Friday, January 29, 2021

The Antisemitic Quote That Wasn't in California's Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

A few years ago, back in 2019, there was a significant controversy over California's draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC). Basically, it was a hodgepodge of far-left jargon that barely talked about Jews or antisemitism but sure had some things to say about Zionism and BDS. This did not make the Jewish community happy, as one might expect, and -- led by Mizrahi and Middle Eastern Jewish activists who were particularly galled to be erased from the course given their significant numbers in the state of California -- they rallied an impressive array of allies and community members to demand changes (full disclosure: I was among those who submitting comments on the initial draft urging significant modifications). Luckily, the education powers-that-be in California were actually quite receptive, and the text was sent back for substantial revisions.

Fast forward to today. The ESMC is on its third draft, and many of the Jewish community's suggestions have found their way into the curriculum. The current ESMC draft cites surging rates of hate crimes against Jews, and that we are the most common victims of religious-based hate crimes in southern California. It has an excellent unit focusing on Mizrahi and Middle Eastern Jews -- one of the first I've seen dedicated to this subject -- that specifically characterizes Jews as indigenous to the Middle East. It includes passages from a range of Jewish luminaries including Ruth Wisse, Julius Lester, and Angela Buchdahl. It speaks on how, while Jews have found America to be a land of opportunity, especially after World War II, our successes stand side-by-side with the continued reality of antisemitism -- especially for Jews who have resisted assimilation into dominant American culture. 

Like any work done by committee, one can pick at this or that bit of rhetoric or focus. Still, on the whole, leaders in the Jewish community, such as Tye Gregory of the San Francisco JCRC (and formerly of the LGBT rights group A Wider Bridge) are celebrating it for what it is: a success story. It is a testament to what we in the Jewish community can accomplish via constructive engagement and participation, and proof positive that we can be included in a positive and affirming way in an Ethnic Studies curriculum.

Unfortunately, for certain pockets in our community, this very success is a threat. There are some in the Jewish community who are have made much of the threat posed by Ethnic Studies and other leftist academic ideas, and who have gained a great following and acclamation from fear-mongering about it. Unlike those who have recognized problems in the field but have sought to engage and improve things, these persons are invested in the notion that things like Ethnic Studies are inherently antisemitic, inherently anti-Jewish, and inherently incapable of reform. The original draft of the California ESMC was an omen of how the American left was inexorably falling under the shadow of "Corbynization". For them, and for that narrative, the revised ESMC presented a large problem. What does one do when one's favored ogre appears to have turned over a new leaf?

The answer, if a widely cited Tablet Magazine article by Emily Benedek published earlier this week is any indicator, is simply to lie about it.

Much of the article simply presents generic complaints about "critical race theory" or rehashes content from the initial draft which had already been removed, in order to suggest that the curriculum continued to explicitly demonize Zionism and Israel. Plenty of credulous readers bought the message -- Bari Weiss, for example, linked to the article with a searing indictment of American Jewish leadership: 
"California's schools are mandating the erasure of Jews and the acceptance of anti-Zionism. I blame every single American Jewish leader who didn't bang on about this every single day. Every single one."

The problem? The current draft does not, as best I can tell, even mention the word Zionism or anti-Zionism. It's not present. And the reason it isn't present is because of a bevy of American Jewish leaders who did successfully bang the drum on this and now are having their hard work erased. Nice work.

But the reason why Benedek focuses on the old drafts becomes clearer when you look at what she has to say about the current one. In one of the few passages that speaks on this subject, Benedek writes that in the new draft

[t]wo lessons have been offered about Jews. One, following crude CRT dogma,  teaches that Mizrahi Jews coming to the United States from Arab lands were mistreated by “white” Ashkenazim. The other suggests that Jews of European descent have white privilege.

The first claim is simply a lie, and a lie that generated a furious reaction from the Mizrahi Jewish advocacy group Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA). JIMENA had invested extensive time and energy into helping develop the ESMC's Mizrahi Jewish unit, and they were not pleased to see their efforts so cavalierly misrepresented. They were doubly-displeased that Benedek didn't even deign to reach out to them to learn about the unit they helped construct. They have asked Tablet to issue a correction, but so far the magazine does not appear to have obliged.

