Israeli app claims victory over ethnic studies in California

A woman stands at a microphone

Lara Kiswani urges the California Department of Education to defend the ethnic studies model curriculum against Israel lobby attacks, during a public hearing in Sacramento this month. (California Department of Education)

An Israel-backed propaganda app is claiming credit for pressuring California education officials to revise a proposed ethnic studies curriculum for public schools.

The curriculum, designed to be a graduation requirement for high schoolers and California State University students, aims to educate young people about the current and historic struggles of marginalized communities in the state and around the world.

In its present model, the curriculum includes an accurate description of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.

It defines it as a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.”

The curriculum project was sidelined in August after Israel advocacy groups complained that the guidelines omit discussions of anti-Semitism.

The right-wing group StandWithUs also claimed the curriculum “promotes hateful boycotts of Israel.”

The Jewish Legislative Caucus, a grouping of state lawmakers that serves as an in-house Israel lobby, claims that the curriculum “singles out Israel for criticism” and “would institutionalize” anti-Semitic stereotypes in public schools.

In order to shield Israel from criticism, advocacy groups routinely claim that explorations of Palestinian history in academia and research into the state’s human rights record are tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry.

These smear tactics have been amplified by Act.IL, an app funded by the Israeli government that purports to be a hub for organic grassroots activism.

In reality, Act.IL is a government-backed propaganda platform to whip up support for Israeli interests.

Act.IL began sending its users on “missions” last month to attack the curriculum.

In a recent email to supporters seen by The Electronic Intifada, Act.IL boasts that its “Los Angeles Media Room campaign led to a major change in the CDE’s (California Department of Education) proposed discriminatory ‘Ethnic Studies’ curriculum.”

Act.IL also claims that “over 3,000 community members” joined its campaign.

It is unclear that any “major change” has taken place since there have been no announcements by CDE of any changes to the model curriculum so far.

But Israel lobby groups have claimed the announcement of a revision – which is routine procedure for statewide curriculum projects – as a win.

Last month, amid a chorus from anti-Palestinian groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center declared the education department’s announcement that it will revise the curriculum “a victory for all Californians and a defeat for anti-Semites and extremists.”

The Israel lobby group offered to help the state with the revision.

Conflating anti-Jewish bigotry with criticism of Israel’s human rights violations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has previously worked with US lawmakers and University of California governors to draft policy and legislation intended to curb criticism of Israel.

“Aggressively attacked”

Coordinated smear campaigns by major anti-Palestinian groups and the Israeli government-backed app have generated an avalanche of condemnation for the curriculum’s mere mention of the Palestinians’ struggle for their rights.

The education department says that it has received more than 20,000 comments on the proposal through its website.

More than 18,000 of these cited “concerns with a lack of inclusion of Jewish Americans and anti-Semitism, and concerns with the inclusion of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

Activists say they are trying to examine the sources of the massive number of cookie-cutter comments opposing the inclusion of Palestinian rights.

The model curriculum “was designed by ethnic studies leaders from various school districts and universities, appointed by the State Board of Education,” reports The Sacramento Bee.

It is supported by more than 20 ethnic studies departments in the California State University system as well as school districts in San Francisco and San Diego.

Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the state resist outside pressure to change the curriculum.

“While revisions are a normal part of the process, this curriculum is now being aggressively attacked from groups who have little to no experience in the discipline,” the petition states.

It warns that this pressure “could result in the entire curriculum being delayed and fundamentally diluted by people without expertise in the field, who want to completely rewrite it.”

The field of ethnic studies was born in California after student strikes at San Francisco State University and at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s.

On 16 September, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced he would support a plan to revise the curriculum.

“Far from the truth”

Earlier this week, the Instructional Quality Commission held a two-hour public comment session on the ethnic studies curriculum in the state capital Sacramento.

Several comments reflected Israel lobby talking points, including claims that the curriculum contains “anti-Semitic themes and clear bias” and that the BDS movement “fuels hatred, conflict and violence.”

But there was also significant pushback to these false claims.

“The narrative that the curriculum is anti-Semitic is far from the truth and based on ignorance, fear and a lack of background history in ethnic studies,” said Alphonso Thompson, a member of the ethnic studies advisory committee.

Ellen Brotsky of Jewish Voice for Peace explained that the attack on ethnic studies “has been led by right-wing pro-Israeli interest groups not rooted in our communities, who claim to speak for all Jews but who do not.”

Lara Kiswani, a faculty member at San Francisco State University and director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, urged the commission to “imagine African American studies without talking about apartheid South Africa and the BDS struggle there.”

Kiswani told The Electronic Intifada that although Israel lobby groups are placing BDS at the center of their attacks, “their primary interest is to remove Arab American studies completely” from the curriculum and to dilute the ethnic studies field into de-politicized “multiculturalism.”

The goal, she said, “is to no longer situate ethnic studies within an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework.”

Crackdown on criticism of Israel

If the California Department of Education ends up reshaping its ethnic studies curriculum to appease Israel lobby groups, the state will be taking the 50-year program “10 steps back,” Kiswani told The Electronic Intifada.

“This current fight is reflective of the history of struggle around ethnic studies,” she said. “It’s part of the long tradition of fighting for marginalized and oppressed voices to be front and center.”

The US Department of Education recently ordered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University to make changes to their federally funded joint Middle East studies program over claims that the curriculum spends too much time casting Muslims in a positive light.

This overt meddling in academic freedom carries the hallmark of years of work to criminalize campus organizing and silence discussions on Palestine by Kenneth Marcus.

A longtime Israel lobbyist, the Trump administration in 2017 appointed Marcus as head of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

If universities accept the Trump administration’s directives and put funding before the freedom of students and faculty to pursue inquiry as they see fit, it will blow the door wide open for more federal censorship on campuses across the country.

“You can see a clear through-line from this attack on ethnic studies in California and the attack on academic freedom as it relates to Palestine, and US support of Israel economically and politically, to the situation on the ground in Palestine and the crackdown on activism here,” Kiswani said.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).