Lawsuit claims California school district covertly approved anti-Israel curricula

Leading Jewish groups seek to block ethnic studies courses at Orange County schools, claiming board illegally avoided notifying public, referred to issue as ‘the Jewish question’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Leading US Jewish groups on Monday said they had filed a lawsuit against a large California school district alleging the school’s board covertly approved anti-Israel curricula, deliberately depriving the Jewish community and others of their legal right to weigh in on the controversial lesson plans.

The lawsuit against Orange County’s Santa Ana Unified School District sought to overturn the curricula, in the latest salvo in a years-long battle over the handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Jewish American representation, in ethnic studies courses in California schools.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the legal advocacy group the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and Maryland’s Potomac Law Group filed the lawsuit on Friday, claiming the courses include materials biased against Jews and Israelis that veer into antisemitism.

The lawsuit claims the school district passed the curricula for four high school courses earlier this year without providing proper notification to the public, as required by law. The Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, requires school boards to inform the public about educational agenda and plans so the community can provide input and participate in the decision-making process.

The educators were aware of potential objections from the Jewish community to the content, but avoided engaging with community members, the lawsuit said, citing material obtained from a public records request. The board’s course and curriculum subcommittee notes from October 2022 included the comment, “Address the Jewish Question — do we have to create a response,” and recommended consulting with two outside groups who had previously supported the curricula, but not with Jews.

The “Jewish question” is a term with a long antisemitic history.

Other minority groups were not discussed in the same way. For a course on Native American history, the notes included the comment, “Yes can ask for help from Native American local community, but make sure to vet them.”

The lawsuit also said the board had deliberately removed an educational unit on Arab and Muslim Americans from course materials presented to the public, which the board would have expected to be controversial.

The curricula include “one-sided anti-Israel screeds and propaganda” that say Israel is a racist, settler-colonial state that “stole” land from Palestinians and carries out unprovoked warfare against Palestinians. All but one of the approved classes is currently being taught in the school district, the lawsuit said.

When community members found out about the school board’s decisions and appeared at a board meeting, they were subjected to harassment and intimidation, the lawsuit said, claiming the board failed to adequately protect members of the public at the hearing, in another violation of the Brown Act.

At a general board meeting on May 23, members of the public employed harsh anti-Israel rhetoric that included antisemitic tropes and threatening language. An audience member told a Jewish speaker to “go home, colonizer,” drawing a light-handed request for quiet from the board, but no further action. One Jewish student said she had been followed to her car and harassed after the meeting, and others said they had been called “racists” and “killers.”

In a response to complaints, the board denied any legal violations and said no “cure or correction is necessary,” prompting the plaintiffs to take legal action. The lawsuit stressed that the groups did not take issue with ethnic studies, but sought more balance and public input in their curricula.

The lawsuit led by the Brandeis Center was filed in California’s Superior Court for Orange County. The plaintiffs have asked the court to void the decisions and board approvals by the school district and to compel the school board to abide by the law in the future.

The Santa Ana Unified School District is the second largest in Orange County with around 45,000 students, 5,000 employees, and an $890 million budget, according to the district’s website. The district’s board members did not respond to a request for comment.

The Brandeis Center filed the suit with its local membership arm, Southern Californians for Unbiased Education. Other local groups including the Jewish Federation of Orange County, congregations, rabbis and Hebrew schools also submitted support for the lawsuit. The Jewish Federation of Orange County earlier this year said the courses were “a direct assault on the Jewish community,” with defamatory accusations of ethnic cleansing and colonialism.

The lawsuit follows years of wrangling over ethnic studies courses in California schools, and amid a number of lawsuits aiming to protect Jewish, Zionist and Israeli students on US college campuses. Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects Jewish students at federally funded schools and colleges from discrimination and harassment, including over their connection to Israel.

A California law set to go into effect in the 2025-2026 school year will require high school students to complete a one-semester ethnic studies course. The law prohibits schools from using curricula that include bias against any person or group.

Before the law passed in 2021, the course content was subject to years of debate, and criticism from Jewish groups, which said its early drafts included one-sided criticism of Israel, but no sections on American Jews. Later drafts took some of these concerns into account, but districts are not required to follow the state’s recommended curricula.

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