Hillel vs. Academic Freedom

Jewish organizations are siding with the Trump administration in its war on Middle East studies.

Mari Cohen
September 27, 2019
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where the Trump administration is threatening to withdraw funding from Middle East studies. Photo: Dennis Ludlow, Wikimedia Commons

NINETEEN SCHOLARLY ASSOCIATIONS, the American Association for University Professors, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have spoken out against the Department of Education’s public threat last month to pull federal funding from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies due to complaints that, among other things, the Consortium’s curriculum for teachers is overly positive about Islam. But the University of North Carolina Hillel—with the support of Hillel International—is praising the Department’s action.

For years now, pro-Israel Jewish groups have fought to restrict the academic freedom of federally funded international studies programs, all in the name of tamping down scholarly criticism of Israel. The Trump administration’s close alliance with the Jewish right, driven above all by an uncompromisingly pro-Israel foreign policy, has only exacerbated this effort, which now poses a serious challenge to scholars. Hillel’s support for the Department of Education’s intervention in North Carolina is a case study in how mainstream Jewish institutions are aiding and abetting right-wing threats to free speech, in spite of the preferences of most Jewish voters. 

When I reached out to Hillel International for comment, the vice president of communications referred me to Ari Gauss, executive director of the North Carolina Hillel, which is the center for Jewish life on ten North Carolina campuses. “North Carolina Hillel welcomes the Department of Education’s review of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies,” Gauss replied in an emailed statement. “We have repeatedly raised concerns that programs supported by the Consortium, such as last spring’s “Conflict Over Gaza” conference, featured speakers who demonized Israel without challenge or discussion, and allowed their programs to be used to foster anti-Semitism.” 

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace—an organization that advocates for a peaceful solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—sees this as a threat to academic freedom. “I was raised as an American Jew with the understanding that you have to protect free speech for everyone,” says Friedman, who was a speaker at a UNC “Conflict Over Gaza” academic conference that attracted controversy. “The readiness of the Jewish community to stand alongside the more illiberal forces in our society because we are more comfortable if there’s a free speech exception when it comes to Israel—we do this at our own peril.” 

Pro-Israel groups have long advocated for changes to Title VI of the Higher Education Act, a law with Cold War-era origins that makes federal funding available to international studies programs. Title VI’s Jewish critics—including lawyer Kenneth Marcus, who is now the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights—claim that programs receiving federal funding are too biased against Israel and deserve more scrutiny, even as academics defend the rigor and breadth of their work on Israel and Palestine. Now, with the letter to UNC and Duke, the Trump administration is using these complaints to launch a broad attack on a Title VI-funded program, setting a precedent for government micromanagement of academic study that could reach far beyond Israel and Palestine.  

THE LETTER THAT ROBERT KING, assistant secretary for the Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education, sent to UNC and Duke last Tuesday contains no mention of Israel or Palestine. Instead, King criticizes the Consortium for Middle East Studies for offering programming like a conference on “Love and Desire in Modern Iran”—which King claims does not “support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability”—and attacks the Consortium for paying insufficient attention to religious minorities in the Middle East, including Jews. King also claims that, in order to receive funding, the Consortium should be preparing more students for careers in national security, rather than academia. (In a response to the Department of Education, UNC Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson defended the Consortium’s programming, refuting many of the Department of Education’s claims and noting that the events criticized by the Department did not actually use any federal funding.) 

But the Department of Education’s initial inquiry into the Middle East Studies Consortium came after North Carolina Republican Rep. George Holding asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to investigate an academic conference, “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities,” held at UNC in March, that featured panels on subjects like “Humanitarian Crisis: Food, Water, and Health” and “Gazans Between Fatah and Hamas.” After the conference concluded, the North Carolina Hillel criticized the conference in a statement, writing that “conference speakers largely failed to address the role that Hamas, Gaza’s own government, plays in perpetuating this crisis by committing acts of terror and diverting needed resources from its people.”

