In the fall of 2016, California’s then Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a mandate to develop an ethnic studies program for high schools in California. California’s public schools have the most ethnically diverse student body in the nation, with three-quarters of students belonging to minorities and speaking over 90 languages. Luis Alejo, the Assembly member who shepherded the bill through the 15 years required for its adoption, hailed the law, the first in the nation, as an opportunity to “give all students the opportunity to prepare for a diverse global economy, diverse university campuses and diverse workplaces,” adding, “Ethnic studies are not just for students of color.”
Elina Kaplan, a former high-tech manager who had just stepped down as senior VP of one of California’s largest affordable housing nonprofits, remembers agreeing wholeheartedly with the idea at the time. “The objective was to build bridges of understanding between people,” said Kaplan, an immigrant herself, who moved to California from the former Soviet Union with her family when she was 11. “This was as welcome as mom and apple pie. It offered students the chance to learn about the accomplishments of ethnic minorities, as well as to address issues of inequality and bigotry.”
But three years later, when the first draft of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) was released, Kaplan couldn’t believe what she was reading. In one sample lesson, she saw that a list of historic U.S. social movements—ones like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Criminal Justice Reform—also included the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestine (BDS), described as a “global social movement that currently aims to establish freedom for Palestinians living under apartheid conditions.” Kaplan wondered why a foreign movement, whose target was another country, would be mischaracterized as a domestic social movement, and she was shocked that in a curriculum that would be taught to millions of students, BDS’s primary goal—the elimination of Israel—was not mentioned. Kaplan also saw that the 1948 Israel War of Independence was only referred to as the “Nakba”—“catastrophe” in Arabic—and Arabic verses included in the sample lessons were insulting and provocative to Jews.
Kaplan, 53, a Bay Area mother of two grown children who describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, was further surprised to discover that a list of 154 influential people of color did not include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, or Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, though it included many violent revolutionaries. There was even a flattering description of Pol Pot, the communist leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who was responsible for the murder of a quarter of the Cambodian population during the 1970s.