In the fall of 2016, California’s then Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a mandate to develop an ethnic studies program for high schools in California. California’s public schools have the most ethnically diverse student body in the nation, with three-quarters of students belonging to minorities and speaking over 90 languages. Luis Alejo, the Assembly member who shepherded the bill through the 15 years required for its adoption, hailed the law, the first in the nation, as an opportunity to “give all students the opportunity to prepare for a diverse global economy, diverse university campuses and diverse workplaces,” adding, “Ethnic studies are not just for students of color.”
Elina Kaplan, a former high-tech manager who had just stepped down as senior VP of one of California’s largest affordable housing nonprofits, remembers agreeing wholeheartedly with the idea at the time. “The objective was to build bridges of understanding between people,” said Kaplan, an immigrant herself, who moved to California from the former Soviet Union with her family when she was 11. “This was as welcome as mom and apple pie. It offered students the chance to learn about the accomplishments of ethnic minorities, as well as to address issues of inequality and bigotry.”
But three years later, when the first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) was released, Kaplan couldn’t believe what she was reading. In one sample lesson, she saw that a list of historic U.S. social movements—ones like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Criminal Justice Reform—also included the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestine (BDS), described as a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.” Kaplan wondered why a foreign movement, whose target was another country, would be mischaracterized as a domestic social movement, and she was shocked that in a curriculum that would be taught to millions of students, BDS’s primary goal—the elimination of Israel—was not mentioned. Kaplan also saw that the 1948 Israel War of Independence was only referred to as the “Nakba”—“catastrophe” in Arabic—and Arabic verses included in the sample lessons were insulting and provocative to Jews.
Kaplan, 53, a Bay Area mother of two grown children who describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, was further surprised to discover that a list of 154 influential people of color did not include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, or Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, though it included many violent revolutionaries. There was even a flattering description of Pol Pot, the communist leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who was responsible for the murder of a quarter of the Cambodian population during the 1970s.
Kaplan began calling friends. “Have you read this?” she asked, urging them to plow through the 600-page document. The language was bewildering. “Ethnic Studies is about people whose cultures, hxrstories, and social positionalities are forever changing and evolving. Thus, Ethnic Studies also examines borders, borderlands, mixtures, hybridities, nepantlas, double consciousness, and reconfigured articulations. …” This was the telltale jargon of critical race theory, a radical doctrine that has swept through academic disciplines during the last few decades.
The new curriculum, which will eventually be promulgated throughout the California school system of 6 million children, would “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism … and other forms of power and oppression,” according to the proposal. It would “build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance.”
Capitalism was classified as a form of “power and oppression,” and although “classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia” were also listed as forms of oppression, anti-Semitism was not. Jewish Americans were not even mentioned as a minority group.
It didn’t take long for Kaplan to realize that the education offered up by the ESMC had little in common with the program described at the time of the law’s passage. Instead, it was a crude pastiche of idiosyncratic neo-Marxism that advocated the end of capitalism and divided the world into a simple polarity of victims and oppressors. The victims, according to this schema, included four groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans.
Kaplan quickly marshaled her skills honed as a nonprofit leader and co-created, with two other women, the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies (ACES), to fight the adoption of the ESMC. The effort was urgent, she knew, because since California has the largest school system in the country, any curriculum it adopts will be exported to the rest of the country.
As a refugee from the Soviet Union, she understood the challenge intimately. “The reason I’m doing this—full time and not sleeping” she said, is that “this curriculum is pervasive and all-inclusive. It creates a means of understanding the world that does not allow questioning. And it’s a view that actively invites anti-Zionism into the classroom. It requires it. This is the greatest threat facing American Jews today.”
Kaplan wasn’t the only one upset about the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. Clarence Jones, former legal counsel and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., in a letter he wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, called the ESMC a “perversion of history” for providing material that refers to non-violent Black leaders as “passive” and “docile.” Jones, who is co-founder of the University of San Francisco Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, decried the “glorification” of violence and Black nationalism as “role models for the students,” and rejected the curriculum as “morally indecent and deeply offensive.”
The unassailably liberal LA Times editorial board weighed in, criticizing the offering as “an impenetrable mélange of academic jargon and politically correct pronouncements” that served as an “exercise in groupthink, designed to proselytize and inculcate more than to inform and open minds.” It warned it was “in bad need of an overhaul.”
A group of Asian Americans urged the state to develop a program that would “inspire ethnic pride in all students and inspire them to work together, rather than against one another,” while Hindu, Korean, Armenian, and Sikh groups complained of being left out as did several Jewish groups. The California Legislative Jewish caucus published a letter saying the ESMC “effectively erases the American Jewish experience.”
