Programmers at CNES saw no reason to counter Israel criticism

, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith , 1 Comment

After the holidays, when Congress prepares to reauthorize Title VI of the Higher Education Act, legislators should take a cold, hard look at the case of UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES), a recipient of millions of dollars of federal funding under Title VI, and ask if such programs truly serve our national security interests.  Or, are they rather serving the selfish interests of politically motivated faculty and enabling them to promote their anti-Israel activism at the taxpayer’s expense?

ucla cnes

UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies has a long history of presenting biased, unambiguously anti-Israel positions that go far beyond criticism of specific government policies into characterizations of Israel as inherently evil and unjustified in its existence.  Such programming is in flagrant violation of Congress’s intent.

In 2008, Congress amended the language of Title VI in direct response to the notorious political bias, suppression of dissenting viewpoints and blatant antisemitism of many Title VI-funded Middle East studies programs like CNES. Congress understood that rampant anti-Israel and anti-America bias in these programs was thwarting the whole purpose of Title VI funding, namely, to provide a solid knowledge base and well-trained scholars to serve our national security interests.  Therefore, since 2008 all Title VI-funded programs have been required to demonstrate that their funded activities provide “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views.”

Yet, in January 2009, CNES sponsored a symposium entitled “Gaza and Human Rights,” which featured three University of California professors – Gabriel Piterberg (UCLA, History), Lisa Hajjar (UC Santa Barbara, Sociology) and Saree Makdisi (UCLA, English) – and former UC visiting professor Richard Falk (UCSB, Global and International Studies).  Well-known for their outspoken anti-Israel activism, all four academics delivered presentations at the symposium that some audience members characterized as “an academic lynching” and “one-sided witch hunt” of Israel. Piterberg accused Israel of “wanton violence and carnage”; Hajjar argued that nations which act like Israel are “enemies of all mankind”; Falk said Israel’s incursion into Gaza was of a “savagely criminal nature”; and Makdisi argued that the only just solution to the conflict would be the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

Despite the unambiguously anti-Israel positions taken by all four of the panelists at the event, then CNES director Susan Slyomovics, who had introduced the symposium by claiming that its purpose was to present the “truth” about human rights abuses in Gaza, responded to queries from audience members who were outraged by the one-sidedness of the panel, saying that she had no intention of presenting future CNES events with perspectives less biased against Israel.

Slyomovics’s statement was an arrogant admission that she knowingly planned to violate the “diverse perspectives” requirement of the federal statute which provided the majority of the Center’s funding. Nevertheless, hardly a month after the egregiously anti-Israel event, Slyomovics put forward a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education Title VI funding for approximately $2 million for 2010 – 2014.  In accordance with the requirement that applicants demonstrate that the activities funded by the grant “reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” the CNES proposal hypocritically contained the following language:

“CNES recognizes that many points of view exist on any given topic when bringing together varied audiences to analyze and discuss the past, present, and future of the Middle East and North Africa. A high value is placed in hearing and understanding multiple points of view and examining questions fundamental to diverse perspectives on controversial issues…Diverse perspectives facilitate thinking and professional competency on behalf of future education professionals and global citizens.”

While this statement rings hollow in light of Slyomovic’s earlier admission that she had no intention of presenting unbiased programming about Israel, it approaches fraudulence in light of the egregious lack of “diverse perspectives” in  CNES’s Israel-related programming in the subsequent years for which funding was requested.  Indeed, in a comprehensive study tracking anti-Israel bias and antisemitic discourse in Israel-related public events sponsored by CNES 2010 – 2013, which was undertaken by our organization, AMCHA Initiative, we found that 93% of the Israel-related events recorded by the Center had a clear anti-Israel bias, and 75% were so biased as to be considered antisemitic according to the U.S. State Department’s definition of antisemitism.

The extreme anti-Israel bias of CNES’s programming is not surprising considering who was directing the program.  Despite the Center’s federally mandated mission to maintain linkages with institutes of higher education in the Middle East, including Israel, Slyomovics,and her successors, Gabriel Piterberg and Sondra Hale all signed petitions endorsing the boycott of Israeli universities and scholars, and Hale is even a founder of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  And despite directing a program intended to encourage study abroad to countries in the Middle East, including Israel, all three directors publicly opposed University of California’s Israel Abroad Program by signing a petition which Hale herself had written and circulated.

What is startling is the brazen and public refusal by the CNES directors to abide by the requirement of the Title VI statute.  In response to critics, including AMCHA Initiative, an official CNES statement recently released said that “those responsible for programming at CNES saw no reason to ‘balance’ the criticism (of Israel)…no reason to bring in speakers who would defend it.”  In other words, Slyomovics, Hale and Piterberg did not just fail to live up to the “diverse perspectives” requirement of the federal grant which CNES asked for and received, but they never intended to honor it.

While it is not unexpected that a program directed by three professors well-known for their anti-Israel animus would host events that lack “diverse perspectives” and are biased against the Jewish state, it is astonishing that UCLA administrators would choose them as directors of CNES, and then turn a blind eye to their flagrant and potentially fraudulent abuse of federal funds.

Rossman-Benjamin is a lecturer at University of California Santa Cruz and the co-founder of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses across the United States.

Beckwith is an emeritus professor at the University of California Los Angeles and the co-founder of AMCHA Initiative.