In summary

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum has to change to reflect the full diversity of the Jewish people, including us – a Persian Jew and a Latinx Jew.

By Eli Kia

Eli Kia, a graduate of Palisades Charter High School, is a freshman at USC, eli@elimatt.com.

Anna Maya, Special to CalMatters

Anna Maya is a junior at Bonita Vista High School in San Diego, annamaya1225@gmail.com.

California education officials are working on an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum which will deeply impact students for decades. Will it help our communities understand each other better and fight racism, or open the door to bias, division and hate in our schools? 

We are Eli Kia and Anna Maya, two Jewish students from public high schools in California, and the answer to this question will affect us and many of our peers personally. 

The stakes are extremely high, because ethnic studies will likely be a graduation requirement in the future and the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum will reportedly be used as guidance for “other states to follow.” The State Board of Education must finalize the curriculum by March 2021, leaving a limited amount of time to get it right. 

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum focuses on Black, Latinx, Asian American and Native American communities – an approach we wholeheartedly support. A major goal of ethnic studies has always been to give a voice to students whose histories and experiences aren’t reflected in the classroom. 

However, the curriculum is harmful when it arbitrarily includes some groups and excludes others. For example, a last minute decision was made to add a lesson plan about Arab Americans, and leave out every other Middle Eastern immigrant community in California. 

Eli is a Persian Jew whose family fled Iran to escape imminent threats of anti-Semitic violence. Even after arriving in the United States, the hatred they experienced in Iran seemed to follow them. The doors of their apartments were vandalized and as with many other immigrants, simple tasks proved to be a challenge in America. Countless Persian Jews have similar experiences and their story deserves to be told. 

It is unacceptable that the curriculum excludes Persian Jews and so many others, or solely refers to them as “other Middle Easterners.” While we may share some cultural similarities with Arabs after being geographical neighbors, our stories and struggles are different. The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum should represent Jews and other immigrant communities from the Middle East equally, alongside Arab Americans. Many others in California, including Sikhs, Armenians and Hindus have made similar and justified demands for inclusion. 

Anna’s story illustrates another problem with the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. One side of Anna’s family fled Turkey because religious persecution prevented them from having a Jewish wedding. The other fled Syria because they were treated as second-class citizens due to their Jewish identity. They found refuge in Mexico City and later Tijuana, before immigrating to San Diego for a better future. There is now a thriving Latinx Jewish community in San Diego with more than 400 immigrant Jewish families who have worked incredibly hard to thrive in the face of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, students won’t learn such stories of resistance and resilience in the face of oppression from the current curriculum. That’s because Latinx Jews and many other Jewish communities are nowhere to be found in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. Jews are only briefly mentioned in relation to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, or offensively framed as having gained “racial privilege.” 

The Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum has to change to reflect the full diversity of the Jewish people. In light of rising anti-Semitism in high schools and beyond, it must also teach students about this dangerous hatred. Learning about anti-Semitism in all its forms is crucial to building a full understanding of racism and discrimination in America. 

That is why we launched a social media and petition campaign called Include Our Voices. We are bringing together hundreds of Jewish students and allies across California who share one universal value: a belief that our curriculum and education system should be equitable and inclusive. 

As students, we and our younger siblings are the ones who will be most deeply affected by the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. We need you and all your friends to join us in demanding that California education officials get this right.

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Other commentary on the issue of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum: 

Inclusion of Jews in ethnic studies curriculum is essential

Meaningful representation of Sikh Americans in ethnic studies would show progress for inclusion

Another version of ‘ethnic studies’

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