California Compromises on Ethnic Studies

Following pressure from Israel-advocacy groups regarding a model ethnic studies curriculum, the state plans to retain some material on Arab Americans while excising references to Palestine.

Gabi Kirk
August 21, 2020
Members of California’s Instructional Quality Commission meet to hear public comment on a controversial model curriculum for ethnic studies in state schools, August 13th, 2020. Photo: YouTube

IN SPRING 2019, TURATH, a youth-led research effort in the San Francisco Bay Area, surveyed over 300 students about representation and perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in their schools. Over 60% of student respondents said they had spent “no time learning about Arab history and/or culture” in their classes. 

“Even though not all Arabs are Muslim or all Muslims are Arab, Islamophobia is so important in the US and people don’t understand what Islam is—it’s only seen as bad,” said Suhera Nuru, an Ethiopian Muslim rising senior at Berkeley High School, and the vice president of the school’s Muslim Student Association. She said that an Arab American studies curriculum, with its analysis of Islamophobia and the racialization of Muslims in the US, would help her classmates better understand her as a Black Muslim. Of the half dozen of her rising senior classmates that I spoke to, none could recall learning about Arab American experiences or Islamophobia in the US in their required ethnic studies classes at Berkeley High, which has one of the nation’s oldest ethnic studies programs. 

Last year, the California Department of Education (CDE) planned to provide materials for Arab American studies education as part of a new Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) for K-12 schools across the state. But after the first draft of the curriculum came under heavy fire from Israel-advocacy groups for its Palestine-related content, the Arab American studies content will be heavily reduced—and all content related to Palestine removed.  

A new ESMC draft released by the CDE’s Institutional Quality Commission (IQC) on July 31st, which is significantly shorter than the original, announced in its preface that the model curriculum would “focus on the traditional ethnic studies first established in higher education which has been characterized by four foundational disciplines: African American, Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x, Native American and Indigenous, and Asian American studies”—signaling that Arab American and Pacific Islander studies had been cut from the curriculum. Community organizations mobilized for two weeks to protest the excision of those disciplines. Then, during an all-day meeting on August 13th, during which the commissioners met on Zoom and heard over three hours of public comment calls, the IQC announced that it had partially reversed course. Pacific Islander Studies would be reinstated, along with a single Arab American studies sample lesson, as opposed to an entire Arab American studies section as originally proposed. 

The ESMC draft goes up for public comment this September, then back to the IQC for review and finalization. At the August 13th meeting, IQC Director Shanine Coats stated that there will be a separate feedback process and timeline only for the single Arab American studies lesson, which “will include public comment to make sure that any language perceived as antisemitic is removed.” According to Coats, the Arab American studies lesson will focus only “on the experience of immigration for Arab Americans in the United States,” suggesting that other sample lesson plans and glossary terms from the first draft, including references to Palestine, will not be preserved. 

Public comment on the new draft, as well as conversations with community advocacy groups, show that no one is entirely happy with the new plan or the proposed process. While conservative and Jewish Israel-advocacy  groups have claimed victory regarding the exclusion of Palestine and other content perceived as “anti-Israel,” they still complain that the curriculum in general excludes Jewish American experiences. Ethnic studies advocates, meanwhile, are hopeful that they will ultimately influence the IQC to reinstate the original draft model curriculum in as close to its original form as possible, including the content on Palestine. 

