The Israel lobby’s trojan horse: ‘Reforming’ education laws to defund Middle East studies programs

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Brandeis Center President Kenneth Marcus. (Photo:
Brandeis Center President Kenneth Marcus. (Photo:

On March 19, Louis D. Brandeis Center President Kenneth Marcus keynoted a Washington DC panel organized by the hardline pro-Israel Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). It was titled “Politicizing Education: Title VI of the Higher Education Act.”

Speaking from an ornate room in Washington DC’s Russell Senate Office Building, Marcus described the seminar as “the first public event inaugurating phase two of Title VI reform.” Sitting alongside him were Campus Watch Director Winfield Myers, National Review Online columnist Stanley Kurtz and Tammi Rossman Benjamin, Amcha Initiative co-founder and a member of the Brandeis Center Academic Advisory Board. The panel was introduced and moderated by Sarah Stern, founder and president of EMET and a member of the Islamophobic Clarion Fund’s advisory board.

Using the seemingly benign terminology of “Title VI reform,” Marcus and his fellow panelists laid out the blueprint for a right-wing pro-Israel attack on federal funding for Middle Eastern studies programs. By using amendments to Title VI of the Higher Education Act that were originally created to police programs deemed too critical of of US foreign policy following 9/11, Marcus and his allies are seeking to pull federal grants from Middle Eastern studies programs they deem overly critical of Israel.

Originally passed as part of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 and later incorporated into the 1965 Higher Education Act, Title VI provides federal funding for area and language studies programs that hold strategic importance to United States government interests. Marcus credits Sarah Stern, Stanley Kurtz, and Ivory Towers on Sand author Martin Kramer (who has come under fire for pushing for eugenics-type policies to limit birth rates in Gaza) for initiating “Phase one” of Title VI reform. According to Marcus, this involved successfully advocating the passage of amendments during the 2003 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act mandating that universities applying for funds provide:

(1) an explanation of how the activities funded by the
grant will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of
views and generate debate on world regions and international
affairs; and
(2) a description of how the applicant will encourage
government service in areas of national need, as identified by
the Secretary, as well as in areas of need in the education,
business, and nonprofit sectors.”

The vague language of the amendments makes no specific mention of Israel or the Middle East. Nonetheless, throughout the evening panelists cited them as a means to enforce a more pro-Israel discourse in Middle East studies programs.

Adopting and augmenting a popular post-9/11 neoconservative position for their own purposes, Marcus and his fellow panelists assert that universities have failed to uphold their end of the bargain when it comes to promoting a diversity of views, and instead have let their programs slip into anti-Israel and anti-American bias that produces too few recruits for US government agencies. Reading from a report produced by the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, created while he was the agency’s Staff Director, Marcus claims that “many departments of Middle East studies provide one-sided highly polemical academic presentations and some may repress legitimate debate concerning Israel.” Marcus alleges that this perceived bias fuels a hostile environment for Jewish students, and presents this as a reason for the publication of the US Commission of Civil Rights report. He cites as an example “any program in which a student is told that she may not speak in a discussion of Middle East politics on the ground that she has ethnic Jewish personal characteristics.”

Marcus’ proposed solution to perceived violations of these amendments is to enforce Title VI of the Higher Education Act the same way as Title VI of the Civil Rights act: through the creation of a “complaint resolution procedure under which those people who are aware of violations go to the Department of Education, [and] the Department of Education investigates.” He suggests that Title VI grants should be rescinded from universities that fail to comply following a federal investigation. In the context of the panel that night, this means effectively defunding any Middle East studies programs that fail to toe the line on Israel.

If pro-Israel groups using something called Title VI to attack academic critique of Israel sounds oddly familiar, it should. Marcus and the Brandeis Center have previously lent their support to a series of Department of Education complaints filed by pro-Israel activists against universities.

Citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in federally funded institutions, the complainants claimed that by refusing to block pro-Palestinian campus events and academic critique of Israeli policy, universities failed to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment. Civil rights organizations, like the ACLU, CAIR and the CCR, roundly condemned the allegations as an attempt to twist anti-discrimination law into silencing protected political expression. While every single one of these complaints to date has been thrown out on free speech grounds, the tactic has proven effective in creating a chilling effect on college campuses subject to drawn out federal investigations that cast suspicion on activism, regardless of their merit or findings. The complaints were made possible by another seemingly innocuous reform campaign that Marcus helped lead, which classified Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh students as an ethnic group, making them eligible for Civil Rights Act Title VI protections.

Neoconservative Attack on Middle Eastern Studies

While much of the panel that night focused on combating what it considered to be anti-Israel bias in Middle East studies, Stanley Kurtz’s remarks recalled the original efforts behind the Higher Education Act amendments, which targeted critique of US foreign policy in academy. Echoing his 2003 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, Kurtz railed against open and tacit African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern studies associations’ boycotts of the Department of Defense funded National Security Education Program, which provides federal grants for language studies programs that train and recruit students for US intelligence agencies. During the original June 19, 2003 hearing, titled “International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias”, Kurtz blamed these efforts on what he described as anti-American “post-colonial theory”, and donated a large chunk of his speech to grumblings about the influence of Edward Said in academia. He also called for much harsher changes to the Higher Education Act than those eventually passed, which included creating a “Title VI advisory board”, rescinding funding from any program that “engages in or abets a boycott of national security scholarships”, and broad cuts to Title VI grants.

The 2003 passage of the apparently diluted amendments to Higher Education Act Title VI was the culmination of nearly two years of neoconservative incitement against students and academics critical of US imperialism following the September 11th attacks, and in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. One of the first voices to step into the fray was the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Originally started by founding chairwoman Lynne Cheney, ACTA is funded by a network of both prominent neocon backers and more moderate charitable foundations. In 2011 alone they received $25,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, $40,000 from the Lynn and Harry Bradley Foundation, and $140,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust.