The UNC Middle East Studies department defended the scholarly scope of the conference: “Contrary to misrepresentations that appeared online, the conference did not criticize Israeli policies exclusively. Panelists scrutinized the role of all sides in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, including Hamas. One panel was devoted specifically to a discussion of Hamas.” 

Friedman, from the Foundation for Middle East Peace, wrote in a blog post shortly afterwards that “[t]hose who want to shut down criticism of Israel would have disliked much of what was said; those who feel the same way about the criticism of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the Gulf states, the United States, and Europe would have been similarly unhappy.”

A few weeks later, right-wing filmmaker Ami Horowitz released footage of rapper Tamar Nafer—a Palestinian citizen of Israel who performed at the conference and introduced one of his songs with the comment “This is my antisemitic song”—and spliced the video to make it look like conference attendees were cheering for the statement. Nafer later explained that the statement was intended as a joke to mock cynical right-wing attempts to call all criticism of Israel antisemitic. The song he was introducing was a satirical song about Arab-Jewish intermarriage that was popular when it came out in Israel. UNC Middle East Studies leadership released a statement, along with other university officials, in which they allowed that the joke was tone-deaf and not particularly funny, apologized for the video, and rejected antisemitism.

But the damage was done. UNC Hillel called for a university administrative review of the conference. Holding complained to the Department of Education, and DeVos agreed to have her department investigate the conference and its use of Higher Education Act Title VI funds. 

UNC later told the News & Observer, a local paper in Raleigh, that less than $200 of the Consortium’s $235,000 annual federal grant was used to support the Gaza conference, which might be why the Department of Education ultimately did not mention the conference in its letter.  

“The government can’t attack that particular conference when it was less than a tenth of a percent of the grant,” says Zoha Khalili, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that offers legal support to pro-Palestine activists. “So they want to punish the school in some other way.”

“The investigation found no evidence of antisemitism but has exploited the opportunity to go forward with a very problematic reading of Title VI, which has much wider implications,” says Friedman. “It makes one think that they searched and could not find enough to go on. And they would’ve been pretty highly motivated to find something.”

Shai Ginsburg, a professor of Israeli culture and history at Duke, sees frightening implications. “No doubt the intent of the letter is to produce a chilling effect, where faculty and university administrators would think twice before holding public events critical of Israel, not because they think it is wrong, but because it takes too much work beyond the academic engagement—both vis-à-vis the community and donors, both locally and nationally and vis-à-vis the government,” Ginsburg writes in an email. “In this, I have no doubt that the federal government has succeeded (even if in the end they would not withdraw funding from the Duke-UNC center).”

the curriculum at UNC and Duke, the Trump administration is advancing a battle American conservatives have long fought over the use of federal funds for international studies. Congress first passed the Higher Education Act in 1965, at a time when the country sought more experts on international affairs and foreign languages as it navigated Cold War geopolitics. Title VI of the act provisioned federal funding for National Resource Centers (NRCs) offering instruction and academic study of various languages and cultures. The UNC-Duke Consortium is one of 14 such centers focused on the Middle East, among 96 NRCs total nationwide. But the right has long sought to impose conditions on the research and teaching at federally funded centers. In 2008, amid concerns that NRCs were overly critical of American foreign policy, Congress amended the act to require that NRCs show that their programs “will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs.” 

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education required grant applicants to include information about how their programs reflect diverse perspectives, but, according to a 2014 letter that a department staffer sent to Palestine Legal, they did not have the authority, under federal regulations, to score a school’s statement on diverse perspectives. “We feel confident that each of our NRC projects reflects wide perspectives and a wide range of views,” the letter read.  

“I think that reflects a respect for academics and for schools to decide what’s the latest scholarship and who they’re going to hire, rather than having the government set up some sort of quota,” says Khalili of the Obama administration’s position. “It’s very odd for us to see the federal government taking such a fine tooth comb to the types of classes that are being taught or topics of these conferences, because it’s not the government’s area of expertise.”

