A Zionist student group has accused the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at the University of California, Berkeley, of displaying bias against Israel, raising concerns over its use of federal funding.
In an online statement on Tuesday, Tikvah: Students for Israel maintained that the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) — a National Resource Center under the US Department of Education's Title VI program — has held more than two dozen Israel-related events since 2016, each one of which "has maliciously attempted to portray the democracy of Israel in a negative light."
The group pointed to a series of recent discussions, including one earlier this month on "The Israel Lobby and Anti-Semitism," where participants "publicly defended Ilhan Omar's anti-semitic comments and accusations of global Jewish conspiracies," according to Tikvah.
Despite this alleged focus on Israel, CMES refused to co-sponsor an upcoming campus talk with former Israeli Knesset member and Ambassador Danny Ayalon, Tikvah charged. "CMES is engaging in an anti-academic policy of indoctrination, and there is no room to view their one-sided hateful narrative as anything but an abuse of their platform."
Nathan Bentolila, president of Tikvah, told The Algemeiner that his team reached out to CMES about hosting Ayalon in early February, "and we received a reply stating that they prefer 'academic speakers' and that we should fill out a collaboration request form."
Ayalon is currently a visiting professor at Yeshiva University in New York, a position Bentolila said the students reiterated. We "filled out their speaker form, but ... received no reply even after following up," he shared.
When Tikvah co-hosted Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz last year, "we were told that their calendar was full," Bentolila recalled. "They will never outright say no to an event, but when there is always a disingenuous excuse and they never host events that portray Israel in a fair way, we call into question the academic honesty and integrity of the department regarding Israel."
Tikvah members have taken part in several events hosted by CMES, "all of which had a negative undertone regarding Israel," he said. "One of our members was told to 'never trust information or sources originating in Israel' when discussing the Iran Deal."
While members did not necessarily attend every event, many of the gatherings hinted at their biases in advance through the chosen subject matter or speakers, he argued, pointing to a film series held early last year in partnership with the Arab Film Festival "on the 70th anniversary of Al-Nakba of 1948."
The Arabic term "Nakba" — literally meaning "catastrophe" — is used by Palestinians to refer to Arab displacements and other circumstances surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948.
"When an event titled 'Corruption in the Middle East' focuses entirely on corruption allegations against a democratically elected leader in Israel, you must ask yourself if the real goal of the event was to discuss actual corruption that is rampant in this region or to demonize Israel," he added. "The CMES claims to be one of the most important academic sources regarding the Arab world, Iran, Israel and Turkey ... yet they only give one perspective and are indoctrinating generations of students with a falsified image of Israel."
CMES chair Emily Gottreich, who signed a 2009 petition advising against establishing a UC study abroad program to Israel, did not respond to The Algemeiner's request for comment by press time.
A spokesperson for UC Berkeley distanced the school's administration from the allegations, saying that academic departments and research centers such as CMES are "under the authority of our faculty."
Miriam Elman — associate professor at Syracuse University and executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which advocates against anti-Zionist bias in academia — expressed concerns following Tikvah's statement that CMES was failing to comply with its obligations as a National Resource Center.
"As a recipient of Title VI federal funding, the CMES @UCBerkeley is required to provide a diversity of viewpoints on the #MENA region," Elman wrote on Twitter. "It's obviously egregiously non-compliant."
"Unfortunately, Berkeley's CMES is not alone," Elman added in comments to The Algemeiner. "A number of our nation's 16 federally-funded Middle Eastern Studies centers are misusing tax-payer money ... to promote biased anti-Israel programming."
"Centers funded under Title VI are supposed to advance the interests of US national security and foreign relations, not create one-sided learning environments where diverse perspectives on critical issues are stifled," she argued.
Similar reservations were expressed by Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center For Human Rights Under Law, which has for years "been concerned with the misuse of federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Opportunities Act."
"Funding is contingent upon the congressional requirement that programming must reflect 'diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,'" Lewin told The Algemeiner. "When Middle Eastern studies centers use their federal funds to promote biased, one-sided, anti-American and anti-Israel programming and then refuse to engage in or support pro-Israel programming, they undercut the purpose of Title VI."
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, head of the campus antisemitism watchdog AMCHA Initiative, indicated that while she could not comment specifically on CMES, she was "not surprised" by Tikvah's concerns, pointing to a three-year study her group conducted on the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
"Our research found that between 2010-2013, CNES disproportionately focused on Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict, with 93% of events on Israel being anti-Israel, and 75% displaying anti-Semitic discourse," she explained. "During that same period, CNES received $1.5 million from the Department of Education under Title VI."
"This type of behavior at UCLA, and the alleged behavior at Berkeley, completely distorts the scholarly and educational mission of any department and is a violation of the Higher Education Act," she said.