California schools ‘anti-bigotry’ initiative partnering with group known for bigotry

California schools ‘anti-bigotry’ initiative partnering with group known for bigotry

California schools head Tony Thurmond and Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier.

As a generation of California’s children face a potentially devastating disruption to their educations, which particularly impacts the most vulnerable among them, including low-income students of color, the state education department is putting time and resources into a new “anti-hate” initiative in which a leading component is run by an organization that classifies criticism of Israel as hate. The organization was featured at a press conference on the program, while Islamophobia — supposedly also addressed in the program — didn’t even get a speaker.

By Alison Weir

Under the guise of “anti-racism,” a proponent of what many consider a supremely racist ideology is now charged with educating California teachers and students about tolerance.

This is part of a new California schools initiative entitled “Education to End Hate,” a multipartite project intended to confront what California Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond calls an “epidemic” of antisemitism, discrimination against LGBTQ people, violence directed at people of color, and Islamophobia.

The initiative puts the antisemitism component into the hands of the billion-dollar Simon Wiesenthal Center – an organization with a long track record of blind support of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, no matter what, and a history of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab actions. Perhaps most concerning of all, the organization pushes a novel definition of antisemitism that is being used in diverse efforts to curtail and even at times outlaw criticism of the state of Israel.

With its record of feeding Islamophobia and actively working to suppress Palestinian rights, putting the Wiesenthal Center in charge of an “anti-bigotry” project is a little like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

Advocating for a nation based on discrimination

One of the Center’s major activities is advocacy for Israel, including targeting as “top antisemites” anyone who didn’t adequately disregard Palestinian rights — from President Barack Obama to a bank that did business with Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.

In order to fully comprehend what the Wiesenthal Center is advocating for, it’s important to be aware of facts about Israel that US media often omit, including the fact that it receives over $10 million per day of American taxes thanks to the pro-Israel lobby.

The country was established in 1948 through a founding war that consisted of, in the words of an Israeli historian, “ethnic cleansing.” The goal was to push out most of the indigenous population of what was then called Palestine in order to create a Jewish state, and this was largely accomplished.

Maps of Palestine from 1947 to present

Today, the Muslims, Christians, and other non-Jews who managed to remain in the self-identified Jewish state are second class citizens in a national system based on discrimination.

Experts such as South African anti-apartheid leader Bishop Desmond Tutu have said that Israel practices a form of apartheid. Some analysts, including Jewish South African Ronnie Kasrils say it’s even worse than South African apartheid.

An Israeli journalist writes that Israeli apartheid “is more ruthless than that seen in South Africa.”

Desmond Tutu with quote

A South African study reports that “over 40% of the Palestinian male population has been imprisoned at some time, many without charges in repeating 6-month administrative detention terms that can go on for years.”

The study states:

Israel’s domestic law codifies the Jewish identity as the preferred identity and establishes that collective rights extend to Jews only. All other people lack the right to a national life anywhere in Israel proper or occupied Palestinian territory.

Israel’s state resources (including land in occupied Palestinian territory which Israel has declared ‘state land’) are specified as being for the exclusive benefit of Jews, administered under the World Zionist Organization, Jewish Agency, and Jewish National Fund. These para-state organizations are authorized agents of the state of Israel; receive funding from the state of Israel; are empowered to manage Israeli state affairs; yet their charters and Israeli Law mandate that they operate in perpetuity for the exclusive benefit of world Jewry.

The Wiesenthal Center openly celebrates this chauvinistic system, as exemplified by founder Rabbi Marvin Hier:

Pro-Israel rally in Los Angeles, June 2010

Numerous groups have documented Israel’s long record of human rights abuses against Muslim and Christian Palestinians, including Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, Foreign Service Journal, UNICEF, the National Council of Churches, B’Tselem (an Israeli NGO), and many others.

Despite this reality, the Wiesenthal Center repeatedly states that it “stands with Israel.”

Aberrant definition of “antisemitism”

It is particularly troubling that the Wiesenthal Center will be in charge of “educating” California’s teachers and students on antisemitism, given that it uses an aberrant definition for antisemitism. Rather than employing the longstanding, dictionary definition of antisemitism, the Center uses a newly fabricated Israel-focused definition in which facts like the above are labeled “antisemitic.”

In the Center’s list of “top ten worst instances of anti-Semitism in 2018,” at least seven of the ten were related to Palestinian human rights advocacy, rather than bigotry against Jews.”

Germany’s Bank for Social Economy, for example, was listed because it did business with Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters was listed for his activism on Palestine. Airbnb was included for freezing listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank because such settlements are illegal under international law.

