Pro-Israel students at UC Berkeley have a powerful new ally in the form of a Colorado member of Congress strongly supportive of the Jewish state.
Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, earlier this summer sent a letter pressing the U.S. Department of Education to investigate whether federal funds earmarked for international and foreign language study are being misused in the service of overly ideological, biased instruction on the Middle East and Israel.
In the June 16 letter, addressed to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and released publicly on Monday, Lamborn, an attorney and 13-year House veteran, cites "troubling information" he received about Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, or CMES. The letter references accounts of alleged anti-Israel bias within the department shared by Tikvah, a student-led pro-Israel group on campus. Lamborn wants DeVos to look into whether the university has run afoul of requirements to receive funding under Title VI of the 1965 Higher Education Act.
With origins in the Eisenhower era, Title VI is one of the oldest continuing federal support programs for universities in the country, authorizing grants for foreign language and international study with an eye toward the diplomacy and national security interests of the United States. The program appropriated $95.6 million nationally in 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service. UC Berkeley, which has received funds since the program's inception, gets nearly $3.5 million each year, according to a university spokesperson.
"Title VI is aimed at strengthening the interests of the United States in a complex global environment," Lamborn writes. "It is imperative that students are presented with fact-based information, not agitprop with agendas quite different from Congress and the United States Government."
In the letter, Lamborn writes that CMES hosted dozens of Israel-related events in 2019, but that each one "maliciously attempted to portray the democracy of Israel in a negative light," according to accounts by Tikvah.
Last year, Lamborn continues, CMES declined to co-host an event with former Israeli Knesset member Danny Ayalon, and over time has given a teaching platform to "several highly politicized professors," such as Ussama Makdisi, a visiting professor of history, who at one time downplayed well-documented links between former Palestinian Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Nazis.
"When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Berkeley students are overwhelmingly fed a false and distorted narrative not only at odds with an objective approach to understanding the conflict, but substantially at odds [with] American national security interests," Lamborn writes.
In a response Monday afternoon, university spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that the school administration "condemns bias, including racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, on this campus and beyond," and rejected any notion that the school has not responded strongly to antisemitism and any doubts that Berkeley is not welcoming to Jewish students.
He pointed specifically to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council's award last year to Chancellor Carol Christ for "courageous leadership" for her approach to on-campus antisemitism.
Mogulof also cited Berkeley's Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies and its popular Hillel, which recently underwent a $10 million renovation and welcomed "750 students during the High Holidays last year."
Still, many pro-Israel students are concerned about an atmosphere of anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Lamborn's letter follows an ugly dispute in February between pro-Israel students and the pro-Palestinian campus affinity group Bears for Palestine, after the group displayed a photo of Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, holding a semi-automatic rifle. The poster, displayed in a public community space, celebrated Khaled as "the first Palestinian woman to hijack a plane." Tikvah said the display "glorified terrorists" and asked that it be removed. The incident led to shouting and disruptions at a student government meeting.
In a Facebook statement on Monday, Tikvah said it was encouraged by Lamborn's support and hoped it would spur action from the federal government.
"We applaud Congressman Doug Lamborn for calling on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the UC Berkeley Center for Middle Eastern Studies for its misuse of Title VI funds," the statement read. "For years, the CMES has abused their academic platform to indoctrinate students against Israel and has repeatedly [excluded] Jewish and Zionist students."
"This has been going on for years and it is finally being recognized as the problem that it is," Berkeley student and Tikvah board member Dahlia Davidovits wrote in an email to J. "We hope that the DoE will begin a full investigation into this."