As far as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics are concerned, this is just the latest instance of his administration’s hostility to free speech. The Department of Education announced earlier this month that it had ordered the Middle East studies department run jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina to revamp the curriculum it was offering students. If the schools’ consortium that runs the program doesn’t comply, it will lose the federal grant money it gets under Title VI of the 1964 Higher Education Act.
As far as most academics are concerned, the government’s unprecedented intervention in course material is an outrage and infringement on academic freedom. Yet what really riled up the critics are the reasons for the demand. The Department of Education said the course offering of the consortium advanced an agenda that glorified Islam and ignored other faiths in the Mideast. The program also promoted BDS activities, including a conference that was tainted by anti-Semitic rhetoric on the part of speakers.
Yet rather than being portrayed as a necessary action in which the administration sought to prevent taxpayer dollars from being used to promote a skewed view of the world and promote hate, the Department of Education’s letter has received scathing coverage from outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as academic publications. Even more bizarrely, a column in the Forward denounced the government effort as not merely Islamophobic, but reminiscent of Nazi regime’s censorship of German scholars.
What can explain this kind of grossly inflammatory language, as well as the massive pushback against this move?
In the current divisive political atmosphere, anything that the Trump administration does—whether good, bad or indifferent—is always going to be shoehorned into a narrative in which its work is denounced as evidence of criminal behavior and/or authoritarianism by its liberal and Democratic critics. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been a particular target of scorn from the “resistance.” Kenneth Marcus, the head of the department’s civil-rights bureau, has gotten similar treatment. The Times snidely referred to him in an article on the North Carolina controversy as someone “who has made a career of pro-Israel advocacy,” which is an interesting way to refer to someone whose career has been focused on fighting anti-Semitism.
But the real problem is that the government’s action is based on the recognition that Middle East studies in the United States has become a safe space for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic coursework and programming masquerading as scholarship. Within these departments, support for anti-Zionism and anti-Semitic BDS campaigns has become a form of orthodoxy that teachers and students dare not challenge. This was brilliantly exposed by Martin Kramer in his 2001 book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, and the situation has only grown worse since then.
Yet is it the government’s business to police this lamentable situation?
Small government conservatives, as well as libertarians and liberals, might be inclined to answer “no.” The last thing anyone should want is for federal bureaucrats vetting or censoring academic offerings. Yet, if there is to be federal department of education dispensing money to schools throughout the country, why shouldn’t it monitor how funds are being spent?
The federal government is quite vigilant about policing the use of grant money when it comes to possible discriminatory conduct or practices. The same is true for a host of other issues relating to federal preferences about a wide array of conduct and agendas. Why then would monitoring anti-Semitism be the one topic on which Washington should stay mum? It is widely understood that anything that smacks of condoning racism or prejudice against other minorities would result in the loss of federal grants. But anti-Semitism operating under the veil of Middle East studies has had impunity.
That has been the way the Department of Education and the federal government have treated instances of anti-Semitism up until 2017. For instance, the Obama administration ignored many anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses during its eight years in office and dismissed calls (from people like Marcus) for it to use the threat of loss of federal funding to force those responsible to act. It was only after DeVos and Marcus were appointed to their posts by Trump that the Department of Education began to take an active interest in the way hatred of Jews has found a home on some campuses and especially within departments focused on the Middle East.
These departments, like the one operated by Duke and UNC, are free to go on teaching the history of the Middle East in a manner that treats the presence of Christians and Jews there as illegitimate, or to promote BDS and other forms of anti-Semitism. They have a choice. If they don’t want federal criticism, all they have to do is to give up the money they get from the federal government or any other entity that seeks to uphold the standards of decency one would not think has to be imposed on such elite institutions. Indeed, there are plenty of Middle East governments, such as that of Qatar, whose Muslim Brotherhood-run foundation is happy to dispense money to American institutions while promoting a very different agenda than that of the administration.
But if they do so, they can’t pretend that they are responsible scholars or anything other than promoters of hate.
What Trump’s Department of Education has done is neither Islamophobic nor an unconscionable interference in academia worthy of an authoritarian regime. It’s merely upholding the values and principles that liberal academics claim to support.
For this, it is denounced by Jewish publications and groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, that claim to defend the community from anti-Semitism and are now silent when they should be speaking up in defense of the administration. Whatever you may think of Trump or DeVos, the Jewish community should be standing with the administration on this issue. The failure to do so is nothing short of a disgrace.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.