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California ethnic studies must add lessons on Jewish Americans and anti-Semitism, schools chief says

Ethnic studies
An ethnic studies class in San Francisco.
(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

The Jewish experience in America, including teachings about anti-Semitism, must be included in California’s new ethnic studies curriculum, the state schools chief said Wednesday, following sharp criticism of the draft by many Jewish groups and an announcement by top education leaders that it “falls short” and will undergo substantial revisions.

Crafting California’s model curriculum has attracted both widespread interest and criticism as Sacramento lawmakers are poised to make the course a high school graduation requirement. While there appears to be broad support to mandate such a course, the draft curriculum sparked opposition and calls for changes not only from Jewish groups, but by organizations representing Armenians, Greeks, Hindus and Koreans.

Others have criticized the use of what they see as overly politically correct jargon with words such as “herstory” and “hxrstory” instead of history.

“There’s no limit on groups who have experienced oppression,” Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction, said at a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento.

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Thurmond urged the commission writing the curriculum to “provide examples that better reflect the experience of the Jewish American people, the contributions of Jewish Americans, and the high levels of anti-Semitism that have existed historically and that still do now.”

The draft under review did not meet the goals to be “accurate, free of bias, appropriate for all learners in our diverse state, and align with Gov. Newsom’s vision of a California for all,” state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond, Vice President Ilene Straus and board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon said in a statement this week.

The board is scheduled to approve a final version by March.

State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), chairman of the Legislature’s Jewish caucus, said Wednesday he was grateful that Thurmond specifically addressed the concerns raised by the caucus in a letter to the state’s Instructional Quality Commission last month.

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Allen said he supported an ethnic studies requirement for high school graduation and believed it was appropriate for the focus to remain on California’s four major communities of color: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and indigenous communities.

Yet he said the draft failed to cover the experiences of other ethnic communities, such as Armenians, Italians and Irish, who also suffered bigotry.

“To have a conversation about anti-immigrant sentiment and not include the story of the anti-immigrant vitriol hurled at the Italian and Irish immigrants in the 19th century would be a mistake,” Allen said. “It misses an opportunity to universalize these lessons in a way that will really reach all California students.”

California lawmakers also are debating a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the 23-campus Cal State University system. If both bills are approved, requiring ethnic studies at high schools and Cal State would affect more than 6.5 million California students.

One of the major points of friction among Jewish groups involves inclusion in the curriculum of the movement to push boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel for the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians. Some Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace-Bay Area, support its inclusion while others, such as the American Jewish Committee, oppose it.

Allen raised questions about why the curriculum included the movement when it is international rather than domestic, as are the other social movements mentioned. But if it is to be included, he said, it should be presented in a more balanced way.


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