While a war over federal restrictions on funding for international studies is being waged in Congress, Brandeis and the Crown Center are staying out of the name-calling and attempting to change the field's prevailing approach to researching and teaching, all while trying to establish the center as a leader in its field.
Crown Center Director Shai Feldman is aiming to change the course of Middle East studies by making the newly founded research center as objective as possible, hoping to avoid the accusations of bias that plague other such institutions, whose scholarship University President Jehuda Reinharz has called "third rate."
In the inaugural conference held last April, scholars from U.S. universities and policy centers and leaders from Egypt, Palestine and Israel spoke about the most pressing issues facing the Middle East today, including the futures of Iraq, Iran and Syria, the Israeli disengagement plan and the next steps in Palestinian and Israeli relations.
They also discussed the nature of the controversies that have deeply politicized Middle East scholarship in the United States.
"The debate about the Middle East [in the United States] has become more contentious than the debate in the Middle East itself," Feldman said at the conference.
Those debates have served as an impetus for members of Congress to attempt to influence the courses of study, research and teaching at area and foreign language-study centers with their plans to reintroduce the International Studies in Higher Education Act (HR 509) this fall.
Initiated first in June of 2003, the act, then HR 3077, calls on the federal government to better monitor the 118 federally funded international education and foreign language study centers, including 17 Middle East centers.
Congress funds these centers through Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which started aiding universities to educate students and the public about other countries.
Brandeis has not pursued Title VI funding, at least not recently, according to Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe.
Paul O'Keefe, the director of sponsored programs who aids professors in applying for research grants, said that Brandeis faculty generally receive a different type of federal aid, which allows professors greater freedom in their research. "Faculty has a fair amount of flexibility in chasing the research program," O'Keefe said.
Faculty avoid applying for cooperative agreement grants, which, like Title VI funding, include "a lot of interaction between the sponsor and the grantee," O'Keefe said.
Columbia University receives Title VI funding for seven of its eight area-study centers, including its Middle East center. But Brandeis has strayed away from such monitored grants.
"Brandeis has a magnificent record of standing up for completely open inquiry and critical inquiry," said Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), who is known for his left-leaning views that have sparked criticism from conservative scholars in the past. "I'd hate to see it move away from that record. "Israel ought to be able to be scrutinized as closely as Bosnia, Iraq, Russia, or anywhere else, with no limits on praise for it and no limits on criticisms of it."
The Middle East Institute at Columbia, founded in 1954, has been placed at the forefront of the Title VI debate because of accusations in recent years that it is home to anti-American and anti-Israeli views.
Rashid Khalidi, the Director of the Institute, views the act as a violation of democracy and intellectual freedom. Khalidi told the Forward, an American Jewish publication, in March 2004 that the advisory committee will be made up of "people who want to engage in a witch hunt."
The bill reauthorizes funding for area-studies and foreign language centers and calls for the creation of an International Education Advisory board to advise the Secretary of Education and Congress on Title VI grants. The committee would review the educational content of centers' activities, making sure they "reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on world regions, foreign language and international affairs."
The debate, which began in the House in June 2003, has focused on monitoring Middle East studies programs, which according to the bill's supporters, generally preach a one-sided viewpoint to students and the public.
Feldman, who directs the Middle East center here, said he avoids making judgments on other centers.
"I'm not going to label other centers as anti-American or anti-Israel," he said. "[I] just focus on what I think we should be doing," he said. That is, creating "a meeting place where Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs can meet, debate and explore together and share their different perspectives."
He wants the Crown Center to "lead by example" in order to influence other, older centers. "I'm determined for the Crown Center to be able to prove that it's possible to have a center for Middle East studies, [that] if not objective, is at least balanced."
Yair Fuxman, a graduate student in the NEJS department, agrees with the aim of the act, but has found no problems at Brandeis with Middle East studies professors pushing their beliefs on students.
"Middle East studies has become an incredibly politicized field dominated by professors that are hostile to Israel and to the American foreign policy," he said. "This is not the case at Brandeis, which is a major reason why I came to study here. But at major centers of Middle East studies like Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown, it is very much a problem."
Strong lobbying organizations advocating for the bill, including the American Jewish Committee, view it as a much needed reform to balance the anti-Israel propaganda they say is prevalent at most universities.
The AJC and Brandeis have had a long-standing relationship, co-sponsoring events, such as the Summer Institute for Israel Studies held at Brandeis this summer, and partnering in "The Meaning of the American Jewish Experience," a celebration of 350 years of American Jewry, held at Brandeis in 2004.
But the Crown Center has no ties to such organizations, Feldman said.
And, he said, "It's possible to have a dispassionate discourse even in a university that's broadly perceived as a Jewish university."
In the end, proving that may be Feldman's greatest challenge.