Federally-Funded Middle East Studies Centers Need Scrutiny

Winfield Myers

After decades of freewheeling abuse by politicized federally-funded university Middle East Studies centers, the Department of Education (DoE) in 2019 abandoned its hands-off policies and launched an in-depth investigation of the Duke/UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ (CMES) misuse of Title VI funds. Despite the hysterical backlash from the higher education lobby and its media allies, DoE’s overdue investigation threatens not academic freedom, but professorial privilege. Long accustomed to operating with no effective oversight, a famously thin-skinned profession has been thrown into panic by DoE’s insistence that CMES stop squandering public resources.

That’s because, from graduate students in Middle East Studies (MES) to university presidents, academics know that should DoE administrators stick to their principles and follow the evidence, their investigations will expand to most of the other fourteen Title VI National Resource Centers (NRC) and thirteen Foreign Language and Area Studies Centers (FLAS) nationwide. (Total DoE outlays to the NRC and FLAS centers for FY 2018, estimated also for FY 2019-21, is $7,452,916.) What they would discover—as the sampling below of Campus Watch (CW) research on biased MES centers illustrates—could lead Congress to terminate the program.

Created as a program of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and later incorporated into the Higher Education Act of 1965, Title VI was founded to produce specialists in fields critical to national security by stipulating the expansion of language and area studies of key world regions. Yet the biased scholarship that characterizes contemporary MES not only fails to secure this original mission, but too often actively undermines the scholarly needs of the U.S. and its allies.

The violations explained in DoE’s letter to CMES are a case in point. Because they reflect those found in other federally-funded centers, they exemplify how taxpayer dollars are misused to support politicized studies that, according to DoE, have “little or no relevance to Title VI.” Among other infractions, the letter notes “a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding of the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.” Given these and additional shortcomings, DoE accuses CMES of failing to support Title VI’s core mission of advancing America’s national security interests. Furthermore, DoE said CMES “[o]ffers very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities.” The same can be said for most Title VI centers.

Notably, the research below exposes faculty at Title VI-supported centers who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which singles out Israel for opprobrium. By law, Title VI funds are specifically authorized to “promote access to research and training overseas, including through linkages to overseas institutions.” An academic boycott of any country, including Israel, violates this federal regulation. This well-known and widely accepted bias adds to administrators’ worries when the feds come calling.

And come calling they should. For decades, MES centers took their federal largesse for granted, since there were seldom negative consequences for producing biased curricula (and, by extension, biased graduates). DoE’s investigation of CMES changes that—or should. Universities are now on notice that their habit of using taxpayer dollars to support pet projects unconnected to, or even in violation of, federal regulations is endangered. Should DoE fail to extend its investigations to other Title VI MES centers, its inaction will be interpreted by universities, the higher education lobby, and the media as a capitulation to the ongoing intimidation campaign against DoE Secretary Betsy DeVos and her staff.

It would also be a dereliction of DoE’s duty to exercise oversight of grantees’ use of federal funds and to ensure the goals of Title VI are met. Taken collectively and individually, most Title VI MES centers not only fail to fulfill their statutory mission of strengthening national security; they positively thwart it. Taxpayers should not be forced to underwrite such intellectually dishonest programs. Each center listed below should be thoroughly investigated and the results of each investigation made public. Following that, absent top-to-bottom reform, they should be defunded.

A note on the research: these examples are drawn from only those academic units designated by their respective universities and DoE as Title VI-funded NRC or FLAS MES centers. Other university components dedicated to the study of the region, but not so designated, are not included. It omits the Duke/UNC CMES, which is already under investigation, as well as Indiana University and the University of Washington, whose MES centers, while not without problems, are less politicized than their peers. George Washington University was omitted because it is not an NRC institution.