Several émigrés from the former Soviet Union found the curriculum so traumatizing they couldn’t read it through. Three hundred signed a letter to Gov. Newsom and other state agencies saying: “We escaped a Marxist-socialist system and its associated tyranny and oppression. Never could we have imagined that, decades later, the same ideology and concepts that we escaped, would show up in, of all places ... the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum.”
They wrote of their shock at seeing Marxist “code-words” in the text, such as urging students to fight for a “truer democracy,” which Marx used to refer to the abolition of private property. They also noted other terms that look innocuous or even enlightened to the uninitiated, such as “transformative resistance,” “radical healing,” “critical hope,” have specific meanings in critical race theory, which the ESMC explicitly directs teachers to use as the key theoretical framework for teaching ethnic studies.
Critical race theory in education, writes Daniel Solorzano, a scholar cited in the ESMC, “challenges the traditional claims of the educational system such as objectivity, meritocracy, color-blindness, race neutrality, and equal opportunity.” Critical race theorists argue that these traditional claims act as a camouflage for the self-interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups in U.S. society.
CRT is not just an educational pedagogy that seeks to overturn academics as we know it, but it is also a guide for activism “animated by the spirit of the decolonial, antiracist, and other global liberationist movements.”
Ethnic studies is a California native. It was born of a violent strike that erupted on the campus of San Francisco State College in 1968, triggered by the firing of a popular teacher named George Murray. The strike, led by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front, was marked by huge rallies, bloody clashes with police, and eventually, the shutdown of the campus. It was finally settled when the president of the college accepted the strikers’ principal demands and agreed to establish degree-granting departments of Black and ethnic studies, to be housed in a separate School of Ethnic Studies that would include Black, La Raza, Asian American, and Native American studies.
There is a straight line from the 1968 strike to today’s ESMC, whose text explicitly acknowledges its debt to the Third World Liberation Front. In a speech a week before his firing, George Murray, who also served as the minister of education for the Black Panther Party, declared the U.S. Constitution was a “lie” and the American flag was a “piece of toilet paper” deserving to be flushed. He also attacked Jewish people as “exploiters of the Negroes in America and South Africa” and called for “victory to the Arab people” over Israel.
Many of the 18 people chosen by the State Board of Education’s Instructional Quality Committee to create the ESMC hail from San Francisco State’s School of Ethnic Studies, and most are adherents of the radical critical ethnic studies movement who refer to themselves as scholar-activists.
Kaplan reports that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond admitted in a 2020 meeting with Jewish groups that there were problems with the creation of this group that allowed it to be politicized, and we have put systems in place to make sure they do not recur.
Nevertheless, in 2020, Gov. Newsom signed into law AB 1460, which requires that every student in the Cal State system—the largest four-year public university system in the country, of which San Francisco State is a part—take a three-unit course in ethnic studies. The governor’s decision defied the recommendations of the university’s own chancellor, members of the university’s board of trustees, and the university’s academic senate, all of whom opposed the bill, objecting to the government’s unprecedented intrusion into the university’s curriculum. The board of trustees had offered a competing proposal to require a course on ethnic studies and social justice, which would have included Jewish, LGBTQ and disability studies. Propelled by the momentum of the BLM movement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the governor rejected the board’s suggestion.
Several districts in California have already implemented ethnic studies courses on their own, independent of the ESMC. Some are controversial and some are not. Although the ESMC was originally intended for high school students, an entire chapter deals with K-12 integration. Because of the public outcry following the unveiling of the proposal, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have required an ethnic studies class for graduation from high school. (The bill has been reintroduced.) Meanwhile, the city of Seattle has already created a proposed framework for implementing ethnic studies throughout its K-12 curriculum. Math teachers will ask the following questions: “identify how math has been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color,” “analyze the ways in which ancient mathematical knowledge has been appropriated by Western culture,” “how important is it to be right?” and “Who gets to say if an answer is right?” It appears educational leaders are all for this. The president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Robert Q. Berry III, told Education Week: “What they’re doing follows the line of work we hope we can move forward as we think about the history of math and who contributes to that, and also about deepening students’ connection with identity and agency.”
This, despite the fact that students in the United States already perform poorly in math. In the most recent survey conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries, the U.S. placed an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among higher performing countries, the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.
One of the selling points for ethnic studies is that it would help California’s students do better in school overall. In 2019, only one-third of California’s fourth graders were reading-proficient. Only 25% of California’s total student population had basic reading skills. A suit brought against the state in 2017 by a group of parents, teachers, students, and advocacy groups claimed that “When it comes to literacy and basic education, California is bringing down the nation.” Among the 200 largest school districts in the country, California “had 11 of the lowest performing 26 districts, including three among the lowest performing 10 districts.” In February 2020, a state judge approved a settlement that requires the state to pay $53 million to improve basic literacy statewide.
