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Native History Under Attack: Students Fight Back Against Bans That Crush Ethnic Studies From Israel to Arizona

Israel mimicked Arizona’s ban on Mexican-American Studies by labeling critical ethnic perspectives as subversive.

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


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.

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