Pro-Israel groups remained unsatisfied with how NRCs approached Israel. In 2014, several pro-Israel advocacy groups and right-leaning Jewish groups—including the AMCHA Initiative, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Zionist Organization of America, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations—signed a letter calling for Congress to reform NRCs to “require recipients of Title VI funds to establish grievance procedures to address complaints that programs are not reflecting diverse perspectives and a wide range of views” or to consider defunding them altogether. 

That same year, Kenneth Marcus, at the time president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, published an op-ed in The Hill calling for Title VI to be defunded or reformed and for the Department of Education to more stringently review whether the NRCs provide “diverse perspectives.”

In 2018, Marcus was nominated by Trump to become assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. A variety of civil rights groups, including the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Human Rights Campaign, opposed Marcus’s nomination, citing his record of rejecting protections for racial minorities and sexual assault survivors. However, several establishment Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and Hillel International, endorsed Marcus, who was confirmed in June 2018. The AJC did not respond to requests for comment on the Department of Education’s letter to UNC-Duke. 

Technically, Marcus leads the Office of Civil Rights, not the Office of Postsecondary Education, and has said in past interviews that he does not often deal with Title VI funding issues in his current role. But the New York Times reported that the Department of Education’s letter to the UNC-Duke Consortium is likely evidence of Marcus’s influence on the department. 

In a recent blog post, University of Texas-Austin postdoctoral researcher Christopher S. Rose, who previously spent 15 years working at a Title VI program, describes how the Trump Department of Education’s approach to Title VI funding for Duke-UNC could implicate academic freedom at NRCs across the country. “One of the criticisms lobbed at Title VI is that critics feel it should be upholding American interests. This means that professors might have to change out their curriculum with every new administration—even contradicting what they said four years earlier,” Rose writes. “This isn’t how education works. American interests are best served by creating a cadre of experts who understand how the rest of the world works and advising the US on what should be done as a result.” Rose also notes that, based on his own experience working on Title VI grant applications, the Department of Education’s criticisms of the UNC-Duke NRC appeared to misunderstand Title VI’s own regulations.

GAUSS, THE UNC HILLEL DIRECTOR, declined to answer follow-up questions about who was involved in forming the organization’s stance on the Department of Education letter and declined to respond to UNC’s statement on the multiple perspectives at the Gaza conference. He also declined to connect me with UNC Jewish students who support Hillel’s stance on the issue. But some who oppose it are speaking up. For example, Jewish UNC graduate Maggie Barkowitz, an Arabic minor, told the UNC Daily Tar Heel that she never encountered antisemitism in her studies and that classes about the culture of the Middle East, which the Department of Education letter maligned, were crucial for understanding the region as a whole. In April, after controversy erupted over the Gaza conference, another Jewish student, Julia Hirschfield, who is majoring in global studies with a concentration in the Middle East, told the Tar Heel that revoking funding from the Consortium on the basis of the conference would only hurt her education. 

“It is really deeply disturbing to see one of the main Jewish institutions across college campuses siding with the Trump administration,” says Sarah Kate Feferman, the social media coordinator at Open Hillel, a group that advocates for Hillels to become inclusive of students with varying views on Israel. “North Carolina Hillel sent a message that not all students are welcome in their community. They were actively disregarding the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students as well as excluding the voices of students who want to engage in critical and complex ways with Israel and Palestine.” 

The majority of American Jews are liberals who support freedom of speech and rigorous academic inquiry, at least in the abstract. But most of the mainstream Jewish institutions are currently focused on pushing pro-Israel orthodoxy at all costs, even if it means abandoning any other values. By encouraging and backing this Department of Education intervention, Hillel International—and other Jewish establishment groups that have attacked Title VI—are directly bolstering the Trump administration’s ability to force higher education to conform to its own ideas about what constitutes American national security.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.