Podcast Ep 33: The Israel lobby’s war on ethnic studies

On episode 33 of The Electronic Intifada Podcast, we speak to educators Robin D.G. Kelley and Lara Kiswani about the Israel lobby’s attacks on public education in California.

In efforts to censor Palestinian and Arab scholarship and shield Israel from criticism at all costs, lobby groups have waged a war on a state-mandated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for several years.

“What started off as an attack on the inclusion of Palestine – and Arab American studies – in the curriculum evolved into an all-out assault on anti-colonial education, on anti-racist education, on liberatory transformative education for students in California by the same forces, essentially, that tried to stop ethnic studies from being formed in 1968,” Kiswani, director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and a lecturer at San Francisco State University, says.

Kelley, an eminent historian and professor at UCLA, joined other Black scholars including Cornel West, Barbara Ransby and Marc Lamont Hill to urge the California Department of Education to not approve the version of the curriculum that had been altered by Israel lobby pressure.

But in mid-March, California public education officials capitulated to the demands of Israel advocates and rubber-stamped a gutted version of the program that erases all mentions of Palestine.

In response, all 20 scholars who drafted the original denounced the latest version of the curriculum and demanded that their names be removed.

The California Teachers’ Association, which represents hundreds of thousands of educators, stated it would not approve the new, gutted version.

“Broadly speaking, this is not an ethnic studies curriculum at all,” Robin Kelley tells us.

“It’s a multi-cultural, multi-racial curriculum that doesn’t attend to issues of power, which is precisely why you have an ethnic studies curriculum in the first place: to really understand not just that we’re different, but how difference is produced and creates these inequalities,” he adds.

Fighting back, ethnic studies scholars have released an independent curriculum for California educators.

The Save Arab American Studies Coalition, Kiswani notes, is helping to strategize and coordinate ways for educators to ensure and protect the needs of all students.

“We lost the battle over the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, but the war continues,” Kiswani says.

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Discussing the history of the Civil War may disturb students whose ancestors fought on the Confederate side. The history of WW2 may disturb students whose ancestors supported the Axis powers. The history of US imperialism may disturb students whose families endorse the US rampaging the world. Thus to avoid disturbing anyone’s sensibilities we must avoid teaching history altogether. And we can be content continuing to kill one another. Thank you ADL for this lesson.

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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).