Congress Under Pressure to Defund University Middle East Programs

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Less than a year after a small number of pro-Israel groups attempted to convince state legislatures and Congress to pass legislation punishing academic associations who took political positions critical of Israel’s human-rights abuses of the Palestinian people, many of the same groups are once again conspiring to deprive those deemed insignificantly deferential to Israel of academic freedom.

While last year’s target was mainly the American Studies Association, who along with the Asian American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association endorsed boycotting Israeli state institutions complicit in human-rights abuses, including the abridgement of Palestinian academic freedom,  some pro-Israel groups have now set their sights on a familiar target—Middle Eastern studies departments.

A coalition of groups led by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the AMCHA Initiative are leading a campaign to end federal funding for college Middle Eastern studies programs unless they adopt means to oversee and police the alleged ideological content of those programs.

Title VI and Academic Freedom

In 1958, after the former Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, Congress, concerned that American education was lagging behind Soviet education, passed the National Defense Education Act. Although the NDEA was predominantly concerned with science education, Title VI contained provisions to provide federal funding for both foreign-language and “area studies.” Even at its inception, it raised significant concerns about academic freedom. The NDEA also provided generous student loan money, if the student was willing to sign a loyalty oath.

The loyalty oath was considered so odious that a number of schools, including Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, would end up boycotting NDEA funding. As a result of such boycotts, the oath was repealed in 1962. Even after the repeal of the McCarthyist oath, Title VI, which was later reauthorized under the Higher Education Act (HEA), was mired in controversy concerning attempts to stifle academic freedom.  The first attack on its funding came during the Vietnam war. President Richard Nixon’s administration, angry that many American academics disapproved of the war, attempted to not only scale back Title VI funding, but abolish it all together.[1]

After 9/11, with America invading and then occupying two Middle Eastern countries, Middle East Studies programs came under attack. In 2003, the same year the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq, the HEA came up for renewal. Critics of Middle Eastern Studies suggested eliminating Title VI altogether or creating some kind of advisory board. According to the Brandeis Center, the “reformers” (i.e., those wishing to police the ideological content of American higher education programs) were concerned that instead of strengthening national security, such programs were promulgating “anti-American” and “anti-Israel bias.”[2]

One member of Congress expressed concern that individual Middle East scholars who received federal funding did not believe in the “validity” of spreading “democracy” to the Middle East.[3] When the HEA came up for renewal in 2008, critics of Title VI area-studies funding were able to get language inserted that applicants for grants had to include “diverse perspectives.” Much to the dismay of those pushing the agenda that Title VI grant recipients were not adequately committed to America’s national security or the defense of Israel, no mechanism for enforcing these requirements was created.[4]

The Latest Campaign

Title VI is again up for renewal, and many of the same figures are once more attempting to either defund Middle Eastern Studies programs completely or ensure an enforcement mechanism for “diverse perspectives.” At the center of this debate is a worldview that Middle Eastern Studies should be welded tightly to the national security state and that their chief pedagogical purpose is to bolster U.S. foreign policy objectives and serve as “an effective pipeline to intelligence and national security agencies.”[5]

Another chief rallying point is the conflation of criticism of Israel, or even just scholarship that casts Israel in a less than rosy light, with anti-Semitism. While a coalition of groups have joined to together to fight back against “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” academic programs, their chief tool appears to be a white paper prepared by the Brandeis Center. The original version of this white paper contained blatant and egregious factual errors. The testimony of a representative of the American Jewish Congress was reported as the official findings of a Senate committee, and statements made on the floor by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) were quoted as testimony at a hearing he never attended.

While a “Revised November 2014” version of the white paper now appears on the Brandeis Center’s website and seems to have corrected these errors, the initial factually inaccurate white paper helped form the basis for a letter from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. She quoted it in warning that some academics receiving federal funding “thwart American national security and foreign policy interests” and expressed interest in “any proposals [Duncan] may have to reform Title VI to exclude programs with a strong anti-Israel bias.”

While defunding Middle Eastern Studies wholesale is an agenda item, what the Brandeis Center ultimately aims for is the creation of a mechanism to enforce “diverse perspectives” on programs and departments. That might not seem like a bad thing in theory, but when reading through the center’s proposals, as well as its evidence that Middle East Studies programs lack “diverse perspectives,” it becomes clear that this is coded language for promulgating the very specific political agenda of a select set of pro-Israel groups into American academia. The Brandeis Center gives recommendations for universities, the Department of Education, and Congress.