The Center’s “top anti-Semite of 2019” was English Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has come under massive attack for his support for Palestinian rights. The Wiesenthal Center considered Corbyn, who supports human rights for all people, a worse “antisemite” than a gunman accused of opening fire inside a California synagogue, killing one.

Its top antisemite of 2016 was President Barack Obama for not vetoing a UN resolution on Israel.

The Wiesenthal Center supports Israel no matter what it does. For example, during Israel’s brutal 2009 invasion of Gaza, the Wiesenthal Center announced that it stood with Israel. This was while Israel was waging a premeditated air, land, and sea assault on Gaza that reduced large areas to rubble, killed 1,417 Palestinians — 313 of them children — and injured 5,303 men, women, and children. Palestinian resistance fighters killed 9 Israelis during this time.

While the Center’s statement tried to blame Gazan rockets for Israel’s actions, the fact is that these had killed a total of 25 Israelis in all the years they had been used (the total is now about 30), while Israeli airstrikes had killed thousands of Gazans. (See documentary here)

A family sits in the ruins of their home, 2009
A family sits in the ruins of their home, 2009. (Human Rights Watch)

Anti-Muslim actions / Promotes wars

Ironically for an institution being contracted to fight bigotry, the Wiesenthal Center has a history of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab actions.

An activist with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice stated that Wiesenthal leaders were making statements feeding a “frenzy of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.” Another Jewish human rights activist has said that the Center’s espoused goals were “wholly inconsistent with the actions of the museum’s leadership.”

The Center has sponsored Islamophobic speakers, and is building a massive “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem by destroying an ancient Muslim cemetery.

The Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem is being built on top of an ancient Muslim Cemetery. According to the Islamic community, some of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions were buried there. (Mondoweiss)

The Center also promoted the Iraq War and currently works to demonize Iran. Both are countries that Israel and its partisans have long targeted.

Wiesenthal Center works to censor information

The Center often works to block events and individuals working to provide information on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

It succeeded in having a course in Illinois cancelled, worked to prevent a Palestinian-American professor from being hired, and demanded that a university investigate a Jewish professor for his Palestine-related actions.

Most recently, it worked with California politicians and the University of California governors to help draft policy and legislation intended to curb criticism of Israel.

It has demanded that Facebook use the Israel-centric definition of antisemitism to censor content.

The Center was founded by Marvin Hier, an Orthodox Rabbi known for publicity-grabbing, sometimes excessive crying of “antisemitism,” and accumulating power and influence. A 1990 Los Angeles Times article reports: “Hier has accrued unprecedented clout in the Legislature, on Capitol Hill, in the city’s boardrooms and even in Hollywood.” (Hier awarded Harvey Weinstein the Center’s Humanitarian Award in 2015.) According to the Times, he has been accused of working “to scare people into opening their wallets to The Wiesenthal Center.”

These aspects of the Center, however, are largely unknown by the American public, where it is marketed as a beneficent organization that teaches “tolerance” to Americans who allegedly need to be imbued with its (often expensive) “higher ethical standards.”

Wiesenthal Center’s “Museum of Tolerance” (“House of the Holocaust” in Hebrew), built at a cost of $50 million, including $10 million of government funding. Tens of thousands LA school children have visited it on school field trips (~$10 per student).

Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond not neutral party

California Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond is far from an objective official on the issue of Israel-Palestine. During his time in the California legislature, he was a member of the Jewish Legislative Caucus, which openly advocates for Israel.

Tony Thurmond (second from left) with fellow members of the California Jewish Legislative Caucus at the Israeli consulate. (Jewish Caucus)

Like the Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish Caucus supports Israel no matter how problematic its actions.

In 2014 the Caucus issued a statement announcing that it stood with Israel’ during Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed 2200 Palestinians – of which at least 1500 were civilians, including 500 children, 16 health care workers, and 9 journalists. Israeli forces damaged or destroyed 216 Gazan schools, 67 Gazan health care facilities, and 116,000 Gazan homes, leaving over 100,000 people homeless.

Of the 11,000 Gazans injured, 3,300 were children; 1,000 of them are permanently disabled. More than 1,500 Palestinian children were orphaned.

During the onslaught, Palestinian resistance fighters in return killed 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 Israeli civilians.

Gaza destruction, August 2014, from Israeli invasion “Protective Edge.” (JFJP)

Thurmond censors ethnic studies curriculum

Earlier this year, Thurmond responded to complaints by California’s largest Jewish organizations, more than 20 Jewish interest groups, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, and the Anti-Defamation League about the state’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum. The Jewish News of Northern California reports that the curriculum was then “overhauled to remove criticisms of the Jewish state.” (More here)

The Jewish Caucus vice chair thanked Thurmond for his modifications: “We really appreciate and applaud the superintendent for his commitments.” The Caucus noted that Thurmond had promised that there would be nothing “anti-Israel” in the draft.

California Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond speaking to the press Aug. 14, 2019 about the state’s proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. Flanking him are Legislative Jewish Caucus members (from left) Assembly member Marc Berman, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Thurmond, Sen. Ben Allen, Assembly member Jose Medina. (J.)

It appears that Thurmond did indeed keep his promise to edit out facts the Jewish Caucus and other Israel partisans wished removed. Queries to the Department of Education indicate that the current draft of the extremely lengthy curriculum contains the word “Palestinian” in only two sentences. Neither has anything to do with Israel.

Wiesenthal Center Executive Director Rabbi Meyer May

On September 21st of this year, Thurmond announced the “Education Against Hate” initiative in a virtual press conference.

While representatives of the groups who will be addressing various types of bigotry spoke during the event, there was no representative for the anti-Islamophobia section that Thurmond has said is going to be included. (A video of the virtual press conference is here – sound begins at 44-second mark.)

The “antisemitism” speaker at the event was Wiesenthal Executive Director Rabbi Meyer May.

Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center speaks at press announcement for “Education Against Hate.” May was ordained by a yeshiva whose dean believes that Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA, and instincts.” (Screenshot from video)

Rabbi May was ordained by an Orthodox yeshiva in New York whose leaders sometimes espouse supremacist and racist views. For example, longtime dean Rabbi Hershel Schachter describes Jews as superior to other people, saying that Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA, and instincts.” (Both Schachter and Rabbi Hier have been featured at events by the Religious Zionists of America.)

Rabbi May is also known for his fundraising ability, including raising enormous amounts of money to build the Jerusalem museum on top of Muslim graves:

“Rabbi May directs the Center’s capital expansion campaigns and its annual $28 million international fund-raising campaigns. He is currently guiding the $290 million capital campaign and $50 million endowment to build the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. …Rabbi May also heads the Center’s legislative effort, which to-date, has resulted in more than $139 million in Federal, State and City appropriations to the Center and its Museums of Tolerance.”

On November 4th, Thurmond announced initiative grants totaling nearly $200,000 to fund educator trainings across the state. More than 300 schools across the state have applied for these, and 20 have been chosen for the first round of funding.

The press released announced that the Department of Education will “also host a series of virtual classroom and educator professional development sessions broadcast live throughout the state that will be designed to engage students, educators, and families in a wide-ranging dialogue about the many forms of bias young people face across California—and ways schools can lead efforts to end discrimination.”

Three such training sessions have been scheduled, one of them is “Countering anti-Semitism,” to be broadcast state-wide on December 8th.

Lack of scrutiny during pandemic impacts – students being left behind

The new initiative so far seems to have largely escaped public scrutiny. The media, focusing on other major issues, have largely ignored it, while California’s hard-pressed schools see it as a potential source of money.

The state’s parents have been busy focusing on children who’ve been “distance-learning” at home for nearly nine months due to pandemic requirements. In many cases this has, of necessity, impacted their children’s education. The organization EdSource reports: “As progress reports trickle in, the evidence is clear: many students are struggling academically. Some students who usually get As and Bs are now facing Ds and Fs, and fear they’ll never catch up.”

Low income students of color have been particularly hard hit, and they say that the California Department of Education has failed their children during this unprecedented situation.

A group of parents has recently sued California, the Department of Education, and Superintendent Thurmond, alleging that the system is leaving many Black, Latino and low-income families behind and failing to ensure “basic educational equality.”

The group says that the system has been denying many of the state’s most vulnerable students “even the semblance of an education, dramatically widening an already indefensible opportunity gap with their more privileged counterparts.” The plaintiffs describe a chaotic situation in which some students are receiving almost no teaching, in some cases getting just 45 minutes of live instruction a day.

Screenshot from video,“Education during Covid: California families struggle to learn.” (Edsource)

“Parents and grandparents have had to become tutors, counselors, childminders, and computer technicians,” the suit notes, “and they have had to find a way to pay for what are now basic school supplies — laptop/tablets, paper, printing, and internet access.” For some parents such supplies are out of reach.

The toll on their children’s education, they say, is “incalculable.”

Given this dire, potentially disastrous situation, it seems odd for state officials to devote time and resources to a dubious program by a deeply questionable institution.

However, it appears that the situation is not entirely bleak for one California official. Thurmond is reportedly among those in the running to be the next United States Secretary of Education.

California’s schools superintendent Tony Thurmond is reportedly among potential candidates to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. (Richmond Standard)

Questions and comments about the new initiative can be emailed to [email protected]. The phone number is 916-319-0818.

Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel. (She lives in Richmond, California. Her six school-age grandchildren attend California public schools and have been remote learning since the beginning of the Covid closures.) The piece has been updated.

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