Two professional development institutes to educate Connecticut public school teachers about the Middle East and Islamic world have drawn criticism from members of the Jewish community and a Connecticut congressman for their lack of balance.
At least three professors teaching at the programs at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain and Tunxis Community College in Farmington are anti-Israel activists, according to Jewish leaders.
"We feel that it is important that middle and high school teachers receive a balanced presentation of the issues, and we're not convinced these faculty will be able to accomplish that," said Cathrine Fischer Schwartz, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
The CCSU course will be held July 29 -Aug. 2. The Tunxis course was held June 24- 28. The courses, which were planned independently, are funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Eisenhower Professional Development Grant Program, which is administered in Connecticut by the state Board of Governors for Higher Education and the Connecticut Humanities Council. CCSU received a $24,832 grant; Tunxis got $17,000.
The CCSU course - "Middle Eastern Studies Summer Institute for Teachers" -- includes Dr. Norton Mezvinsky, a CCSU history professor known for his anti-Zionist views.
Other faculty includes CCSU professors Ali Antar, Ghassan El-Eid and Richard Benfield, as well as Manchester Community College senior lecturer Fatima Antar.
Mezvinsky is an "ardent, unabashedly vocal anti-Zionist," according to David Waren, Connecticut regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
"That's a disastrously one-sided program, and it's an embarrassment it was even passed," said Prof. Ronald Kiener, head of Jewish Studies at Trinity College. "There is not a single individual who could lay out with some empathy the case of Zionism and the state of the situation right now."
Kiener said Mezvinsky has no scholarly standing in Middle East or Jewish studies and does not represent a mainstream position in either field.
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford echoed Kiener's criticisms.
"They are entitled to their points of view," said Fuchs. "But the issue is so controversial that to have no representative of a mainstream Jewish view doesn't do a positive service to the people you are trying to educate."
Connecticut U.S. Rep. James Maloney (D-5) told the Ledger that he is concerned that federal Eisenhower grants - which he called a "critical resource" for educators - are being used to fund programs lacking balance. "The curriculum for these two programs, as I understand it, is not balanced," said Maloney. "Teachers need to have a balanced presentation of the facts and a balanced presentation of different perspectives."
Maloney will be drafting letters to the presidents of CCSU and Tunxis, asking them to review the courses, which should not be used by "people advancing an individual agenda or political perspective," the congressman said.
[U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson was also contacted by the Ledger, but had not responded by press time].
Waren of the ADL expressed concern that taxpayer money would potentially "be funding a one-sided perspective on the Middle East conflict."
He noted that ADL has seen similar programs - not involving teachers specifically - that have turned into anti-Israel forums.
"We hope that the university and others involved in the administration of these grants take measures to ensure that the program does not devolve into a forum to demonize Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship," he said.
ADL, the JCRC and the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) are coordinating their advocacy efforts and will be communicating their concerns to university officials.
Wethersfield schools approached CCSU about putting together the program, according to CCSU Provost Pearl Bartelt.
"I feel that it is a legitimate proposal, and the external [review panel] thought that as well," she said, adding that she understood the concerns of the Jewish community.
"We as a university do not set up a criterion of balance," Bartelt said, defending the academic freedom of the faculty. "We never tell a faculty member who to have on a program."
The state assumes programs from accredited academic institutions will be balanced.
"Balance is an innate responsibility of any faculty member or instructor," said Constance Frasier, director of communications for the Board of Governors and the Connecticut Department of Higher Education.
The independent review panel did not discuss the balance of the grant proposals they reviewed, recalled Hartford Seminary Prof. Worth Loomis, a member of the panel.
Loomis said he offered to recuse himself when the Tunxis course - planned in conjunction with Hartford Seminary - was discussed, but the other members of the panel did not feel that was necessary.
The Islamic world
The Tunxis course - "The Modern Islamic World for Teachers" -- includes Colleen Keyes, professor of modern languages and acting dean of academic affairs at Tunxis, and Hartford Seminary Professors Ibrahim Abu-Rabi and Jane Smith.
The course is not on the Middle East as such, Keyes said, but rather focuses on the larger Islamic world and Islam.
An extended discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not possible due to time constraints, she said.
Keyes's role in facilitating the course is controversial in light of comments she made in the June 9 New Haven Register comparing Israeli actions she observed in Hebron with Nazi crimes. She traveled to Israel April 14-26 with the group Interfaith Peace Builders.
However, Keyes said her comments were taken out of context. She was only comparing the Stars of David she said she saw painted on Palestinian properties to the swastikas Nazis painted on Jewish businesses.
Israel did not commit genocide, she said, and any comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany is "ridiculous and unacceptable."