Native History Under Attack: Students Fight Back Against Bans That Crush Ethnic Studies From Israel to Arizona
Students protest the school board's attempt to comply with the Arizona Legislature's ban on ethnic studies. Denise Rebeil, one of the authors, is third from left.
Photo Credit: Dr. Roberto ("Cintli") Rodriguez
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
On a warm spring evening in April 2011, our personal involvement in Arizona’s troubling political events immeasurably deepened and has continued to change our lives. Today we persist in attempting to alter an increasingly grim-looking future by preserving the right to choose how to perceive the past.
The setting was a tiny building in central Tucson where the administrative business of the city’s largest public school district was headquartered. Inside, the school board was trying to comply with the Arizona Legislature’s ban on the only K-12 Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program in the country, whose outlaw warrant was signed as ARS 15-112 by Gov. Jan Brewer 11 months earlier. At the same time, through an impending vote to demerit the MAS core curriculum into a dismissive “elective,” the school board hoped to do the impossible: appease a community with an increasing appetite for protest and resistance in a forbidding state like Arizona.
Ten minutes before the meeting’s start time, nine youths stormed the high-rise board members’ chairs and desks. One of us (Denise) was among the youth, busy fending off the wrestling arms of security guards before the students successfully chained themselves to the board members’ chairs to prevent the vote. The other (Gabriel) was in a large, clamoring rally that had swelled over the sidewalks and both lanes of the street outside the board room, overwhelmed at full-capacity.
In a precursor to the Occupy movement, students staked their ground that day over the education policy-making body that was rightfully theirs. The phrase, “Our education is under attack—what do we do? We fight back!” resounded from Denise and the other youth who pounded in cadence with their fists upon the board desks while Gabriel and others, fists clenched and pumping in the dry air, chanted in concert throughout the room and outside.
As cultural historian Jeff Biggers writes in his new book, State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream (Nation Books, Sept. 2012): “For many in the nation, the student takeover inspired the feeling of a new civil rights movement,” because, after all, “how often do you see high school kids protesting to keep their courses available?”
The chain-in was a dramatic act to force negotiations with district authorities who had continually ignored months of letters, requests for meetings and rallies by the youth. In a dynamic struggle that continues today, the school board has managed to terminate MAS, ban the program’s books, and fire teachers and student employees to appease the state ban. Meanwhile, the new civil rights movement expands against these mounting oppressive odds, which themselves have spread overseas.
Israel’s Copycat Legislation
Just days prior to the student chain-in at the school board headquarters, both of us were involved in what author Cornel West called an “intercontinental meeting” of young people discussing two ethnic studies bans. Palestinian students from the Israeli-occupied West Bank visited the University of Arizona in Tucson on a national “right to education” tour organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. In addition to a joint presentation, the Palestinian youth had met with Denise and the youth coalition UNIDOS (United Non-discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies) during their training sessions in preparation of the school board takeover.
One month earlier, the Israeli government passed copycat legislation of AZ’s ethnic studies ban. In essence, as one of Arizona’s lauded cooperative “partners,” Israel wittingly or unwittingly mimicked Arizona’s ban on Mexican-American Studies by labeling critical ethnic perspectives as subversive and threatening financial sanctions on any state-funded entities daring to violate the decree. With Arizona at a leading pace, Israel has since stayed one step behind enforcement of the outlawed Palestinian ethnic narrative.
Israel’s ethnic studies ban (labeled officially as Amendment 40 to the Budget Principles Law) is known as the “Nakba law” because it prohibits state-funded bodies from teaching historical narratives of Palestinian suffering that coincided with the formation of Israel as a settler state displacing the indigenous population. The Nakba,or catastrophe in Arabic, occurred before, during and after Israel’s state declaration in 1948, when armed political militia forces merged to form the Israeli military and conquered three quarters of historic Palestine.
The military forces of the new state, rooted in a decades-old, quasi-religious political movement of Jewish nationalism called Zionism, uprooted 800,000 (or 85%) of indigenous Palestinians across 1,300 localities (of which 531 towns and villages were completely destroyed), scattering the newly-made refugees throughout the region and beyond. Today, the refugees and their descendents, who number several million, are languishing in UN-operated camps, with four million under a 45-year Israeli military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 1.5 million Palestinians living with third-class citizenship within Israel.
In a letter sent to Israeli legislators prior to the Nakba ban’s passing vote, Adalah, the Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, warned that “the law stood to cause major harm to the principle of equality and to the rights of Arab citizens to preserve their history and culture” and urged the bill to be rejected, according to the organization’s 27 March 2011 press release. In January 2012, the Israeli High Court dismissed a legal challenge to the ban by Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The Israeli judge said the courts would have to wait until financial sanctions are imposed on a state-funded institution before a legal case challenging the Nakba law could proceed.
In an eerie resemblance to (though in some ways more extreme than) Arizona’s HB 2281, the Israeli ethnic studies ban relates to a number of criminal offenses that would serve cause for financial sanction. One provision of the ban on state-funded bodies (including schools) outlaws “incitement to racism, violence or terrorism” or “supporting armed struggle or terrorist acts against the State of Israel.” Another criminal offense under the ban covers “acts of vandalism or physical debasement insulting the honor of the Israeli flag or other symbol of the state.”
