Ethnic studies continues to boil melting pot as lawsuit is brought against LA school district

The Deborah Project is suing multiple organizations connected to the Los Angeles Unified School District for trying to circumvent parents and the democratic process to push a radical, anti-Semitic curriculum in Los Angeles public schools.

The organization’s legal director, Lori Lowenthal Marcus, and president and co-founder Jerome Marcus brought the complaint to the United States District Court for the Central District of California on May 12 on behalf of Jewish, Israeli and Zionist teachers and parents at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) concerned about the adoption of the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (LESMC).

That curriculum, according to the complaint, violates state and federal law by discriminating against Jewish residents of California—namely, “Americans and Middle Eastern American Jews who embrace the religion’s foundational belief in Zionism.”

After years of fighting over the details, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 into law on Oct. 8. The law requires all public and charter schools in California to offer an ethnic-studies course for their students if it does not already have one by the 2025-26 academic year, in addition to making it a requirement for graduation by 2030.

Originally, a group of ethnic-studies experts was brought in to form the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Committee to create the model curriculum. The first draft of the committee’s work caused an outcry in the Jewish community, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, Jewish Federations of North America, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other groups.

The resulting model curriculum—based on critical race theory (CRT)—emphasized the experience of Jews as “conditional whiteness” and “racial privilege.”

The draft curriculum made no reference to anti-Semitism and completely omitted contributions by Jews through American and Middle Eastern history. It characterized Israel as a Jewish colonial state and included a section some viewed as endorsing the BDS movement.

Newsom vetoed the legislation, sending it back to the assembly with instructions to revise the curriculum.

With consultation from the stakeholders, and Jewish and other minority groups, a new model curriculum was developed. The law, which follows the California code by allowing school districts the ability to either choose the state’s recommended curriculum or adopt their own within the law’s guidelines, specifically forbids the inclusion of the elements of the initial model curriculum rejected through the lawmaking process.

Every member of the state’s model curriculum committee resigned and joined together to form the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium (LESMCC). They wrote a letter attacking the state’s new curriculum as inauthentic.

LESMCC, which is named as a defendant in the complaint, claimed that the Jewish organizations represented the repression of voices of people of color by white supremacy.

According to the complaint, the organization began working covertly to undermine the state’s guardrails and inject the Liberated curriculum into public schools without the approval of the state assembly or Department of Education.

The complaint further says that while California’s goal of creating an ethnic-studies requirement was to “promote critical thinking and rigorous analysis of history, systems of oppression and the status quo in an effort to generate discussions on futurity and imagine new possibilities,” LESMC’s stated goals were to “critique empire, white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of society.”

“In other words, defendants don’t see ethnic studies having as its goal a positive future for all,” the complaint stated. “Defendants’ goal for ethnic studies is to create a forum for some formerly excluded groups to call out and punish those they view as former ‘oppressors,’ and ignore—or worse—anyone else who doesn’t fit defendants’ template.”

‘Determined to win through the back door’

In the Liberated model, which is the only form of ethnic studies that members of the LESMC consider acceptable, the focus is placed exclusively on the elevation of four racialized groups—black, Latino, Native Americans, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Middle Easterners are lumped into the AAPI category but include only the non-Jews, ignoring, as the complaint states often, the Middle Eastern Jews who suffered religious persecution and actual ethnic cleansing by Arabs, Turks, Iranians and others.

But LESMCC views the state’s curriculum as a version of multiculturalism, which it considers bad.

During a meeting of the district’s union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles’s (UTLA) Ethnic Studies Panel (ESP), one of the proponents of LESMC, ridiculed the California State Board of Education’s Ethnic Studies Guidelines.

Attempts to infiltrate the curriculum in LAUSD, as well as other districts in the state, also raise questions about transparency.

California law requires that new teaching material be publicly disclosed and adopted after publication and after two public meetings at which parents and the general public can be heard.

LESMC advises teachers to only disclose their material to administrators or parents who they believe will be supportive, and earlier on its website, stated that sometimes it’s important to “fly under the radar.”

The group also warned educators of Liberated studies to watch out for the influence of JCRC, ADL, Jewish Federations and other Zionist organizations in their communities before disclosing what they teach in their classrooms to parents and local stakeholders.

“We know it’s being taught in the schools. What we’re saying is that the Los Angeles Unified School District has not approved this content,” said Lowenthal Marcus. “They’ve never had hearings on it because they’re not allowed to. Nonetheless, teachers are being trained in it and the educators—online or out loud in various panels and seminars—are saying the other stuff is illegitimate, you cannot teach the other stuff. You have to have Palestine in your curriculum. You have to have everything through a CRT lens—the critical race theory lens.”

LESMCC is spearheading efforts throughout the state to make LESMC part of the unofficial curriculum in many districts.

