November 2, 2022

Michael Harris on Jews and Cancel Culture

To the Editors:

Reading Bret Stephens’ thoughtful piece on cancel culture, especially the passage about the victim-oppressor model which it utilizes, brings to mind one issue that was not addressed in SAPIR’s last volume about education. That is the drive to bring Ethnic Studies—specifically of the flavor known as Critical Ethnic Studies, which is built on this victim-oppressor model—into public school K-12 education. This is different from DEI initiatives for university students or staff, and while Pamela Paresky touched on this in her piece on critical race theory, her focus was the university level.

We are facing a situation here in California that marks a potential watershed moment for Jews in modern America. The moment that a public school district adopts a curriculum which teaches that Israel is an illegitimate settler-colonial state, and that BDS is “a global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions,” that is governmental promotion of what our community defines as antisemitic. (And then for good measure, they’ll add that Jews are white, and therefore classified with the oppressors.)  

Has this happened? Not quite yet. Such language was included in the first draft of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which was quickly discarded after thousands of objections from California’s Jewish community, among others. But are we well on the road to it? Yes, because more and more school districts—which, in California, are not required to use the state’s model curriculum—are contracting with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Coalition, which promotes those exact ideas. That group is now training teachers in some local districts how to write and teach such a curriculum, and trying to gain such contracts in others. The Liberated Ethnic Studies leaders have openly called for centering the Palestinians (in a course ostensibly designed to interrogate issues of race and power in the United States), and the very first pages of their website were entitled “Preparing to Teach Palestine: A Toolkit.”  On those pages, now hidden, they state that “Zionism is a nationalist, colonialist ideology that….has called for the creation and expansion of a Jewish state in historic Palestine by any means necessary,” and “Zionist organizations, their primary goal is to stunt the development of authentic anti-racist curriculum.”

LESMC leaders are also agitating to get the University of California to adopt an admission prerequisite not simply for a course in ethnic studies, but for a course built only on those principles. If that happens, it requires, de facto, that this course be taught not only in every school in California, but also in other Western states where many students desire to attend a UC school. Fortunately, it appears they have little support for this proposal even from UC faculty, but we know that they will continue to try to push it forward. 

While our Jewish community organizations both in California and nationwide are mobilizing to push back against all of this, they are under-resourced in trying to make up for lost time—because the ideology behind Liberated Ethnic Studies has been thriving at the university level, and now has many proponents in the K-12 educational system. 

Our community faces the need to balance out two imperatives: supporting the entirely legitimate need to educate students about the history and current legacies of racism in this country, and refusing to be thrown under the bus as collateral damage in this process. As Reb Nachman of Breslov put it, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od.”

Michael Harris

Bodega Bay, CA