Other causes for sanction include any commemoration of Israel’s 1948 establishment as a “day of mourning” (i.e. the Nakba) or denying the “existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Like Arizona’s HB2281, the Nakba law directs the Israeli government to withhold public funding from institutions that fail to comply with the law. Given the vital US military and other assistance to Israel each year, we recognize our part in enabling Israeli policies and actions as American taxpayers.
Bridging Cultures Through Ethnic Studies Solidarity
While each of us is half-European white-settler and half-Chicano/a (with some Irish roots in Denise’s case), together we represent an embodiment of integration that follows conquest and colonization on the one hand, and Mexican-indigenous resistance on the other. It is crucial that young people from the communities which still comprise an indigenous majority (more than 60 percent of TUSD children come from Mexican-American families) are challenged by intimate investigations of these sorts of histories and world viewpoints.
Denise enrolled in Mexican-American studies classes at Rincon High School her junior and senior years after noticing an excited change in the outlook of her older brother who had previously taken the courses and passionately recommended them to her. Before she took the classes, everything in her life reflected the dullness of black and white, inducing no purpose or motivation from her schooling. But Denise soon began seeing the world with new lenses of color provided by the emphasis on critical-thinking of MAS courses.
Discovering inequality in the structure of the surrounding society enlightened her. She was challenged to understand new concepts of privilege, unequal social status, and to find out why class and color represent important socio-economic ways through which society functions. MAS taught her to use knowledge to empower herself and others through an ardent desire to create social change. Denise recognizes today that MAS gave her a purpose to attend college and do magnificent things in life while equipped with a radical education. She knows now that even though she’s one person, she can claim a leading role in changing society.
Shortly after Denise graduated from Rincon High and prepared to enter college, the Arizona state superintendent of education, John Huppenthal, announced his plans to release the findings of an independent audit contracted to determine whether or not the MAS program was in compliance with the state law. The main legal statutes included barring course instructions which either “promote the overthrow of the United States government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people,as well as programs which are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or which “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treatment of pupils as equals.”
In a dramatic upset that Huppenthal attempted to distort, the audit determined MAS was not only in compliance but was highlighted for its exceeding levels of achievement. According to the audit results, students like Denise in the program “graduate in the very least at a rate of 5 percent more than their counterparts in 2005, and at the most, a rate of 11 percent more in 2010.” The audit praised MAS for its purpose of increasing student achievement through “valuable course descriptions aligned with state standards, commendable curricular unit and lesson plan design” as well as “engaging instruction practices.”
Incidentally, as an Advanced Placement (AP)-level Tucson High School drop-out, Gabriel was one of the student “counterparts” below the level of MAS achievement. At Tucson High in TUSD, where white children are a minority, he noticed his AP courses had a white majority. Unchallenged and uncomfortable in class, he left Tucson High School to get his GED and enter college where he struggled even more before finding a place in his schooling thanks to extra-curricular social justice activities outside the classroom. Looking back, if he knew about Mexican-American studies early on, Gabriel believes he would have stayed in school to enjoy connecting and identifying with his Mexican-American upbringing while critiquing his intensely anti-immigrant socialization all throughout public schooling.
Shakespeare plays like The Tempest, included in the list of banned books of Chicano/a literature courses of the MAS program, are still a focus in AP English courses like those Gabriel briefly took in high school. “The Tempest was problematic for our administrators due to the content of the play and the pedagogical choices I have made,” explained former MAS teacher at Tucson High School, Curtis Acosta. “In other words,” Acosta continued, “Shakespeare wrote a play that is clearly about colonization of the new world, and there are strong themes of race, colonization, oppression, class, and power that permeate the play, along with themes of love and redemption” (Biggers, 182).
In this way, both bans outlaw such things as abstract methods of critical interpretation and ethnic perspective, perceived as dangerous by Israel and the Arizona State Legislature. Though as forms of discrimination and repression, both bans violate international norms including the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which UNIDOS invoked at the April 2011 uprising) and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
Two Youth Justice Movements Gathering in Force
But couched within injustice is opportunity, afforded by another growing youth movement in the US opposing Israeli policies against the Palestinians.
We are both involved in the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Arizona, one of more than 130 such groups at college (and recently high school) campuses nationwide.
Next month, the second major national SJP conference will be held at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. History offers numerous role-model examples for what is possible when student movements for social change have organized themselves and consolidated national political power, from anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s to anti-sweatshop activism in the 1990s-present day. People throughout the country have an opportunity to support the youth who are leading these efforts.
The SJP conference’s title and theme, “From Local Roots to Nationwide Branches: Bridging Student Movements,” is intended as a strengthening affirmation rather than a wish list--because bridging student movements has been well under way. A prominent example occurred last March, in Phoenix, AZ, when Gabriel and Mexican-American Studies allies attended the 2012 national conference of the largest association of Latino/a youth groups known as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán). The MEChA delegates voted, in a landslide decision made public in a joint statement with SJP, to endorse the Palestinian-led global movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel until the state complies with codes of international law and justice for Palestinians.
Two opposing narratives are battling the future of our fellow youth, our communities and grandchildren. One is described by Biggers in his book, which quotes Linda Green, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the UofA, who said: “I feel as though I’m living in the future of the United States. Where legalized criminality and attendant impunity have become the accepted and acceptable norm."
On the other hand is the possible future we see when we look around us and study our history and that of our Palestinian counterparts overseas, and when we behold the many other youth and community movements stand beside and among us. Then we say proudly, insistently, “In Lak Ech”—or Tú eres mi otro yo—You are my other self.”
The authors are members of UNIDOS and UA Students for Justice in Palestine.