Does Ethnic Studies Have a Jewish Problem?

Ethnic studies programs were first developed in universities in the 1960s. Programs were based on critical theory and what became critical race theory. Jews, Israel and the West are demonized in the offshoots called critical or liberated ethnic studies, and they are taught in an increasing number of preschools, elementary and high schools and integrated into many classes.

“Does Ethnic Studies Have a Jewish Problem?” was presented by the Israel Action Committee of Temple Israel of Natick on Sept. 8, with 446 people Zoomed in. The program was presented by four panelists: Robert Leikind, regional director of the American Jewish Committee New England; Elina Kaplan, president of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies; Steven Stotsky, director of CAMERA’s Education Institute; and Lori Lowenthal Marcus, legal director of the Deborah Project.

In her opening remarks, Marcus pointed out that “ethnic studies should provide bridges of understanding and foster open inquiry. Yet the programs called critical or liberated ethnic studies present the oppressor/victim paradigm, a pedagogy of the oppressed.” She noted that the goal is to promote resistance to the U.S. (“an imperialist power”), the West and capitalism, and to encourage students to become scholar/activists.

Marcus added: “One hundred percent of the college ethnic studies programs are of this type. They got into K-12 before anyone noticed, and have been integrated into all subjects.” She provided the example of a California history class which describes the birth of the Jewish state as the nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) and which promotes BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). In some places, like California, these programs are a graduation requirement. They are now in many states and spreading.

“Their role models include a guy who murdered a cop and terrorist bombers,” said Marcus. “Peaceful leaders such as Martin Luther King are called docile. There is a focus on Palestinians, including accusations of Israel being an apartheid country.” In addition, teachers are told, “When necessary, go under the radar.” In other words, keep what you do a secret.

Recently a bill was proposed to bring to Massachusetts the critical ethnic studies approach to the state’s students. Leikind noted that course materials “are selected by groups with narrow views of history and of Israel. The bill provided extraordinary powers to educators to shape the curriculum, and there was no sunset provision. The classes offered rigid ideologies and were hostile to Jews.”

Those who helped support the bill included many who really didn’t know what the bill contained. “There is a national effort to bring critical ethnic studies to all schools. We need to make people aware that there are alternatives.”

Steve Stotsky agreed that “ethnic studies has been co-opted by anti-Israel, anti-Jewish organizations.” He noted that in Massachusetts “there’s been a lack of scrutiny of the bills pushing these curricula. These proposals, which are still being peddled, pit racial groups against each other and include the language of indoctrination, not ethics.”

Classes focus only on the accomplishments of Black people, other minorities and women, while the contributions of Europeans get scant attention. He noted that leaving out the history of Irish in Boston is particularly egregious. Irish Americans have been and still are a major influence in Boston politics, religious institutions and consequently in the rest of Massachusetts.

“Jewish contributions are invisible,” added Stotsky. “Israel is cast as an illegal occupier. It’s never explained that Israel was called Palestine before it became a state. They remove the true origin of the name Palestine.”

In addition, noted Stotsky: “The California programs are especially dangerous. Anti-Israel ideology and anti-Zionism are fully embraced. Palestinian activists work with teachers. Some of the materials include maps with no Israel.” He also pointed out that California activists are advising Massachusetts legislators and educators. “What these programs really need,” said Stotsky, “are reputable historians.” Echoing Marcus, he pointed out that, “Some teachers have been advised to hide what they teach.”

“Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian/Pacific Islanders are the groups that critical ethnic studies teachers consider to be eternal victims of discrimination,” added Marcus. “Critical ethnic studies is not interested in diversity. Jews are never included.” Israel is accused of being a colonial and occupying power, of ethnic cleansing and apartheid. A settler is defined as a Jew who has stolen Palestinian land. “What began on campus is now being taught to young children,” warned Marcus, “including that Jews and Israel are evil.  Critical/liberated ethnic studies is spreading, and it’s coming to Massachusetts.”

In response to a question about what citizens can do, Elina Kaplan suggested that people communicate with organizations that are involved with this issue. (See resources below.) “Find out what students are learning. Communicate with the school. Talk to the principal, the superintendent,” she advised. “You can do this even if you don’t have kids in school. Attend school board and curriculum committee meetings. Write letters to the editor of your local paper.”

“Most people have never heard of this issue,” added Leikind. “The people driving this have support, including teachers unions; they are very organized and highly motivated.” He suggested that people meet with their state representatives and senators.

“Engage with politicians, promote good school board members, demand evidence that ethnic studies programs are worth it,” suggested Stotsky. “Promote the best curricula. Find out what’s being taught. The other side didn’t hesitate and just took control.”

Marcus suggested that concerned citizens ally with interested groups.“Teachers have no First Amendment rights in the classroom to say anything they want. And Jews have civil rights, too.”

Added Leikind, “Things have evolved over the past 50 years surreptitiously. This is a wake-up call and it will be a long-term fight.”

“Look at the websites and the school materials,” suggested Stotsky.  “Learn to recognize the language and the jargon. Education is not about encouraging activism. There have already been decades of indoctrination.”