Jewish Journal

Big Brother Lurks in Higher Education Bill

by J. Shawn Landres

Posted on Mar. 25, 2004 at 7:00 pm

In recent weeks, a number of major Jewish organizations -- the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) American Israel Public Affairs Committee and others -- have announced their support for congressional passage of H.R. 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, which would amend Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to enhance international education programs.

The purpose of the bill is to restore some semblance of ideological balance to Middle East studies centers on university campuses, and it is for this reason that many Jewish organizations support it.

Leaving aside the question of whether it is the government's role to ensure ideological balance in academic settings, the bill unquestionably is a well-intentioned response to a serious problem. However, Section (6) of this proposal, which is now before the Senate, would establish an international higher education advisory board.

These government-appointed overseers not only would "monitor, apprise, and evaluate" academic programs but also would have the power to "assure that their relative authorized activities reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs."

In other words, the U.S. government would have the power to decide whose views are heard.

With all due respect to my elders and betters who support this legislation (with the proud exception of Alan Dershowitz, whose opposition rightly prevented the Jewish Council for Public Affairs from endorsing it), this proposal is wrong for America, wrong for academia, wrong for American Jewry and wrong for Judaism.

Section (6) is wrong for America. This proposal is Big Brother at its worst and runs counter to cherished principles of freedom of expression in open and public debates. The marketplace of ideas is the vital place where scholars and citizens -- not the government -- decide which views are considered mainstream options and which views are consigned to the margins of the extreme. Read the text of the bill carefully -- it's online at thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d108:h.r.03077:.

As written, this bill could force our universities to provide, at taxpayer expense, a forum for white supremacists, Kach-Kahane Chai and al Qaeda, because, after all, Western democracy, liberalism, Zionism and even post-colonialism and post-modernism don't cover "the full range of views." Applied to an international science program, it could require that U.S. taxpayers subsidize the teaching of creationism.

It is wrong for academia. H.R. 3077's provisions that create a government committee with investigatory powers and oversight over university teaching and research are unacceptable. They would institute an atmosphere of coercion on campuses and would have a chilling effect on academic innovation and creativity.

It is wrong for American Jewry. Support for this bill has brought out the worst isolationist, defensive instincts in our communal leadership. Last week, The Forward reported that Lois Waldman of the AJCongress commented, "It is very hard to change attitudes within the Middle East centers ....Professors there, most of them, are people who come from the area and have certain sympathies created by their own ethnicity and their own family background." Such a blatant appeal to prejudice is both illogical and unethical. It is racial and ethnic profiling at its most divisive, and it is wrong, no matter who does it.

Finally, Section (6) is wrong for Judaism. Teaching and learning are treasured Jewish values, and ones for which Judaism as a faith and civilization is respected the world over. We Jews are not victims anymore, and we do no one any favors -- least of all ourselves -- by attempting to control the discourse or by perpetuating the perception that we control the U.S. government and institutions of higher learning.

Indeed, our sages caution us to "love work; hate domination, and seek not undue intimacy with the government" (Pirkei Avot 1:10). Jewish community leaders who endorse the Big Brother provision of H.R. 3077 have not thought through the full implications of their support for this bill.

So, what is the solution to the overwhelmingly negative situation on American campuses today? First, we need to be honest with ourselves: a great deal of the animosity will go away when there is a settlement with the Palestinians. For now, many regard Israel as an occupying power, and it is an easy target, especially for college students looking for an establishment -- any establishment -- to oppose.

There is a practical alternative to government intervention, one that directly addresses the origins of these attacks on Israel and Judaism. Within the vast world of Jewish philanthropy, it is a relatively cheap investment to endow Israel studies professorships: $2 million to a public university buys a named chair; $5-10 million to a private university does the same. That is the best way to fight back.

Instead of depending on a government committee to do our work for us, every federation and Jewish Community Relations Council with a major university in its back yard should make the creation of such an endowed chair a top priority.

Surely, $2-10 million per chair is within reach for the top 20 to 30 Jewish communities in the United States -- and we don't need the government to do it for us.

J. Shawn Landres teaches at the University of Judaism and is completing a doctorate in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is a graduate member of the American Association of University Professors.

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