“It’s good that the consortium, whatever they call themselves, is now going to be forced to defend themselves both in court and in the court of public opinion. Because there does not seem to be much doubt that they were unhappy with the result of the democratic process modifying their proposed curriculum,” said Marc Stern, chief legal officer of the American Jewish Committee. “And we know from a place called Castro Valley and now Los Angeles—at least if the allegations in the complaint prove to be true—is that they’re determined to win through the back door what they lost through the front door.”

According to the complaint, the LESMC also attacks other widely accepted ideas, such as capitalism, traditional family and the territorial integrity of the lower 48 states. One of its stated goals is to help the students become activists.

The UTLA, which represents teachers employed by LAUSD, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as it is an active proponent of the LESMC and its leadership expends union dues paid by the members to promote the adoption of the LESMC.

‘A political settler-colonial ideology’

At an April 13 meeting of the UTLA ESP, testimony was heard from Celine Qussiny, an ethnic-studies expert who described herself as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), an organization that supports the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

Qussiny, an employee of the Virginia-based U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, began her presentation by stating: “We have to always be confronting Zionism.”

She described Israel as a fascist dictatorship and said when she talks about Zionism, she’s “talking about a political settler-colonial ideology that justifies ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.”

She also called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism “really dangerous because it criminalizes any criticism of Israel, and that Israel is a colonial state founded on ethnic cleansing, on mass displacement and ongoing land theft.”

Other defendants in the complaint include Teresa Montaño, a professor at California State University Northridge, vice president of the California Teachers Union and secretary of LESMCC.

Montaño, one of the authors of the state’s original model curriculum, accused the California Department of Education of caving to “white-supremacist, right-wing, conservative organizations,” including the ADL.

In its 2019 collective bargaining negotiation with the LAUSD, the UTLA got a guarantee for the creation of an LAUSD-UTLA Ethnic Studies Committee, on which the UTLA has the right to appoint four members. The committee is authorized to review and suggest professional development, curriculum and teaching materials purchased or developed by the LAUSD.

UTLA appointed Montaño, Guadalupe Cardona, Melina Abdullah and Roxanna Duenas as its representatives.

Cardona is the co-founder, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of the consortium, and is an ethnic-studies teacher at Edward R. Roybal Learning Center in the district. She is accused by the complaint of using LESMC materials in her classroom. Dueñas is a teacher at Roosevelt High School and is also believed to be currently teaching using the LESMC model, including its material on Israel.

Abdullah has on a number of occasions demonstrated her hatred towards Jews with the Deborah Project’s complaint citing a few examples.

For instance, in a tweet, Abdullah said “we must dismantle patriarchy! Specifically Jewish patriarchy offending Muslims & controlling our economy & campuses!” adding that “… more & more Jews [were] invading campuses, causing islamophobia, racism, & intolerance.”

The complaint’s last defendant is UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz, who the complaint calls a staunch proponent of inserting LESMC into the LAUSD curriculum from “early childhood education” through graduate studies. Myart-Cruz has stated that authentic ethnic studies do not represent “cultural diversity” or multiculturalism and that the curriculum adopted by the state wasn’t ethnic studies.

The complaint contends that the defendants are violating California state law, which requires schools to be free of hostility to all races, religions and nationalities, by working to introduce LESMC into the L.A. public-school curriculum; violating state laws pertaining to how new curricula is introduced; and violating the provisions of the state’s Ethnic Studies Law, which expressly forbid the inclusion of the anti-Semitic elements of the original ethnic-studies model curriculum.

The complaint also accuses the defendants of violating federal law, such as the equal protection clauses of the 14th and First amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance.

“One of the defendants’ clearly expressed goals in seeking to insert the Palestine portion of the LESMC into California’s public schools is precisely to expunge the idea of Zionism and the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel, from the public square, on the ground that defendants believe they have a right to teach and to induce as many other people as possible to teach to believe ‘their truth’ that Zionism and the Jewish State, Israel, are evil; that Israelis are oppressive and genocidal land thieves; that Israel has no right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish People; and that the Jewish people have no right to a nation-state of their own,” the complaint states.

‘We are asking for transparency’

Lowenthal Marcus said the goal of the complaint was to ensure that the district does not allow the unauthorized curriculum to be taught, which violates both federal and state law.

“The goal is for there not to be this content taught to public-school children, and that any effort at putting any of the liberated content that has to do with a lot of other things other than just Israel and Jews has to be made public. They have to disclose what they’re teaching in the schools. And that’s all that we’re asking for,” she said. “We’re not asking for damages, we’re not asking for anyone to be fired, but we are asking for transparency, and we’re asking for the removal of material that violates the law … .”

