FOUR YEARS ago, Arab American leaders met with a prominent Democratic senator who had sponsored and fought to pass legislation that called on the United States to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and was rethinking his views. During the conversation, the senator made a number of observations, some of which were quite revealing. In closing, for example, he observed, almost apologetically, that during the time he had spent in Israel, he had noted that there was a more vigorous debate over critical Middle East peace questions in the Israeli Knesset than there was in the US Congress.
This is, of course, a worrisome reality. There is so little debate in the Congress over issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. A handful of members in both Houses of Congress press damaging, sometimes bizarre, but always one-sided legislation forward and only a small number of brave members will risk being heard in opposition. Likewise, hearings called on matters relating to the Middle East will usually feature a very "stacked deck" of witnesses, thereby limiting the diversity of views that are heard.
Given the Congress' lack of real debate and lack of tolerance for a diversity of views on the Middle East, it is of interest to note a particular piece of legislation that the Senate is considering in this session. Passed overwhelmingly in the House, the bill is called the "International Studies Higher Education Act" (or House Resolution 3077).
HR 3077 requires universities receiving US government grants to promote international studies that "reflect diverse perspectives and represent a full range of views". The act further establishes a board to monitor these academic programmes and report on whether or not they are complying with this "diversity of views" mandate.
While all of this might sound harmless — since "diversity of views" is a good thing — the bill's intent is far from innocent. The object of its attention is neither "diversity" nor is it "international studies" in general. As the American Jewish Committee, a strong supporter of the legislation, has written in a briefing paper it prepared on the bill, "today, almost all scholars at Middle East centres [are] hostile to American foreign policy and to Israel, and distortedly pro-Arab".
The self-proclaimed major promoters of HR 3077 are none other than Martin Kramer, an associate at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Centre and Daniel Pipes, the controversial anti-Muslim activist. Kramer's book `Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America' was an indictment of academics as too pro-Arab and left-wing. It was Pipes' obsession with all things "pro-Arab and pro-Islam" that led him to launch his "Campus Watch" website. Pipes has encouraged pro-Israel students to report on "pro-Arab" professors, making "Campus Watch" a type of "black list".
In a sense, then, HR 3077 can be seen as an effort by Pipes and Kramer to institutionalise their efforts to intimidate and silence professors and Middle East programmes that espouse divergent views on Middle East history and politics. Kramer has boasted of this. He has been quoted as saying: "Academic colleagues get used to it. You are being watched. Those obscure articles in campus newspapers are now available on the Internet and they will be harvested. Your syllabi, which you have posted, will be scrutinised. Your websites will be visited late at night."
Pipes has claimed that what he termed the muted response to the Iraq war on college campuses was probably due to the intimidation created by his "Campus Watch" effort.
HR 3077, and efforts promoted by Kramer and Pipes, have been denounced by the country's leading Middle East studies programmes and by liberal and conservative educators alike. They warn of the dangers to academic freedom posed by creating a governmental "watch-dog" entity. They argue that the legislation's intent is not to promote diversity, but to intimidate academics into conformity. One termed these efforts a "witch-hunt", while another denounced "right wing thought police... sending spies into classrooms to report on what teachers are saying in class".
Now while supporters of HR 3077 single out a few professors or programmes to make their case that academia is too one-sided and pro-Arab, the reality is that there are too few programmes and course offerings on the Arab world at US universities. And because of "political correctness", that requires an artificial balance, all too often smaller schools or programmes will seek to off-set their one offering in "Arab studies" (covering 22 countries and 300,000,000 Arabs) with an offering in Judaica or modern Israel studies. And on most major campuses, very active Arab and Jewish student groups often sponsor competing programmes, which, while sometimes contentious, guarantee that "both sides" are heard in campus debates.
The fact is that this effort is not about creating balance or diversity in the marketplace of ideas. It is about silencing whatever diversity currently exists. What Kramer, Pipes and the sponsors of the HR 3077 seek to mandate in academia is the same lack of diversity of views that is in evidence in congressional hearings and debates on critical Middle East issues — the lack of diversity that my senator friend observed and lamented four years ago.