Politicization and Bias at Selected Title VI-Funded Middle East Studies Centers

Georgetown University: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS):

  • Judith Tucker is among the most virulently anti-Israel, pro-BDS professors in America. As immediate past-president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the umbrella group for scholars in the field, she wielded significant influence over official stances toward myriad issues. MESA has over the past several decades adopted a reliably anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israel perspective on scholarship and political issues, a trend that has accelerated under Tucker.

  • At last year’s annual meeting, with Tucker as president, virulently anti-Israel Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who has no academic credentials in the discipline, delivered the keynote speech. CNN fired Hill as a commentator when, at a U.N. speech, he repeated the eliminationist call for Palestine to be free “from the river to the sea,” meaning Israel as a Jewish state should be destroyed.

  • Tucker is a signatory of a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. For that reason, it’s no surprise that MESA under her presidency was vocal in its opposition to the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, as expressed in a letter to members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the House Judiciary Committee. The Act would help the DoE and the Department of Justice effectively determine whether an investigation of an incident of anti-Semitism is statutorily warranted.

  • CCAS’s director, Osama Abi-Mershed, is signatory of a letter pledging “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions” in spite of “assurances” he, as the director of a Title VI-funded center, was legally required to give to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education.”

Columbia University: Middle East Institute (MEI)

  • Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, has a long history of making viciously anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel statements, such as the following, reproduced here in their original wording, syntax, and punctuation:

  • “Compared to the scale of death and destruction that the U.S. has unleashed on major cities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later Bashar al-Assad and his nemesis have visited upon Syria, the destruction of those two [World Trade Center] towers now appears as entirely negligible, even remembering them perhaps an insult to the memories of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings maimed and murdered and turned into hopeless refugees in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria.”

  • “What’s the difference between ISIS and ISRAEL? ISIS murderous thugs, conquered parts of Syria and declared a ‘caliphate,’ no decent human being on planet earth recognized their armed robbery or their ‘caliphate’—their ISRAELI counterparts meanwhile conquered parts of Syria and declared it part of their Zionist settler colony—no decent human being on planet earth recognizes their armed robbery . . . ISIS does not have a platoon of clean shaven and well coiffured [sic] columnists at the New York Times propagating the cause of the terrorist outfit as the Zionists columnists do on a regular basis.”

  • “Every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name of ‘Israel’ will pop up as a key actor in the atrocities.”

  • Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, is a former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) spokesman who expressed fear that pro-Israel figures would “infest the Trump transition team, these people are going to infest our government as of January 20th. And they are hand in glove with a similar group of people in the Israeli government and in Israeli political life who think that whatever they think can be imposed on reality.”

  • Joseph Massad, Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, has a long record of making pro-terrorist and anti-Semitic statements. On November 8, 2019, speaking of the Oslo Accords, he said “The only thing standing in its way is the ongoing Palestinian resistance to Israel, settler colonialism and racism that continues inside Israel and Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza; the ongoing Marches of Return in Gaza; and the armed resistance of the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades to Israeli invasions in Gaza.” The al-Qassam Brigades are the military arm of Hamas, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization.

UCLA: Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES)

  • After years of relentless criticism from Campus Watch and allied organizations, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) at UCLA lost its Title VI funding in 2014, but regained it during the next four-year funding cycle, which began in FY 2018. It is among the most politicized Title VI-funded MES centers, as these points illustrate:

  • Three past directors or co-directors of CNES – Susan Slyomovics, Gabriel Piterberg, and Sondra Hale—support the anti-Israel BDS campaign. CNES defended their support for BDS by arguing that such a view “is not out of the mainstream within the scholarly community.”

  • An AMCHA Initiative report concluded the twenty-eight Israel-related events hosted by CNES over the years studied were not only “overwhelmingly biased against Israel” but were also “anti-Semitic in many of their aspects” according to the State Department definition of anti-Semitism.

