In a surprise move, an advisory body to the California Board of Education rejected a sixth-grade history program that Hindu and Jewish groups blasted as biased, erroneous and culturally derogatory.
During a two-day late September hearing before the state's Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, Jewish critics lambasted the Oxford University Press textbook and related materials for subjecting early Jewish history to a more rigid standard of proof than Christian or Muslim history, for including stories that have traditionally fomented anti-Semitism and for misstating key concepts of Judaism, presenting it as a religion of reward and punishment, rather than one of social justice and morality.
The rejection was a major upset for the prestigious publishing company, which for the first time was trying to enter the lucrative California market for kindergarten through eighth-grade teaching materials. California is the nation's largest textbook purchaser, and often sets the tone for what is adopted by other states.
David Gershwin of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles laid out for the commissioners Oxford's depiction of the Exodus. Not only, he said, does the Oxford text note that there is no historical record of the Exodus -- a caveat not included in descriptions of the seminal religious events of other faiths -- it incorrectly states that the story is important to Jews mainly as a way to set themselves off from other people.
When Jewish groups asked Oxford to change that passage to reflect the importance of the Exodus as a story of national and personal liberation, they were rebuffed.
"It is difficult for us to comprehend why the beliefs of other religions are presented without critical comment, while the essential event of Judaism is subjected to a historical analysis that can only be described as disdainful and highly subjective," Gershwin testified.
One Hindu speaker pointed to a chapter called, "Where's the Beef?" and said it offended him to have his faith presented "in the manner of an outdated television ad."
Following the public criticism, 14 commissioners voted last Friday against adopting the Oxford materials, and one commissioner abstained. Their rejection came as a surprise, because a special review committee had recommended its adoption to the commission.
California has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in sixth grade, and Islam is covered in seventh grade.
Oxford is one of 12 publishers whose programs were being considered for adoption by the state. Approval of materials means school districts can use state money to purchase them. The Curriculum Commission rejected the programs of two other publishers, as well, but those had not been recommended by the review committee, which said they did not meet state standards.
The state Board of Education will make its final decisions on all the programs Nov. 3.
Although Jewish groups picked out Oxford's materials as the most egregious, none of the publishers escaped criticism.
Jackie Berman, educational consultant of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and policy analyst Susan Mogull spent the last few months poring over the offerings of all the programs vying for the California market.
Speaking for the JCRC's new Institute for Curriculum Services project, they sent extensive reviews of the proposed materials to state commissioners in late August. Their reviews said that "many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul -- all have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds."
Berman said that while other publishers "worked well with us" to resolve issues of concern to the Jewish community, the Oxford team did not.
In a Sept. 27 memo to the Curriculum Commission, Oxford criticized the Institute for Curriculum Services' concerns as "an apologetic defence of Judaism" and said the Jewish group was "not looking for historical objectivity but a religious agenda."
The Oxford response stated it "is not relevant" to bring up how the Good Samaritan parable may have been used by anti-Semites throughout history. "Many religious texts in all traditions have been used to justify bad behavior," the memo said.
However, Anne Eisenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women told commissioners, "Teaching religion to sixth- and seventh-graders is a high-stakes challenge. Jew hatred still exists and, in some places, thrives. This is a book that millions of children could potentially read."
In addition to rejecting the Oxford text, the Curriculum Commission passed a motion requiring publishers to make changes requested by the Institute for Curriculum Services before their programs can be adopted by the state board in November.
After the hearing, Oxford representatives said they had "misunderstood" the public comment procedure, and are eager to work with Jewish and Hindu groups to make changes before November, when they plan to resubmit their program to the California board.
"We will be reaching out to the Jewish and Hindu organizations that brought up specific issues in our text, so they'll feel comfortable withdrawing their objections," said Casper Grathwohl of the reference division publisher of Oxford University Press.
The "Where's the Beef?" chapter heading was intended "to grab readers' attention," said Amanda Podany, a co-author of one of the Oxford sixth-grade textbooks. "No offense was intended," she said, and the heading will "certainly" be changed.
Both she and Grathwohl said that the Oxford series devotes more space to Judaism than the other course programs under consideration. This both indicates their serious interest in the topic, and provides more to criticize, they said.