Opinion

Promoting Zionism is not ‘education to end hate’

Instead of putting anti-racist education in the hands of the pro-Israel lobby, the California Department of Education should recommit to a true ethnic studies curriculum.
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Last week, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced a new initiative, “Education to End Hate.” “Our country is facing two pandemics: coronavirus and hate,” he said. “It’s time to double down on our efforts to combat all forms of hate, bias and bigotry.” He contrasted his new initiative with President Trump’s attacks on the 1619 Project Curriculum, classroom materials developed by  the New York Times that investigate how slavery has shaped America. As a result, Thurmond got great press for standing up for anti-racist, anti-bias education.

There’s only one problem. Education to End Hate rests on the false premise that any criticism of Israel or Zionism, any effort to examine Palestinian history or current realities in the region is inherently antisemitic. One of the three organizations providing professional development and resources for the program is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. The Wiesenthal Center has a long history of promoting Israel at all costs and trying to silence Palestinian voices. On September 2, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the center, wrote that Trump was a “non-Jewish hero” for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the face of international law. Last year the center listed Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians and support for the ability to boycott Israel as among the “Top 10 Worst Global Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel Incidents.”  The center organizes extensively on college campuses to quash discussion of Palestine, and last year successfully pressured the Niles, Illinois, school district into canceling a class that would have taught teachers about Palestine. 

(Image: Chris Gazaleh)

The Simon Wiesenthal Center just received a $225,692 grant from Homeland Security’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Program (TVTP). In June, more than 70 human rights, civil liberties and community organizations wrote a public letter condemning TVTP programs because they, “are built on the false premise that Muslims are predisposed toward violence and require government interventions to prevent them from committing violence and terrorism.”

The Wiesenthal Center will not provide anti-bias education; it provides pro-Israel propaganda.

Education to End Hate is a direct response to the successful campaign to include Arab American Studies in the California Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum (ESMC). The ESMC is intended as a guideline for schools and districts as a result of CA Assembly Bill 2016, which mandated the California Department of Education (CDE) to develop an ethnic studies curriculum to be used across  high schools in California. The original ESMC was created last year by an advisory committee of ethnic studies scholars and K-12 teachers. In the face of pro-Israel and other right-wing backlash, the CDE drastically revised the curriculum and stripped out core elements including  centering  ethnic studies guiding values and principles, and Arab American and Pacific Islander content. 

Ethnic studies scholars, K-12 teachers, students, and Arab American communities across the state mobilized to defend the Arab American and Pacific Islander content and the core principles of ethnic studies. In a last-minute reversal, the CDE affirmed Arab American studies as a field of ethnic studies and committed to its inclusion in the ESMC.

Zionist organizations, which had been meeting behind closed doors with legislators and state education officials, were furious. They’re used to getting their way. One result of that anger is Education to End Hate. Another result are the “guardrails” added to AB-331, which updated the ethnic studies bill and prolongs the implementation date.

The “guardrails” language seems benign: 

[Ethnic studies curriculum must] Be appropriate for use with pupils of all races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, pupils with disabilities, and English learners.

Not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis of any category protected by Section 220.

But in floor debate on AB-331 on August 31, Jesse Gabriel, San Fernando Valley Democrat, assistant majority whip, and co-chair of the Jewish Caucus, made the intent clear:

There is a small group of people trying to reinsert bigotry and discrimination back into the teaching of ethnic studies… The best approach is for the legislature to insert guardrails so ethnic studies cannot be used as a vehicle to attack or defame Jews or Israel… This makes it unlawful for any school district in California to use the anti-semitic or anti-Israel sections of the original draft curriculum or to otherwise teach or promote anti-semitic, BDS, or any other curricula that promotes bias or bigotry or discrimination against Jews, Israel, the Israeli-American community or the Jewish community.

In other words, any criticism of Israel and any discussion of the human rights of Palestinians is automatically defined as antisemitism. This is in direct contradiction of the basic principles of ethnic studies, which include centering the voices of the oppressed and marginalized, ending colonialism in all its forms, and supporting students to become critical thinkers and social activists. 

The Save Arab American Studies Coalition which led the struggle to defend Arab American Studies, was encouraged by Superintendent Thurmond’s recognition that Arab American studies is an essential component of ethnic studies. “But we are concerned about the implications of the CDE’s embrace of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and what appears to be an end run around ethnic studies as the best approach for strengthening anti-racist education,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, told me. “Instead of putting children’s anti-racist, anti-bias education in the hands of the pro-Israel lobby, we urge Tony Thurmond to reconstitute the original ESMC advisory committee and recommit to a true ethnic studies model curriculum.”