A schism has emerged in the Jewish community on how to best counter radical ethnic studies coming out of California between those who think we should accept highly ideological ethnic studies but push back against any ugly depictions of Jews and Israel, and those who think that ideological ethnic studies that emphasize the oppressed versus oppressor paradigm will inevitably produce antisemitism. I count myself as part of the latter camp.
Proponents of the former have argued in The Jerusalem Post (“Ethnic studies for the Jewish community,” September 14) that those who oppose radical ethnic studies like myself “believe that ethnic studies is harmful” and that California should not teach about Black, Latino, Asian American, and Native American communities. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While I am sure there are such people out there, I don’t know a single person who thinks we shouldn’t teach about the rich tapestry of American diversity to our kids. My organization, the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, has taken the lead in building the multi-ethnic Coalition for Empowered Education, specifically dedicated to providing alternative, non-ideological models of ethnic studies or what used to be called multicultural education.
Coalition members have provided teacher training to several California school districts in the alternative models. Our partner, the California-based Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, has developed an alternative curriculum that is being made available to California school districts and beyond.
What’s wrong with the current state-mandated framework?
The Jewish proponents of ideological ethnic studies argue that the California state model “excludes discriminatory content, and includes two Jewish-American lesson plans and a definition of antisemitism.”
They ignore, however, that the state model is built on a highly ideological, illiberal premise, which emphasizes instilling in children a “critical consciousness” – the supposed ability to see systems of oppression throughout society– and it “critiques empire building in history and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, and other forms of power and oppression.”
The model curriculum further calls for building a “post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance.” And it exalts radical black leaders like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur but leaves out civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis.
In other words, the model curriculum doesn’t merely lift up the narratives of marginalized communities, as the proponents suggest, it inculcates kids in an ideology that can be, will be, and has been weaponized against Jews. So when a school district teaches social studies through a “settler-colonial lens,” but removes explicit reference to Israel as a “settler colonialist state,” that’s not “justice” and it’s not a victory for the Jewish community. The schools are still indoctrinating kids with an ideology that conditions them to think of Israel, the US, and the West in precisely those terms.
The Jewish proponents of the ideological curriculum say that their “strategy is working” and “just a handful of districts are using or considering curricula we find problematic.”
First, we don’t, and they don’t really know how many of California’s 1,200-plus school districts have embraced the most radical versions or will try to do so in the future. It’s hard enough to know what’s happening in school districts where there is a robust Jewish presence let alone in places where there isn’t.
Second, while the proponents may not find teaching a highly opinionated, radical, power-based, curriculum problematic for California’s children, we opponents do and strongly believe it is the exact wrong form of multicultural education. It will generate more, not less antisemitism and division.
The greatest danger of Jewish proponents of radical ethnic studies paying the price of remaining in the good graces of traditional progressive allies is that they lock themselves in and end up supporting outrageous political positions completely at odds with the traditional Jewish understanding of America and Jewish interests. I get why they do it. But like a corporation that seeks to maximize quarterly earnings to raise the value of its stock, sometimes a short-term win is a long-term defeat.
The writer is founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV) and author of Woke Antisemitism.