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Passed in 2021, AB 101 established a new ethnic studies high school graduation requirement. Stock photo
California FocusOpinion

Elias: Will anti-Semitism kill ethnic studies?

There suddenly appears to be a strong possibility that the ethnic studies course requirement state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom adopted two years ago as a California high school graduation requirement may never become reality in many places.

If so, it will come as a relief to members of several ethnic groups who have felt targeted from the moment this requirement was proposed about five years ago. Two drafts of rules and suggested content for the required course were rejected by lawmakers and the state Board of Education before a plan was finally approved with “guardrails” supposedly preventing content that promotes “bias, bigotry and discrimination.”

But some school districts have hired groups including authors of the rejected ethnic studies versions to write local plans, and some of those have allegedly amounted to end runs around the so-called guardrails.

Among other things, the early versions of the model curriculum adopted by the state claimed that immigrant groups including Irish-, Polish- and Jewish-Americans arrived in this country with built-in “White privilege,” no matter how poverty-ridden and filled with discrimination their lives really were.

The authors of the rejected versions also have at times tried to make a distinction between Jews and Zionists, usually defined as believers in the concept that the land occupied by the current state of Israel and the Palestinian territories in Gaza and on the West Bank of the Jordan River should be a Jewish homeland.

But there is no real distinction, as that last line of the texts used at millions of Passover Seders over the centuries makes clear. Almost all Zionists are Jews and most Jews believe there needs to be an Israel if only to provide a refuge in case of future reruns of the Holocaust.

The reason for this attempted distinction is clear: the ethnic studies authors — many dedicated to the cause of “liberated” or “critical” ethnic studies — do not want to be accused of anti-Semitism, even while they back largely unfounded claims that Israel is a racist “apartheid” state that persecutes Palestinians.

These folks ignore history, including the five-nation 1948 Arab assault on Israel moments after it declared independence and they ignore the charters of some leading Palestinian groups that call for ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Jews “from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea.”

There is little doubt that if their version of Jewish and Jewish-American history were widely taught, it would promote anti-Semitism of the type that has led to synagogue shootings from Pittsburgh to Poway.

But because the 2021 AB 101, the measure that established the upcoming new graduation requirement, allows school boards to devise their own curricula, and not use the state’s model, the authors of rejected ethnic studies versions remain active and continue making money off their prejudices.

Some school districts — including Hayward Unified, Castro Valley Unified and Santa Ana Unified — have already hired University of California and California State University faculty who are members of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association to write their curricula.

In mid-September, the Anti-Defamation League and several other prominent Jewish-American organizations sued the Santa Ana district claiming it adopted its ethnic studies curriculum in an illegal, discriminatory manner.

That’s why, as a letter to legislators from more than 1,000 Californians noted, “Jewish communities across our state have discovered discriminatory content in several school districts in which anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel biases are being adopted in ethnic studies curricula.”

The way to stop this, the letter suggests, is for the Legislature not to provide the estimated $275 million per year needed to fund the graduation requirement. An amendment to AB 101 stipulates that the bill “is operative only upon an appropriation of funds…for purposes of (funding ethnic studies).” 

As of late summer, less than one-fifth of that money had been allocated, and the letter suggests not providing more until or unless the curriculum is cleaned up and discriminatory language or false and defamatory information in local curricula is also corrected.

Without the money, most districts won’t implement the new graduation requirement, which might then fade away under terms of the funding amendment to AB 101.

It just may be that precisely such a disappearance is the right disposition of this requirement, which has always been motivated in part by resentment rather than documentable  history.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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