California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign into law Assembly Bill 331 this week, which will require public high schools to offer an ethnic studies course by 2025, and to begin making the course a requirement to graduate by 2029. While the innovative educational effort is commendable, there are important lessons to be learned from the California process, with particular focus on issues of concern to the American Jewish community.
Last year, the state department of education rejected the first draft of a proposed ethnic studies curriculum. Among the more vocal critics of the draft was the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which claimed the proposed curriculum effectively erased the American Jewish experience, omitted material on the issue of anti-Semitism, denigrated Jews and singled out Israel for condemnation. Critics also charged that the curriculum included an anti-Semitic trope and an anti-Israel lesson plan explaining the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The caucus worked with the department of education to redesign the curriculum, and a new proposal is now being considered by the state’s Instructional Quality Commission. While the new curriculum is seen as a significant improvement, critics are still concerned that it has anti-Semitic components, and fails to describe the full historic and cultural scope of American Jewry.
The California Jewish community has been unified in its effort on this issue, and is currently lobbying for four reasonable changes to the model curriculum and its process: proper description of the Jewish American experience and teachings about anti-Semitism; ensuring that denigrating content about Jews and Israel, including support for BDS, is removed; inclusion of sample lessons reflecting the diversity of Jewish Americans; and a recommitment to transparency and the proper processes for the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.
Ethnic studies programs promote pride and broaden understanding, and can be a means of weaving Americans from disparate backgrounds together. They enable students to see themselves and their classmates as actors in the broader American experience — a particularly important objective as America continues to move toward becoming a majority-minority country.
Critics of the model curriculum’s Jewish content argue that drafters appear to lack an understanding of what American Jews are. According to Tyler Gregory, the executive director of the San Francisco JCRC, “The Department of Education doesn’t understand that Jews are an ethnic group. They’re looking at us like a religious group. And of course, we’re not just a religious group. And there are many ethnic-based hate crimes against the Jewish community as well. So they don’t understand us, which is ironic, because that’s the whole point about putting the Jewish community in, so that people understand Jewish identity.”
We agree. At the same time, we caution that Jewish identity isn’t — or shouldn’t be — based primarily on anti-Semitism. Our Jewish tradition and identity is much deeper and more meaningful than the sum total of anti-Semitic actions. We want high school students — including Jewish high schoolers — to learn that, too.