The second claim relates to sections of the curriculum which discuss how Jewish racial identity is malleable and how some Jews have conditional White privilege. The intersection of Jewishness and Whiteness is an area I'd like to think I know a little about, and what the ESMC is saying is true -- and more than true, important for understanding how antisemitism continues to operate. As the ESMC notes, "conditional" whiteness is always revocable, particularly when Jews refuse to assimilate or insist on maintaining ourselves as a distinctive people. Recognizing that, and recognizing how Jewish racial status is malleable such that Jews can sometimes be treated as "White" and other times not, is essential if students are to understand how Jews who look like me can and do face continued antisemitic oppression even as in other contexts we might be able to access some of the prerogatives of Whiteness. To be Jewish in America is to be allowed to attend the all-White schools in the segregated south while simultaneously being targeted by the KKK as the ultimate threat to the White race. In short, our whiteness, and access to the privileges thereof, is inconsistent and shifting -- or, we might say, conditional. 

Yet for the ESMC's effort to present this nuanced position in good faith, Benedek echoes other critics in accusing it of being tantamount to Nazi propaganda. No good deed, indeed. 

But that isn't the worst of it. Having struggled to point to anything concrete in the current (as opposed  to older, abandoned) drafts of the ESMC that is antisemitic, Benedek finally appears to identify a whopper of an example in this paragraph:
As a result of the outpouring of criticism of the first ESMC draft, in August 2019, Superintendent Thurmond ordered a revision. A second draft was completed in August 2020 and was immediately criticized for simply moving objectionable material to the appendices and footnotes. In the current, third draft, released in December, some of the most offensive material was actually moved back in. For example, an historical resource was added with the following description of prewar Zionism: “the Jews have filled the air with their cries and lamentations in an effort to raise funds and American Jews, as is well known, are the richest in the world.”

That last quote is quite shocking, and if it were presented approvingly in the ESMC it'd be worthy of condemnation. And precisely because it was so shocking, I went in search of it, wanting to see if there was any context or explanation that might justify it. But my efforts stymied by a more fundamental problem: 

The quote isn't there.

I, along with several other readers, searched high and low for much of the day trying to find where this quote was. It did not appear to be anywhere in the ESMC. And we couldn't find it on google either, so we couldn't even figure out the initial source. Finally, Benedek gave us a clue: She cited line 11180 of the ESMC's "Appendix A", offering sample lesson plans for various units. A bit strange to see it located in an appendix, since it was cited as a case where offensive material was taken out of the "appendices and footnotes [and] ....moved back in" to the main text, but at least we now knew where to look.

Except, it wasn't there either. Line 11180 is part of a string citation to additional handouts and materials that might be consulted. That line specifically was a cite to Ameen Rihani's essay  (published in the 1920s) "Deserts of Fact and Fancy," though it didn't quote any passages from it. But while the quote wasn't in the ESMC itself, maybe it could be found inside Rihani's essay? No again. The words are not present in Rihani's essay either. So what on earth was Benedik talking about?

After several hours of sleuthing, we finally figured it out. The words were not in the ESMC. And they weren't in the "Deserts of Fact and Fancy" article cited in the ESMC. Rather, the material appeared in a different article, not cited or referenced anywhere in the ESMC, that happened to be printed in the same volume as "Deserts of Fact and Fancy" -- albeit 30 pages away. There, finally, we'd uncovered the big offense of the ESMC third draft.

