State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (center) met with Jewish leaders on Jan. 7 to discuss the controversial draft ethnic studies curriculum for California high schools. (Photo/Twitter-Rick Hirschhaut)
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (center) met with Jewish leaders on Jan. 7 to discuss the controversial draft ethnic studies curriculum for California high schools. (Photo/Twitter-Rick Hirschhaut)

Jewish leaders get their say on controversial ethnic studies curriculum

Jewish community leaders from throughout California met with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and other high-ranking officials in Sacramento this week to express concerns and gauge progress on revising a controversial ethnic studies curriculum plan.

The meeting, held Tuesday in a Department of Education room lined with photos of elected officials and state education leaders, was the latest push in a months-long campaign by Jewish community liaisons to persuade state officials to amend the draft.

In a July 29 open letter, Jewish lawmakers in Sacramento stated their “strong opposition” to a model that exhibits “anti-Jewish bias,” pointing out concerns such as the draft’s unvarnished criticism of Israel and its omission of any significant discussion of anti-Semitism.

Late in last year’s legislative session, legislators hurried to pass an extension to approve the curriculum, which will be used as a recommended framework for schools statewide. The state’s Instructional Quality Commission now has until Dec. 31 of this year to greenlight it.

Controversy began to unfold over the summer, spilling into the pages of national newspapers. Opposition came not just from Jews but also Hindus, Armenians and Koreans, who also felt excluded from the framework. Others still felt the more than 300-page document was overly ideological, or unbalanced in its political viewpoint.

Roughly a dozen people gathered for the meeting, the format of which was “conversational,” according to one attendee.

“It felt warm, as opposed to adversarial in any way,” said Jessica Trubowitch, public policy and community building director with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “[The state officials] made sure we felt their willingness to address the issues.”

The face-to-face meeting followed concerted lobbying efforts in the form of strongly worded letters, public comments and other written reviews, and represented a rare opportunity to sit down with the officials in charge of the revision process.

The meeting came some five months after a July 23 letter from the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, a lobbying group, to the chair of the Instructional Quality Commission. It included a 29-page, chapter-by-chapter review of the curriculum prepared by the Institute for Curriculum Services, an independently funded outfit operating under the auspices of the S.F.-based JCRC. The ICS develops curricula and trains teachers on issues related to Jews, Judaism and Israel in public schools.

Among the changes requested by ICS is the removal of all references to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

BDS, which seeks to end what it calls the “occupation and colonization of Palestinian land” via various actions against Israel and Israeli products and services, is “outside the disciplinary boundaries of American ethnic studies,” the review argues. Moreover, the proposed curriculum presents only a “single viewpoint on a complex international issue,” ICS says, that is “hostile to others involved in the matter.”

At the meeting, a handful of state officials — including Thurmond and former Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the state board of education president — sat around the table with Jewish representatives such as Trubowitch, Serena Eisenberg (Northern California director of the American Jewish Committee), Cliff Berg (JPAC lobbyist in Sacramento) and Richard Hirschhaut (director of AJC Los Angeles).

Consensus building with all relevant stakeholders, including the broad spectrum of the Jewish community, is key.

“They understood exactly why we were there,” said Eran Hazary, associate director in AJC’s San Francisco office.

Hazary echoed Trubowitch, saying the state officials seemed receptive to the Jewish leaders’ point of view. Scheduled to last 30 minutes, the meeting instead went 45 minutes to an hour, attendees said.

“Thurmond said he was honestly hurt when he saw what was in the first ethnic studies draft — and the backlash from the Jewish community,” Hazary said.

In an earlier interview with J., Thurmond, elected in 2018 to oversee state public schools, said he circled in his draft the word “Nakba” — Arabic for “catastrophe” and a word used in reference to the creation of the State of Israel.

“As far as I’m concerned, there should be no reference to the creation of anyone’s homeland as being catastrophic,” he said.

Still, though attendees said they were encouraged by the meeting, and that they believe the revision is heading in the right direction prior to its public re-release in April, officials made few promises about specific changes. The Instructional Quality Commission will be meeting publicly next week to discuss elements of the revision process.

“They’re in a heavy review process ongoing right now,” Trubowitch said. “They’re trying to figure out how to address a number of different groups that have raised concerns.”

After its release, the curriculum spurred a rare, all-hands response from the California Jewish community, with recommendations for amendments pouring in from a diverse range of Jewish groups.

Organizations from the Anti-Defamation League to JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) took issue with the curriculum model, which was written by three CDE curriculum writers and edited by an ad hoc, state-appointed advisory committee of 18 California high school teachers and college professors.

JIMENA wrote in an August open letter that the experience of Sephardi Jews had been “completely erased.”

Ethnic studies — the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color — emerged out of the transformational social milieu and antiwar movements of the 1960s. It attempts to correct for generations of history told from the perspective of white men, and when taught in high schools, it has been shown to lead to improved grades among at-risk students.

Many California school districts have offered the course, usually taught in the ninth grade, for years, including school districts in San Francisco and San Mateo. A 2016 law required the DOE to develop a curriculum model that would be recommended for statewide use, while another bill sponsored by Jose Medina, an associate member of the 16-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus, would make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. That bill was also delayed one year following the controversy.