  • In her book, How to Accept German Reparations (2014), Slyomovics writes: “Even the vision of a one-state solution with equality between Palestinians and Jews is an acknowledgment at some level of the triumph of Jewish Israeli settler colonialism. Along these lines, the question is open as to whether reparations from the settler minority to the native majority would diminish or reinforce the power of settler colonialism.”

University of Texas, Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)

  • A Campus Watch report on UT’s CMES concluded “Whether designing anti-Israel curricula for secondary education, accepting funds from Islamist organizations, teaching from radical sources, or producing scholarship that advances an anti-American, anti-Western agenda, professors in CMES have clearly been hired and promoted with an eye to their ideological purity.”

  • Kamran Scott Aghaie, an associate professor, was involved with the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI). As one of a few scholars chosen for that ill-fated effort to develop a high school curriculum covering the modern Middle East, Aghaie bears partial responsibility for the biased results: TCI course materials were temporarily pulled from classrooms in 2004 for displaying blatantly anti-Semitic content. High school teachers were instructed to administer “exercises” dividing their students into “advantaged” Jews and “disadvantaged” Palestinian Arabs. Teachers, meanwhile, were expected to play the role of interfering world powers who “intentionally and unfairly side against Arabs to suggest the existence of favoritism to Jews.”

  • Assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies Samy Ayoub was the recipient of a grant from the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), an Islamist think tank that seeks the “Islamization of knowledge” by replacing the use of reason and the natural law in scientific and other inquiries with Islamic traditions of scholarship. IIIT is identified in Muslim Brotherhood documents as one of “our organizations and the organizations of our friends,” and its offices were raided by an anti-terrorism task force in 2003.

  • Associate professor Mohammad Mohammad uses the medium of film to buttress his biased written course materials. Paradise Now is the fictional story of two Palestinian suicide bombers who, preferring “death to inferiority,” strap bombs to themselves and blow up an Israeli civilian bus. “[E]ven if there is no explicit vindication of attacks against Israelis, what else is one to make of a film that treats suicide bombers as sympathetic victims, with no attention paid to their actual victims?” asks The Jerusalem Post.

University of Michigan: Center of Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS)

  • Michigan’s Title VI-funded CMENAS organized, funded, and held a pro-BDS event just two days after the 2018 massacre of ten people at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. Director Salem Ali defended the event, claiming “BDS is the most important global issue for thousands of students on the U-M campus. This nonviolent movement is part of who they are. BDS is not against any group, but against a racist structure that oppresses millions of people daily.”

  • Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, has asserted that “Israeli complaints that Gaza is controlled by the party-militia, Hamas, freely elected in 2006, and that Hamas fires (mostly small, home-made and ineffectual) rockets into Israel, are irrelevant to the requirement that civilian noncombatants in Gaza be provided with basic staples by the occupying authority.”

  • In the peer-reviewed journal the Middle East Quarterly, Cole’s new biography of Muhammad was criticized for its ahistorical approach to its subject: “Mainstream Islamic historiography flatly contradicts Cole’s revisionism,” wrote the reviewer, who concluded, “To validate his thesis, which is the antithesis of what Muslims believe about their prophet, he either ignores or manipulates the entirety of Islamic historiography and Qur’anic exegesis.”

University of Pennsylvania: Middle East Center (MEC)

  • Penn’s Middle East Center (MEC) co-sponsored an event with the Israeli group, Breaking the Silence, which promotes charges of “war crimes” against Israel made by “anonymous and unverifiable hearsay ‘testimonies.’”

  • Ian Lustick, Bess W. Heyman Chair of Political Science, is a proponent of a one-state solution, which if implemented would destroy Israel as a Jewish state. He stated this explicitly in a 2013 New York Times op-ed titled “Two-State Illusion,” which ignored Palestinian corruption and their refusal to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as obstacles to peace. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and member of the editorial board at the Middle East Quarterly, characterized Lustick’s argument as “one-statism (i.e. destruction of Israel) masquerading as realism.”

