WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights rejected calls from Jewish organizations last week for federal oversight of government-funded Middle Eastern studies programs at American universities.
At a November 18 hearing devoted to the issue of antisemitism on college campuses, the commission heard from three representatives of the Jewish community who argued that many Middle Eastern programs are biased against Israel. They sought the commission’s support for legislation that would restrict Middle Eastern studies programs receiving federal funding.
The main proposal, which Jewish groups have been lobbying Congress to write into law, would be the establishment of an “advisory board” to monitor Middle Eastern studies departments and report to the Department of Education on whether these departments are balanced in their teaching of regional affairs. The advisory board would include political appointees.
Citing academic freedom, universities strongly oppose the proposal.
At last week’s hearing, members of the civil rights commission made it clear that they do not see any role for government in the classroom. Commission members were not even willing to endorse the position that a university ought to have a “balanced” curriculum in such departments.
“I am extremely nervous about the idea of administrative oversight on university campuses,” said Abigail Thernstrom, the commission’s vice chair, who moderated the hearing.
“You really don’t want university administrators walking into classrooms and deciding whether what the professors are teaching is acceptable or unacceptable,” she said. Her comments were echoed by other members of the commission.
The commission — which has the power to subpoena but not to enforce, — is charged with helping to raise public consciousness of civil rights by encouraging Americans to file complaints when violations occur and by publishing reports. Commission members are appointed by the president and by Congress.
The panelists, chosen by the commission, were Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, San Francisco; Susan Tuchman, director of the Center for Law and Justice, an arm of the Zionist Organization of America, and Sarah Stern, director of the Washington office of the American Jewish Congress.
The three painted a bleak picture of what they depicted as ubiquitous threats and attacks on Jewish students on campuses, and of anti-Israel bias in classrooms, which they said is used in many cases to mask antisemitism.
Commissioners seemed sympathetic to the Jewish officials’ depiction. Reacting to the panelists’ presentations, Thernstrom said: “I was once a Jewish student in a Middle Eastern studies program at Harvard University … I have the experience of being in a context like the one described, and my impression from those years — and watching the scene until now — is that all Middle Eastern studies programs are very much alike. That is, they are violently anti-Israel, very pro-Palestinian, soaked in an ideology that is either borderline or explicitly antisemitic.”
However, commissioners appeared to disagree with some of the remedies that the panelists recommended. Tobin, who recently completed a four-year study on “politics and propaganda in American universities” titled “The Uncivil University,” suggested that academic freedom and free speech be “responsibly defined within the boundaries of civil discourse” enforced by university administrations. Panelists took issue.
“Have you ever seen a speech code you liked?” Thernstrom asked Tobin.
Democrat Michael Yaki, a San Francisco lawyer who is a former member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, warned that governments tend “to use a $9 million sledgehammer on a gnat.” He said that such an approach could backfire when dealing with sensitive issues such as academic freedom.
But Tobin argued that decisive measures are needed because “anti-Israelism and antisemitism on college campuses and their expression exceed what’s going on in the general public.” Furthermore, he contended that Jews are singled out and subjected to abuse on campuses more than other minority groups. He explained that while it is considered “politically incorrect” to condemn other minorities such as blacks and homosexuals on campuses, expressions of anti-Israel views are widely considered “politically correct.”
“The point is that under both the informal and formal norms of campus, other forms of racism and sexism are not expressed,” he said. Antisemitic sentiments, in the guise of criticism of Israel, are “pervasive, overwhelming and part of the political discourse of campus, whereas other forms of racism are not.”
Statements submitted to the commission by other Jewish groups suggest that the situation on campuses may not be that bleak as the three officials contended. The American Jewish Committee’s statement pointed out that “Jewish campus life is thriving,” that “campuses are welcoming to Jews” and that every self-respecting university has a Jewish studies program. The Anti-Defamation League stated that “institutional antisemitism” and discrimination against Jews are “largely a thing of the past.” The Israel on Campus Coalition, a group bringing together 28 national Jewish organizations to bolster pro-Israel advocacy in universities, described an “overwhelmingly positive environment” on campus for Jews and for supporters of Israel.
Speaking not for attribution to avoid embarrassing participants in the panel, several officials with national Jewish organizations who were not called on to testify said they felt uncomfortable with the bleak account given by the panelists. One Jewish official complained that the three panelists depicted antisemitic incidents on campus as the rule rather than the exception. Most of the 250,000 students on American campuses go through college without ever being exposed to any form of hostility, the official said.
Stern, the AJCongress representative on the panel, told the Forward that she thought the hearing was “very positive” despite the outcome. She noted that this was the first time the commission considered “the grievances of Jewish students as a protected minority.”
Stern said she was also encouraged by the commission’s discussion of grievance procedures for Jewish students. At the end of the two-hour hearing, commissioners agreed to discuss the publication of a pamphlet for students. This would detail the legal tools they have to confront cases of abuse, harassment or intimidation.