Four Jewish advocacy groups sued on Friday to stop the Santa Ana Unified School District in southern Califonia from including antisemitic content in its ethnic studies courses.
The group alleges that the Orange County district broke the law by inserting the content, by not giving the public an opportunity to comment on it, and by failing to adequately protect Jewish speakers who were harassed at its meetings and subjected to anti-Jewish hatred.
The 86-page suit, filed on behalf of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and its Southern Californians for Unbiased Education, was joined by the Potomac Law Group, Anti-Defamation League, and American Jewish Committee.
Many of the ethnic studies courses that the district developed “contain controversial and antisemitic content that is — or would be, if properly made public — deeply disturbing to the local community,” the complaint states.
The suit states that an item on the agenda for an Oct. 4, 2022 meeting of the district’s committee that developed the ethnic studies courses in question was to “Address the Jewish question — do we have to create a response — consult with XITO, and the Ochoas.”
The litigants interpret the “Jewish question” as “potential objections from the Jewish community to antisemitic content included in the courses.”
“Instead of talking to the Jewish community, however, the committee chose to get advice from organizations with a history of antisemitism on how to ‘handle’ the Jews,” the complaint states.
XITO is “a controversial ethnic studies group that vocally defended the rejected versions of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, and strongly objected to the removal of antisemitic materials from the final Model Curriculum,” it states. “XITO’s teachings and materials equate Israel with ‘settler colonialism’ and call Zionism ‘a nationalist, colonial ideology’ that has called for the ‘creation and expansion of Israel as a Jewish state in historic Palestine by any means necessary.’”
The coalition believes that the “Ochoas” refers to “Gilda and Enrique Ochoa, professors at Pomona College and Cal State Los Angeles, respectively, who are vocal supporters of the rejected draft model curriculum, including its antisemitic content.”
“Other minority groups were not treated as pariahs but still had to be carefully ‘vetted’ before providing input,” the complaint adds. “The Subcommittee Notes from its June 27, 2021, meeting say, ‘Yes can ask for help from Native American local community, but make sure to vet them’.”
In late August, the education policy adviser to Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote to school leaders in the state cautioning them that some ethnic-studies materials that vendors had circulated discriminate against individuals or communities.
Some Jewish groups hailed the letter — which didn’t mention antisemitism in particular — but Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA Initiative, told JNS it was “too little, too late.”
The state law, AB 101, which California passed in October 2021, requires that public school students take at least one ethnic studies course in order to graduate. The law is slated to go into effect starting with the graduating class of 2029-2030.
Rachel Lerman, the Brandeis Center’s vice chair and general counsel, told JNS that the group shared the governor’s letter with counsel for the Santa Ana board the day it was issued.
“Counsel told us the next day that the letter did not change anything,” said Lerman. “Counsel told us the board had no plans to change the curricula despite the governor’s letter and our own letter to the board explaining why the curricula blatantly violates AB 101.”
Lerman said that the Brandeis Center told the school board it fully supports an ethnic studies program that “teaches students to appreciate the challenges and contributions of different ethnic groups in California.”
“Jewish organizations like ours know all too well the importance of courses like ethnic studies which aim to prevent bigotry and discrimination,” she said. “But when these courses are used to spread hate against a particular group, we need to speak out.”
“The governor’s letter directs school leaders to ‘closely scrutinize’ any curriculum or instructional materials for ethnic studies courses before they are selected to ensure they are free from bias, bigotry, or discrimination,” the suit states.
“Based on the materials available to the public (and it is unclear whether this is everything), at least five ethnic studies courses” which the Santa Ana board approved, “including ethnic studies courses in world history, English and world geography, include one-sided anti-Israel screeds and propaganda,” it states.
The latter “teaches students — falsely — that Israel is an illegitimate, ‘settler colonial,’ ‘racist’ country that ‘stole’ land from a pre-existing country called Palestine and engages in unprovoked warfare against Palestinian Arabs,” it adds.
Beyond the board’s alleged decision to hide antisemitic components of its ethnic studies courses from the public, it also failed to protect Jewish attendees of its meetings, according to the complaint.
At a general board meeting on May 23, for example, “classic antisemitic tropes as well as threatening and violent language” were hurled at Jews and Israelis.