New York University: Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies (HKC)

  • In 2014, then-director Helga Tawil-Souri was one of four directors of Title VI-funded MES centers to sign a pledge “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.”

  • In 2004, as director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center, Zachary Lockman signed a letter calling for an academic boycott of Israel.

  • In 2013, Ali Mirsepassi, Albert Gallatin Research Excellence Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and the current director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center, joined other Iranian American academics and the Iranian regime in condemning Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf for participating in the Jerusalem film festival.

University of California, Berkeley: Center of Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)

  • Earlier this year, a pro-Israel campus group, Tikvah, complained that CMES was biased against Israel. In a statement published online in March, Tikvah noted that the center had hosted more than twenty-four Israel-related events since 2016 and that each one “has maliciously attempted to portray the democracy of Israel in a negative light.”

  • A 2018 Middle East Quarterly review of A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America by Keith Feldman, associate professor of comparative ethnic studies and a senior research scholar at CMES, noted that Feldman called Zionism a “racist settler colonialism” and praised the notorious United World Conference against Racism, held in Durbin, South Africa in September 2001 and the efforts there to reinstate the notorious “Zionism Is Racism” resolution of the United Nations.

  • Emily Gottreich, associate adjunct professor of history and global studies and chair of CMES, signed a 2009 letter urging University of California not to restart its year abroad program in Israel. Such a move violates Title VI requirements to maintain linkages to universities in the Middle East.

Yale University: Macmillan Center–Council on Middle East Studies (CMES)

  • Howard Winant, keynote speaker at the 2017 “Racism, Antisemitism, and the Radical Right Conference,” co-sponsored by CMES, stated “Israel has always been Islamophobic, that is to say racist . . . maybe more of an anti-Shia rather than anti-Sunni Islamophobia, but that’s a new thing . . . internally Israel is extremely racist. It’s racist not only towards Arabs, it’s racist towards Mizrahis, it’s racist towards . . . Jews from Ethiopia, it’s racist towards its own darker people.”

  • In 2014, Dmitri Gutas, before his retirement as professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, signed a letter calling for an academic boycott of Israel.

  • In 2014, Zareena Grewal of CMES signed the same letter calling for the academic boycott of Israel.

University of Arizona: Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)

  • At the CMES website, a page of resources for K–14 educators has three links to Qatari websites. Two are for resources provided by Qatar Foundation International (QFI) and one is to Al Masdar, described as “QFI’s flagship curriculum project.” Former MEF researcher Oren Litwin reported last year that QFI is “a key instrument of Qatari state policy,” run by members of the ruling, royal family.

  • Writing in the viciously anti-Israel publication Mondoweiss, assistant professor Maha Nassar defended the BDS-supporting campus group Students for Justice in Palestine. Nassar asserted “Conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a well-worn tactic of pro-Israel advocacy groups.”

  • In 2005, associate professor Leila Hudson defended British Holocaust denier David Irving despite admitting that she hadn’t read his work first-hand. Archeologist and historian of the Near East Alex Joffe observed, “Leila Hudson’s studied cluelessness about David Irving–and resulting defense–speaks volumes about her own judgment and historical acumen.”

University of Chicago: Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)

  • John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt charged in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2006) that American policy toward the Middle East is controlled by a ruthless lobby of pro-Israel Zionists and, by implication, Jews, who place Israel’s wellbeing ahead of America’s. Historian Michael Oren (later to be Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S.) wrote of it: “Exposés of Jewish conspiracies have long been the bailiwick of white supremacists and Islamic radicals.” Oren added, “Indeed, the former Klan leader David Duke has lauded this document for ‘validat[ing] every major point’ he had ever made, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has also praised it.”

  • In 2014, political scientist Robert Pape exemplified willful blindness toward the religious motives of Islamist atrocities when he asserted that ISIL’s (or ISIS’s) tactic of beheading its victims was not motivated by religion. “Precious little evidence exists of religious motives guiding the strategic logic of ISIL’s violence,” he argued.

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