UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies lies at the end of a labyrinthine hallway near the top of the beady-eyed and waffle-patterned maroon edifice that is Bunche Hall. If you haven’t been there before, it can be difficult to find. It’s based in a spacious office-cum-lobby and staffed by two individuals, along with numerous associated professors in various departments. Pamphlets from affiliated centers and programs — such as the Arabic and Islamic Studies minor and the Center for Jewish Studies — lie piled on available surfaces. CNES claims that it “encourages, coordinates and integrates instruction and research in the humanities and the social sciences, business, law, medicine and the media, and in all languages essential to an understanding of the Near East.” However, this past September, AMCHA Initiative questioned the Center’s neutrality.
AMCHA, a watchdog nonprofit “dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America,” published a report about CNES which detailed events and statistics that AMCHA claimed indicated an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias in the center. The report was based on the number and content of events and lectures hosted by CNES which AMCHA deemed to be anti-Semitic either by dint of outright anti-Semitism or by criticism of Israel and its right to exist, rather than of its policies. AMCHA’s methods and findings ignited an uproar in Jewish and Middle Eastern academia, resulting in letters of support from some and letters of denunciation from others, such as UCLA’s Professor David Myers, who co-wrote an op-ed that was published in the Jewish Journal and other Jewish publications.
Whether or not one accepts AMCHA’s findings and its call to Congress to withhold federal funding from Middle Eastern studies programs that exhibit anti-Semitic or anti-Israel biases, in the light of the report and its accusations, CNES’s event calendar and its response to the accusations bear looking at. Event-wise, disregarding those that appear to have no relation to Israel or Jews, two fall events stand out: a November 5 lecture by Steven Salaita and a November 7 one by Neve Gordon. No other fall events appear to relate to Israel or the Palestinians.
Steven Salaita is a former professor at Virginia Tech whose offer of a tenured professorship of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was revoked following controversial tweets about the recent Gaza-Israel conflict. In one example, on July 18th, Salaita tweeted that “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic [sic] **** in response to Israeli terror.” After the revocation, Salaita embarked on a public speaking tour, of which the November 5 lecture was a part.
Listening to the lecture, a personal peeve was Salaita’s historical inaccuracy in his inclusion of the Amalekites in a list of Canaanite tribes, as the Amalekites lived in the Sinai Peninsula, which was never part of Canaan. As a portion of his argument regarding the influence of “Palestine” (I could not tell whether he meant the Mandate or the proposed state) on American society and culture depended upon comparing the world’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Israelites’ war against the Amalekites, I would advise Salaita to better check his sources before his next speech. In fact, the biblical commandment to wipe out Amalek that Salaita quoted directly follows an account of the Amalekite attack on the Israelites soon after they had left Egypt and were still “exhausted and weak” and were not described as being militarily engaged against the Amalekites. Salaita’s comparison of the Palestinians to the Amalekites would thus be fairly derogatory and harsh. However, digressions aside, the podcast available on the CNES website indicates a decidedly anti-Israel guest lecture.
In a similar vein, Neve Gordon of the November 7th event has described Israel as an “apartheid state.” Again, there are no other speakers this quarter about either Israel or Palestinians.
In an official response to the criticism, CNES has recently published a point-by-point refutation of AMCHA’s report, which can be found on the juancole.com website. Regarding the issue described above, namely that CNES has co-sponsored one-sided events and has failed to provide a balanced narrative to students, the report points out that CNES does not, as a rule, invite speakers to refute other speakers’ lectures or defend countries or states from speakers’ accusations, as all speakers are “accomplished scholars presenting original work.” From a logistical point of view, it would indeed be arduous for the Center to be forced to sponsor a counterargument to every speaker on controversial issues. However, in the interest of truth, recognizing that there are usually many sides to every perspective, it would be both equitable and educational to invite or permit to speak more than one side regarding particularly controversial lecturers and events, such as those relating to Israel, especially given that it should not be particularly difficult to have one or two additional speakers per quarter, as necessary.
Regarding criticism of the past three CNES directors, who all signed the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions petition against Israel, James Gelvin, a professor in UCLA’s Department of History and in CNES, points out, as does CNES’s response, that the directors did not act in their official capacity but rather as individuals. As such, whether or not one agrees with their views, they have a constitutional right to free speech. CNES has not taken an official stance on BDS and so cannot be formally affiliated with that organization. Furthermore, Gelvin explains that the director has only limited control over CNES and that most important decisions are made by its Faculty Advisory Committee, to which the director does not belong and whose meetings the director may attend only “at the sufferance of the Faculty Advisory Committee.” However, while they certainly have a right to express themselves and while there should be no perceived connection between CNES and BDS, the fact remains that these individuals at some point were representative of CNES, and that, justified or not, a representative is perceived to represent his or her institution at all times. CNES cannot be formally linked with BDS, but students might hardly feel comfortable engaging with a center whose top executive openly supports a campaign that delegitimizes and stigmatizes Israel and some of whose supporters have been connected to actual anti-Semitism.
AMCHA’s petition to have congressional Title VI funding to CNES cut might be inappropriate, given that the Center’s funds provide not only for guest lectures but for services such as language instruction. Furthermore, as Gelvin points out, CNES does not “let raving anti-Semites up there [to speak].” However, in the interest of a balanced narrative, CNES should provide for more opportunities for students and the UCLA community to learn both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict with events and lectures in as close temporal proximity as possible. Personally, I also believe that Center directors should not take public stances on controversial measures, especially those with connections to hate. However, that is more a topic for the University’s board and the legal courts to decide.
In the meantime, the Center for Near Eastern Studies might make an effort to make all students feel more welcome. I highly recommend it starts by making its office easier for the directionally-challenged to find.