A 2016 CALIFORNIA LAW mandated that the state create a model curriculum as a resource for K-12 schools interested in teaching ethnic studies—a discipline that emerged from radical social movements in the 1960s and ’70s and traditionally consists of histories and theories from African American, Native American, Chicanx and Latinx, and Asian American studies. (California schools are not currently required to teach ethnic studies, though a bill to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement is making headway in the legislature.) When the CDE released its first draft of the ESMC in the summer of 2019, it included an Arab American studies section as part of the Asian American studies module. That section included suggestions for teaching about connections between Palestine and Black Lives Matter and a reference to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Jewish groups that advocate for Israel, like the American Jewish Committee, balked at the Palestine-related content and campaigned to have it removed from the draft, complaining that the material was antisemitic and arguing that the Jewish American experience should also be included. Their campaign came alongside broader attacks on the model curriculum from the right, which argue that the curriculum is a left-wing project of political indoctrination. Due to the massive number of critical public comments received during the initial comment period—including more than 18,000 comments expressing concern about BDS and antisemitism—the curriculum went into a closed revision process. Ethnic studies advocates, including many of the authors of the original 2019 draft, worried that a new version of the curriculum would stray from the discipline’s radical roots and that it might exclude Arab American studies altogether. 

In the past few months, as the release of the new curriculum draft approached, public support for Arab American studies has grown, coming from ethnic studies faculty, K-12 educators, community organizations, and supporters across California. The CDE has recorded over 8,500 public comments this past year in support of Arab American studies since the original public comment period closed in August 2019. At the IQC meeting on August 13th, dozens of students called in demanding Arab American studies remain in the final curriculum. “It was inspiring to see so many voices from various communities calling to maintain the integrity of the discipline and calling into question the lack of transparency in the process,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Committee, which has mobilized in favor of saving Arab American and critical ethnic studies. Despite her frustrations with the IQC’s process, Kiswani expressed gratitude for State Superintendent Tony Thurmond’s assertion that Arab American studies would remain in the final draft. 

Meanwhile, mainstream Jewish groups are celebrating the removal of mentions of Palestine and BDS from the curriculum. Tye Gregory, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, told J. Weekly that the new draft was a “much more positive curriculum for our community.” During the IQC meeting, representatives of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) said they approved of the IQC’s removal of “what was widely considered to contain antisemitic and anti-Israel comments.” 

When the IQC released the July 31st draft ESMC with a focus on just the “four main groups” of ethnic studies, Jewish groups dropped their demand to include Jewish Americans in the curriculum, which had been part of their original campaign against the curriculum’s first draft. However, the last-minute change to reinstate Pacific Islander and Arab American studies renewed calls for more “inclusion” of Jewish Americans, particularly Jews of color. The new draft contains a sample module from a Humboldt County high school on the history of the assimilation of Jews and Irish people into whiteness in the US, which would analyze “certain events in American history that have led to Jewish and Irish Americans gaining racial privilege.” Many comments claimed that this treatment of the American Jewish experience erased antisemitism and Jews of color. In the context of rising nationwide support for Black Lives Matter, this new strategy reflects a push to advocate for Zionism by using the language of anti-racism and solidarity, rather than by opposing progressive anti-racism altogether. 

The IQC meeting also saw a massive mobilization of public commenters who identified themselves as Jews from the Middle East and North Africa or their descendants. This mobilization was the result of organizing by the nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa); nearly all of the opposition comments used JIMENA’s talking points. One public commenter said the curriculum was in “blatant disregard of thousands of years of Jewish history” and reinforced a “hierarchy of select minority struggles.” Another said that Arab American studies upheld “imperialism in the Middle East” and erased the “centuries of colonization and oppression [faced by] minority groups in that region.” As part of a coalition of Middle Eastern minority groups, JIMENA has called for Arab American studies to “include, specifically name, and teach on the diverse groups of Mizrahi Jews, Coptic Christians, Kurds, Iranians, Assyrians, and other minority groups from the region who together represent 60% of California’s Middle Eastern population”—or even to be renamed as “Middle Eastern American studies.” State Senator Ben Allen, chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus and a member of the IQC, repeated this demand during the meeting, requesting the IQC consider including JIMENA’s lesson plan on “Antisemitism and Middle-Eastern Jews” in the next revision round. 

