Several Jewish groups are lobbying hard for legislation to counter what they say is an anti-Israel, anti-American bias in federally funded Middle East programs at several colleges and universities.
The controversy involves Title VI funding, a Cold War-era program designed to encourage the study of international relations and foreign languages. The program received a big boost after Sept. 11, when U.S. officials belatedly realized they had few Arab speakers and analysts in key positions.
Title VI money has spawned a number of Middle Eastern studies programs at prominent universities — some of which, critics charge, have become hotbeds of anti-Israel and anti-American agitation.
The American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee have joined forces to support legislation that calls for these academic institutions to "foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives," and creates an oversight panel for the Title VI program.
The goal, they say, is to ensure balance, not to enforce academic litmus tests.
"People have looked at this as if it was some sort of right-wing effort to spoon-feed jingoism to students," said Sarah Stern, Washington representative for the AJCongress. "That's not true at all; we just want to make sure that if money is being appropriated … to serve national security interests, it is used properly."
Transparency, not academic censorship, is the goal, Stern said. The oversight board, she said, would include representatives chosen by both party's congressional leaders.
An AJCongress study pointed to several examples of anti-Israel and anti-American bias, including material distributed at a workshop on the Sept. 11 attacks by the Middle East Studies Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and similar material at a Central Connecticut State University teacher training workshop.
Robert O. Freedman, a professor at Baltimore Hebrew University, has been in the middle of the fight since the mid-1980s, when he worked with other academics to create the Association for Israel Studies as an antidote to what they saw as an anti-Israel bias in the Middle East Studies Association.
Freedman said that bias still exists but expressed concerns about the current campaign.
"If you're a professor, your gut reaction is you don't want government involvement, because this smacks of an intrusion into academic freedom," he said.
While conceding that Mideast studies are often weighted in favor of the Palestinians and the Arabs, he said the current fight is "heavily ideological. It's an effort to have the campus be just another front in the Arab-Israel conflict."
Legislation authorizing the independent oversight panel passed the House by unanimous consent as part of the Higher Education Act last year; the Senate is expected to take it up in March. n