MESA Challenges US Civil Rights Commission’s Definition of “Campus Anti-Semitism”

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June 11, 2007

Gerald A. Reynolds
Chair of the Commission
United States Commission on Civil Rights
Regional Office
624 Ninth Street, NW
Washington DC 20425

Dear Chairman Reynolds and Members of the Commission,

I write to you on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association of
North America (MESA) and its Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) to
express our grave concern with aspects both of the briefing report
titled “Campus Anti-Semitism, ” released by the United States
Commission on Civil Rights earlier this year, and of the “Findings and
Recommendations of the United States Commission on Civil Rights
Regarding Campus Anti-Semitism, ” dated April 3, 2006.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) was
founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East
and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the
Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies
and has more than 2700 members worldwide. MESA is committed to
ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the
region and in connection with the study of the region in North America
and elsewhere.

MESA rejects all forms of hate speech and discrimination, including
anti-Semitism. It supports prompt and forceful action in response to
anti-Semitic incidents on university campuses. MESA also endorses the
Commission’s efforts to increase awareness of anti-Semitism on
university campuses.

However, MESA is concerned that the briefing report and findings
issued by the Commission may actually weaken efforts to combat
anti-Semitism by expanding its definition to include an indefensibly
broad range of legitimate speech and conduct. We are also concerned
that false allegations associating Middle East studies programs and
faculty with anti-Semitism may contribute to an already troubling
environment of harassment, intimidation and censorship of faculty and
students on college and university campuses, thereby threatening
academic freedom.

Three issues are of particular concern to MESA. First, we are deeply
troubled by the Commission’s apparent acceptance of an overly broad
and vague definition of anti-Semitism that dangerously blurs the
boundaries between actual anti-Semitic speech and conduct, on the one
hand, and criticism of Israel, Zionism, or U.S. policy in the Middle
East on the other. As a result, the briefing report and the
Commission’s findings seem to accept or even endorse assertions made
by panelists who submitted statements to the Commission that entirely
legitimate views and policy positions with which they disagree should
be characterized as anti-Semitic. Such assertions are particularly
distressing when they involve scholarship and teaching by college and
university faculty. Wherever anti-Semitism surfaces, an immediate and
vigorous response is necessary. But efforts to demonize academic and
other critics of Israel, Zionism, and U.S. policy in the Middle East
by tarring them with the brush of anti-Semitism are clearly
unacceptable and merit no less urgent and vigorous a response.

Second, we reject as unfounded the allegations and insinuations
presented in the briefing report that university departments of Middle
East studies promote anti-Semitism. The briefing report presents no
evidence whatsoever that would substantiate such scurrilous claims,
and none of the instances of anti-Semitism referred to in the report
involved a federally-funded Middle East studies center. Unfortunately,
the Commission permitted members of the briefing panel to repeat,
without challenge, unfounded allegations concerning individual faculty
members specializing in the study of the Middle East and/or Islam, all
of whom have rejected the charges against them and denied their
truthfulness. Several of these faculty members have in fact been
subjected to exhaustive investigations by their universities which
have not substantiated the allegations repeated in the Commission’s
briefing.

We also insist that it is inappropriate and inaccurate for the
Commission to have included among its findings the assertion that
“many university departments of Middle East studies provide one-sided,
highly polemical academic presentations and some may repress
legitimate debate concerning Israel.” This assertion too is completely
unsupported by evidence and should be stricken from the Commission’s
findings.

Third, we are concerned that the procedure by which the briefing
report was produced was defective; that much of its tone and contents
is highly polemical and fall far short of the standard that Americans
have a right to expect the Commission to adhere to; and that it may
contribute to an environment on university campuses that undermines
academic freedom as well as the kind of first-rate scholarly research
and teaching on the Middle East and the Muslim world which our country
so desperately needs.

As the briefing report notes, all of the universities invited to take
part in the briefing declined to do so. To our knowledge, no
representative of university-based Middle East studies programs or of
the academic Middle East studies community was invited to participate.
The briefing report, and the responses to it by several universities
against which allegations were made, make it clear that the panelists
presented a very partial, highly ideological, and narrowly partisan
understanding of academic Middle East studies in this country and
sought to define anti-Semitism extremely broadly and loosely. We fear
that their purpose in so doing was to advance their own partisan
political agenda, strengthen efforts to impose political litmus tests
on college and university faculty, subject federally-funded Middle
East studies programs to politically- motivated oversight, undermine
academic freedom, and stifle free and open discussion on public issues
of critical national importance.

We also note that efforts to dilute and expand the definition of
anti-Semitism so as to encompass legitimate speech and conduct can
have damaging consequences for efforts to address and combat real
anti-Semitism. By adopting a vague and politicized definition of this
insidious form of hate speech, the Commission increases the risk that
attention and resources that are better directed toward combating real
anti-Semitism will instead be diverted to politically- motivated
efforts to censor unpopular or controversial views expressed by
university faculty. We urge the Commission not to pursue or endorse
such a course, but rather to focus its efforts on real forms and
incidents of discrimination and hate speech, including anti-Semitism.

By accepting panelists’ unsubstantiated allegations and insinuations
about biased and unprofessional conduct among Middle East studies
programs and faculty, and by allowing them to be publicly tainted with
the brush of anti-Semitism, the Commission has imposed a substantial
burden on these programs and individuals. It is incumbent on the
Commission to relieve this burden. We therefore call upon the
Commission to clarify its definition of anti-Semitism by more
effectively distinguishing it from criticism of Israel or of Zionism,
and to state publicly that the allegations and insinuations contained
in the briefing report and findings concerning Middle East studies
programs and faculty are unsubstantiated by evidence and do not
reflect the views of the Commission.

Sincerely,
Zachary Lockman
President

cc: Abigail Thernstrom, Vice Chair
Kenneth L. Marcus, Staff Director
Jennifer C. Braceras, Commissioner
Peter N. Kirsanow, Commissioner
Arlan D. Melendez, Commissioner
Ashley L. Taylor, Jr., Commissioner
Michael Yaki, Commissioner

Also see:

US Commission on Civil Rights, “Public Education Campaign to End
Campus Anti-Semitism” :
<http://www.eusccr. com/ >

“Ending Campus Anti-Semitism Public Education Web Site to be Launched
By U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,” Media Advisory (10 April 2007):
<http://www.usccr. gov/press/ 2007/Apr13meetin g.pdf >
“USCCR Report Examines Incidents of Campus Anti-Semitism, ” Media
Advisory (15 August 2006):
<http://www.usccr. gov/press/ 2006/081506Campu santi-SemitismRe port.pdf >
“USCCR to Call for End to Anti-Semitic Harassment,” Media Advisory (27
March 2006):
<http://www.usccr. gov/press/ 2006/040306antis emitism.pdf >

“Findings and Recommendations of the United States Commission on Civil
Rights Regarding Campus Anti-Semitism” (3 April 2006):
<http://www.usccr. gov/pubs/ 050306FRUSCCRRCA S.pdf >
“Campus Anti-Semitism” (18 November 2005):
<http://www.usccr. gov/pubs/ 081506campusanti brief07.pdf >

<http://www.mesa. arizona.edu/ about/cafmenalet ters.htm# USCCRJune11 >

MESA Challenges US Civil Rights Commission’s Definition of “Campus Anti-Semitism”

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