If it wasn't so unethical, it'd be hilarious. Over eleven thousand lines deep into one of the appendices, someone -- no doubt frantically searching for something to hang their hat on in order to continue portraying the revised ESMC as an antisemitic document -- clicks on the alternate link provided for the "Deserts of Fact and Fancy" article (since the first is behind a paywall; if one read it on the original site, incidentally, it's clear that the quote is not present) and then, finding nothing of note in the essay itself, decides to browse through the entire newsletter it appeared in before finding a completely unrelated article with offensive material. Is that offensive material quoted in the ESMC? No. Is it contained in an article cited by the ESMC? No again. Who cares! Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Of course, there's virtually no chance that any actual student would ever come across the quote. It is not, contra Benedek, part of the curriculum, nor is it included in the resources cited in the curriculum. And if there are K-12 students who not only actually look up the fourth entry on the additional readings list, but also proceed to read all the other articles which share a volume with the suggested supplements, then frankly I tip my cap to the Ethnic Studies Curriculum for developing such voracious overachievers.

But the fact that one had to dig so deep into the weeds to find something objectionable in (or more accurately, not in) the ESMC is, in its perverted way, another testament to just how well the Jewish community did in securing necessary reforms. We should be taking a victory lap. And we should be taking down the names of those who would rather see anything else than a world where Jews are, in fact, fairly included and treated in Ethnic Studies.


DL said...

" ...that happened to be printed in the same volume as "Deserts of Fact and Fancy" -- albeit 30 pages away. "

"If it wasn't so unethical..."

"Who cares!"

If someone quoted Breitbart, or the Daily Stormer, I don't think you would say "No problem! The bad stuff wasn't even on the that page!" Or better yet "someone has to click on the comments to see the repulsive stuff! Who cares!"

If we set a rule that we'd shun leaders, sources and social justice prophets associated with anti-semitism or anti-semitic comments as sources to use for progressive causes, and we'd block out their vocal acolytes as contributors to progressive causes, would there be anything left? Serious question. Would any progressive cause pass the test?

David Schraub said...

The better analogy is if I said "you should read today's Paul Krugman's essay" and handed you a copy of today's New York Times, and you opened the paper up and read an entirely different article, would you be lying if you then said I "told you to read" that other article? And the answer is yes, you would be.

Fred said...

Conditional whiteness is a stupid concept.

bombi said...

The fact that the esmc curriculum had two previous versions that were so anti-jewish that they had to be re-written is the outrage. So, not only one version, but two! Why in 2020 do jews even need to intervene in public school material because it is anti-jewish? That is unconsciounable and in and of itself must bea story. And the part in the tablet mag story abt math, if true, is also an outrage, but in thispost not mentioned. While it's possible that benedek had an agenda and embellished certain aspects, the problem is still there: the jewish community had to intervene two times before the curriculum could be acceptable and not antisemitic.

hilalove said...

You do not have to dig deep into the weeds to find the problems with this sample curriculum. I’ve read it several times, it’s problematic. You invalidating this one point does not negate other very valid points, and your hyper-focus on it while ignoring everything else is telling. This curriculum dissects Jewish identity in order to fit us into the racial hierarchy of oppression, a model in which we do not neatly fit. It continuously contradicts itself. It emphasizes that Jews are “white” and privileged (not all Jews of course, just 80%) while failing to explain that that is an antisemitic trope! How are these kids going to know how to fight antisemitism if they don’t even know what it looks like? Not to mention that it squarely places antisemitic hatred on white supremacists, attempting to absolve the left of their own perpetuation of antisemitism. Students will get to college and be harassed for any connection to Israel and be told it’s not antisemitic. You know, like they do at Berkeley. This is playing politics with Jewish lives. As if antisemitism isn’t already a huge problem. This will have dire consequences.

autothreads said...

The question that I have for Prof. Schraub is, what's more important to you, Judaism or progressive politics?

Andrea said...

No it is not. Have you ever been in a situation when a group of white ppl start telling an offensive jewish/black joke during a meal, assuming nobody else was jewish or black on the table? Once you call it out you are no longer one of them. And someone who knows you are jewish kicks you under the table to stay quiet? It was unexpected. But I assure you if I wasn't white I wouldn't have been invited into the room. Now you tell me how stupid my experience was.

Nebbiolo said...

