By Rachel Stern
Over 3,000 university students and faculty from across the United States have signed a petition and open letter to alert campuses of inaccuracy and bias against Israel and Zionism. Members of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), who drafted the petition, aim to create an environment for the safe expression of scholarly ideas.
The petition, written by two faculty members at UC Santa Cruz and one at UCLA, was accompanied by an open letter which asserted that "Virulent anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric in the classroom, and in the curricula, and in campus events fuels a hostile and potentially anti-Semitic environment throughout the University of California and California State University systems."
SPME members presented both the petition and letter to the California State University Board of Trustees and the UC Board of Regents last month.
The letter called on administrators of the UC and Cal State systems to direct faculty on each campus to review course materials and curriculum for slanted viewpoints, and to guarantee that campuses invite speakers that, as a whole, present a full range of "scholarly views" about Israel and Zionism. They also asked universities to design classes to educate students about contemporary anti-Zionism.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, an SPME member and Hebrew Lecturer at UCSC, co-drafted the open letter as a way of making students, faculty and professors aware of the issues at hand, not as a call for censorship on campus.
"Departments need to sit down and look at the classes that they offer," Rossman-Benjamin said. "They need to say, ‘there must be a diversity of scholarly ideas, not politicization.’"
Recent UCSC gradaute and Israeli-born Avigal Perl agreed that there is harm in biased methods of teaching.
"It’s very easy to take a stance when you’re being fed a one-sided story," Perl said.
Both Perl and Rossman-Benjamin referred to Abdul-Malik Ali, who has spoken at UC Santa Cruz three times in the past four years, as an example of university-sponsored bias against Israel. Perl claimed Ali verbally attacked her during his first campus visit.
Ali stirred many feathers last May, when he made what many viewed as anti-Semitic statements during a speech at the Bay Tree Plaza. He was invited to speak by the UCSC Committee for Justice in Palestine (CJP) during UCSC’s Palestinian Awareness Week. During the speech, now available for viewing on Google Video, Ali claimed that Zionist Jews support racism, and that Israelis are terrorists.
Dalit Baum, a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel, feels that all viewpoints-even those as controversial as Ali’s-should be allowed free expression at a University.
"Unfortunately, there will always be anti-Semitic views," said Baum, who feels that students need to remain critical of what they hear. "But it’s important to have freedom of views. If we don’t accept an African-American student into a program, that’s racism. But if someone gives a view we don’t agree with, let’s argue with them."
Aryeh Weinberg, co-author of The Uncivil University: Politics and Propaganda in American Education (2005), feels that students should be presented with as many viewpoints as possible, but that those ideas should be presented in a scholarly manner.
"Challenging is very different than belittling," said Weinberg, who signed the petition. "UCSC is supposed to be a place of scholarly debate; nothing should be shunned but the weakness of the argument."
Still, Weinburg stressed that no speaker-again using the example of Ali- should be physically or legally barred from lecturing on campus. Rather, he expressed a hope that those at a University would be "well-versed enough that [someone like Ali] would never be invited in the first place."
"Someone at the administrative level should step in and say that they expect a much better use of funds," Weinberg said.
Still, "these issues are very difficult to monitor," Weinberg said. "Nobody wants to have a monitor in the classroom."