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ethnic studies

As California’s governor signed ethnic studies mandate into law, attention turns to Massachusetts.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

An advancing ethnic studies bill in the Massachusetts Legislature has Jewish activists on edge.

The legislation, known as S.365, “an Act relative to anti-racism, equity and justice in education,” has been proposed. The bill, citing the Jan. 6 “insurrection” and the “imminent danger” posed by “disinformation and white supremacy,” says that it would be in the best interest of Massachusetts students “that education in dismantling racism be taught to all students.”

It would create a Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education, according to the legislation’s language, in order to assure that “ethnic studies, racial justice, decolonizing history and unlearning racism is taught at all grade levels.”

Jewish Insider reported that the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston would get a seat on the commission, along with representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union, and other grassroots organizations.

The legislation, according to Jewish Insider, is not similar to a parallel mandatory ethnic studies bill in California that Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law on Friday. The California mandate is not clear on which ethnic studies curriculum should be used by teachers. Instead, the Massachusetts bill creates the commission, which will be tasked with developing the curriculum.

Wary Jews

U.S. Jews have been leery of moves to mandate ethnic studies.

Charles Jacobs, president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, told JNS that ethnic studies and racial-justice curricula as now constructed are “poisonous to American society, as they promote tribalism and racism.”

“They also follow the woke-ist formula that casts Jews as privileged white-adjacents whose very accomplishments and success become the very proof points that we are ‘exploiters and oppressors’ here and illegitimate rulers over ‘people of color’ in Israel,” he said.

Jacobs cast doubt on whether the established Jewish community can have an impact on improving the curriculum, such as in the case of California, where major concerns still linger.

“Jewish efforts to ‘improve’ these curricula will likely backfire because any ‘improved versions’ will make the entire effort seem kosher, when it is not. And in any case, it will be hard or impossible to monitor radical-minded teachers who will use the cover of an approved ‘racial-justice’ curriculum to treat Israel and Jews here as they wish,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs was referring to controversial elements of the California curriculum that kept Jewish activists scrambling.

The curriculum comparing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel (BDS) to domestic U.S. civil rights movements was one example. One lesson involving music drew Jewish alarm over the inclusion of a song in featuring a Palestinian hip hop artist rapping about Israeli colonization, home demolitions and control of the media. Nor did the curriculum earlier address right-wing antisemitism, such as the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of 2018.

Separately, Washington state educational officials in July axed a controversial assignment for 5th graders which suggested that the Palestinians’ one-sided narrative was a helpful “contemporary connection” for understanding the struggles of Native Americans.

Unconvincing Intersectionality

The BDS movement continues to make in-roads in teaching organizations and academic associations. A San Diego teachers union underscored this issue in September when American Federation of Teachers Guild, Local 1931 passed a statement condemning Israel for “continued human rights violations,” “indiscriminate bombing of the Gaza Strip,” and “killing a disproportionate number of Palestinians.”

Other statements in support of BDS have been passed by academic organizations such as the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association and the American Studies Association.

Jewish activists fear that mandatory ethnic studies curriculum will be shoehorned into an analytical framework that Palestinian and left-wing activists call “intersectionality.” Intersectionality seeks to examine how gender, race, social class and other individual characteristics “intersect” or overlap with each other, especially in terms of their relationship to power and oppression.

By invoking intersectionality to make spurious comparisons, Palestinian supporters have managed to insert their agenda into movements such as The Women’s March and Black Lives Matter.

Will a curriculum for more than 900,000 schoolchildren in Massachusetts be next on their agenda?

JNS contributed to this report.