On Jan. 6, a mob invaded the Capitol in a failed attempt to stop Congress from validating the election results. For some, the decision to break into the House and the Senate was unpremeditated.
Others planned the insurrection well in advance, and they now face FBI investigations and serious criminal charges. Almost all belonged to such white supremacist, conspiracy-minded groups as QAnon, America First, Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Texas Freedom Force, and various self-appointed “militias.”
The primary motivation for this attempted coup was the false belief that “blatant, rampant voter fraud,” as the leader of the Proud Boys put it, led to Biden’s victory. Everyone wanted to “stop the steal” by any means necessary, up to and including hanging Mike Pence. One member of the America First organization wanted Trump to be declared not president, but “emperor” of the United States.
But the insurrectionists also shared another belief prominently on display both during and after the Insurrection: antisemitism. One individual had a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt; at an earlier event, a Proud Boy wore a black t-shirt featuring “a Nazi eagle perched on a fasces, below the acronym “6mwe”—Six Million Wasn’t Enough—a reference to the number of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust.
Many rioters professed their devotion to QAnon, which has targeted the Jewish billionaire George Soros as controlling world events and whose leader, the anonymous “Q,” retweeted the image of a knife-wielding Jews wearing a star of David wading in Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Ukrainian blood. Marjorie Tayler Greene, the representative from Georgia who openly declares her allegiance to QAnon, also believes that California’s wildfires were caused by Jewish space lasers.
Trump supporters flocking to Telegram after Jan. 6 have not backed down. “It’s not simply pro-Trump content, mildly complaining about election fraud,” says Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism and extremism researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, “Instead, it’s openly antisemitic, violent, bomb making materials and so on.” Just before Trump left office, one user bristled at the unfairness of who received presidential clemency: “So just to recap: Trump will pardon Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, high profile Jewish fraudsters … No pardons for middle class whites who risked their livelihoods by going to ‘war’ for Trump.”
Ashli Babbitt, the QAnon adherent killed during the invasion, has become a martyr to the cause, with her image used to create explicitly antisemitic images and memes. Hatred of Jews, says the Anti-Defamation League’s vice-president, Oren Segal, “is part of what animates the narratives of extremists in this country.”
Which brings me to the Ethnic Studies controversy. On Aug. 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1460, a bill mandating every student in the CSU take an Ethnic Studies course to graduate. The purpose, according to the bill, is for students to “acquire the knowledge and skills that will help them comprehend the diversity and social justice history of the United States and of the society in which they live to enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens.” Fair enough, and no argument.
But the problem is that the CSU Ethnic Studies requirement is anything but inclusive. The bill states that courses should have a “special focus on four historically defined racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans,” which allows a very small window for courses on other “racialized groups.”
But the CSU Council on Ethnic Studies document outlining the “core competencies” for these courses slammed that window shut. In their understanding, “special focus” means only four groups. For a course to qualify, it must “be an existing ethnic studies course or part of a traditional ethnic studies department, unit, or program (e.g. Native American Studies, Latina/o Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies).”
No courses on other areas are allowed. Not Jewish Studies. Not Arabic Studies. Nothing on the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uighurs in China or U.S. policy on these issues, areas which might lead to a global perspective on religious and ethnic bias.
This exclusion is entirely by design. At an Ethnic Studies town hall sponsored by San Diego State University’s senate, then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber, now Secretary of State, said point blank that the restriction to four groups “was intentional,” because if they allowed “everybody who ever had an issue with this country” to have a course, then the requirement would expand to the point when every course would count toward the requirement. To prevent the requirement from being “diluted,” the focus must be exclusively on four groups.
There are two major problems here.
First, at an Academic Engagement Network webinar, the CSU’s new chancellor, Joseph I. Castro, sadly admitted, “This is a less than ideal law” because it does not reflect present reality. Courses with this narrow focus, Castro continues, may have been useful in the 1980s, “however I don’t think it’s a 2020, or 2021 version of the rich, multicultural campuses that we have.” It leaves out “Jewish Studies, Portuguese Studies, Italian Studies, [and] Armenian Studies.” These thriving areas “are not included in this law,” and they should be.
Second, the Jan. 6 Insurrection and the aftermath show that racial hatred in America is not restricted to these four groups. An Ethnic Studies perspective on the failed coup would take into account white nationalism, but omit the antisemitism. To state the obvious, that would lead to a highly inaccurate picture of what happened, and a skewed view of white supremacy, which has at its root both antisemitism and anti-Black racism.
When the marchers in Charlottesville chanted “We will not be replaced,” they were talking about Jews, not Blacks. And when the mayor, Mike Signer, criticized the alt-right rally in a tweet, he brought down on himself a storm of antisemitic responses. “I smell Jew,” one message said.
When the author, Talia Levin, managed to infiltrate white supremacist online communities, she learned that “white supremacy cannot exist without anti-Semitism.” Furthermore, antisemitism is rising at an alarming rate among both the right and the left as well as on college campuses.
Ultimately, what does the Ethnic Studies requirement hope to achieve? If this is a power-play by small departments for money, students, and a much greater voice in university affairs, as suggested by how Ethnic Studies faculty demand exclusive control over these courses, that’s one discussion.
But I’d rather assume that people are acting in good faith, and that the final purpose of AB 1460 is to help create a society without racism. If that’s the case, then the requirement needs to be expanded to include all the groups subject to bias and presently excluded. To eliminate racism, we need to deal with racism as it exists today, not how it existed back in the 60s when Ethnic Studies was created.
Chancellor Castro concluded by wishing “that maybe someday this law would get amended.” That is exactly what needs to happen.
Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).