Almost every article touting the ESMC makes reference to a single paper that showed some improvement in at-risk students who took an ethnic studies class. Thomas Dee, professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, compared a group of ninth grade students in San Francisco high schools at risk of dropping out with a similar group who took a class offering “culturally relevant pedagogy.” He described the results as “highly encouraging”—the latter showing improved attendance, completing more courses, and earning improved grades. Basically, students earning Ds became C+ students after taking the classes. This improvement, he said, is significant, as it means the difference between dropping out and being able to apply to college. Dee calls ninth grade a make-or-break year.
Dee described the classes less as instruction about other ethnicities and how they have succeeded in the U.S., and more as a social-psychological intervention that helps to “buffer students’ social identities in the classroom setting,” which might otherwise “affect their sense of belonging.” In other words, the teachers try to keep the kids from tuning out because of cultural influences that may make them feel they don’t belong and can’t succeed. He explained the classes as aiming to reduce “stereotype threat,” by identifying external forces that contribute to academic challenges and preparing for “how you may be misjudged.” He said the teaching has three defining traits: “an emphasis on student success, maintaining students’ cultural integrity, and promoting students’ capacity to think critically.”
But Dee cautioned that his study was small and its results not easily scalable. He explained that the teachers who offered the classes had spent “years developing them and getting them right” with the help of outside experts. “This kind of pedagogy requires teacher skills of a high order,” he said. He is not sure the ESMC, a huge statewide top-down project, is focused on providing the kind of sensitive, close teaching that produced the positive results.
He is critical of the ESMC’s chaotic rollout, which he characterized as a “hot mess.” “The motivation for ethnic studies is grounded in the idea that historically underserved communities don’t see themselves represented in the curriculum,” he said, a project he supports. However, referring to the team of CRT proponents that prepared the first draft, “The people who have been nurturing this flame for a half century are reluctant to give up control. I’m worried that the way it’s being rolled out might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. By having such a high profile effort, it has become a flashpoint of the larger culture wars.”
“If done carefully, he emphasized, “this kind of teaching can improve student interest in learning. In the wrong hands, it can be feckless and counterproductive. We have evidence of real measurable innovation, but by pushing it the wrong way, California runs the risk of discouraging its adoption throughout the country.”
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.”
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA Initiative, which fights campus anti-Semitism, points out that all 13 founding members of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (CESA) are BDS activists. CESA, the national home base for critical studies, passed a resolution to boycott all Israeli academic institutions in 2014, and the group’s past four biennial meetings included multiple sessions demonizing Israel. “There are a couple thousand academic boycotters of Israel in the country,” she said, “and the largest percentage of them come from ethnic studies. Anti-Zionism is built into the theory and the discipline of ethnic studies, which demonizes Israel as an apartheid settler-colonialist Nazi state.”
But of even greater concern to Jews, she believes, is the singling out of Jewish students as enjoying racial privilege. “I don’t see any way that Jewish students can sit in an ethnic studies class and not feel they have a double target on their backs,” she said, fearing hatred and violence will ensue. First, because they’re Jewish, and considered white and part of the 1%, the purported villains of the teaching, and then through an assumed association with Israel. “There’s a state requirement that you have to sit through a class that says to Jewish students they have extraordinary racial privilege and yet forbids them from speaking because ‘this course is not about you?’ If you don’t accept it, you’re publicly shamed and ostracized—you can’t even speak up and say, ‘I’m not sure if I think that all white people are racists.’”
To placate critics, the third version has added lessons about Korean Americans, Armenian Americans, and Sikhs. Two 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 Jewish Journal points out that Jews are the only group in the curriculum for whom the term “privilege” is used. And this privilege is not earned by way of talent, or educational and professional attainment, but rather trickery. The ESMC, echoing Nazi propaganda about Jews as impostors and appropriators hiding in plain sight, points out that American Jews often change their names (“this practice of name-changing continues to the present day”) to change their rank in the social hierarchy.
The historical reality of repeated genocidal attacks on Jews because of their perceived or imagined privilege is not offered as counterpoint, because ethnic studies teachers assume the Holocaust is taught in world history class. But next year in San Mateo County, world history will be replaced by ethnic studies. Lia Rensin, who has two children in public schools in the Bay Area, said the students already have no time. “I think I probably feel the way most parents feel—there are already a gazillion requirements. My daughter took two semesters this summer of online Spanish, so she could take art next fall in school. Now you’re thinking of adding yet another requirement?”
