After publication of this article, the Chronicle reported on a board meeting that erupted over this Ethnic Studies lesson and a Public Records Act request that asked for emails and materials relating to Ethnic Studies and Israel and Palestine.
This article was updated on January 18th, at 4:00 pm to include the name of Chloe Gentile-Montgomery.
A presentation about the Israel-Palestine conflict taught in some Ethnic Studies classes last month has caused frustration and backlash among community members. An affinity group, comprised mostly of M-A Jewish parents, created a petition raising concerns that the presentation violated board policy, taught material that wasn’t included in the official Ethnic Studies curriculum, contained factual inaccuracies, and encouraged antisemitism. Currently, the petition has 566 signatures.
The petition urged Superintendent Crystal Leach to take “immediate action and ensure students are not subjected to discrimination and indoctrination from an educator.” Additionally, with the help of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, and the Jewish Community Relations Council, the affinity group created a slide-by-slide commentary on the lesson plan that has been widely circulated.
Ethnic Studies teacher Chloe Gentile-Montgomery, who presented the slide deck has been the focus of most of the backlash and has reportedly been harassed, although another teacher created the slides, and other teachers may have also presented them. At the time of publishing, the Editorial Board decided to anonymize Gentile-Montgomery. The identity of the teacher is widely known and was referenced in all parent and student interviews.
Was the presentation too simplified?
The slide deck presented an overview of the conflict within a lesson on “Dominant and Counter Narratives,” using pro-Israel standpoints to represent “an explanation or story that is told to benefit the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies.” Pro-Palestinian perspectives were represented as counter-narratives, defined on the slide deck as “an explanation or story that is often untold or misrepresented.”
Nathaniel Deutsch, the Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz, said, “To me, it’s incredibly simplistic and misleading to see the world that way.” He added, “I don’t think the history of the Jewish experience can be mapped out in this kind of dualistic dichotomy.”
However, an anonymous teacher clarified that much of the language on the slides was simplified because they were created for a class of students who are multilingual English learners. “The simplified language could be falsely misinterpreted as inaccurate. Gentile-Montgomery verbally provided more context and nuances that are not captured on the slides,” they said.
Dr. Brandy Shufutinsky, a social worker from the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values that drafted the petition, said, “I understand the desire to simplify [the issue], but that doesn’t mean that you then engage in historical inaccuracies and bigotry. The issue isn’t that it was made for English language learners, the issue is that the information was discriminatory, antisemitic, and historically inaccurate.”
Deutsch added, “Sometimes, teaching things a certain way is worse than not teaching them at all because misinformation can sometimes be more damaging than a lack of information.”
UC San Diego Professor of History Michael Provence said, “I think it’s important to talk about the conflict because people want to know what’s happening and why it’s happening. The situation in Gaza is very upsetting for a lot of people for obvious reasons and I think students deserve to have informed engagement with the events in their classes.”
Was the presentation historically accurate?
The petition particularly criticized two of the slides in the presentation for containing factual inaccuracies. One contained maps that some believed made it seem as though Palestine was an independent state in 1946. The other stated, “Israel is a country created on Palestinian land. The United Nations says this is illegal.”
In response to the petition’s claim, Deutsch said, “The idea that Israel is a country created on Palestinian land is a contested description. Ottoman Palestine and British Mandate Palestine were the controlling powers of the territory. There were multiple groups of people who had been living there–including Jews–for a long time, and none of them had sovereignty. However, the United Nations did not say this [Israel’s creation] is illegal, quite the contrary—it’s the mechanism that created it to begin with. That’s a really glaring mistake.”
Provence said, “They’re right that this information is technically incorrect, but almost the entire world and the United Nations view Israeli settlements in the West Bank and formerly in Gaza as illegal, and there is pretty wide agreement about that.”
According to a November Vox article, “[Israeli] settlements are communities of Jews who have been moving to the West Bank since it came under Israeli occupation in 1967. Some of the settlers move there to claim the West Bank territory as Israeli land, while others move because the housing is cheap and subsidized. Settlements are generally considered to be a major impediment to peace because they disrupt the continuity of Palestinian land, displace Palestinians, and create a constituency opposed to Israeli land concessions.”
Parents also raised complaints about a video included in the slides from the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). Stanford Professor in Jewish Culture and History Steven Zipperstein said, “The TRT is a propagandistic television network that’s owned by the Turkish Government. So the bulk of this program is straight Turkish propaganda. It’s a station that’s actually considered to be an arm of an undemocratic authoritarian government.”
The slide-by-slide analysis of the lesson also took issue with the slide deck’s description of the Holocaust which said, “Nazis killed Jewish people in Germany because of their religion. This is called the Holocaust.” Deutsch said, “Jews were not killed because of their religion. The point was that Jews were defined as a race by the Nazis, and they were killed because they were seen as racially inferior and dangerous. If you converted, you were still murdered as a Jew. These are basic details. To me, it’s very disturbing.”
Provence said, “There are some things that I would have done differently if I was the teacher. I don’t think I would have used the movie and I think the slideshow doesn’t say much about European antisemitism—why Jewish people in Europe felt it was necessary to leave their homes in Europe and to emigrate to a different place. And then of course there’s the Holocaust which is mentioned but not as centrally as it might be.”
