Pro-Israel Groups Question Federal Funds for Middle East Centers

September 18, 2014

A coalition of Israel advocacy organizations concerned by what they describe as the prevalence of anti-Israel programming at federally-funded Middle East studies centers are lobbying for changes in the Title VI program that would 1) “[r]equire recipients of Title VI funds to establish grievance procedures to address complaints that programs are not reflecting diverse perspectives and a wide range of views” and 2) “[r]equire the U.S. Department of Education to establish a formal complaint-resolution process similar to that in use to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The full joint statement, signed by 10 groups, is included as an appendix to a new report on “The Morass of Middle East Studies”  issued by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The statement also references a paper produced by the AMCHA Initiative that reports on anti-Semitic activity and an anti-Israel bias in the programming at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Center for Near Eastern Studies. The Brandeis Center and the AMCHA Initiative are both parties to the statement, as are Accuracy in Academia, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, the Endowment for Middle East Truth, Middle East Forum, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, and the Zionist Organization of America.

The groups behind the statement argue that Middle East studies centers are not being held accountable in regards to a provision of the Higher Education Act requiring Title VI grant applicants to present “an explanation of how the activities funded by the grant will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs.” They argue that in using tax dollars “to present biased, anti-American, anti-Israel views in their outreach programs,” the federally-funded centers are not serving the national interest. They maintain that, without reforms, Congress should consider cutting Title VI funding to Middle East studies centers altogether.

In an emailed statement, Amy W. Newhall, the executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, rejected such "politically motivated attacks on scholars and academic institutions" as a serious threat to free speech, academic freedom and the role of colleges as sites of free and open discussion. 

“MESA resolutely opposes all forms of hate speech and discrimination, including anti-Semitism,” Newhall wrote. “It supports prompt and forceful action in response to anti-Semitic incidents on college and university campuses.”

“However, MESA is concerned that some of the reports issued by partisan political groups based outside academia may actually weaken efforts to combat anti-Semitism by portraying all criticism of Israeli policies as a form of anti-Semitism or as ‘anti-Israel.’ Their real goal seems to be to shut down open discussion of issues of public concern by demonizing academic and other critics of Israel, Zionism, and U.S. policy in the Middle East, in many cases by tarring them with the brush of anti-Semitism. They are even willing to threaten federal funding for university-based Middle East studies centers, which have a long and distinguished history of providing the United States with thousands of people trained in the languages, politics, cultures and histories of this critical region."

UPDATE: UCLA's media relations office issued a statement saying that the university "remains dedicated to complying with all federal laws and respecting the free and open exchange of ideas representing diverse viewpoints. Academic units all across our campus are constantly working to provide programming that exposes our students and the public to a vast range of perspectives and topics. In fact, three centers at UCLA focus on Middle Eastern Affairs and regularly provide programming on Israel, among other topics: the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the Center for Middle East Development. Israeli academics, students, speakers and artists are regularly part of programming at UCLA. We recognize many subjects may engender passionate debate and difficult conversations and we encourage civil dialogue that appreciates the paramount importance of free expression, academic freedom and a respectful exchange of ideas."

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