms of racism, may ultimately need to be realized in the very spaces where the discipline originated: on the margins, outside the bounds of state-sanctioned institutions and approval. 

A previous version of this article misstated a demand from the group StandWithUs; though StandWithUs contended that former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and writer Bari Weiss should be added to a lesson currently titled “Important Historical Figures Among People of Color,” the group also advocated for changing the lesson’s name to Important Historical Figures Among Marginalized Communities.” A previous version also referred to Smadar Lavie as a Mizrahi Studies scholar; she is an anthropologist. This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the model curriculum draft includes mention of Palestinian Americans, though all mention of Palestine as a place has been removed.

Gabi Kirk is a PhD candidate in geography with a designated emphasis in feminist theory and research at the University of California, Davis.