When does criticism of Israel cross the line into antisemitism?
Some parents also said that the information included in the slides crossed the line from historically inaccurate to antisemitic. One slide in particular, which showed a puppeteer alongside the definition of a dominant narrative, concerned several Jewish parents interviewed. Karen Orzechowski, a Jewish parent in the district, said, “The puppet was actually one of the most offensive slides to me because it’s an antisemitic trope that Jews control the world and are puppet masters. The puppet imagery is blatantly antisemitic.”
Deutsch said, “I don’t think that that’s necessarily what this is about, but I can understand why they [parents] saw it that way. It’s maybe, inadvertently, reinforcing certain stereotypes.”
“I don’t think it’s antisemitic to criticize policies of the Israeli government or any part of the Israeli government. For me, it’s antisemitic to question the legality of Israel, which is stated specifically in that lesson. It’s antisemitic to use anti-Jewish stereotypes, tropes, or language to criticize Israel, such as the puppet image,” Orzechowski added.
Zipperstein said, “Anti-Zionism is by no means antisemitism.” He added, “I’m not willing to call [the presentation] antisemitic, but it’s not produced with goodwill. There are perfectly legitimate, intelligently shaped anti-Zionist discourses, and this one is just really clumsy and badly done.”
Zionism is a belief in the necessity of the creation and maintenance of a state for Jewish people in present-day Israel.
Provence said, “I think the petition is wrong and slanderous in characterizing the presentation as having antisemitic bias. There are historical mistakes, but to say that this is antisemitic is a slander of the teacher.”
He continued, “There is nothing in the historical facts presented that is discriminatory as far as I’m concerned, so saying that the presentation is discriminatory is not a credible claim.”
Does the presentation violate board policy on covering controversial topics?
Another complaint was that teaching this lesson violated board policy, which states that controversial topics should be presented “in a balanced manner, addressing all sides of the issue without bias or prejudice and without promoting any particular point of view.”
Freshman Navid Riahi, who was in an Ethnic Studies class where the slide deck was presented, said that the presentation clearly favored the Palestinian perspective. “I wouldn’t say she was being antisemitic, but the way she was talking to us really did make it sound like she was pro-Palestinian. She was talking about how Israel can’t just keep taking the land, and she was more lenient on the Palestinian side,” he said.
Freshman Kira Olewiler, who was also in the class, said, “It was kind of more of an overview rather than a huge lesson focused on Palestine and Israel. I guess it was more focused on the dominant and counter-narratives.”
Another anonymous student in the class said, “The presentation was clearly favorable towards Palestine.”
Is the lesson within the Ethnic Studies curriculum?
The first point of the commentary on the slide deck says that the lecture was “not in the scope of the state-mandated ethnic studies curriculum and further is out of scope of the district’s outlined curriculum.” After the presentation in November, many parents interviewed expressed feelings of frustration and betrayal, noting that they were assured that this topic would not be included in the Ethnic Studies curriculum.
Prior to the SUSHD district’s creation of an Ethnic Studies curriculum, a bill at the state level—Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC)—was vetoed because it contained what some argued was a lesson that encouraged antisemitism. Former Ethnic Studies teacher Ronnie Sanchez explained, “The concern around the ESMC at first was centered around the controversy of the Jewish experience. There were claims that it was anti-Zionist.” As the M-A Chronicle reported in 2022, “Controversy [over the course] comes from accusations that the original curriculum failed to meaningfully explore antisemitism in the US and to properly address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ESMC was revised before being passed by the state.”
Some parents pushed back against the implementation of Ethnic Studies at M-A, fearing it would be similar to the ESMC. Teachers gave reassurances that they would address the same concerns raised about ESMC in forming their curriculum. At a 2021 board meeting, former history teacher Anne Olson, who championed Ethnic Studies’ creation, said, “We’ve already done the work ourselves to create a curriculum that is not xenophobic, that is not antisemitic, that features unheard voices, and that is local. I think that there was some confusion about the connection between our proposal and what was happening in Sacramento. They are two completely separate things.”
History Department Chair Candace Bolles said, “Teachers have the freedom to teach what they want to. The curriculum tells you what topics you have to cover at minimum. This is not a maximum––you can include other issues and topics as well. So the ‘guidelines’ are not as much of a guideline as I think many teachers would prefer, which leaves a lot of freedom to each individual teacher.”
She added, “Students need to trust me to deliver the content in a truthful manner. Parents need to trust that I know what I’m doing. The administration needs to trust me. So it’s a two-way street. They give me the freedom but I need to be responsible with that freedom.”
The slide-by-slide analysis has since been sent by community members to Principal Karl Losekoot and Superintendent Crystal Leach. Neither accepted the M-A Chronicle’s interview requests.
History teacher Lan Nguyen said, “Gentile-Montgomery has faced countless incidents of harassment. It is unacceptable that any staff member be threatened and made to feel unsafe in this way. I wish that concerned community members opted to have a dialogue with the teachers who taught this lesson instead of opting for anonymous harassment tactics such as sending threatening emails and placing posters outside Gentile-Montgomery’s classroom.”
Provence said, “I think that both the teacher and the petition writer are acting in goodwill and that they’re trying to deal with difficult material in an honest way. I think that the differences are not as great as people may imagine.”