Andrea, pretty clearly what you've experienced there is a mask-off moment for people who don't mind making fun of people who are in their view some alien "other" that doesn't count quite as much as the WASPy folks in the room. It's ugly and it should make you uncomfortable.

But for actual POC in this country, a country where indigenous people have the shortest life spans, where brown skinned immigrants are separated forcibly from their caged children, where young black girls are slammed to the ground or shot by cops or pepper sprayed in the face when they're in crisis, placing your "conditional privilege" next to the very real lack of privilege these folks experience is always going to at best feel like erasure to them.

Jewish struggle shouldn't be erased, but it does need to be placed in context and compared to what groups that experience no privilege at all experience.

meepa said...

"Jewish struggle shouldn't be erased, but it does need to be placed in context and compared to what groups that experience no privilege at all experience."

And what about the struggle of Jews who are POC and thus are nowhere near whiteness, conditional or otherwise? Or about Jewish POC struggles/experiences of racism in white Jewish spaces? Because apparently white Jews aren't white, but they treat Jewish POC as inauthentic, suspicious, or figures of wonder because they...aren't white.

Rousso & Jackel said...

The revised curriculum still assumes that Jews are "white" or, at best "conditionally so," whatever that means. The revised curriculum assumes without question (based on the sample lessons) that:
1. All Jews are white;
2. All Arabs are people of color.

Neither statement is totally true. The true/correct statement is: Some Jews are white; some Jews are not white; Some Arabs are white; some Arabs are not white.

Certain Arab groups want to be slotted in the "traditional" four "core" groups (African American/Asian/Indigenous/LatinX as "Asian." This is also incomplete; not all Arabs are "Asian" and some Jews are "Asian" as well as North African.

Finally, in the African American section, there is a lesson plan which lists "notable POC from history." NO JEWS on the list (because again, Jews are "white"). Moreover, Linda Sarsour (notable BDS proponent and Jew-hater IS on the list. Who else is not on the list? MLK. John Lewis.

This indicates a "revised" curriculum that is heavily in the "critical ethnic studies" model, which is unnecessarily binary and divides all groups into White/Black, Power/not power. It is based on conflict and struggle. It is not cooperative. It ignores other ways of teaching ethnic studies that constructive.

David Schraub said...

The revised curriculum not only does not assume that "all Jews are white", it in fact explicitly says that some Jews are not white, whereas other Jews are sometimes conditionally white.

Rousso & Jackel said...

You ignored the balance of my comment, i.e. the curriculum DOES (wrongly) assume that ALL Arabs are "people of color." The curriculum actually does NOT say "some Jews are not white." There is only a brief sentence at the end of the lesson on Jewish Americans which mentions "Jews of Color." In addition, saying that Jews "experience conditional whiteness and privilege" is a confusing statement.

In any case, by grouping all Arabs as "people of color" there is tacit approval the "critical ethnic studies" pedagogy in the curriculum. In fact, the curriculum expressly adopts "critical ethnic studies," which is inappropriate because that model views everything through a white/non white and power/not power lens. Thus for example the lesson on "redlining" seems to indicate that this practice was exclusively directed to POC. Which is incorrect and a sad missed opportunity to illustrate a shared (painful) experience among different groups.

Finally, if Linda Sarsour is deemed "an important historical figure" and she promotes BDS, students are given an important (though indirect) "lesson" about BDS. Not to mention the FAILURE to include MLK and John Lewis as "important." Give me a break: Linda Sarsour but not John Lewis as an "important person of color?"

Unknown said...
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Nachum said...

"The revised curriculum not only does not assume that "all Jews are white", it in fact explicitly says that some Jews are not white, whereas other Jews are sometimes conditionally white."

And you think this is a *good* thing?!?

David Schraub said...

... yes? It's nuanced and accurate? A Jew who looks like me most certainly is, in some contexts, sometimes treated as White?

Unknown said...

The fact that Linda Sarsour and other problematic people are included as praised important figures, but Martin Luther King (!), John Lewis and most civil rights leaders are erased, should be troubling to everyone.