On a panel supporting Arab American studies before the August 13th meeting, Michal David, a multi-ethnic Mizrahi Jew in LA who has organized in favor of the curriculum, called mobilizations like JIMENA’s “Mizrahi-washing.” According to Lihi Yona in +972 Magazine, the term describes a rising trend of “using the Mizrahi narrative to try and better Israel’s image around the world” by “situating Mizrahi Jews as the ultimate racialized victim in the region.” In an interview, David pushed back on such a use of Mizrahi history: “The idea that antisemitism would inherently exist more in Arab American studies than any other [discipline] not only erases Arab Jews and Jews from Arab countries, but also sets up this precedent that we are always going to be foes . . . The intense criticism and monitoring of anything that is Arab continues to underscore why Arab American studies is so important in our public schools.” 

The public comments also included a number of calls from Jews from the former Soviet Union, decrying the entire curriculum for supposedly promoting anti-capitalist ideology. One caller decried the “use of textbooks by Marxist authors,” while another said their ancestors fled “two of the biggest scourges in history, socialism and antisemitism.” Masha Merkulova, director of Club Z, a Zionist youth group, described the curriculum as “oppression studies,” saying, “I came to this country as a political refugee, fleeing the very ideology that this curriculum promotes.” Club Z’s Twitter feed includes photographs of supporters holding signs with the exact language that callers used for public comment—for example, one caller yelled, “You do not get to decide which minority lives matter,” using language strikingly similar to one of Club Z’s signs—indicating that the group may have organized some of the opposition turn out.

Yet these complaints from conservative representatives of the Jewish community have been met with growing support for ethnic studies and Arab American studies from progressive Jewish leadership and organizations. Rachel Gottfried-Clancy, the executive director of Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), a progressive youth-led organization based in Oakland, said an invitation from Palestinian youth to support ethnic studies led JYCA—which has a new affinity group of Jewish youth of color—to write a letter supporting the original model curriculum. “I want to see a curriculum and a process that brings all Jews, white Jews especially, into solidarity with Jews of color within the Jewish community, and with other communities of color,” Gottfried-Clancy said. “My fear is that this new curriculum takes away specifically the analysis around power and oppression.” Gabriella Lerman, a member of JCYA and rising senior at Berkeley High, said she is thankful for how ethnic studies classes have taught her to understand herself as a Jewish Latina, noting that ethnic studies’ analysis of white supremacy is crucial to understanding how antisemitism is linked to other forms of oppression, like anti-Blackness. 

Several members of Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon, a new collective of post-Soviet Jews who have been organizing around intersectional issues, also pushed back on the Soviet Jewish criticism of the curriculum. Stepha Velednitsky grew up attending California public schools, and lamented the absence of ethnic studies instruction. “My lack of education around structural racism in my K-12 years left me woefully unprepared to participate in American society,” Velednitsky said. “As recent Soviet migrants, my parents didn’t have the historical context to supplement my education about US society.” Sophia Sobko moved to San Diego with their family in 1991 on a Jewish refugee visa. “Experiences of oppression in the former Soviet Union are important and must be studied in their historical and geographic specificity,” they said. “But state violence that my ancestors suffered in the Soviet Union is not grounds for censoring Marxist analysis.”  

The criticism from various conservative sectors of the Jewish community comes in the context of a wider right-wing lambasting of ethnic studies as, in the words of CalMatters columnist Dan Walters, “ersatz Marxist agitprop.” IQC Commissioner Jose Iniguez seemed to agree with this complaint, saying at the August 13th hearing that he was concerned by public comment which claimed that the draft had “a socialist agenda.” “I would have to re-enroll in graduate school to understand this curriculum,” he said. 

However, the Save Ethnic Studies Coalition does have allies on the IQC. During the meeting, Commissioner Manuel Rustin pushed back against Iniguez’s comments. “With all due respect, what it sounds like you want here is not an ethnic studies curriculum,” he said. “If we were doing a model curriculum for astrophysics, we would not be here picking apart the terminology for astrophysicists trying to fit us.” Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber agreed: “The reality is that ethnic studies will make people uncomfortable. If it doesn’t make people uncomfortable, it hasn’t done its job.”

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