A bill that would have required all California high school students to take an ethnic studies course will be delayed for at least a year after pro-Israel groups complained that the curriculum failed to address anti-semitism and singled “Israel out for condemnation.” Some of the backlash was initiated by an organization that is funded by the Israeli government.
When Assemblyman Jose Medina announced the delay on August 22, he declared that he was committed to eventually making ethnic studies a requirement in the state, but indicated that “ample time” was needed to produce a final version of the curriculum. “I strongly believe in the tenets of ethnic studies and continue to assert that it is time for California to make the subject a requirement for all students,” said Medina. “It is not a question of whether the subject itself is necessary but rather, how do we ensure the curriculum is comprehensive, rigorous, and inclusive enough. This underscores the importance of taking the time necessary to ensure we get the curriculum right.”
The state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee had produced a draft of an Arab American Studies course that detailed the community’s underrepresentation in mainstream culture. The proposed curriculum also included a glossary that defines the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
BDS is “a global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions,” it explains. “Inspired by tactics employed during the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Palestinian-led movement calls for the boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of the Israeli government until it complies with International law.”
These inclusions were opposed by a number of groups including the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which is comprised of 16 Democratic state legislators. The organization sent an 8-page letter to the chair of the California Education Department’s Instructional Quality Commission, alleging that the proposed curriculum was anti-Jewish. The letter notes that while a definition of Islamophobia is included in the glossary, a similar definition of antisemitism does not appear.
The letter also claims that the definition of BDS amounts to a “not-so-subtle promotion” of the movement. “Singling out the Jewish State in this fashion and placing BDS alongside domestically-focused civil rights movements is especially problematic as BDS is an international movement whose focus goes significantly beyond the disciplinary boundaries of American ethnic studies…”
The proposed curriculum also faced attacks from the right-wing, pro-Israel group Stand With Us, which issued an action alert on the subject and called upon its supporters to flood the department with comments. “The State of California is currently reviewing a model Ethnic Studies curriculum, which openly promotes hateful boycotts against Israel and omits antisemitism as a form of bigotry,” read the alert. “…We especially encourage parents, high school students, and educators to comment and share how this model curriculum will impact them personally.”
Perhaps most notably the program was targeted by Act.IL, a global pro-Israel campaign that is funded by the country’s government. According to documents obtained by Electronic Intifada, the group had a $1.1 million budget in 2018. The organization has an app that calls upon its users to earn points and prizes by promoting Israel online and trolling pro-Palestinian posts throughout the internet.The Act.IL app stems from a project that’s based out of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), an Israeli university. During the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2012 and 2014, the group of students was assembled to defend Israel online.
California ethnic studies program was a target of almost 20 “missions” shared to the app’s online army of more than 15,000 people. Act.IL called on its user to attack the curriculum based on the model Arab American Studies course and the BDS definition. Some of these missions included giving low rankings to the California Department of Education’s Facebook page, spamming the Facebook page of the California State Superintendent, and directing users to contact the California Governor over the program’s alleged antisemitism.
Palestine Legal submitted a public comment on the curriculum during the debate and noted that the effort to reject the program is part of a much wider effort to stifle pro-Palestinian sentiment in schools throughout the country. The organization has documented 1,247 such incidents between 2014 and 2018 and cites a number of examples where parents and pro-Israel groups have initiated campaigns targeting the curriculum of various high schools.