Washington — Risking a clash with civil libertarians, major Jewish communal organizations are lobbying the Senate to approve a bill that would tighten federal monitoring of government-funded Middle East studies programs at universities.
The bill, which passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly, is pitting the Jewish organizational community against professors associations and leading international studies scholars as well as against traditional allies such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
So far, the Jewish groups have gained only two allies: the U.S. India Political Action Committee, an organization that works to promote ties between Washington and New Delhi, and Empower America, a conservative group headed by Jack Kemp and William Bennett, secretaries of the departments of Housing and Urban Development and of Education, respectively, during the first Bush administration.
"There are certain issues where we have a specific expertise or interests... which are not necessarily shared by our friends in the civil rights community," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel of the Anti-Defamation League.
Even some in the Jewish organizational community are uncomfortable with the Jewish groups' strong push for a bill portrayed by critics as an exercise in McCarthyism.
"This bill is bad both on its merits and because of the way it makes us look," said a senior official with a major Jewish organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Controversy over the bill burst into the open last month at the annual assembly of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative group that brings together 123 local community relations councils and 13 national Jewish agencies, most of which support the bill. A resolution supporting the bill was proposed, but not approved, at the parley, after Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, speaking from the podium at one of the sessions, described the legislation as a "far-right-wing effort underway to allow for governmental monitoring of Middle Eastern studies at American universities."
Known officially as the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, the bill has become better known as "Title 6," after the article in the Higher Education Act empowering the government to fund selected international studies and foreign language centers at universities. The grants, which generally total no more than $500,000, are used to train experts for national security and other government service or to educate the public on international affairs.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Education increased the number of Middle East studies departments receiving "Title 6" funds from 14 to 17. In all, 118 international studies centers receive Title 6 funds.
Although the bill addresses all international studies programs receiving government funds, the Jewish groups, who initiated the bill and helped draft it, are mainly concerned with the Middle East-related programs, especially with Middle East centers on American campuses. These are academic centers that encourage scholarly work on the Middle East and often serve as a podium for academic and public debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Jewish organizations argue that, "rather than encouraging academic objectivity, these centers expect scholars to promote a positive image of Palestinians, Arabs, and the Islamic world — and to avoid topics that might reflect negatively on these constituencies," in the words of an American Jewish Committee memo submitted to the JCPA plenum. The result, the memo argues, is "a profound pro-Palestinian, pro-Arab, and reflexively anti-Israel and anti-American, anti-Western-bias in these federally funded centers."
The AJCommittee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, which have made passing the bill a major goal, base their charges of bias at Middle East centers on some independent research and anecdotal complaints, but mainly on a book published two years ago by Martin Kramer, a Middle East scholar at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. Kramer's polemic, "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America," charges that America's Middle East scholars are beholden to anti-Israeli and, to an extent, anti-American "dogmas" that taint their scholarship. The conclusion of his study, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, is that bold action should be taken to reform the "Title 6" program.
The bill proposes the establishment of an advisory board to gather information on "Title 6" programs, to ensure that activities funded by the government "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs."
The proposed panel worries many in the academic world.
Opponents of the bill say that an advisory board made up of political appointees will become partisan and therefore ideologically motivated. The advisory body will be composed of "people who want to engage in a witch hunt," said Rashid Khalidi, who directs Columbia University's Middle East Institute.
Proponents counter that the board will not dictate criteria for objectivity and balance, but merely serve as a "repository for complaints," said the ADL's Lieberman, although it will be in a position to recommend withdrawing funds from problematic grantees.
The Department of Education has a review mechanism that monitors the way in which "Title 6" funds are used. In a response to an American Jewish Congress complaint, the department recently maintained that the mechanism is appropriate. But Jewish organizations disagree. The department's reviews, they say, assure that funds are not being misused, but hardly deal with the content of these programs.
Some American Middle East scholars say that the argument that American campuses are biased against Israel is wrong.
"It's a canard, a red herring, basically a falsehood," Khalidi said.
Others say that even if there is bias, the proper way to counter it is not government supervision. "The way to fight it is to challenge from within," said Robert Freedman, a professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University.
But proponents of the bill say that academic coaxing and cajoling are ineffective.
"It is very hard to change attitudes within the Middle East centers," said Lois Waldman, co-director of the Commission on Law & Social Action at the AJCongress. "Professors there, most of them, are people who come from the area and have certain sympathies created by their own ethnicity and their own family background."