Recently, UCLA’s federally subsidized Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) has come under fire by a pro-Israel watchdog that conducted a review of the Center’s programs from 2010-2013 and concluded that many featured “anti-Semitic discourse and anti-Israel bias.”
Among the findings of the report by the AMCHA Initiative:
CNES Israel-related events had an overwhelmingly anti-Israel bias: Of the 28 Israel-related events, 93% were anti-Israel;
CNES favors speakers who engaged in anti-Semitic activity prior to speaking at CNES: Of the 31 speakers at the CNES Israel-related events, 84% have engaged in Anti-Semitic activity, including the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, denying Jews the right to self-determination, comparing Israelis to Nazis and condoning terrorism;
Each CNES director had engaged in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity: All three CNES directors from 2010-2013 publicly opposed the UC Israel Abroad Program, despite touting the public abroad program as part of the center’s fulfillment of the Title VI funding requirement. In addition, each of the directors endorsed boycotts of Israel, and one is a founder of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel.
Professor James Gelvin, a historian studying the Middle East, wrote a spirited defense of CNES on behalf of the Faculty Advisory Committee, which, oddly enough, appeared in an Arabic publication. Gelvin focused his rebuttal on AMCHA’s statistics regarding the number of programs regarding Israel; however, he presents no evidence to dispute the fundamental charge of anti-Israel bias. His answer to the failure to bring speakers who might balance some of the panels critical of Israel is to say that CNES also does not feel the need to “balance” the criticism of Arab states. He further justifies the faculty invited by CNES by asserting that they are “accomplished scholars presenting original work.” If you look at much of what the invited guests have said about Israel, it is highly questionable whether they deserve to be called accomplished and certainly are not presenting original critiques of Israel.
Gelvin becomes positively Orwellian when he tries to explain how a center purportedly devoted to academic freedom can tolerate directors who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, including the current director who, in 2014, signed a letter calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and pledging not to collaborate with Israeli institutions, attend their conferences or publish in Israeli journals. Gelvin’s response is that the BDS movement, which calls for the destruction of Israel, “is not out of the mainstream within the scholarly community” because a few hundred faculty Israel deniers support singling Israel out for special treatment.
One can’t help but wonder how “accomplished” a professor can be if they can’t recognize they are part of a concerted campaign to destroy the only democracy in the Middle East while having no qualms about the activities of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the rest of the serial human rights abusers. Then again, Gelvin claims the BDS movement isn’t anti-Semitic because it is not on a State Department list of anti-Semitic activities. Rather than look to the State Department with its own dark history of anti-Semitism, he might look at the statement signed by more than 60 international Jewish organizations representing the spectrum of Jewish opinion that denounced the BDS movement as “counterproductive to the goal of peace, antithetical to freedom of speech, and part of a greater effort to undermine the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their homeland, Israel.” The cosigners acknowledged that “individuals and groups may have legitimate criticism of Israeli policies,” but added that “criticism becomes anti-Semitism…when it demonizes Israel or its leaders, denies Israel the right to defend its citizens or seeks to denigrate Israel’s right to exist.” A similar statement was signed by 38 Nobel Prize winners.
As AMCHA reported, two former CNES directors called on the University of California to stop Education Abroad Programs in Israel. Gelvin’s excuse? They were protecting the rights of Palestinian-American students who he alleges were “either harassed or prevented entry into the country.”
Rather than take issue with professor Gelvin’s own statistics defending the programs at CNES, let’s consider just one example of a symposium that took place in 2009, before the period examined by AMCHA. This public event, “Gaza and Human Rights” featured four outspoken critics of Israel. CNES director Susan Slyomovics opened the session by telling the audience they would learn the “truth” about Gaza that had been hidden or distorted by the media. UCLA historian Gabriel Piterberg compared Zionist policy since 1900 to European colonialism that led to the extermination and enslavement of the indigenous peoples. UCSB’s Lisa Hajjar, who chairs a Law and Society Program, accused Israel of war crimes. Richard Falk, who taught international law at Princeton before being named UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian Territories, compared the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi extermination of Jews, insisted that Hamas and its missiles posed no security threat to Israel, and labeled Israeli action in Gaza as a “savagely criminal operation.” The fourth speaker, UCLA English literature professor Saree Makdisi, said that it was Israel’s “premeditated state policy” to kill Gazans and stunt the growth of their children.
The event was later referred to as an “academic lynching,” a “one-sided witch hunt of Israel,” a “Hamas recruiting rally” or, at the very least, “a degradation of academic standards.” UCLA Chancellor Block responded to the controversy by restating UCLA’s commitment to the “free exchange of ideas ... as a core value of academic freedom” and praised UCLA as one of the most invigorating intellectual campuses in the world.
The event may have violated the congressional mandate that federally supported outreach programs promote intellectual diversity and balanced debate. When asked if CNES would plan any events to present an alternative point of view, the center’s director, Susan Slyomovics, reportedly said no. Sondra Hale defended the one-sided panel and said it was necessary to criticize the “state policies that have led to this calamity.” In another example of the fox guarding the henhouse, Hale, chair of the center’s faculty advisory committee at the time, was an organizer of the academic boycott of Israel.
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