Save ethnic studies — including Palestine!

Illustration of a woman in a hijab looking at a chalkboard listing different ethnic studies curricula, but with no mention of Arab studies or Palestine
Nerissa Hsieh/Staff

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“I am a Palestinian student,” says Hedaia. “Do you know how it feels to be called a terrorist by your teacher and classmates? It’s dehumanizing. As much as I tried to assimilate at my high school, I was always a scary Arab with a hard name to pronounce. I grew up facing Islamophobic and Arab slurs, explaining myself in classes where Arabs and Muslims are mentioned for one day each year: September 11th. My people are not the stereotypes. We are teachers, students, healthcare workers, politicians. Representation matters.”

As co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project, I often talk with youth like Hedaia. I’ve learned from them how important it is for all students to learn about Palestine in the context of a rich ethnic studies curriculum. Studying Palestine is central to combating anti-Arab racism. Drawing parallels between United States experiences and Palestinian ones is essential. Comparing Israel and the U.S. as settler-colonial states, comparing gentrification in Oakland to house demolitions in East Jerusalem, comparing militarized border zones from the U.S.-Mexico border to the apartheid wall snaking through the West Bank in Palestine: These analyses help all students see their own struggles in a global context. 

So I felt encouraged when Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2016 directing the California Department of Education, or CDE, to create an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, or ESMC. The CDE appointed an advisory committee of ethnic studies practitioners who created an antiracist, decolonial, liberatory curriculum that included Palestine in Arab American Studies. It seemed like an important step toward social justice in our schools.

But when the draft curriculum went up for public comment in summer 2019, a well-organized rightwing campaign, headed by Zionist organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League, flooded the CDE with demands to remove the Arab American curriculum — especially all mention of Palestine — and the anti-colonial framing of the entire curriculum. Media headlines targeted the ESMC’s mention of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement as a possible research topic for students. But Zionist opposition extended to any mention of Palestine or Palestinian Americans, which they claimed was antisemitic. Other rightwing forces attacked Critical Race Theory as the basis of ethnic studies, demanding “constructive ethnic studies” instead.

Meanwhile, ethnic studies educators, students and community members organized to defend the ESMC. University faculty joined forces with K-12 teachers and community activists. The Association of Asian American Studies, the Arab American Studies Association, Black Lives Matter, or BLM, Jewish Voice for Peace, the California Teachers Association, 30,000 public comments, and internationally recognized scholars — including Angela Davis and Robin D.G. Kelley — publicly supported the original curriculum. Progressive Jewish educators and activists emphatically denied the accusation that including discussions about Palestine in the curriculum was antisemitic. 

Despite this broad support, the CDE bowed to rightwing pressure. The original advisory committee was disbanded, and each successive draft of the ESMC was further away from the principles and values of ethnic studies. The version that the California Board of Education approved on March 18, 2021, is so deficient that the entire original advisory committee demanded their names be removed. The critical edge of ethnic studies has been sanitized. For example, the critique of capitalism has been removed. The African American lesson on the Black Lives Matter movement fails to depict the true causes of police brutality, the significance of anti-racist struggle in African American communities and the impact BLM has had on all communities of color. All mention of Palestine has been erased, and a reference to a dangerous definition of antisemitism, which equates discussion of Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights with antisemitism, is cited.

Educators and students called into the March 18 meeting to explain why Arab American studies, including Palestine, is important for all California students. According to the 2020 TURATH Report, by the Arab Resource and Organization Center’s Arab Youth Organization, 61.5% of the Bay Area students surveyed spent zero time in school learning about Arab history and or culture; only 2.3% of their information about Arabs or Muslims came from school. This lack of content and deep discussion reinforces stereotypes and discrimination. The original ESMC, based on building solidarity, was an effective antidote.

“The current curriculum is so far from what we originally created,” says Samia Shoman, a Palestinian educator, member of the original advisory committee, and co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project. “Palestine has been identified as a polarizing issue and deleted. We are constantly having to defend our existence, and this seems like another of those moments. I don’t want my kids, or any other kids, to feel embarrassed about who they are or their ancestral roots. I want them to find their voices and speak up for justice.”

Every day, the news gives us a sharper understanding of why our youth need to understand racism, the continuing cost of colonial conquest, and how to build a world based on justice. This spring, the California legislature will vote on AB101, which will require ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement. Please urge your legislators to support authentic ethnic studies, including Palestine!

Jody Sokolower is a teacher educator and co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project at the Middle East Children’s Alliance, or MECA. MECA is a 32-year-old Berkeley-based organization sending direct aid and supporting projects to protect and improve the lives of children in Palestine and Lebanon. MECA also provides education about the region to people in the United States.