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Pro-Israel group claims bias in UCLA department

By Jeong Park

September 28, 2014 12:00 am

A Jewish advocacy group based in California is alleging that some UCLA professors and a research center operate with an anti-Israel, and possibly anti-Semitic, bias. Professors named by the group, however, say the group is conflating the criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

On Sept. 17, the AMCHA Initiative, which regularly investigates the University of California for perceived anti-Semitic behaviors, released a report claiming that the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies demonstrates an anti-Israel bias in the events it holds and the speakers it hosts.

The report claims that 93 percent of Israel-related events the center held between 2010 and 2013 had an anti-Israel bias. It also alleges that the center focuses too much on Israel in its programming, with 61 percent of events focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Following the report, nine pro-Israel groups, including Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and the Zionist Organization of America, signed a petition calling for Congress to investigate the matter.

The petition says the center is violating Title VI of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which calls for federally funded institutions to reflect diverse perspectives in their programming. The center has received about $1.5 million from the Department of Education under Title VI from 2010 to 2013, according to documents the AMCHA Initiative acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. The U.S. Department of Education could not be reached for comment for this article.

On Sept. 3, the AMCHA Initiative also released a list of professors it believes have an anti-Israel bias and claims are possibly anti-Semitic. Among the 218 professors on the list are six UCLA professors.

In response, UCLA released a statement saying it is dedicated to complying with federal laws and respecting the free and open exchange of ideas.

The university also said that speeches and events from Israeli or pro-Israel individuals are part of the university’s regular programming, pointing to centers such as the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.

Leila Beckwith, co-founder of the Initiative and a professor emeritus of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said the initiative is trying to protect Jewish and pro-Israel students from being ostracized. Beckwith said professors who signed a widespread petition in support of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel were included on the list.

To Beckwith, signing the petition may make professors anti-Israel, but it does not make them anti-Semitic. She said those who sign the petition are ostracizing Israeli faculty and universities, but there is an important distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policies.

“We don’t know if professors are showing bias in the classroom,” she said. “We are saying that it is likely that these faculty, given their own statement, will not present an objective, fair picture of Israel in their classrooms.”

But some of the professors accused of having an anti-Israel bias or conducting anti-Israel activities said they think AMCHA’s actions infringe on their rights to free speech. They said they think they are speaking realistically about the conflict and that AMCHA is trying to suppress viewpoints that differ from the initiative’s goals.

Gabriel Piterberg, director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies who is also on the initiative’s list, said he thinks the report against the center ignores the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The reality is unbalanced,” Piterberg said. “It’s the reality that there is an asymmetry of power … reflected in the (center’s) programming.”

Piterberg said the center hosts numerous events about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the conflict’s constant presence in current affairs and the high interest it generates among scholars and students.

Aamir Mufti, an associate professor of comparative literature at UCLA, also listed, said he signed the BDS petition as an individual and has not imposed his political stance on students.

“If you are even a reasonably good teacher, you make an effort to … set a discussion so people from opposing views can speak up their voices,” he said. “(People supporting the initiative) don’t frankly seem to understand the difference between the role of a person as a private citizen and a faculty member.”

Arielle Yael, director of public relations for Bruins for Israel, said she thinks the list provides students with critical information.

“I want to be taught by a professor who seeks to empower me, not a professor who seeks to pull me onto his anti-Israel bandwagon,” Yael said.

But other students said they think that the list is not helpful, and instead harms free speech on campus.

Omar Zahzah, a graduate student in comparative literature and the president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, said in an email that he thinks AMCHA is an extremist group and that it is trying to silence pro-Palestinian individuals.

“The initiative is an extremist group dedicated to undermining academic freedom,” Zahzah said.

For now, the Center for Near Eastern Studies does not plan to change any of its programming, and Congress has not yet responded to AMCHA’s petition.

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