The G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA is one of the oldest and largest such centers in the United States. Its mission is to further understanding of the region through programming, outreach, promoting research and sponsoring instruction in the languages of the region.
Recently, however, CNES, its directors, affiliated faculty and those who have participated in its programming have been the target of criticism. They have been accused of being obsessively focused on Israel-Palestine, singling Israel out for opprobrium, anti-Semitism and lending support to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
To prove their case, critics of CNES cite bogus statistical evidence, take snippets of talks given by invited speakers and present them out of context and use McCarthyite smears on respected scholars that verge on the libelous.
Let’s set the record straight:
Obsessively focusing on Israel-Palestine: Between 2010 and 2014, the timeframe used by the U.S. Department of Education in its assessment of National Resource Centers, CNES sponsored or co-sponsored 333 events. Events focusing on Israel-Palestine made up 11.7 percent of total events, trailing those dealing with Iran, the Arab world and history and historiography. There has been no obsessive focus on Israel-Palestine. The details about our programming in this period are available on the CNES website.
Singling Israel out for opprobrium: Much of the programming on the Arab world, Turkey and Iran has been extremely critical of the governments there, particularly in the wake of the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, the Gezi Park protests in Turkey and the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. Speakers have pulled no punches when describing the abysmal state of governance in the region.
CNES saw no reason to “balance” the criticism of those governments by bringing in speakers who would defend them. Speakers invited by CNES are accomplished scholars presenting original work. Likewise, CNES saw no reason to bring in speakers who would defend the policies of the Israeli government when scholars have criticized it.
Anti-Semitism: CNES often co-sponsors programs with other units of the university. It can be assumed that those units would not cooperate with the center on programming with which they disagree.
During the 2010-2014 period, 18 of 39 events sponsored by CNES concerning Israel-Palestine received co-sponsorship from other university programs, meaning 46 percent were co-sponsored. Among the most common co-sponsors of these events concerning Israel-Palestine were the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, the UCLA International Institute, the Maurice Amado Program in Sephardic Studies and the UCLA Department of History.
Support for BDS: Critics of CNES have noted that the past three directors of CNES have signed petitions and otherwise voiced support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
It should be noted that such support, while controversial, is not out of the mainstream within the scholarly community: Many anthropologists – two of the three most recent directors of CNES are anthropologists – recently signed a boycott petition.
Critics claim that the directors’ stance is the stance of CNES and that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic because it delegitimizes Israel. Directors do not set CNES policy single-handedly as critics seem to believe nor can signatures offered in their personal capacity be attributed to the center.
In fact, in governing CNES the director must consult with a faculty advisory committee – on which they do not serve – which is charged by the interim vice provost for international studies to “meet periodically to advise on strategic goals for the Center and to assist in the development of instructional programs about Near Eastern Studies on the UCLA campus,” according to a letter sent by the vice provost inviting members of the faculty to serve as part of the faculty advisory committee of the CNES.
And while critics of BDS claim it is anti-Semitic, the official U.S. Department of State list of anti-Semitic activities does not mention support for the BDS movement as an act of anti-Semitism.
CNES has not taken a position on BDS, nor will it. Directors, as well as affiliated faculty, are free to express their political opinions as they wish.
The criticism aimed at CNES is a politically motivated hatchet job.
This smear campaign is an attempt to legitimate policies of a foreign government whose actions our own government has disavowed.
UCLA should feel proud of the accomplishments of CNES, its diverse and open programming, its attention to the needs of the L.A. community and its outreach program, which brings elementary and secondary school teachers together with world-class scholars to the benefit of schoolchildren throughout the greater L.A. area.
Gelvin is a history professor and a member of the Faculty Advisory Committee of CNES.