A study released Sept. 17 by the pro-Israel campus watchdog AMCHA Initiative found that not only has UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) hosted an overwhelming proportion of its events that are critical and hostile toward Israel — as campus pro-Israel advocates long have argued — but that doing so violates federal law.
Now AMCHA, along with nine other organizations, most of them Jewish, are pushing Congress to reform a 2008 provision of the Higher Education Act designed to prevent the type of bias allegedly occurring at UCLA — or withhold certain grants from the university until CNES introduces more ideological balance into its program.
The report, though, is not without its critics, including researcher Pini Herman and UCLA history professor David Myers, both of whom questioned the study's objectivity. Asked whether the group consulted with outside research firms to advise AMCHA's researchers or validate the findings, co-founder Tammi Benjamin said it had not.
The study analyzed CNES events between fall 2010 and spring 2013 by reviewing videos and audio files from public Israel-related events that are available on the center's website.
Among the group's findings is that 30 of 49 public events hosted or co-hosted by CNES concerning political conflicts in the Middle East were about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of those 30, AMCHA says 26 "exhibited bias against Israel," and 21 contained anti-Semitic content. AMCHA's researchers used the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism as laid out in the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004.
AMCHA's researchers also concluded that of 31 speakers invited by CNES to discuss Israel-related topics, 25 have "demonized" Israel in the past, and 10 have compared Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis' treatment of Jews.
When reached by telephone, CNES program manager Johanna Romero declined comment. Likewise, University of California's Office of the President also declined comment and referred questions instead to UCLA's office of media relations.
A spokesperson for UCLA sent an email to the Journal reading, in part, "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."
The statement pointed to two other groups that provide a "vast range of perspectives" on the Middle East — the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the Center for Middle East Development — and said that UCLA "remains dedicated to complying with all federal laws." A follow-up email from the Journal asking whether UCLA plans to look into the study's findings did not receive a response as of press time.
Emails and voicemails left with officials at the U.S. Department of Education were not returned by the time this issue went to press on Sept. 22.
In a telephone interview, Benjamin said when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UCLA is not sufficiently complying with Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which states that universities receiving federal grants must provide students with "diverse perspective and a wide range of views."
Congress inserted the diversity clause into the law in 2008, in part as a reaction to what was then perceived as widespread anti-Israel bias in academic programs receiving federal funding.
In the three years examined by AMCHA, CNES received a total of $1.3 million in federal funds as part of two Department of Education programs that annually fund 129 university international research and foreign language centers.
Congress authorizes funding for the National Resource Center (NRC) and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) programs every three years and is set to reauthorize the Higher Education Act late this year or in 2015. The previous authorization in 2010 allocated a total of about $69 million to colleges across the nation.
Although the Department of Education technically does not take past awards into account when processing grant applications every three years, according to the agency's website, grant applications submitted by CNES have been approved in each of the four application periods since 2000.
Benjamin, saying that she might be less concerned were there even a 60-40 proportion of anti-Israel to pro-Israel events put on by CNES, said that when the percentages are closer to 93 percent against Israel and none in support, something is wrong.
"It shouldn't happen, whether or not a program receives federal funding, but it certainly shouldn't happen in a federally funded program," Benjamin said. "It's not academically sound."
Of the nearly three dozen events analyzed by AMCHA, the study's researchers looked for 10 forms of "anti-Semitic activity," including comparing Jews to Nazis, condoning terrorism against Jews and promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. For example, the study documents an April 25, 2012, lecture by Palestinian Abdelfattah Abusrour in which the playwright said, "Palestinians living under occupation ... have the right to resist occupation," some through "armed struggle."
Another example highlighted by AMCHA is a Jan. 11, 2011, lecture by Palestinian Al-Quds University professor Basem Ra'ad, in which he says the Western Wall "is actually a recent invention from the 16th century" used as an excuse for Jews to appropriate Palestinian land.
Benjamin said that for the study, eight to 10 part-time researchers spent five months analyzing CNES data using criteria designed by AMCHA.
Pini Herman, a demographer, social sciences researcher and Jewish Journal blogger, was asked by the Journal to review the data and responded critically via email that "it does not contain enough information about its methodology to enable anyone to replicate or disprove the 'findings.' " Herman said the study "suffers from a classic case of 'confirmation bias' " — when people seek out and filter information that confirms a preexisting belief.
David Myers, a UCLA history professor and Journal contributor, wrote in an email that while "it would be foolish to claim that UCLA's CNES — or any other CNES—achieves a degree of objectivity," AMCHA's "sweeping" and "broad" definition of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias could include "any and all criticism of Israel."
In particular, Myers objected to AMCHA's characterization of Daniel Sokatch (CEO of the New Israel Fund), Gershon Baskin (founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information) and Rabbi Irwin Kula as critics of Israel. The three were interviewed in the film "Between Two Worlds," which CNES screened in an event co-sponsored by UCLA's history department and J Street U, the campus arm of the left-leaning "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby. The AMCHA study counted the screening as one of the center's events demonstrating anti-Israel bias but not anti-Semitism.
Leila Beckwith, principal researcher on AMCHA's study, disputed Herman's confirmation bias characterization. "I allow the evidence to confirm or disconfirm my hypotheses," Beckwith wrote in an email. "I also make transparent the methods used for data collection and analysis. That makes the study objective.
"Anyone can replicate what we did because the data selection and data coding are clearly described and defined, and the original data (podcasts, films, etc.) are all referenced and online," she added.
Beckwith, a professor emeritus in pediatrics at UCLA, has 30 years of teaching and research experience at the Neuropsychiatric Institute and the Department of Pediatrics at UCLA. For more than 10 years, she served on the scientific peer review committees for the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Development, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Neither UCLA nor the Department of Education currently have a system to ensure that grant recipients follow the laws attached to federal funds, Kenneth Marcus, a former official in the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, said that if CNES and UCLA are found to be engaged in "waste, fraud and abuse" of federal funds, it "could lead to serious problems for UCLA," including an investigation.
Marcus is now the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center, a public interest group that focuses in large part on combating anti-Semitism in American universities.
"It's an eye-opening study, given the assurances that UCLA has made," Marcus said, alluding to what could be construed as misstatements, or worse, by UCLA in its federal grant application.
In a short essay titled "Diverse Perspectives in Funded Activities" that UCLA submitted to the Department of Education in its 2010 application, CNES wrote, "A high value is placed on hearing and understanding multiple points of view and examining questions fundamental to diverse perspective on controversial issues." The supposed lack of diversity, Marcus believes, could — or at least should — pose real problems for both UCLA and the Department of Education.
"Either fix this program," Marcus said, calling on Congress to add an enforcement or review mechanism to its next reauthorization, "or else find other ways of subsidizing language instruction other than giving the money to universities like UCLA."
Joining AMCHA in pushing for enforcement and oversight reforms in the Higher Education Act are Accuracy in Academia, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Endowment for Middle East Truth, Middle East Forum (which contributed $5,000 to AMCHA for this study), Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the Zionist Organization of America.