On November 11, 2001, just sixty days after 9/11, ACTA released an incendiary report titled Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It. The document targeted academics and students deemed too critical of the war on terror, and the original version listed individual scholars’ names and institutions. The language the report identified as problematic included decontextualized quotes appearing to illustrate support for the terrorism as well as the use of the famous Gandhi quote “an eye for an eye leaves the world blind” on student anti-war protest signs, and a NYU professor’s observation that “[t]here is a lot of skepticism about the [Bush] administration’s policy of going to war.”  After receiving intense criticism, ACTA edited individual names out of the report (you can view the edited version here). Even this revised document has now been scrubbed from ACTA’s website, and the organization’s official timeline of it’s own accomplishments lacks any reference to it.

In August 2013, the Brandeis Center announced plans to host articles on its website by ACTA staffers William Gonch and Avi Snyder, who is also a Charles Koch Institute Associate Program participant. Gonch and Snyder’s first posts on the Brandeis Center blog were dedicated to promoting an ACTA report titled Free to Teach, Free to Learn, which according to Gonch “aims to offer broad-based guidance to trustees, administrators, and the public on key issues related to academic freedom.” Several of the report’s “case studies” present Palestine-centered university scholarship as an abuse of academic freedom, including one that cites the David Project sponsored documentary Columbia Unbecoming. Snyder has also taken to the Brandeis Center blog to admonish the the American Studies Association for considering a resolution calling for the academic boycott of Israel. While cooperation between the two groups was ostensibly limited to the Brandeis Center blog, in the months that followed ACTA began to fix its crosshairs on academic associations pursuing or discussing the boycott of Israeli institutions, even releasing a short official statement condemning the passage of the ASA boycott resolution.

ACTA also has ties to a broader conservative assault on ethnic studies programs. The group closely allied with, and frequently cites the reports of, the National Association of Scholars, another Bradley Foundation funded project known for its campaigns against multiculturalism on college campuses and attacks on ethnic studies. In 2010 NAS hailed the passage of infamous Arizona law SB 2281, which banned ethnic studies in K-12 public schools. An NAS report on Texas A&M was also an influential force in the failed push to pass a similar law in Texas that would have banned multicultural studies on public university campuses.

Monitoring Speech

During his EMET panel remarks Marcus cited Brandeis Academic Advisory Board member Tammi Rossman Benjamin as one of the scholars “providing the research that will fuel at least part of phase two.”  Rossman Benjamin has long been a loyal, if incendiary, footsoldier in Brandeis Center-supported anti-Palestine solidarity campaigns. She filed one of the Marcus-endorsed Department of Education Civil Rights Office complaints against UC Santa Cruz in 2006, and appealed the recent DOE decision to toss it on free speech grounds. Her organization, the Amcha Initiative, has become infamous for it’s racially charged language and invasive monitoring and harassment of faculty and students critical of Israel. During her remarks that night Rossman Benjamin revealed that the Amcha Initiative would soon be releasing a study investigating “anti-Israel bias and significant antisemitic activity” in the outreach program of a Title VI-funded Middle Eastern studies department at a “very well known university.” Rossman Benjamin claims to have found what she believes are violations of Title VI’s funding requirements, claims that will likely be used to attack the program in future Brandeis Center campaigns. (Rossman Benjamin was one of the Hebrew teachers I studied under at UC Santa Cruz. We got along in the classroom, but butted heads outside of it over campus speech issues.)

Regardless of which Title VI-funded program ends up being the target of the upcoming Amcha Initiative report, it’s clear that this multi-phase campaign to stifle support for Palestinian rights in Middle East studies is not the only use of these tactics against progressive voices in the academy. On March 20, the US Senate voted to defund National Science foundation grants to political science programs, with the exception of those that can prove they promote US security and economic interests. The move came in the form of an amendment to the Continuing Appropriations Act introduced by Oklahoma Republican Ted Colburn, part of an ongoing GOP assault on federal grants to political science programs.

It will take a united and concerted effort from universities, faculty, departments, and students across disciplines to stem these attacks in the future, and begin to address the damage that has already been done to those deemed to be subverting Israeli and US government interests in the academy.

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It’s scary to think that this guy was once in charge of the U.S. civil rights bureau. And it’s amusing to think how quickly his reputation is getting creamed, he is even trying to smear students for cutting a pineapple!(no joke, this actually happened). In his pineapple express smear, he tried to portray the pineapple as a representative of a Jew, and the Arab wielding the knife was, naturally, threatening the poor pineapple(read: Jew), hence;… Read more »

The “American” (these censorship seeking clowns don’t deserve that title) zios seem to be out to form their own little incarnation of “im tirzu” it appears. I guess fascists flock together.

‘He cites as an example “any program in which a student is told that she may not speak in a discussion of Middle East politics on the ground that she has ethnic Jewish personal characteristics.”’

Has this ever happened to any student?

On March 20, the Supreme Soviet voted to defund National Science foundation grants to political science programs, with the exception of those that can prove they promote Soviet-Union security and economic interests. With all these pro-Israel purges going on, US academia will soon be as interesting as its Marxism-Leninism dominated counterpart in the 20th century Soviet-Union. One has to be pretty stupid or extremely cynical to get into a debt to go there as a… Read more »

Recalling from a distant past, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it from the Viet Cong.”
Now we have, “We have to destroy the universities (with their nasty notions of free a exchange of ideas) in order to save them from stumbling upon the truth about Zionism.”