Kenneth L. Marcus, founder and chairman of the Brandeis Center and former assistant U.S. secretary of education for civil rights (who is not related to those who filed the lawsuit), said that he’s seeing school districts across California that are shutting out parents from the involvement they should have and raising issues of transparency under California’s education code.

The adverse views of Jews and Israeli-Americans found in the curricula also raise legal questions regarding California and federal law, as seen in the complaint.

Los Angeles, being an early adopter of ethnic studies, is already offering it to students in their classrooms ahead of the timeline mandated by the law. It is one of the earliest districts to have litigation brought against some of its members but unlikely to be the last.

The district’s already established ethnic-studies curriculum is accepted among some Jewish organizations.

While it’s too early to say that the complaint will be successful, Marcus said he hopes that other districts take notice.

“I’m hoping that other school districts see this complaint and realize that they need to take action to involve parents, including Jewish parents, more effectively,” he said. “That they provide the level of transparency that California state law requires. And that they avoid using curricula that are blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist.”

The language of A.B. 101, noted Marcus, is somewhat vague in what it prohibits—not expressly prohibiting “Liberated ethnic studies” and allowing room for litigation.

“Liberated Ethnic Studies, however, is an extreme, left-wing political approach to the issue, which is based on some of the currently trendy notions of intersectionality, as well as a more generally radical political perspective,” said Marcus. “It tends to be anti-capitalist as well as anti-Zionist, and it tends to include some of the elements that are sometimes referred to under the rubric of critical race theory.”

For years, he said, observers have watched anti-Semitism increase on college campuses across the country, especially in California. This anti-Semitism is particularly pronounced in ethnic-studies departments. Now, he sees the effort to inject it into public schools.

“One of the things that is most alarming about ethnic studies in California is that it provides the first look at what it means for the campus anti-Semitism to be funneled into the public schools and then to affect a greater number of people,” said Marcus.

Even if districts don’t openly say that they’ve adopted a Liberated model for their ethnic studies curriculum, elements of it are still able to seep in.

Lowenthal Marcus said the members of the consortium believe themselves to be the only true experts in ethnic studies and have created institutes to train educators.

The curriculum is already causing damage, with one of the plaintiffs represented by the Deborah Project’s lawsuit—a parent—having had their children asking the teacher why anti-Semitism was not being discussed and being reprimanded for it.

The complaint includes many paragraphs explaining Zionism and how it is inseparable from Judaism, as a common defense against accusations of anti-Semitism is to say that opposition to Zionism is not hatred towards Jews and is separate from the religion.

“I think everyone recognizes [traditions like] the breaking of the glass [at Jewish weddings], which signifies the destruction of the Temple, and saying ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ [at the end of the Passover seder.] And for those who observe the fast days, most of them have to do with the destruction of Jerusalem or with respect to sovereignty in the land,” said Lowenthal Marcus. “So it just permeates the entire thing. … They don’t get to decide what Judaism is.”

Stern noted that while debate exists even among Jewish progressive groups, “most of the Jewish community appears to believe correctly that the idea that the only nationality that’s not entitled to a state—the Jews—is anti-Semitic,” he said.

‘Everybody has to jump through their hoops’

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, a campus anti-Semitism watchdog group that has been following the development from the beginning, said she was concerned about the creative methods that proponents of Liberated, or critical ethnic studies, have been using to infiltrate public education.

Her organization recently was successful in stalling the creation of an admission requirement for Liberated ethnic studies at the University of California system, which would have the aftereffect of public and charter schools adopting that version of the curriculum.

She’s also closely watching another piece of legislation from the author of A.B. 101—State Assemblymember Jose Medina, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee and is a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus—that would require certification for ethnic-studies educators as opposed to it being allowed to be taught by those certified in social studies.

“This whole idea of teacher certification is another mechanism for Liberated to really control everything you say,” said Rossman-Benjamin.

“The ethnic-studies industry, these guys have lifetime jobs now,” she said. “There’s complete job security. They have complete control over the state because everybody has to jump through their hoops.”

Rossman-Benjamin said she and her group opposed the ethnic-studies bill even with the guardrails signed into law since school districts still have a lot of purview over their curricula and teaching methods.

“[It’s] not just their curriculum but their teacher training. In some ways, a curriculum is almost irrelevant if you have teachers that are trained in this particular approach to ethnic studies,” she said. “Because they can make up their own curriculum, it’s going to be every bit as bad as the Liberated curriculum. The problem is that they’ve already insinuated themselves into many of the school districts up and down the state.”

Marcus agreed, saying there is no free market of ideas in the ethnic-studies departments throughout California and the United States.

“This is part of the general campus culture in which only a limited number of views are permitted,” he said. “You end up getting a fairly narrow amount of groupthink. So in ethnic studies, as in some academic disciplines, you get a fairly narrow range of ideas which are highly politicized and politically radical.”