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Two Steps Forward for Efforts to Correct Bias in Mideast Studies

April 12, 2006
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The effort by an alliance of Jewish groups to hold government-funded Middle East studies departments accountable took two strides forward in recent weeks, one legislative and one moral. Congress came a step closer to a mechanism that would monitor how Middle East Studies departments spend federal money, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an advisory body, found that anti-Israeli activism could engender a hostile atmosphere for Jews on campus.

On March 30, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a higher education reform bill that for the first time would establish an independent advisory board to make recommendations “that will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views on world regions, foreign language, international affairs, and international business.”

At issue is “Title VI,” the section of the Education Act passed in the 1950s that established federal funding for universities. The intent was to nurture international studies and create a cadre of Americans who would guide the United States through the thicket of foreign relations.

Longstanding complaints from the Jewish community that many college faculties nurture hostility to Israel instead of scholarship were reinforced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A number of academics argued that anti-Israel monomania in Middle East departments helped blind the U.S. policy establishment to the emerging Islamist threat.

Those arguments have resonated in a Washington obsessed with pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures.

“The events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, have underscored the need for the nation to strengthen and enhance American knowledge of international relations, world regions, and foreign languages,” says the House bill passed last month.

The bill also grants the education secretary some discretion in examining whether Middle East Studies departments are producing well-rounded graduates for the U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and defense corps, as envisioned by the Title VI framers.

A JTA investigative series last year found that several of the Middle East Studies centers with anti-Israel and anti-Western agendas have extended their biases even beyond the college campus, delving into public education and developing curricula for middle- and high-school students.

The House bill requires the secretary to take into account when allocating funds “the degree to which activities of centers, programs, and fellowships at institutions of higher education address national interests, generate and disseminate information, and foster debate on international issues from diverse perspectives.”

A Senate bill passed last year grants the secretary the same discretion, but the Senate balked at the seven-person advisory body that was included in the House bill. Some senators feared the board invoked unsavory memories of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, the controversial government committee that investigated suspected Communists during the McCarthy era.

However, both the House and Senate bills guarantee that “nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction or instructor.”

That language has gone some way to assuaging fears in Congress and universities that the advisory board would be coercive.

The House bill was brought to the Senate floor last week; it remains to be seen whether the advisory board will survive efforts to resolve the two competing bills. The American Jewish Congress, which led lobbying for the advisory board, blitzed Congress members in the days before its passage.

Another battlefront for Jewish groups seeking reforms on campus has been the Civil Rights Commission.

The commission is stacked with members sympathetic to the views of the administration in power. It has no enforcement power, but its recommendations are taken seriously by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Meeting last Monday, the commission voted to:

Recommend that the Civil Rights Office use Civil Rights Act enforcements, which include funding cuts at universities where Jewish students face a hostile environment;

Call on university leaders to denounce anti-Semitism;

Call on universities to “maintain academic standards” and “respect intellectual diversity” in language reminiscent of the House and Senate bills;

Recommend that the Civil Rights Office inform Jewish students of their rights; and

Call on Congress to collect data on anti-Semitic and other hate crimes on campuses.

The commission endorsed the recommendations by a 5-1 vote, with one commissioner absent. The commissioner who voted against, Gerald Reynolds, who is the chairman, was unable to shake his concern that a blanket recommendation against anti-Semitism could inhibit Christian proselytizing, a practice he did not endorse but which he believed had constitutional protection.

Perhaps as significant as the recommendations were the commission’s findings, which discerned anti-Semitism in “anti-Zionist and anti-Israel propaganda.”

That recognition was crucial for the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, one of the groups that had petitioned the civil rights commission.

“Going to college should involve learning, not getting threatened or being called a Nazi,” the institute’s founder, Gary Tobin, said in a statement, referring to propaganda comparing Israel to Hitler’s Germany.

Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, which also petitioned the commission, welcomed the call for university administrators to unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism.

“Many universities have remained silent. That connotes acceptance,” she said.

Other petitioners included the AJCongress, the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and the American Jewish Committee.

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