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Jewish Journal

CSU system debates restarting Israel study abroad programs

by Tom Tugend

January 4, 2012 | 12:47 pm

From left: Former CSUN President Jolene Koester, CSUN Interim President Harry Hellenbrand and CSUN mathematics professor David Klein.

From left: Former CSUN President Jolene Koester, CSUN Interim President Harry Hellenbrand and CSUN mathematics professor David Klein.

During the past few months, top California State University administrators, who oversee 23 campuses with 420,000 students, were spending a good deal of time wrestling with upcoming draconian state budget cuts and protesting students, yet they set aside some time to consider whether the largest four-year college system in the United States should restart its study abroad program in Israel.

CSU shut down the program in 2002, during the height of the Second Intifada, citing U.S. State Department warnings against travel to Israel.

But now, with relative quiet in Israel, and under considerable pressure from Jewish organizations, student groups, legislators and even Israeli diplomats, CSU seemed on the verge of announcing a resumption of the Israel program.

Not everyone applauded the new attitude. In early December, a petition in the form of an Open Letter landed on the desk of CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, under the boldface header, “We strongly urge you not to reinstate the CSU Israel Study Program Abroad.”

The petition had been signed by some 81 faculty members, nearly half from the university’s Northridge campus (CSUN), as well as 46 students and alumni. Among the signatories were a number of deans and department chairs, as well as Harry Hellenbrand, who at the time was CSUN’s provost, vice president for academic affairs and the campus’ second-highest administrator.

On Jan. 1, Hellenbrand was named the interim president of the campus, following the recent retirement of its president, Jolene Koester. (Under the CSU nomenclature, the head of the entire system is the chancellor, while each campus is led by a president — the reverse of the University of California designations.)

The chief organizer of the petition, as of most anti-Israel activity on campus, was David Klein, a veteran mathematics professor at the school. Klein’s Web site on the CSUN server is a compendium of just about every charge ever leveled against Israel, starting with the quote “Israel is the most racist state in the world at this time.”

Not surprisingly, Klein has been the bête noire of pro-Israel groups for some years, and the petition — which also warned that American students might be killed by Israeli soldiers or face discrimination if of Arab descent — stoked the anger.

CSU’s announcement in mid-December that the study program in Israel would be resumed with the 2012 fall semester at the University of Haifa, did little to lower the level of acrimony. (Asked why the Hebrew University or Tel Aviv University is not included in the program, CSU spokesman Erik Fallis cited security considerations.)

One of the first formal outside complaints against Klein’s Web site came to CSUN President Koester in late November from Leila Beckwith, a professor emerita and child psychologist at UCLA, who wrote in conjunction with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz. The two recently co-founded the Amcha Initiative, described as a grassroots Jewish organization focusing on problems of public higher education.

Amcha’s charges were quickly reinforced by two other organizations, StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).

A series of phone interviews, e-mail exchanges and correspondence made available by the university to The Jewish Journal yielded a general outline of the evolving dispute.

In the first round of e-mail exchanges, Amcha, StandWithUs and ZOA focused on Klein’s “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Web pages,” citing the “most racist state” quote, alongside “gruesome photos of dead children to imply that Israel intentionally murders Palestinian babies.”

As a follow-up, the pro-Israel groups argued that, while Klein was free to express his ideas, “however abhorrent,” as an individual, he was violating university regulations and the law by posting his material on the CSU server.

He was thus not only implying the university’s imprimatur for his opinions, but also using taxpayers’ funds in the process, the critics charged.

In response, Koester wrote that a full administrative review found that while Klein’s views might be offensive, he had the academic freedom and free-speech rights to express his opinions.

She also affirmed that Klein’s rights “extend to the use of an individual’s Web pages as part of the university’s Web site.”

Amcha and ZOA shot back challenging the use of the CSUN Web site for “political propaganda,” and Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, said in an interview that she would explore the possibility of taking legal action.

For her part, Rossman-Benjamin received in response to a lengthy memo to Koester listing a series of objections, a curt e-mail consisting of just two words — “Too bad” — followed by Koester’s initials.