One of the recommendations for universities includes setting up an oversight board to review the level of scholarship in Middle East Studies departments. This board should include not just Middle East studies scholars, but Israel Studies scholars, scholars from other disciplines, and non-faculty members, along with a “grievance mechanism” allowing for individuals to report on perceived political bias in Middle East Studies departments.[6]

There is no suggestion that Israel Studies departments, which are maintained by many universities, should undergo similar reviews, or that Palestinian-studies scholars should assess their level of scholarship. Given the slew of academics who have had their careers destroyed due to their criticism of Israel, such as Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita, these focuses reveal a particular ideological agenda. The Department of Education is also being asked to “monitor” grant recipients programs for “diverse perspectives.”[7]

Finally, Congress is being called upon to legislate a formal “accountability system” to ensure Middle East Studies meet the ideological criteria set out by Congress.[8] The center has responded to criticisms that it is stifling academic freedom with claims that how could diverse perspectives be antithetical to academic freedom? The diverse-perspectives policing mechanism becomes very Orwellian when one learns more about what the Brandeis Center is purporting to be “bias.” As Bekah Wolf meticulously documented in an article for the Middle East Research and Information Project, the Brandeis Center relies partially on an AMCHA Initiative study of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Center for Near East Studies that uses a highly unusual definition of bias.

For example, events hosted by J Street U, the campus affiliate of the liberal Zionist group J Street, are listed as instances of “anti-Israel bias.” While J Street, which views itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” has gained the ire of the more right-wing Zionist groups, it has also garnered criticism from the left, due to its steadfast opposition to any form of “BDS” (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions), including of targeted boycotts of settlement products, and its support for continued U.S. military aid to Israel.

Another supposedly biased event at UCLA was a screening of the film Between Two Worlds: The American Jewish Culture Wars, which documents conflicting views in the Jewish community on a range of subjects from interfaith marriage and religious conversion to Middle East politics, i.e. diverse perspectives. The Center for Near East Studies at UCLA was not alone in fostering biased anti-Israel perspectives; so was the Jewish Studies program. Jewish Studies professors across North America responded by accusing AMCHA of trying to “stifle debate on issues debated in Israel and around the world.”

Who’s Behind It

The Brandeis Center purports to be a legal group acting in the tradition of the African-American civil-rights movement to ensure that Jewish Americans are free from anti-Semitic discrimination and oppression. While this is a laudable goal, reviewing the material on the center’s website reveals that its main purpose is combating speech that defends Palestinian rights on college campuses. The site’s banner depicts an individual holding a sign proclaiming “God Bless Hitler” and the gate to a concentration camp featuring the words “Arbeit macht frei,” but the center’s day-to-day concerns revolve around the SodaStream boycott at Harvard, the New York Times publishing an Op-Ed article by Max Blumenthal, or Tufts University allowing an allegedly “Islamist” group, Students for Justice in Palestine, to host direct-action training.

When the American Studies Association endorsed the academic boycott of Israel,  Congress tried to pass bills to punish it. Some of the most fervent opponents of the boycott, including the American-Israel Public Action Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, refused to support the bill on First Amendment grounds. The Brandeis Center also joined in on criticizing the bill, stating that the main problem with it was “not that it goes too far but rather that it does not go far enough.” While the center enthusiastically endorsed the bill’s attempt to limit boycotts, it said the bill did nothing to “curb divestment as well as boycotts.”

The center explicitly mentioned not only divestment from Israeli companies, but from companies that target businesses operating in the occupied West Bank. Finally, it said the bill did not include a Justice Department-based enforcement mechanism or authorize private lawsuits to combat boycotts and divestment on college campuses. “This effort to defund Middle East studies is yet another intimidation campaign by the Brandeis Center and the AMCHA initiative that is based on misrepresentations and twisted legal theories,” Liz Jackson of Palestine Legal Solidarity Support told Dissent NewsWire.

Fighting Back for Academic Freedom

In spite of the Brandeis Center’s claims to the contrary, academic freedom is at stake. “The federal government simply cannot condition funding on whether academic programs are sufficiently ‘balanced’ on Israel,” says Jackson. “Not only would this violate the First Amendment and enshrined principles of academic freedom, it would undermine the purpose of federal funding for area-studies programs. Educating our nation’s students to address the most critical issues of national security and foreign affairs requires vigorous and unfettered debate on Israel and Palestine.”

The U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation has launched a campaign to counter the efforts to defund Title VI. “The U.S. Campaign supports academic freedom and the First Amendment and doesn’t believe that the government has any role to play in policing the content of educational activities on campuses,” policy director Josh Rubner told Dissent NewsWire, The group’s action alert generated over 4,000 emails to Secretary of Education Duncan and members of Congress in less than 24 hours.

[1] Brandeis Center White Paper at 8.
[2] Brandeis Center White Paper at 11.
[3] Brandeis Center White Paper at 13.
[4] Brandeis Center White Paper at 8.
[5] Brandeis Center White Paper at 7.
[6] Brandeis Center White Paper at 31-33.
[7] Brandeis Center White Paper at 34.
[8] Brandeis Center White Paper at 35.