washington | 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.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a higher education reform bill in March 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 9/11 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-9/11 intelligence failures.
"The events and aftermath of Sept. 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.
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.
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.
In a meeting earlier this month, 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.
• Call on Congress to collect data on anti-Semitic and other hate crimes on campuses.
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.