The debate on how to teach Israel on college campuses reached a fever pitch last week, with charges of hypocrisy and censorship flying.
AMCHA, a California-based organization that “monitors, investigates and educates about college anti-Semitism,” according to director and co-founder Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, singled out professors across the country, including 13 from Georgetown University, whose classes AMCHA believes are “widely anti-Semitic.” Those professors signed a petition during the recent conflict in Gaza this summer calling for an academic boycott of Israel.
In response, 40 Jewish studies professors, including one from the University of Maryland, signed a petition calling AMCHA’s actions “deplorable,” saying the group’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom.”
The letter goes on to state, “We find it regrettable that AMCHA, so intent on combatting the boycott of Israel, has launched a boycott initiative of its own.” It also states that “AMCHA’s tactics are designed to stifle debate on issues debated in Israel and around the world.”
Marsha Rozenblit, who teaches modern Jewish history at the University of Maryland, signed that petition, because she “is opposed to any attempt to do surveillance on courses” or criticize professors’ personal views. “That is against academic freedom,” she said, adding that faculty should be “immune” to political pressure.
David Myers, a UCLA professor who also signed the petition, said AMCHA’s actions could have “a chilling effect” on campus, adding, that the Jewish professors don’t support an academic boycott of Israel but equally do not support a boycott of classes or teachers in Middle Eastern studies.
Rossman-Benjamin said boycotting is not the point. AMCHA, which in Hebrew means “your people,” just wants students, parents and alumni to know what is being taught. She called the petition from the Jewish professors “very hypocritical, because on the one hand they are saying the faculty members may [say what they choose] but we don’t have freedom of speech.”
When asked if she would like to see professors who favor an academic boycott of Israel fired, she replied, “Oh no,” adding, “We want colleges to accept that there is a problem, that there is a hostile environment for Jewish students.”
In some classrooms, Jewish students “feel targeted. The students fear retaliation for speaking out,” Rossman-Benjamin. “They feel they can’t speak up. They can’t write their essays the way they want to.”
At Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, half the faculty signed the boycott, Rossman-Benjamin said. Students who take some of these courses go into Foreign Service, work at the State Department or advise leaders of the United States, but the education they are receiving is “really biased,” she said.
Yvonne Haddad, who teaches classes on Arab intellectualism, the role of women in the Arab world and Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown, “signed the petition as a personal choice. It has nothing to do with my teaching,” she wrote in an email to Washington Jewish Week.
“I signed it in solidarity with the few Israeli professors and the growing number of American Jewish professors who saw the wanton assault on Gaza and its captive people as a political choice by the Israeli administration, one that was not necessitated for security measures,” she wrote.
She said her students “absolutely” feel free to express their views. “The aim is to produce leaders who can learn to weigh evidence and be able to support their ideas with cogent arguments and facts. I do not indoctrinate. I consider the teaching of one position as un-American,” she wrote, adding, that her classes include writings from “Zionists Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis.”
Osama Abi-Mershed, an associate professor of history at Georgetown, said that he, too, makes “a very clear demarcation” between his actions inside and outside the classroom.
Also at issue is the federal Higher Education Act Title VI funding, which seeks to help colleges and universities enhance instruction in foreign language and international studies. UCLA and Georgetown are among the recipients of Title VI money, and thereby agree to present a diversity of views, according to the federal rules.
Rossman-Benjamin said that an AMCHA researcher viewed three years of podcasts of programming at UCLA that were part of Title VI. According to that research, 93 percent of the programs were biased against Israel. During a period when the Arab Spring uprisings and Iran’s attempts to obtain nuclear weapons were big news, one program concerned Iran and 30 were about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rossman-Benjamin said.
“How can you really understand the Middle East when all you do is focus only on Israel?” she asked. “We are not calling for the federal government to stop funding. We are actually calling on them to be more circumspect.”
Abi-Mershed said that Title VI is not for classroom teaching and is used at Georgetown for outreach to kindergarten-through-12th-grade teachers and for the teaching of the languages of Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi and Turkish.
In December 2013, Georgetown President John DeGioia, issued a statement against a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, saying it “undermines the academic freedom that is essential to the mission of the Academy,” adding, “As an academic institution, it is Georgetown’s responsibility to deepen engagement and foster dialogue between scholars and societies to enhance the entire global academic community.”