Your guide to advocating for education about Jews and antisemitism in your community, and keeping hatred and bias out of the classroom.
What is ethnic studies and how does it impact our community?
According to the California Department of Education, “the field of ethnic studies is the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and Indigeneity, with an emphasis on the experiences of people of color in the United States.” This academic field is rooted in a student movement called the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), which was active at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley in the late 1960s. Historically, it has focused primarily (but not exclusively) on Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities. This is because the experiences of these communities have not been adequately represented in public education.
Numerous interpretations and competing approaches to ethnic studies have emerged over the last 50+ years. For example, a multicultural approach focuses on broadly educating about the histories, texts, values, and perspectives of people from different communities. In contrast, a critical ethnic studies approach is more narrowly focused on the history and impact of colonialism, slavery, white supremacy, racism, and other forms of oppression against people of color.
On a fundamental level, StandWithUs supports marginalized communities having their voices and experiences represented in the classroom. Furthermore, because of our work together with thousands of citizens and partners across the state, in March, 2021 the California State Board of Education recognized that content about Jews and antisemitism belongs in K-12 ethnic studies.
At the same time, there are interest groups relentlessly trying to exploit ethnic studies courses as a platform for anti-Israel propaganda, antisemitism, and other forms of bias. They are pushing slanderous curriculum materials to teachers, schools, and school districts, and education officials.
On the one hand, we cannot allow this hatred to be institutionalized in our public education system. On the other, we have an opportunity to dramatically increase quality education about Jews and antisemitism in public schools.
Why should Jews and antisemitism be included in ethnic studies courses?
Jewish high school students across California have called for their stories to be included in ethnic studies. For example, Anna, a Latina Jewish high school student, believes ethnic studies should “reflect the full diversity of the Jewish people. In light of rising antisemitism in high schools and beyond, it must also teach students about this dangerous hatred. Learning about antisemitism in all its forms is crucial to building a full understanding of racism and discrimination in America.” We agree, and believe all students would benefit from learning about the Jewish community in its full diversity. Jews are an example of religious and ethnic identity being interconnected - a concept that is important for students to explore. Jewish experiences with oppression, immigration, fighting for human rights alongside other groups, and contributing to American culture have much to offer students of all backgrounds. Many Jews also identify with one or more of the four groups which are the focus of ethnic studies (Black, Latino, Asian, and Native Americans). Furthermore, learning about all forms of antisemitism is crucial to building a full understanding of racism, white supremacy, and discrimination in America, particularly in light of the increase in violent hate crimes against the Jewish community in recent years. We also believe education about Jews should not be limited to the history of the Holocaust. It should include the stories of Jewish refugees and immigrants from the Arab world, Iran, Israel, Central and South America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and beyond. California Department of Education and the State Board of Education have officially approved content about Jews for use in K-12 ethnic studies courses. This provides an important foundation which must be developed much further.
How can ethnic studies courses become harmful to Jewish and Israeli students?
In most cases, legislation, educational standards, and course outlines for ethnic studies are not problematic on the surface. Often, they include language, values, and goals we support. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Big picture, our challenge stems from university ethnic studies departments, many of which are institutionally biased against Israel. Too often, this descends into antisemitism with Jews and Israelis being smeared and dehumanized as privileged, white supremacist, colonial oppressors. The most egregious examples occurred in 2020 and 2021 in the San Francisco State University (SFSU) College of Ethnic Studies. An academic program within this department organized multiple events glorifying convicted terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S. designated terrorist group. While not all ethnic studies academics promote these destructive ideas, there has been far too little resistance within the field. As such, ignorance, bias, and hate filter down to activists and educators who advocate for ethnic studies and teach the subject in K-12 classrooms. This is why we have seen problems with the development of ethnic studies curriculums. If a committee of local “experts in the field” is formed to write curriculum and/or standards for ethnic studies courses, chances are that at least a few members will push anti-Israel bias and even antisemitism. Others involved likely won't know or care enough to push back without the active involvement of our community. As such, if we're not part of the process of curriculum development and implementation, we can expect that the outcome will be harmful to us. The most prominent example is the K-12 Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) written by the California Department of Education. The first draft of the ESMC included deeply offensive antisemitic content, anti-Israel narratives, and other one-sided political agendas. Now, the writers of that first draft are actively promoting this bias in school districts across the state. A California State University (CSU) professor who leads this campaign is on record smearing the Anti-Defamation League as a “white supremacist” organization. Anti-Israel bias is usually found in Arab American Studies materials, which are framed as part of Asian American studies (while Jewish immigrant communities from the same exact region are arbitrarily excluded for the most part). We have also seen misleading analogies between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and various injustices faced by Black, Latino, Native American, and other communities in the U.S.
Why are there efforts to exclude Jews and other groups from ethnic studies?
Some purists believe including education about Jews (and sometimes other groups like Armenian and Arab Americans) would dilute the focus on Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities. Others are politically motivated to include one-sided Palestinian perspectives, while excluding Jewish and Israeli voices. Thankfully, the final draft of California’s ESMC recognized that Jews belong in K-12 ethnic studies education.
Is this related to critical race theory?
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