Opinion

Mark Powell: School Boards Should Formally Acknowledge Jewish American History Month

First published by San Diego Jewish World

California’s newly adopted Ethnic Studies Curriculum has given San Diego County educators the opportunity to combat antisemitism by recognizing and celebrating the many contributions and extensive history of the American Jewish community.  Local Boards of Education should formally acknowledge the month of May as Jewish American Heritage Month within our San Diego County schools.

Jewish people started immigrating to San Diego in 1850 and they have an intriguing history. For instance, Jonas Salk, the Jewish-American physician developed the first safe and effective vaccine for polio and started the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 1963 a haven for world renowned research. William Kolender served as the chief of the San Diego Police Department for 13 years and was elected Sheriff of San Diego County, and he held the post into the 21st century. Sara Jacobs is now serving as the U.S. Representative for California’s 53rd congressional district and her grandfather, Irwin Jacobs is a founder and former chairman of Qualcomm.

One of the most successful ways to combat ethnic stereotypes and racial prejudice is through education. Historically, this has been done by dedicating one month a year to a particular ethnic group highlighting the groups’ contributions to society. For example, Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and recognizes their contributions and central role in U.S. history. It is celebrated in February each year.  Hispanic Heritage Month takes place in the middle of September through the middle of October and celebrates the contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Four years ago California passed legislation requiring that the state Board of Education adopt an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for high school students to better represent the diversity within the state. The first draft that was released in 2019 contained antisemitic and anti-Israel content. It was so bad that Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, noting that the model curriculum needed revision to ensure that the draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum achieves balance, fairness and is inclusive of all communities.  In fact, the original draft was so antisemitic that California Jewish lawmakers also called for revisions.  They stated that it erased the American Jewish experience, failed to discuss antisemitism, reinforced negative stereotypes about Jews, singled out Israel for criticism and would have most likely institutionalized the teaching of antisemitic stereotypes in our public schools.

A third draft was released in December 2019 and in March, 2021 the California State Board of Education approved the nation’s first statewide ethnic studies curriculum for high schools. Now that California’s newly adopted ethnic studies curriculum has become law, educators have the opportunity to highlight the many cultures that make up San Diego County as part of their instructional curriculum. Through the curriculum teachers will have the ability to discredit some of the many cultural stereotypes that cause hate and prejudice against Jewish Americans, but will they do that?

When it comes to racism, Jews in the United States suffered the largest number of antisemitic incidents last year since the Anti-Defamation League began collecting records 40 years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to rising antisemitism which shows that we must remain vigilant against racism and religious persecution. In San Diego County we witnessed the ugly head of antisemitic violence when a gunman attacked the Chabad Synagogue of Poway killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye.

The nearly 900-page Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is meant to teach high school students about the struggles and contributions of historically marginalized peoples which are often untold in U.S. history courses.  It is up to our school leaders to make sure teachers take the time to celebrate our multicultural society, especially those ethnic groups that make up only a small percent of the population. As of 2018, there were approximately 7.5 million Jews in the United States. That’s only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but it’s enough to make the United States home to the largest Jewish community in the world.

Jewish American Heritage Month is an annual recognition and celebration of American Jews’ achievements and their contributions to the United States of America. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the San Diego County Board of Education should formally recognize the month of May as Jewish American Heritage Month through proclamation to teach students about Jewish American history and help put an end to antisemitism.