This seemingly contemptuous reply from the school’s then-president quickly made the rounds of CSUN’s critics, until Koester hastily drafted a somewhat awkward apology. She explained that she had sent the message from her cell phone while traveling, intending to forward the information to her staff, but had accidentally pressed “reply” instead of the “forward” button.

“The comment ‘too bad’ was meant to express to internal staff regret about the controversy and the distress it had caused,” Koester wrote. “It was not a comment directed at you … and was not intended to disrespect or dismiss either you or your point of view.”

To help clarify the knotty situation, The Journal sought to speak to three people on the Northridge campus — Klein, then-Provost Hellenbrand and Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program.

By his own description, Hellenbrand fits into the sizable group of Jewish university administrators and senior professors whose formative political experience was the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s and ’70s, marked by agitation against U.S. foreign policy.

Like many of his contemporaries, Hellenbrand grew up in a home with parents to whom the Holocaust and the birth of Israel were part of contemporary history, and they were warm admirers of David Ben-Gurion, the state’s first prime minister.

As is common in such families, there is a divide among the generations: “I have been arguing with my parents in Brooklyn over these issues since I was 13,” Hellenbrand said, so the current campus confrontations cover familiar territory.

Hellenbrand readily acknowledged that he had signed the petition against resuming the CSU study program in Israel. However, he asserted that he did so primarily to endorse one of the petition’s points, calling for additional study programs to be established linking CSU with a Palestinian or Arab university, parallel to those with Israel.

Parting ways with some other signers of the petition, Hellenbrand said that, in his opinion, Israel is not an “apartheid state.”

On the other hand, he rejected the charges of critics that Klein’s Web pages are not only anti-Israel, but also anti-Semitic, dismissing the suggestion that anti-Zionism is used frequently as a cover for anti-Semitism.

On his CSUN Web page, Klein notes his strong interest in math education, cosmology and climate science. He also lists his roles as faculty adviser to the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and the CSUN Greens, which has endorsed the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) program.

The site also features a Boycott Israel Resource Page, with links to like-minded organizations, tips on consumer, academic, cultural and sports boycotts of Israel, in addition to the “most racist nation” quote and photos of allegedly mutilated Palestinian children.

In response to a phone call from The Journal requesting an interview, Klein said he was busy but agreed to answer e-mailed questions over the upcoming weekend.

Klein, nevertheless, did not respond to numerous e-mails, nor to a number of subsequent phone calls, even after Hellenbrand said he would urge Klein to speak to a Journal reporter.

Among the questions sent to Klein, the final one asked about his reportedly Jewish background, how his views on Israel had evolved over time and whether he has found himself affected by the hostility of his Jewish critics.

Although some of his colleagues have assumed that Klein is Jewish, it is a topic he does not discuss. An early December interview with Klein in the Los Angeles Daily News reported, “The ... CSUN professor declined to discuss his own religious background.”

In another interview, on the Inside Higher Ed Web site, Klein is reported as observing that cutting off relations with Israeli universities is an exercise in academic freedom, not an abridgement of it.

“We’re choosing not to have relationships with institutions that participate in apartheid, in the same way that in the lead-up to World War II, universities broke off relations with universities in Nazi Germany,” Klein is quoted as saying.

Myers, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at CSUN, heads the Jewish Studies program on campus, whose courses enroll about 800 students per semester.

“I refuse to debate professor Klein or participate in public programs that involve him,” she said.

As an authority in her field, she believes questions about Judaism, Israel and the Middle East should be discussed in an objective, scholarly fashion with respect for all the peoples of the region.

Myers said she appreciates the support and respect for Jewish studies extended by the campus administration. However, she is puzzled by the tolerance shown Klein in using the campus Web site for his anti-Israel campaign, while, she said, in other departments such personal advocacy is closely regulated.

Nevertheless, Myers warns against overestimating Klein’s campus impact and influence. “He has only a handful of student followers, while campus clubs, including the Muslim students, do not invite him as a speaker,” she said.

Although she is worried that the Klein controversy will “pull the campus into the mud,” she hardly considers him the main threat facing Jewish life and studies on campus.

Rather, Myers warns that the continual state budget cuts for CSU and its campuses already have reduced the number of students she can enroll in her classes,  while, at the same time, lowered support from Jewish community organizations has severely affected Hillel’s staff and outreach on campus.

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