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In California’s public schools, ethnic studies becomes a flashpoint

The long-simmering issue has suddenly taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Oct. 7 terror attacks

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The California State Capitol in Sacramento.

Weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, an Oakland, Calif., City Council meeting went viral as local residents stepped up to the lectern and spread outlandish, antisemitic lies about the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel. 

“The notion that this was a massacre of Jews is a fabricated narrative,” one speaker said. Another said that “calling Hamas a terrorist organization is ridiculous [and] racist.” Several spread the falsehood that Israel had “murdered their own people” on Oct. 7. 

The Oakland City Council was considering calling for a cease-fire in a resolution that the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council called “inflammatory” and “anti-Israel.” But this meeting was far from the first time that anti-Israel and antisemitic ideas had appeared in Oakland since Oct. 7. 

Often, the rhetoric mirrored what’s being taught in some of the area’s public schools. It’s part of a broader trend of educators bringing current events into the classroom — and in this case, teaching one-sided depictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to children as young as 6. 

The issue extends beyond Oakland to Southern Californian, where a city in Orange County has also adopted a school curriculum that Jewish leaders view as anti-Israel and antisemitic.

The Bay Area has become the epicenter of radical activity. Last week, an unauthorized teach-in at Oakland public schools featured dozens of teachers incorporating the conflict in Gaza into their curricula. An elementary school teacher used a workbook that described a Palestinian child being removed from his home by “a group of bullies called Zionists,” according to local publication The Oaklandside. One resource used in a high school classroom introduced Hamas under a section called, “Attempts to free Palestine.” 

The school board condemned the teach-in, but the representative council of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the local teachers union, endorsed it. The council also voted, in November, to call for a cease-fire. (Meanwhile, a resource compiled by OEA regarding “Palestine Liberation” said the body is “not taking a position on Hamas” because “Hamas is complicated.”) This week, the Oakland Unified School District canceled a planned school board meeting, where the body would have considered a cease-fire resolution, at the last minute, out of apparent safety concerns.

“The local fight is a beast. It is an absolute beast. It’s extremely difficult and challenging,” said Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. 

Levin and other Jewish community advocates in California described a fraught atmosphere for Jewish students in the weeks since Oct. 7. It’s one that they have long feared — and tried hard to avoid — after California passed an ethnic studies requirement in the state’s public high schools, following years of activism from left-wing groups. 

“What we’ve been concerned about since 2019 is that some ethnic studies activists have been insistent on incorporating anti-Zionist and in some cases explicitly antisemitic content in curricula,” said David Bocarsly, executive director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, a coalition of Jewish communal organizations throughout the state. 

According to U.S. News & World Report, which ranks American universities, ethnic studies is an “interdisciplinary field that examines the culture, history and experiences of different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., particularly people of color and other historically marginalized groups.”

California is one of 18 states to mandate some form of ethnic studies education in public schools, although most do not go as far as California. When the state was first considering making a semester of ethnic studies a mandatory graduation requirement, the original draft curriculum faced strong pushback from California’s Jewish community for its hostility toward Israel and support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. It also did not include education about antisemitism. A coalition of Jewish activists then worked with legislators to draft a model curriculum that was more inclusive, and which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. 

“This is a debate that has been going on for years now: Do we fight this outright? Or do we find a way to fight it from within, to protect our students?” asked Levin, who was one of the most prominent voices in the push to include more Jewish representation in the model ethnic studies curriculum. “We’re not going to rebuild a separate Jewish bubble here in California, even though some people probably would like to tell us to do that. No. This is our state, too. We have to make it better.”

But a group of far-left ethnic studies educators and academics began to shop the earlier, anti-Israel version of the curriculum to school districts after the model curriculum was signed into law in 2021, and in fact even while it was still being drafted. 

“Some of those initial authors went around and started shepherding their own curriculum, called the ‘Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum,’ to different school districts. It did include anti-Zionist content in it. So we have been trying to ensure that school districts don’t harm the Jewish community while implementing an ethnic studies curriculum that is meant to reduce harm for other communities,” said Bocarsly.

California has more than 900 school districts and thousands of schools. Each makes its own curriculum decisions; the state cannot mandate that each district and each school use its model curriculum. But the law signed by Newsom prohibits the teaching of biased or discriminatory content. 

In August, after a campaign by Jewish advocates, the California State Board of Education wrote to schools and cautioned them against using ethnic studies courses that promote bias and bigotry. The letter did not explicitly mention antisemitism, and the state has not sent any further communications on the issue since Oct. 7. (Other states have responded more strongly; on Thursday, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares wrote to district superintendents across Virginia to alert them to rising antisemitism in K-12 schools and calling on them to do more.)

“We don’t have a legislation problem in California. We have an enforcement problem,” said Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Bay Area JCRC. “That’s really where the community is feeling let down right now, and where we are pressing harder on those departments to crack the whip.” A spokesperson for Newsom declined to comment, and Jewish Insider did not receive a response to a request for comment sent to the state Department of Education. 

State Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, co-chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, told JI that he is considering legislation to address the matter when the legislature is in session next month.

“We’re deeply concerned about the horrific antisemitic and anti-Israel propaganda that we’ve seen pop up in a number of districts across the state,” said Gabriel, a Democrat. “Unfortunately, there are some folks with really extreme views who see our public education system as a convenient way to spread hate and misinformation. This is a serious challenge for our community and one that we should not underestimate.”

Since Oct. 7, some of the strongest advocates of ethnic studies education in California have revealed an extreme anti-Israel bias and downplayed the Hamas terror attacks in Israel. On Oct. 8, the Instagram account of the Coalition for Liberated Ethnic Studies reposted a graphic that said, “long live Palestinian resistance,” with a photo of a man holding a Palestinian flag on top of a tank.

The University of California Ethnic Studies Faculty Council, an alliance of ethnic studies educators across the UC system, wrote the university’s board of regents a letter on Oct. 16 decrying statements by the university’s administration “that distort and misrepresent the unfolding genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and thereby contribute to the racist and dehumanizing erasure of Palestinian daily reality.” The faculty council wrote that “to hold the oppressed accountable for ‘terrorism’ reinscribes a colonial narrative that seeks to have the world believe that history began on October 7, 2023.” The letter did not mention Hamas.

Most school districts in California are not teaching the so-called “Liberated Ethnic Studies” curriculum, or others that promote antisemitism. But since Oct. 7, the ones who support that worldview have become much more vocal.

“I still think most districts are complying. I think the difference is everyone is just much more on edge, and both sides of the issue are more energized to do something about it,” said Gregory. 

In San Francisco, the district’s teachers union voted in November to demand an immediate cease-fire and an end to U.S. aid to Israel. The Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a local advocacy organization, organized a walkout for Gaza in Bay Area public schools on Oct. 18 that accused Israel of committing genocide and called on teachers to “break the silence on Palestine at our schools.” 

The San Francisco Unified School District contracts AROC to provide some cultural education. Their agreement has come under scrutiny from SFUSD parents due to the group’s ties to the walkout, and it is now under investigation by the district. AROC has in recent weeks targeted Jewish leaders who speak out against antisemitism perpetrated by far-left activists.

“This is a subset of activists that have made explicit since October 7 what we’ve known all along. They have a problematic anti-Zionist bias and are intent on trying to incorporate that into high school lesson plans,” Bocarsly said of the “Liberated Ethnic Studies” proponents. 

The trend isn’t just manifesting in the Bay Area. 

“Jewish students are experiencing bullying and antisemitic comments in schools across Orange County as a result of Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel,” said Erik Ludwig, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. “Teachers and school administrators need to do a better job of checking their bias when they teach about Jews and Israel.”

Santa Ana, the county seat, has embraced an ethnic studies curriculum that Jewish advocates view as antisemitic and anti-Israel. A cadre of Jewish groups — the Anti-Defamation League, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, the American Jewish Committee and Potomac Law Group — filed a lawsuit against Santa Ana’s school district in September, alleging that the Southern California school board violated transparency laws in its implementation of the curriculum. 

The state’s largest city is not facing the same kind of hostility toward Israel that is widespread in the Bay Area. The result is that in Los Angeles, Jewish leaders and educators are thinking more proactively about how to incorporate nuanced, factual education about the Middle East into high school classrooms. (LA, though, is not without incident; a charter school located at a synagogue in Valley Village sparked scrutiny after it asked the synagogue to remove an Israeli flag and was forced to fire a first-grade teacher who taught six-year-olds about the “genocide of Palestine.”)

“Most of the Jewish elected leadership in the state and locally here, we support the idea [of ethnic studies], and have always just objected to the exclusion of the Jewish experience,” said Nick Melvoin, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District school board who is running for the congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). LAUSD’s teachers union, unlike its Bay Area counterparts, has not passed a resolution related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. The union considered a pro-BDS resolution in 2021 but ultimately voted it down.

A small number of Jewish parents have removed their children from Bay Area public schools in recent weeks. But most are staying, and Jewish parents in the Bay Area are engaging on these issues in a new way, according to JIMENA’s Levin, who has two children in public school in Marin County. 

“This is all happening because of concerned parents who are committed to our school system,” said Levin. “Even within the last couple of weeks, I’m seeing parents kind of self-select certain parents in the community to run for school boards and to get engaged and go to DEI meetings, even to get engaged at the county level.” 

Still, the issue is not confined to California, even if that’s where it is playing out in its most extreme form. (This is a trend: Several far-left, anti-Israel organizations, most notably Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, have their roots in the Bay Area.) The Minneapolis teachers union endorsed a statement calling for a cease-fire and a boycott of Israel, but they walked it back after facing pushback from Jewish families. 

“No one should be surprised that in blue cities, they’re going to see something like this,” said Gregory. “We’ve been so hyper-focused on the college and university-level issues, and rightfully so. But I think this, in the long run, could be much more damaging if we don’t head it off now.”

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