A Letter to My Home State

Last week, my native state of California released a draft curriculum for a proposed high school ethnic studies class. In recent days, the draft has come under intense criticism. Initially it came under fire for its esoteric, pseudoacademic vocabulary; but then it was called out for both implicit and explicit promotions of antisemitic beliefs and concepts.

The furor over this latter point was significant enough that the Jewish Legislative Caucus’ official response condemning the draft was co-signed by Sen. José Medina (D-Riverside), the man whose idea this proposed class is, as well as a number of non-Jewish allies.

Upon learning of this, I emailed my State Senator, but ended up with something quite long and emotional that seemed more appropriate for this forum. The version here has been lightly edited for better readability.

To [redacted],

We have known each other for a long time. Thirteen years ago, I served as an intern on your first campaign for State Assembly. But today I reach out to you as a concerned citizen.

In 2017, I left the US to live in Israel. I maintain my US citizenship and keep close ties to California, but after the election of President Trump, I planned for the worst and decided it was in my best interest to steer clear. California may not be the bastion of Movement Conservatism that it once was, but it remains a hotspot for white supremacist terror, as demonstrated earlier this year in Granada Hills, Poway, and this past month in Gilroy.

Now, news of the draft curriculum for high school ethnic studies confirms many of my fears.

Bluntly speaking, it is fundamentally anti-semitic. Not only does it exclude anti-semitism from an otherwise exhaustive survey of bigotry at a time when anti-semitic attacks are rising in America after decades of decline; it minimizes the Holocaust, presents Israel1 foremost as an oppressor of the Palestinian people– rather than, you know, a country– and instructs teachers to quote conspiracy theories that Israel controls the media.

In so doing, this draft extolls a worldview in which Jews– whether in the US, Israel, or anywhere else– are not a minority, not othered, and not under threat. Rather, it establishes a template for understanding American and global relations in which Jews are not “deserving” of sympathy or understanding, but are an innate oppressor to be overcome.

I do not use terms like “innate oppressor” randomly, because I have heard them before. Until now it had been limited to fringe movements on college campuses like USC, Cal, or SF State. In most cases, they were part of a package that included many of the more esoteric terms proposed in this draft, such as “positionality” and “hxrstory.”

Taken alone, the latter terms may be good for a laugh, or could be discussed seriously between friends without hard feelings. But I know from experience that the inclusion of these terms in a document that also dismisses and disparages the threat faced by Jews is not a coincidence. Rather, it is reflective of the latest wave of thinking that tries to intellectualize hatred by dividing the world into good and evil nations. Throughout history, such divisions have invariably placed Jews in the “evil” column.

Unfortunately, if my high school experience is any indication, it is a worldview that many of California’s young people will be open to. I was the only Jewish student in my graduating class, and the first Jew most of my classmates had ever met. With time and understanding, most of the initial casual anti-semitism died down, but nevertheless certain ideas persisted, even among A+ students with an active interest in the humanities. I will never forget the day in AP US Government class when our valedictorian expressed shock upon learning that the majority of American Jews vote for the Democratic Party. After all, what concern would my community have for economic or racial justice when we “obviously” have ours? Or, for that matter, when the Republican Party and its constituent members so frequently claim to speak for us?

The truth is that most Californians do not know us or our community. That’s not their fault; it’s just the way things are. It’s a big state. But that’s why it’s crucial to educate. That’s what this curriculum should be doing. Instead, it reinfoces the image of Jews as a shadowy power, manifested through the ills of Wall Street, Washington, and Hollywood. The language, implicit and explicit, places Jews in the same category as the white supremacists taking our lives on a now-regular basis.

It presents a narrative that hatred of Jews is not only normal, but just. That equality and justice for other oppressed peoples can only be achieved at the expense of mine. It is unfortunately something I’ve seen increasingly within my party, even dating back to the Bush years. I have been accused at times of hypocrisy for calling out anti-semitism on the left more strongly than on the right. But it is only because I am a Democrat, and I make no pretense that the likes of Steve King will listen to anything I say, and even if they did, it wouldn’t make me vote for them. Even worse is to be told that criticisms from my community are insincere.

That is why it is paramount to speak out. I don’t know if you have already signed on to Assemblyman Medina’s letter. But if you already have, I hope I have persuaded you to persuade others. What is being proposed here is not consistent with the values of our party or our state.

If that changes– if this curriculum persists with its language concerning Jews and Israel– the violence against my people will not only increase, but it will have the backing of the state in the most literal sense. More people will be hurt because we will be teaching people that it is the right thing to do. My family will no longer feel welcome in the first place that ever truly welcomed us.

Don’t let that happen. Take a stand against this draft and spread the word.

Sam Aronow

The draft curriculum can be found at the bottom of this page, alongside a template for public comment. Public comments will close on Thursday, August 15. The Legislative Jewish Caucus’ official response is here.

If you live or vote in California, I encourage you to contact your state Senator and Assemblymember. Raising general awareness is also encouraged; as I would not have known about the issue at all without a notification from my local chapter of Democrats Abroad.