Monday, August 05, 2019

On the California Ethnic Studies Controversy

Soon, if you haven't already, you will likely hear of controversies relating to the draft model ethnic curriculum guidelines recently promulgated by the California Department of Education. The LA Times recently editorialized against them as a jargon-laden PC smorgasbord, and much of the Jewish community has also rallied against the curriculum's almost complete exclusion and erasure of Jews, Jewishness, and antisemitism (alongside its promotion of BDS). The California Legislative Jewish Caucus released a letter expressing its deep concerns with the curriculum, including the somewhat explosive allegation that the omission of Jews was not a mere oversight but rather was "intentional" on the part of the curriculum drafters and reflective of their particular "political bias".

There's also a related movement by the California Middle Eastern Jewish community, led by JIMENA, that is protesting against the specific omission of Middle Eastern/Mizrahi Jews from the "Arab American Studies" curriculum (see their "call to action").

The public comment period remains open; I actually submitted comments several days ago. Mine focused on the Mizrahi Jewish issue; while I was in conversation with JIMENA on this question, my comments were my own and submitted in my personal capacity.

Anyway. In an undoubtedly futile effort to contextualize this controversy, which I am sure will soon explode into the press as "the Jews vs. Ethnic Studies!", I offer the following quick thoughts:

  • None of the major interventions I've seen from the Jewish community have opposed the Ethnic Studies mandate passed by the California legislature. This is not a case of Jews opposing Ethnic Studies; "the Jews vs. Ethnic Studies" frame, tempting as it is, is incorrect. 
  • If anything, this is a case of Jews seeking inclusion within Ethnic Studies. Their objection is rather that the draft curriculum erases Jews from the Ethnic Studies pantheon -- an erasure that, if the CLJC letter is correct, was not an oversight but rather malicious in character. 
  • The most unifying "ask" by the Jewish intervenors has been to ensure that antisemitism and Jewish ethnic identity gets its fair share of attention within the Ethnic Studies curriculum, whether it is in a model course of its own or at the very least due attention in the draft "survey" course.
  • That this is a call for inclusion, not exclusion, is even more important to stress in the Mizrahi Jewish case. Jews from places like Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt have every right to be included in an "Arab American Studies" curriculum; that curriculum is as much theirs as it is anyone else's. The assumption that their objections come "from the outside" is a form of antisemitic otherization, nothing more.
  • In the wake of the debate over H. Res. 246, I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to see some quick pivots from "if government is allowed to express its negative opinion of BDS in a non-binding resolution, free speech in America is dead!" to "if government doesn't explicitly endorse BDS in its K-12 model curriculum, free speech in America is dead!" Maybe I'm too cynical. But we'll see.
If you want to offer your own comments, you can download the form here. I suggest reading JIMENA's call to action for some suggested do/don'ts so you can understand what the community does and does not want from its allies on this issue (DO: "Be respectful – no bashing Ethnic Studies"; "Share how the Model Curriculum personally impacts you as a student, parent, educator, or concerned Jewish resident of California." DON'T: "Attack the State of California or the Board of Education for passing legislation requiring the State to implement Ethnic Studies Curriculum"; "Attack state officials or communities referenced in the curriculum – such as Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.").

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