Thursday, September 09, 2021

How California's Jewish Community Sealed Its Win in the Battle Over the State's Ethnic Studies Program

The California legislature has passed AB 101, a law mandating ethnic studies instruction for all high school graduates starting in 2030. The bill was passed with the strong support of California's Jewish legislative caucus as well as Jewish community leaders throughout the state. This marks a decisive moment in the years-long battle over Ethnic Studies, where Jewish activists successfully rallied to reject an early, antisemitic draft curriculum and instead worked tirelessly to create pathbreaking course plans and curricular resources that ensure antisemitism and Jewish experience takes pride of place in state schools.

Unsurprisingly, the die-hard opponents of the bill -- those who insist that Ethnic Studies must always and ever be antisemitic -- are, well, dying hard. AMCHA, one of the leading groups on the Jewish right trying to muster opposition to Ethnic Studies, lamented in a press release that the law "Open[s] the Door to Antisemitic Curricula". While admitting that the new law actively disavows the antisemitic first draft and urges local school boards not to use it, AMCHA says the bill "does not, and cannot, prohibit a school district from using the antisemitic first draft of the model curriculum" (or other potential antisemitic alternatives).

AMCHA may not even be correct about this: the statement from the California Jewish Legislative Caucus contends that its amendments to the bill "expressly prohibit the use of curriculum that was rejected because of concerns about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias". And at the very least, the law puts up several hurdles in front of any school board that wishes to adopt out from the state-recommended curriculum -- both in the form of heightened public meeting and deliberation requirements for opt-out districts as well as demonstrate that its proposed alternative does not "reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination". To the extent there are potential antisemitic Ethnic Studies courses still under consideration, these provisions -- and the last one in particular -- seem to provide, if not an insurmountable hurdle, then the highest hurdle the California legislature can reasonably impose.

But even taken on its own terms, we should reflect on just how weak AMCHA's objection actually is. Their headline is that the law "opens the door to antisemitic curricula". But that isn't true -- if, as AMCHA puts it in the body of its statement, the problem is that the law doesn't prohibit a district from adopting antisemitic curricula, then there is the inconvenient problem that California school districts already weren't prohibited from adopting such a curriculum. The law doesn't open any doors; at worst, it doesn't fully slam one shut.

Framed that way, though, the opposition to AB 101 becomes even harder to swallow. The choice is between a world where districts are free to adopt antisemitic curricula with minimal restriction, and one where their freedom to do so is at worst highly circumscribed by specific state disapproval, heightened regulatory restrictions, and the placement of the very-much-not antisemitic model Ethnic Studies curriculum as the default offering. Those concerned about antisemitism in California schools obviously should pick door #2, and so it isn't surprising that AMCHA has been very lonely in its crusade against the law.

And as we mark this moment, I want to reflect on how it might demarcate a sea change in how the Jewish community relates to these "identity politics" brouhahas which have sapped so much of our collective energy over the past few years. After a period where it seemed as if reactionary forces could simply mutter "intersectionality" in a foreboding tone and get the entire Jewish press to snap to attention, it was striking to see just how thin the opposition to California's reformed curriculum was. The infamous Tablet article which resorted to outright fabrications (in addition to smearing a one-of-a-kind curricular unit devoted to Mizrahi Jewish history as "crude" and divisive) to make its case was one example. AMCHA's press release blaming  AB 101 for a problem that would be worse in its absence is another. Far from driving the conversation, the efforts to tar any and all Ethnic Studies offerings in California as irretrievably racist or antisemitic had surprisingly little influence on Jewish communal discourse.

One can tell these critics are a bit disoriented. They expected that they would be at the vanguard of a righteous Jewish battle against the evils of Ethnic Studies. Instead, they found themselves mostly alone and entreating against the overwhelming Jewish communal consensus that was positively oriented towards the idea of Ethnic Studies and committed to constructively working through and fixing any flaws. Faced with the possibility that Ethnic Studies was not, contrary to the unfalsifiable hypothesis, immune to reform or alteration to accommodate Jewish voices, the critics were left befuddled and disorganized.

To some extent, I think this might be the story of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values as well. At first, I thought it was an example of prominent mainstream Jews engaging in another round of ridiculous and destructive hyperbole directed at caricatured versions of anti-racist scholarship. And I still think that, but now I want to attach a rider to "mainstream". Increasingly, I think JILV came into being because its progenitors think the "anti-woke" movement is losing ground in mainstream Jewish circles. They can't trust the big name organizations and federations to fight these fights anymore, so they need to go independent. JILV is not a vanguard, it is a rear-guard -- a group of bitter dead-enders who can sense that the tides in Jewish communal life are changing and that the organizational consensus is moving away from reflexive (and often ill-informed) condemnation and towards collaboration and mutually-affirming constructiveness.

As a marker of the change, there are worse symbols than the passage of AB 101 -- a diverse group of Jewish organizations and politicians who put in the work and can take pride in its fruit, standing over largely routed and vanquished opponents who did not notice the sands shifting under their feet.

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