Department Of Education V. Duke: A Student Perspective
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Department Of Education V. Duke: A Student Perspective

Accusations of anti-Israel bias at two North Carolina colleges obscure the experience of Jewish students on the ground.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, above, and Duke’s University Chapel, right: A battle of perceived bias. Photos by Getty Images /Photo illustration by Janice Hwang / JW
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, above, and Duke’s University Chapel, right: A battle of perceived bias. Photos by Getty Images /Photo illustration by Janice Hwang / JW

Everyone needs to take a deep breath.

In a Sept. 19 news story, The New York Times detailed an effort by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to compel Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to adjust their joint Middle East Studies program. The DOE, headed by Betsy DeVos, argued that the Duke-UNC Consortium for the Middle East’s offerings favored Islam and did not paint Judaism and Christianity in enough of a positive light, among other grievances. Accordingly, the DOE threatened to withhold Title VI funding from the consortium.

Immediately after The Times article was circulated, there was outrage from many different corners. Some commentators argued that the DOE’s letter was consistent with a history of American “imperialism” in the Mideast. Others said the program ignores the needs of Jewish students who perceive anti-Israel bias in their classes. Over 60 Duke faculty wrote a letter to the editor in the newspaper emphasizing a free and open educational climate. All the while, Duke issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to academic freedom.

Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 allows Congress to authorize grants that contribute to America’s national security by teaching students foreign languages and building cultural knowledge. By threatening the consortium’s Title VI funding, the DOE is suggesting that the consortium is not benefitting national security adequately. That claim is misleading at best and disingenuous at worst. 

The DOE argued that “the Duke-UNC CMES offers very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities.” This is not true. The consortium frequently collaborates with national security groups like the Triangle Institute for Security Studies or the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security to bring practitioners to campus to speak about Middle East geopolitical issues. In fact, in the last month alone, the consortium has sponsored events featuring Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s chair, Samantha Ravich.

The DOE also claimed that the consortium must have “impermissible biases in programming” since a relatively low percentage of graduates enter careers in higher education, government, or business. Not only is it not true — the figures that the government cited excluded business graduates, who make up 30 percent of graduates — but it shouldn’t matter. From a national security perspective, the nation benefits from anyone being culturally educated. Cultural fluency breeds tolerance and respect, both of which contribute to the creation of informed, coherent foreign policy preferences. It stands to reason that the more an electorate understands other countries, the better its government’s foreign policy will be.

The unspoken implication of the DOE’s letter is that the administration has perceived anti-Israel bias in the consortium’s curriculum. As a student in one of the consortium’s classes right now, I have not experienced anti-Israel bias. I’m currently taking “Middle East Through Film,” a class where we use Middle Eastern film to understand the cultural and geopolitical realities of the region. If anything, I have actually experienced the opposite: the class is taught by an Israeli professor, and we are watching more films about Israel than any other country. Although my one class is a limited sample, I’ve found that my experience is consistent with that of most students. For example, I asked junior Sarah Jacobs about her experiences in classes related to the Middle East.

“After taking multiple Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and International Comparative Studies classes, I have yet to encounter strong anti-Israel bias inside the classroom setting,” Jacobs said. “In my current ‘Middle East Politics’ class, the discussion on Israel and Palestine has been, dare I say, as objective as possible so far, and the professor moderates the discussion well.”

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the consortium’s funding was renewed by the DOE shortly after the letter was issued. [Last week, under a resolution agreement with the DOE, UNC agreed to investigate allegations of anti-Semitic harassment and to issue a statement that such harassment will not be tolerated. UNC also said it would host meetings for students and staff to discuss concerns about anti-Semitism and to include anti-Semitic harassment issues in staff training.]

None of this is to say that the consortium shouldn’t be criticized for its past events. Notably, Jews on campus were disturbed when a rapper chanted an anti-Semitic song at a conference on Gaza hosted by the consortium at UNC. The heinous lyrics prompted a DOE investigation. At the very least, the consortium did not do enough to prevent the incident. Yet, by itself, the performance is not evidence of systematic anti-Israel bias at Duke and UNC.

From the outside looking in, it sometimes looks like the world is ending for Jewish students. From the inside looking out, many students aren’t as worried. There are undoubtedly events on campuses across America that are concerning — notably, apartheid walls, die-ins and swastikas, among others — but often the reaction from adults can be counterproductive. A concerned parent might threaten the president of a university to withhold donations or furiously email the dean of student affairs, but what effect does that have on the Jewish students who are left to answer accusations that the Jewish community is stifling freedom of speech? How do students feel when campus debate is centered around whether or not the pro-Israel community is suppressing academic freedom? In addition to being victims of the initial offense, students are doubly victimized because the measures parents take reinforce what is frequently the initial claim of the perpetrators. In this case, the DOE is attempting to fix a perceived problem for Jews on campus but is effectively creating an entirely different one: panic.

If adults really want to help Jewish students, the answer is not to launch lawsuits; it’s to encourage young Jews to educate themselves so that they have the tools to react to incidents on campus. At Duke, the Jewish community has rallied to hold events such as a lecture from Holocaust scholar and author Deborah Lipstadt and Anti-Defamation League training so that students feel comfortable being advocates and fighting hate. On a personal note, I started News of the Jews, a weekly newsletter where I break down the week’s most important Jewish and Israeli news in a digestible format so my peers can more easily understand current events. I encourage you and your children to subscribe here.

In any event, the next time that you think of sending an angry email to an administrator, stop yourself and consider if it will really help Jewish students. More often than not, the answer will be different than what you may think.

Spencer Kaplan is a junior at Duke University. He is a 2017 Write On For Israel graduate.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. 

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