2019-08-05 | Blog

Sephardic and Mizrahi Communal Response to the First Draft of Proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum of California’s Department of Education

In 2016, the State of California passed legislation, AB 2016, requiring the State Board of Education to adopt an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for high school students. Unfortunately, their first draft of the model curriculum completely ignores the experiences of Jewish American, promotes a boycott of Israel, and ignores antisemitism. Furthermore, in conflict with its stated guidelines, the Model Curriculum erases the histories, voices, and experiences of American minority communities from the Middle East and North Africa – including those of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.

August 4th, 2019

To the Instructional Quality Commission of the California Board of Education:

We, the undersigned Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish organizations and synagogues in communities throughout California commend Governor Brown for signing AB 2016, requiring the State Board of Education to adopt an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. Like California’s Department of Education, we too believe that a strong state requires excellent educational opportunities that include culturally meaningful, inclusive content that promotes civic responsibility, self-empowerment, cultural competency, and critical thinking. As a sub-ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, these values are core to our community and we are pleased to see them so well-articulated in the Ethnic Studies Curriculum Guidelines. We offer our feedback to the Advisory Committee in good-faith that the model curriculum can be improved to positively impact students, educators and schools throughout our state of California.

We would like to open our review by providing context on who we are as a community. To begin, Mizrahi Jews are an indigenous group from the Middle East, whose ancestors lived continuously in the region for over 2,500 years. Sephardic Jewish communities from Spain integrated into North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities as a result of the Spanish Inquisition and today there is much overlap between Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.  In the mid to late 20th century, state-sanctioned antisemitism, frequently taken under the banner of anti-Zionism, led to the ethnic cleansing and displacement of close to one million Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. 650,000 of these Jews fled to Israel as stateless refugees and the remainder scattered to countries around the world, including the USA. Today, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews comprise over half of Israel’s Jewish population.

Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are a racially diverse ethnic sub-group that is both proudly Jewish and proudly Middle Eastern. This intersection provides us with a unique vantage point and we share our concerns about the proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, bringing our full identities and experiences to the conversation.

We would like to frame our comments by quoting directly from the statutory guidelines in the curriculum. The very first requirement states that, “The model curriculum shall be written as a guide to allow school districts to adapt their courses to reflect the pupil demographics in their communities.” We estimate that the state of California is home to some 236,000 Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Our families arrived in California as Arabic, Farsi, Judeo-Spanish, Turkish, and Hebrew speaking refugees and immigrants from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Iran. Notably, the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles comprises an estimated 60,000 individuals, making them one of the largest Middle Eastern diasporic communities in the United States. Despite our community’s numbers, we have been completely erased from the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, most notably from the Arab American Studies Course outline. There is no possible way that the Arab American Studies Course curriculum, as it is currently written, can adequately reflect Mizrahi demographics, needs and interests in the state of California.

The Arab American Studies Course Outline within the curriculum is deeply problematic. It is highly politicized and not built on foundational scholarship necessary for the quality education our students deserve. It lacks cultural competency, nuance and sensitivity to student demographics. While the Middle East and North Africa is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse regions in the world, within the model curriculum the term “Arab” is never defined leaving educators and readers to easily conflate “Arabs,” “Muslims,” and “Middle Easterners.”  Minority groups and experiences from the Middle East and North Africa are totally erased from the curriculum portraying Arabs as a homogenous, Muslim group.

The Arab American Studies Course violates a number of the Ethnic Studies Curriculum Guidelines. It is not written in a language that is inclusive and supportive of multiple users as it excludes and erases the experiences, perspectives, and voices of diverse Middle Eastern communities – including Mizrahi Jews indigenous to the region.  If the curriculum is to be consistent with an intersectional frame that is supportive of multiple users, then it must identify the histories, perspectives, voices and oppression of diverse Middle Eastern communities – including those that diverge from dominant Middle Eastern narratives.

The Arab Studies Course erasure of Jewish and minority Middle Eastern perspectives perpetuates a legacy of oppression and cultural genocide of non-Muslim Middle Eastern groups who fled persecution to find sanctuary in the Unites States. It will fail in promoting self and collective empowerment of Coptic students, Bahai Students, Mizrahi Jewish students, Assyrian students, Iranian students, Kurdish students, Yazidi students and non-Muslim Middle Eastern students who together constitute a sizeable Middle Eastern demographic in California yet are entirely erased in the curriculum.

The course presents only one Middle Eastern experience – that of Arab Muslims. By only exploring the experience of the dominant ethnic – religious group from the Middle East, the course will fail to promote rigorous analysis of history, systems of oppression, and the status quo in an effort to generate discussions on futurity, and imagine new possibilities. The inclusion of diverse Middle Eastern experiences and perspectives is essential for a full and rich understanding of Middle Eastern American identity, and it necessary in avoiding an essentialist understanding of “Arabness.” It is also essential in understanding current events in the Middle East such as the Syrian Civil War, and the ongoing oppression and cleansing of Coptic Christians, Assyrians and Yezidis from the region.

Furthermore, as an integral part of the larger Jewish community, we are writing to express our deepest concerns that the Model Curriculum excludes any reference to antisemitism and its current manifestations. As 2018 FBI statistics have noted, hate crimes against Jews have risen by 37% accounting for over half of religious-based hate crimes in the United States. It is at this time that the American Jewish community, particularly students and young adults, are in need of consideration, allyship, and support.

At a time of increased vulnerability for American Jews, it is essential that the State of California do its best to protect the unique needs and sensitivities towards American Jewish students. This includes exercising extreme caution in public discourse and teaching of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The over-emphasis of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the definition of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in the Model Curriculum are both framed entirely from the vantage of proponents of BDS and fail to adhere to curriculum guidelines that require content to be taught in a manner that is “balanced“, “inclusive“, and reflective of “different perspectives“. While Jews are an indigenous ethnic group to modern day Israel, our voices are omitted in all curricular references to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This is deeply troublesome.

The one-sided framing of the Israeli Palestinian conflict in the Model Curriculum creates a scenario where it’s not unlikely that Jewish students may be stereotyped, accused of dual-loyalty, harassed and forced to face social litmus tests. The Israeli-Arab conflict is an incredibly complex and fraught subject. We are concerned that teachers will not be prepared or able to teach and facilitate conversations on an incredibly complex conflict, and that the curricular guidelines encourage simplistic, one-sided approaches that fail to reflect the full panoply of experiences, perspectives, and interests essential to any critical discussion of the region.

As a large Middle Eastern community in the State of California we recommend that the Arab American Studies Course be overhauled and re-written with the involvement and oversight of a representative committee of diverse Middle Eastern communities residing in California. We very much want to see Middle Eastern American Studies integrated into the Model Curriculum and would be delighted to work together with a diverse team of Middle Eastern curriculum writers, scholars, educators and organizations to ensure that we are providing our students with the highest quality educational material on Middle Eastern American identity. We simultaneously believe it is critical to remove the unbalanced definition of BDS from the glossary of terms and to include a working definition for antisemitism.

Thank you for your consideration,

30 Years After, Los Angeles

Baba Sale Congregation, Los Angeles

Bar Yohai Sephardic Minyan, Sunnyvale

Congregation Magen David, Beverly Hills

Iranian American Jewish Federation, Los Angeles

JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, San Francisco

Kahal Joseph Congregation, Los Angeles

The Karaite Jews of America, Daly City

Magain David Sephardim Congregation, San Francisco

Sephardic Education Center, Los Angeles

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Los Angeles