Meantime, Rossman-Benjamin said the ESMC creators are trying to reestablish their influence: “The people who wrote the first curriculum who are still very well connected are going school board by school board and getting them to agree to implement the discredited first draft.” In fact, school districts are free to follow any curriculum they want. There is no requirement to use the model curriculum.
Moreover, she said, “while everyone was going through the third field review, they are holding webinars and training sessions, they are recruiting faculty, and training the teachers who will need to be hired to teach ethnic studies.”
These teachers are warning that additional counselors will be required to help students deal with the trauma of the new content, she reports. In fact, the ESMC itself makes this suggestion.
Brandy Shufutinsky is an African American Jewish woman who is pursuing an Ed.D. in international multicultural education at the University of San Francisco. She opposes the ESMC. “It needs to be scrapped. Its foundations are faulty,” she told Tablet, having more of a “political agenda than an educational one.” Her interest is personal. The mother of four, she is concerned that “other states will follow the lead of California, and may have an impact on my own children in the future.”
She doesn’t approve of critical race theory, and she said the LA Unified Teaching District has already adopted a fine ethnic studies program that does not rely on it.
“I’m a progressive Democrat and have been for my entire life, and I come from a family of Democrats,” she said. “I don’t understand how someone who claims to be progressive can say they are against Israel. Israel is one of the most successful countries in terms of the indigenous rights movement. They have reclaimed a culture that was decimated and denied, reclaimed their religion, their peoplehood, and language in their traditional indigenous land. This is something that progressive people all around the world should hold up as an example, not demonize.”
And she has no patience for young people calling Israel an apartheid state. “They don’t know the history of apartheid—they’re too young to have experienced it themselves, and they seem not to have read too deeply about it either. It’s easy for people to imagine that Arabs are all Black and brown and the Israelis are all white. But it’s not true. Israelis are not white, but that’s a lie that the ethnic studies curriculum is built on.”
The State Board of Education will vote on the curriculum on March 17. Comments can be sent to the SBE and Gov. Newsom.
Following the publication of my look at California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, critics have offered various objections over social media.
In effect, all of the criticism boils down to two main points: that I did not give proper credit or show enough gratitude to Jewish advocacy organizations that have been involved in the long fight over California’s ethnic studies proposals; and that I did not focus more on the improvements and accommodations these groups were able to secure from the California State Board of Education.
It is true that StandWithUs, JCRC-SF, AJC, ADL, JIMENA , JPAC, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, and Progressive Zionists of California all labored in their own fashion over the past two years to make this curriculum less terrible for Jews and for racial comity in America. They eliminated hateful and offensive material that should never have been there to begin with, and successfully lobbied to include a lesson on Mizrahi Jews, which includes a truncated version of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Perhaps if I had been as exhausted as they are by this fight I, too, would see these as major victories. But I do not.
The reason I felt no need to praise these tweaks is that they are peripheral to the problem. The exclusion of Jews from the original ESMC, which was what the various organizations spent their energies on, was offensive. But focusing on that is akin to painting a house that is rotted from the foundation. The critical race theory framework is what is dangerous, and, as I tried to show with my reporting, it is fundamental to every single draft that’s so far been produced.
Moreover, the criticism leveled against me for focusing on the first draft suggests either bad faith or a misunderstanding of the legal directives here. According to California law, no school district is required to adopt the reedited and amended ESMC at all. The framing of the law is such that every school district, though required to offer ethnic studies, is free to interpret and teach the subject the way it wants. School districts with fewer resources will likely turn to the off-the-shelf model or its predecessor, the rejected first draft. Astonishingly enough, that reviled first draft is right now being peddled to school districts across the state by its activist promoters. Over a dozen school districts have already passed resolutions endorsing the use of the ESMC’S first draft.
Put another way, the problem isn’t even that this curriculum (in its most recent draft!) holds up armed insurrectionists like Assata Shakur as role models for students; it’s that those examples are clear and obvious outgrowths of the curriculum’s core philosophy. If one example is cut, another, equally bad, will pop up in its place.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to Clarence Jones, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter, who beseeched Gov. Newsom: “It is morally indecent and deeply offensive to learn that this distorted narrative is being held up by the State of California as a model … [I]t will inflict great harm on millions of students in our state.”
One last point: My piece took aim at the California State Department of Education, not at the Jewish groups trying to work with it. The crime here appears to be that I dared to surface the views of ordinary Jews—many of them parents, some immigrants—who remain deeply uncomfortable with the curriculum for obvious and profound reasons.
It has been troubling, to say the least, to watch some Jewish advocates use a fight with the state to balkanize the community into subgroups deemed more or less deserving of power, and to turn us all against each other, instead of inspiring us to come together in a fight to ensure that our children can proudly and safely attend public schools as Jews.
—Emily Benedek, Feb. 1, 2021
Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.