It's been two years since the School District of Philadelphia has included discussions about the Middle East in its history and social-studies curriculums. According to officials, the district's teachers are no longer encouraged to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the United State's military action in Iraq.
The problem, according to Jewish community officials, is that teachers are always free to bring in outside material to their classrooms; and thanks to the federal education law known as Title VI, nothing is preventing that outside material from coming from sources with longstanding ties to Saudi Arabia and institutional biases against both the United States and Israel.
Even more, said Asaf Romirowsky, Israel affairs associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Title VI program may actually ensure that materials that wind up in the hands of public-school teachers promote a pro-Arab point of view.
Romirowsky pointed to the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, one of 18 federally funded "outreach" centers that gets some $500,000 each year through Title VI, as evidence of a systemic problem. As an outreach center, the Middle East Center is charged with providing educators from kindergarten through the 12th grade with information about the Middle East.
The problem, said Romirowsky, is that no one is making sure that the information the Middle East Center provides does not promote a distorted view of the region.
"The biggest problem is the fact that they are mandated to provide outreach to teachers," he said. "If a high school somewhere in Philadelphia gets a call from Penn saying they have a free program about the Middle East, no teacher will say 'no.' "
Arena for Ideas and Opinions
Officials at Penn maintained that while some titles they provide may reflect some kind of bias, on the whole they ensure that only academically-sound information winds up in the hands of educators.
"In keeping with its funding mandate, Penn's Middle East Center works hard to present a variety of viewpoints, and in so doing works with outside groups, including, for example, the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia," said Penn spokesman Ron Ozio. "There is no doubt that materials on any topic, especially the long-troubled Middle East, can reflect a viewpoint that not everyone would find attractive. Such viewpoints are balanced by other materials that other people might consider objectionable.
"An education system is an arena for debating ideas and opinions," added Ozio.
A list of books available at the Middle East Center, posted on the center's Web site, is heavy on material either found questionable by the American Jewish Committee or published by organizations criticized by Jewish groups as having an anti-Israel tilt.
Among the offerings, for instance, is the "Arab World Studies Notebook."
The AJCommittee issued a scathing report of the text earlier this year; its editor, Audrey Shabbas, is the founder of Arab World and Islamic Resources, which receives Saudi funding.
Romirowsky noted, however, that one book - Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World by Akbar S. Ahmed - is "relatively okay."
Still, he said, out of 22 works offered by the Middle East Center as resources for educators, five are published by the Council on Islamic Education, which has ties to the Islamic outreach center Dar al Islam in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Romirowsky called for Congress to beef up federal oversight of programs like Penn's when it takes up Title VI appropriations later this term.
"It's a huge issue - and we should do more about it," he stated.
At the school district, Cecilia Cannon, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that two years ago, the district itself provided some questionable material to teachers as part of a curriculum supplement on the Iraq war.
She added, however, that it corrected its mistake in the form of a follow-up letter to teachers, and now does not include the Middle East in its curriculum planning.
"We are aware of no questionable material being used in our classrooms," said Cannon. "And to the extent that a parent might find something questionable, this is the office parents would come to."