Among the concerns of Jewish groups is that the draft lauds BDS, which it refers to multiple times and describes as a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions,” without providing any pro-Israel counterpoint. And it includes a course on Arab-American studies but none on Jewish-American studies, and excludes any serious discussion of anti-Semitism, despite entries for other forms of bigotry such as Islamophobia, homophobia and patriarchy.

Audio recordings of the committee’s deliberations revealed that curriculum developers expressed concern about opening what one person called “Pandora’s box” to ethnic groups outside the traditional scope of ethnic studies. Months later, it appeared their fears were realized, as many groups expressed concerns.

State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14 about the state's proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. (From left) Assemblyman Marc Berman, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Senator Ben Allen, Assemblyman Jose Medina (Photo/Facebook-Abby Porth)
State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14 about the state’s proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. (From left) Assembly member Marc Berman, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Sen. Ben Allen, Assembly member Jose Medina (Photo/Facebook-Abby Porth)

Representatives of the American Hellenic Council, the Armenian National Committee of America, the Hindu American Foundation and the Korean American Coalition signed onto a Nov. 4 letter with the AJC addressed to Thurmond and Darling-Hammond. Its authors argued the curriculum mistakenly cast out beyond the four main groups — by including lessons on Arab American studies and Pacific Islander studies, but not on their ethnic groups.

“Ethnic studies traditionally has been and should continue to be about African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos/Chicanos and Asian Americans,” the letter stated. “If the curriculum is committed to including the experiences of ethnic groups beyond these four groups, then those drafting the curriculum should not be allowed to cherry-pick communities without public scrutiny.”

The curriculum writers argued the added courses fell under the umbrella of Asian American studies.

Some academic outsiders have criticized the proposed curriculum — drafted by academics and others steeped in the discipline of ethnic studies, which emerged out of the 1960s New Left — for being overly ideological, dogmatic or politically tinged. An Aug. 4 editorial in the Los Angeles Times called it “jargon-filled” and “all-too-PC.”

In the face of these criticisms, the curriculum’s draftees say they are open to revisions but have pushed back strongly against what they feel are efforts to “dilute” their work. The organization Save CA Ethnic Studies is lobbying to keep the model as is, for the most part.

“This curriculum is under attack,” reads a statement on the Save CA Ethnic Studies website. “Groups with little to no experience in the discipline have waged an aggressive lobbying campaign against the Ethnic Studies model curriculum framework.”

A Change.org petition launched by the group calls on the Department of Education to “keep the current model curriculum draft (with some revisions)” and to “maintain the Ethnic Studies curricular framework” without “diluting or converting it into a non-equivalent field.” It had more than 11,400 signatories as of Friday.

R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a spokesperson for Save CA Ethnic Studies, told J. in a recent email that the group is trying to mend fences with some Jewish groups but does not support a wholesale revision of the draft.

“[Our coalition] is thankful for several Jewish organizations and many Jewish individuals in support of our work,” Cuauhtin wrote.

A former co-chair of the advisory committee tasked with overseeing the drafting of the curriculum, he touted productive conversations with state Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica and Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that develops educational materials on ethics and the Holocaust.

“Part of the role of Save CA Ethnic Studies is helping ensure this project remains grounded in the legacy of 50+ years of Ethnic Studies,” Cuauhtin wrote. “Consensus building with all relevant stakeholders, including the broad spectrum of the Jewish community, is key,” he added.

It’s not only Jewish community organizations that have been contacting state education officials during the revision process.

Through it all, Allen has remained actively plugged in, making regular calls to Darling-Hammond and Stephanie Gregson, a deputy state superintendent, according to his legislative aide.

The calls are “basically a reminder that we’re still here, paying attention, interested in the outcome, and to not forget about us,” said the aide, David Bocarsly, who also is director of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus chaired by Allen. “We have gotten some decent commitments that some of our asks are going to be met.”

Hazary, the AJC staffer in San Francisco, said he came away from the meeting with the impression that the Jewish community could expect to see a very different curriculum come April, when it will be re-released and undergo another public comment phase. Among the highly inflammatory elements of the first draft was a rap lyric from a Palestinian artist that said Israelis “use the press so they can manufacture” support for Israel, something that Hazary felt would have little chance of surviving the revision process.

“From the outset, it really felt like the kinds of things found in the first iteration had nothing to do with the second iteration,” Hazary said.

Bocarsly said that education officials have “committed to removing some of the BDS stuff” and “incorporating more about anti-Semitism.” What remains to be seen is whether the curriculum — which contains a course on Arab American studies — will also include a comparable course on Jewish American studies, or whether Arab American studies will be removed.

“In general, we are going to assess this by asking: Does this seem to fairly include Jews in the same way that it does other groups not part of the four main ethnic groups?” Bocarsly said. “If so, that would be satisfactory for us.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misspelled R. Tolteka Cuauhtin’s name as J. Tolteka Cuauhtin.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.