When Jack Issac signed up for the five-day Middle Eastern Studies Summer Institute at Central Connecticut State University, he didn't expect his classroom to be guarded by police.
But on Monday, the Pulaski Middle School social studies teacher and more than 70 other area teachers who had enrolled in the program to get more information on the Middle East for their classroom curriculums were welcomed to the first day of class by a group of security police, on hand to make sure the class was not disrupted. Jewish leaders have blitzed university and state officials with letters and e-mails complaining the course is fraught with propaganda, political agendas and bias against Israel. Professors who drafted the course are countering that the class is a balanced presentation that is merely providing material on Middle Eastern culture, religion, geography and economy to teachers who provide instruction on an area of the world that has become too prominent to ignore.
The university brought in extra security when public opposition to the class continued through the weekend.
"It's a precautionary measure," said Mark McLaughlin, associate vice president for marketing and communications at CCSU. Emphasizing there had been no threats or incidents, McLaughlin said the security would continue through the week.
"We just started, but so far it seems like a pretty balanced class on a portion of the world we are all teaching about in our classrooms," said Maria Avery, an eighth-grade teacher at Long River Middle School in Prospect. Avery, like many of the teachers who attended the first day of class, was surprised to learn about the controversy surrounding what they thought would be a routine summer course.
"I can't understand why anyone would see a class like this as anything other than education," she said as she waited to be ushered back into the classroom, which was being guarded by university and New Britain police. "As a teacher, I want to be able to explain the Middle East to my students, and a class like this is a good thing. I think I will walk away with a deeper understanding of the Middle East and be more effective as a teacher."
Those who have opposed the class, including the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut, say they are suspicious of a course whose content has been kept "secret" and whose instructors have been openly subjective on Middle East topics such as the treatment of Palestinians in Israel.
"The class definitely has political tones," said Bob Fishman, the federation's executive director. "What we suspected of happening is [happening]."
"We have been contacted by someone who is in the course, and the instructors are Israel-bashing," Fishman said. "The Middle East is a very complicated and controversial piece of the world, and it is clear the people who are teaching it are not giving a balanced presentation. It's like someone teaching about slavery from other than an abolitionist point of view."
Class instructors are Ali Antar, chairman of the university's Middle Eastern area studies; Norton Mezvinsky, a CCSU history professor; and Richard Benfield, an associate professor of geography who coordinated the program. Requests by The Courant for a syllabus or reading list for the class were denied.
"I think the people who are objecting are inaccurate," Benfield said during a break.
"What we are doing is presenting teachers with modules that can be used in the classroom," he said. "We never expected this kind of uproar."
Most of the teachers who straggled away from the group during breaks in the class insisted they did not understand the controversy, dismissing any possibility that they were being "brain-washed."
"We teach about the Middle East at the end of the year, and I'm just hoping to have more information to bring to the class," said Don Fay, who teaches history at Tolland High School.
To try to neutralize the points of view it fears were being offered in class, the Jewish federation, with university permission, paid for refreshments at a student reception hosted by the university ministry staff.
"We suggested it so we could let these teachers know that there are other `experts' and resources in this field," said Fishman. Among the resources offered to teachers who attended the reception held after class were copies of the book "Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East."
Many of the students, however, called the efforts unnecessary and "a bit paranoid." They argued that, in the midst of the controversy, no one was giving credit to teachers for knowing the difference between listening to opinion and teaching facts to students.
"I do not feel any biased information was presented today," said Issac, adding that he is not sure that should be the case in a university setting.
"I really think in a university different views should be presented, and all the views don't necessarily have to be presented, but that's what a university classroom should be," he said.
"In my own classroom, I respect all points of views and will answer questions about my feelings on Middle East matters if my students ask," Issac said.
"But I certainly don't feel that I am allowing myself to be brainwashed in this class," he added. "And I don't think everyone is giving us, as teachers, enough credit for knowing the difference between opinion and fact, and what we will take to our classrooms."