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How this teen helped ensure anti-Semitism won’t be taught in California

Updated: Oct 27, 2019

OCTOBER 21, 2019

California state Capitol building in Sacramento (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

On Sept. 20, I had the incredible opportunity to go to the State Capitol in Sacramento and fight for a cause close to my heart.

In August, the California Board of Education released a draft proposal, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, that alarmed many people in the Jewish community, myself included. The draft did not include any meaningful content about Jews or anti-Semitism, and it openly promoted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and other anti-Israel agendas.

I know there is a vital need for education on anti-Semitism in the public school system. My first exposure to anti-Semitism was in the fifth grade when a boy regularly held up a Hitler salute to me. Too often, I hear that Holocaust jokes are “just jokes.” My responses are met with regular backlash that I am “overreacting.” So, my question is — when should we start to care? After a Jewish man is beaten in New York? Or after two mass shootings at synagogues within a year?

Frustrated, I felt helpless and that no one heard me. So when StandWithUs offered me an opportunity to have a say in my education, I took it within seconds. I am beyond grateful to be a high school intern for a nonprofit that embodies my fundamental core values.

In August, StandWithUs released an action alert, alongside the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Amcha Initiative, Club Z, the Israeli-American Council, the American Jewish Committee and others. Nearly 18,500 comments were mobilized from people across the political spectrum. Later in August, the state board of education president and California’s superintendent of public instruction acknowledged the flaws in the curriculum and called for it to be redesigned accordingly.

But the decision rested with the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory body to the California State Board of Education. That is why I went to Sacramento with three other SWU interns — Kian Mirshokri and Danielle York (a former intern) from Palisades Charter High School in Los Angeles and Meshi Benezri from Woodbridge High School in Orange County.

We spoke during the public comments portion of a meeting of the IQC. I stated, “As a member of an ethnic minority, I fully support the goal of ethnic studies. However, this proposed curriculum not only doesn’t include me, but actively marginalizes me.”

I shared my dismay that the draft included a poem strongly implying that Jews control the media, echoing classic anti-Semitic tropes. Since they had the final say, I implored them to care — to care about all the students who have to sit in class feeling attacked every day for who they are if the curriculum remained unchanged.

The board should pay careful attention to the current high school students who spoke with one voice.

The draft had to be changed. After all, we are the ones affected by it.

I am glad the committee heard various perspectives. There was also concern from parents who want to send their children to schools where they can be safe, and from heads of Jewish organizations from throughout the state.

Opposing us were people who implored the committee “not to take away ethnic studies.” Yet almost everyone who spoke against the draft, including me, emphasized that we support the goal of ethnic studies, and do not want to take it away. I believe that if we genuinely listen to each other’s concerns, a large part of this disconnect would be resolved.

In the end, it seems our voices were heard.

Instead of moving forward with the current draft, the IQC decided to take no action. There will now be an extended process to revise the curriculum over the next year.

When asked if this is what I wanted to do — skip school and travel to a meeting where someone may not even listen to me — my response was simple: No, I didn’t want to do this. This shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.

I don’t want to have to constantly call people out.

But I will.

I will keep fighting.

We cannot let people silence us into submission. We must stand united against prejudice.

While I am thankful the IQC is giving itself time to get this right, our community must monitor the process closely. For all our sakes, I hope the next draft lives up to its stated goals and values.

Michaela Pelta is the 2019-20 StandWithUs High School Intern at Lowell High School in San Francisco, where she is a junior.


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