In summary

Any ethnic studies curriculum must celebrate – and not further marginalize – our state’s unique population, including its Jews, specifically Jews of color.

By Roselyne Swig, Special to CalMatters

Roselyne Swig is a philanthropist, community activist and a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, RLilLady@sfswig.com.

Much has changed in California since my family relocated here many years ago, when I was just 16. 

Our population today is exponentially more diverse, and people from all corners of the globe call California home. For the most part, these differing ethnic groups coexist in California in harmony, though some relationships have been strained as of late. 

It is therefore crucial to ensure a tradition of tolerance, understanding and respect – three of my core values – for future generations, while advancing justice for marginalized communities. 

One of the best tools we have at our disposal is education, which is why I support teaching ethnic studies in all K-12 schools in California. It is also why I remain deeply concerned about the proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, whose public commentary period ends shortly, on Sept. 30. 

After that date, the proposed – and much-debated – educational plan will then undergo a redrafting, to be completed by March 2021. Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom has until the end of September to decide on related legislation, Assembly Bill 331, that would officially mandate the teaching of this ethnic studies curriculum in all public schools. 

Any curriculum must celebrate – and not further marginalize – our state’s unique population, including its Jews, specifically Jews of color and those from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Some may be surprised to learn, for instance, that Jews of color represent upward of 15% of the state’s Jewish population of more than 1 million. In addition, tens of thousands of Persian (Iranian) Jews, primarily in the Los Angeles area, also call the state home.

An initial draft of the educational plan had both excluded Jews and antisemitism education, and included anti-Jewish tropes in lyrics and anti-Israel boycotts. 

An improved second version suggested in early August by the state Department of Education removed the denigrating content but did nothing to remedy exclusion. Nor did it meaningfully define antisemitism.

While the most recent version, made public on Aug. 12, honors the four traditional groups of ethnic studies, it selectively expands the Asian American category beyond its usual scope.  

From the start of the process to create a model educational plan, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the San Francisco Bay Area, of which I am a board member, has held that if the curriculum included narratives beyond the four foundational ethnic studies groups – African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Latinx Americans – Jewish narratives should also appear.

And while there is a long history and tradition of tolerance in California, we have recently seen a spike in antisemitism. 

Police continue to investigate how Jewish high school students in Marin County have been targeted online and subjected to Holocaust-tinged threats, making public a derogatory list of names of Jewish students in the district.  

White supremacist propaganda heavily targeted the Inland Empire and Southern California in 2019, according to an annual report released by the Anti-Defamation League

Perhaps most tragic of all, on the last day of Passover in 2019, a gunman attacked the Chabad of Poway, just north of San Diego, killing one and wounding three, including the congregation’s rabbi. 

In response to all these factors, the San Francisco Bay Area JCRC has launched an urgent campaign, #JewsNotIncluded, that specifically calls for: 

  • The inclusion of a meaningful definition of antisemitism in the curriculum; 
  • No return of the derogatory language about Jews, Israelis and Israel, with guardrails in place to keep such language out of the classroom in the future; and
  • The addition of a sample lesson reflecting the diversity of Jewish Americans.

The campaign, found online here, has already resulted in thousands of people contacting state officials online. 

The interests of the Jewish community are actually aligned with other ethnic studies groups. We should come together to advance our shared values, both in the classroom and beyond, for years to come. 

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