Schools chief urges redraft of California ethnic studies plan after Jewish legislators object

As a draft of the California’s first high school ethnic studies curriculum enters revision, state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond is asking the commission writing it to include experiences of Jewish Americans and other communities that legislators and civic groups say are missing or skewed in the current draft.

At a news conference Wednesday, Thurmond said he will ask the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory committee to the state Board of Education, to include examples of “the contributions of Jewish Americans and the high levels of anti-Semitism that have existed historically and that still do now.”

Thurmond’s statements follow a letter that the Jewish legislative caucus sent to the Department of Education last month, which voices concerns that the draft curriculum omits discussion of anti-Semitism and reinforces negative stereotypes of Jewish people.

Thurmond also said he wants the committee to engage with groups beyond Jewish Americans as it revises the curriculum.

“Ethnic studies is to really give those who have historically been minorities a chance to have their history reflected,” he said. “We have to find a way to have a broader conversation about what will be included.”

Since the Jewish caucus’s letter, Hindu, Korean, Armenian and Hellenic groups in California have also spoken out.

“We urge the California Department of Education to completely redraft the curriculum, which is replete with mischaracterizations and omissions of major California ethno-religious groups,” the groups, in conjunction with Jewish civic groups, said in a press release on Tuesday.

Recent criticisms of the curriculum demonstrate the challenges of crafting an ethnic studies curriculum for one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country.

As of now, the curriculum, which is being established through a bill signed in 2016, would not be mandatory and would instead serve as guidance for local schools. However, legislators are voting on a bill that would make one semester of the curriculum a graduation requirement.

Members of the public can submit comments on the draft until Thursday, and then the commission will review the comments – totaling 5,000 as of Wednesday morning – to revise the curriculum. Afterwards, the commission will present the revised curriculum to the Board of Education for approval.

Concerns that have come forward about the curriculum, the first state-level curriculum in the country, show that the traditional mode of teaching ethnic studies may not be suitable for California, Thurmond said Wednesday.

The four areas traditionally taught in ethnic studies, which the draft curriculum is centered on, are: Black/African American Studies, Chicano/a Studies, Native American Studies and Asian American Studies.

Thurmond suggested that the state’s curriculum should go beyond the four areas.

“If you study what the historic framework has been for ethnics studies, that has typically focused on four distinct groups,” he said. “There’s no intentional omission of the experiences of Jewish Americans.”

“But,” he continued, “we think that there should be mention of the contributions of Jewish Americans.”

Siamak Kordestani, assistant director of the Los Angeles branch of the American Jewish Committee, expressed concern that while the curriculum’s glossary defines terms such as Islamaphobia, homophobia and transphobia, it does not mention anti-Semitism. He said he was surprised to see this in light of the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the April shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego.

Kordestani thinks that the curriculum not only omits critical aspects of the Jewish American experience, but also shows a skewed perspective on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think it’s healthy to present a multiplicity of narratives, to let students see things from the perspective of different communities,” he said.

Groups representing other communities have spoken up as well.

Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, said that he was “shocked that there is no mention of the Indian American community or the Hindu American community whatsoever.”

Kalra said that while the curriculum mentions the Chinese Exclusion Act, it does not mention legislative actions that prevented Indian and Hindu American farmers from buying land.

“I recognize that there’s a limited amount of space, but you can’t subsume everybody and assume everyone has the same experience,” he said.

Mihran Toumajan, western region director of the Armenian Assembly of America, echoed Kalra: “It’s imperative that [high-schoolers] learn about the experiences – and I’m not talking about in great detail, but at least the highlights – of the significant ethnic minorities who have given so much to this state.”

Toumajan cited the waves of Armenian immigrants who arrived in California following the early 20th century Armenian genocide and World War II.

James Dimitriou, president of the American Hellenic Council, also noted that Greek immigrants experienced discrimination in the early 20th century, and said he wants the curriculum to “stress how our groups have common goals and how we share so much in our historical backgrounds here.”

Eunice Song, executive director of the Los-Angeles-based Korean American Coalition, said that while the curriculum acknowledges that it is not comprehensive, “it needs to include key Korean American events.” She cited the 1992 Los Angeles riots, known to Korean Americans as “four-two-nine.” Damage to family-run Korean shops during the riots stirred a wave of Korean American activism.

When asked to respond to these groups concerns, Thurmond said at Wednesday’s press conference, “There will be a lot of conversations with stakeholder groups. We intend to work with ethnographers and others to really help us find the right balance.”

The curriculum is meant to be finalized by March 2020. However, Thurmond said, “we are prepared, if needed, to seek legislative authority to extend the timeline, and that is a very likely thing that we may pursue.”

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.