Who Would Object to Including Arab Americans in California’s Ethnic Studies Education Curriculum?
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
This is a story about Arab Americans getting a place at the table in one of the U.S, bluest states, California. It’s about their inclusion in California’s Ethnic Studies Education Curriculum. Strong resistance is coming from Jewish lawmakers and their constituents to the omission of Antisemitism and the Jewish experience from the curriculum.
Scholars defend the inclusion of Arab American Studies
Asian American scholars are defending the inclusion of Arab American studies in California’s ethnic studies model curriculum. According to Davis Vanguard, these scholars are “insisting that Arab American Studies not be compromised and sold out to political pressures in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum moving forward–that Arab American Studies is accurately situated within Asian American Studies, as a part of the four core racialized groups and needs to remain there in the curriculum.”
On the assumption that Arab countries are part of a larger cultural-geographic area, Asian American scholars have made a clear statement regarding the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. They want to include Arab American studies as part of a pillar including African Americans, Latin Americans, and Asian Americans. Arab American studies emerged as a result of the preoccupation of anti-Arab American sentiments resulting from the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the spin-off of Islamophobia. The justification for the inclusion of Arabs in the Asian region is through the Journal of Asian Studies, which absorbed Arabs into its orbit.
Opposition to the inclusion of Arab Americans
Required by the California Department of Education, all students would be required to complete a component in ethnic studies to graduate. This policy got complicated when the Jewish legislative caucus of the legislature rejected the Arab American component of the proposed curriculum. According to the San Francisco Bee, despite its support from many quarters, “the curriculum was also met with criticism. More specifically, what Jews of California objected to was the omission of Antisemitism and the Jewish experience. The Jewish legislative caucus criticized the draft curriculum, stating in a letter written to the Instructional Quality Commission that the curriculum omits discussions of Antisemitism and delves into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “with strong bias and little nuance.” The caucus also stated that the curriculum is too critical of Israel.
That opposition resulted in California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s decision to include in the curriculum proposal a discussion of Antisemitism and the contributions of Jewish people. Supporters of a new draft said that “including Antisemitism should not mean that Arab-American studies and Palestinian history be removed.” This resulted in a delay in the bill to mandate ethnic studies, giving an extra year to propose an adjusted curriculum. In the meantime, the Superintendent’s recommendation to the commission was that “If you study what the historic framework has been for ethnic studies, that has typically focused on four distinct groups…There’s no intentional omission of the experiences of Jewish Americans, but, in fact, we think that there should be mention of the contributions of Jewish Americans.”
California Jews’ Alarm over State’s Ethnic Studies Proposal
A specific objection by the Jewish legislature caucus, again according to the San Francisco Bee, was a lesson of the curriculum for students to research social movements, one prompt of which leads to the “Boycott, Divestment Sanctions” movement. This is a Palestinian rights campaign to discourage companies and governments from doing business with Israel. Jewish lawmakers objected to this because it equated an international campaign to target Israel to a domestic civil rights movement.
Other lessons in the curriculum include music. Jewish lawmakers objected to including a song by a Palestinian hip-hop artist, Shadia Mansour, an excerpt of which is the following:
“For every free political prisoner, an Israeli colony is expanded,” Mansour raps. “For each greeting, a thousand houses were demolished. (Israelis) use the press so they can manufacture, but when my sentence is judged, reality presents itself.”
The lawmakers saw this lyric as “a classic anti-Semitic trope about Jewish control of the media.” Furthermore, they averred, “It is difficult to fathom why – especially at a time of rising antisemitism and real fear in the Jewish community–the state of California would want to actively promote a narrative about Jews that echoes the propaganda of the Nazi regime.”
It should be noted that the Jewish population (some from Palestine) of California has a much larger representation than do Arab Americans, the former having a total of 1,182,990, while Arab Americans number 272,485.
The inclusion of Arab Americans and their story in California’s Ethnic Studies Education Curriculum is a topic that is still unfolding. Stay tuned to Arab America for the continuing saga of how Arabs are represented in California. It is an important slice of how Arabs get to tell their story in the U.S. as a whole.
“Ethnic Studies in California: Asian American Scholars Defend Inclusion of Arab American Studies,” The Davis Vanguard, 1/12/2020
“Controversial California ethnic studies curriculum moves forward, could roll out in 2020,” The Sacramento Bee, 9/21/2019
“What California Jews found ‘alarming,’ misleading about the state’s ethnic studies proposal, The San Francisco Bee, 8/14/2019
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East (New Academia Publishing, 2017). He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; he has served on the United Nations staff in Tripoli, Libya; and consulted extensively with USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries on socioeconomic development
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