UC Professors Oppose Call for ‘Viewpoint-Neutral’ Middle East History Education

Some professors found the proposed plan, which is meant to ease tensions over the Israel–Hamas war, an interference of their academic freedom.
UC Professors Oppose Call for ‘Viewpoint-Neutral’ Middle East History Education
A person holds a Palestinian flag as students participate in a "Walkout to fight Genocide and Free Palestine" at Bruin Plaza at University of California–Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 2023. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
Bill Pan
12/1/2023
Updated:
12/5/2023
0:00

A group of 150 faculty members of the University of California (UC) system are pushing back against a call for them to teach a “viewpoint-neutral” Middle Eastern history as part of a broader strategy to ease the tension on campuses in the wake of the Israel–Hamas war.

In an open letter on Nov. 30, the professors asked UC system President Michael Drake to rescind his use of the term “viewpoint-neutral history” from his remarks made to the UC board of regents two weeks ago, arguing that “presenting conflicting viewpoints” is a normal and important part of their history curriculum.
“In adopting the phrase ‘viewpoint neutral Middle East History’ you appear to be calling into question the academic integrity of the community of University of California scholars already engaged in the historical study and teaching of the Middle East,” the professors wrote.

“It is an unneeded rebuke of the rigorous work done by our colleagues who spend significant time developing and delivering world-class curriculum and pedagogy, not to mention the very principle of faculty shared governance which rests in the faculty the sole responsibility for maintaining the quality of our universities’ academic programs.”

During a Nov. 15 board of regents meeting, Mr. Drake said many of UC’s students, faculty, and staff members are “suffering right here at home” from fear and frustration as fighting between Israeli military forces and Hamas terrorists in Gaza intensifies.

“Some feel unsafe leaving their dorm rooms,” he told the board. “Some worry about what they can and cannot say in their classrooms. Some feel helpless and unsure about how to navigate this complex situation in class or at work. Some have been doxxed for using their voices, and some have faced outright violence. They are fearful, they are vulnerable, and they have asked for our help.”

To address the problem and find a way to “compassion and understanding in difficult moments,” Mr. Drake proposed to spend $2 million on educational programs focused on “better understanding anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, how to recognize and combat extremism, and a viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.”

He also called for another $2 million investment to make sure that UC university leaders and educators are “equipped with the knowledge they need to respond when issues arise” related to the Middle Eastern war and that university policies are “supportive, preventative, and viewpoint-neutral.”

The professors—mostly from history, humanities, and social science disciplines—took issue with those proposed initiatives, calling them administrative interference with academic freedom.

“To suggest that the UC administration should determine how and what we teach will set a chilling precedent for our field and the many others engaged in teaching topics that might be considered controversial or divisive,” they wrote in the Nov. 30 letter.

In response to the opposition, a spokesperson for the UC system said in an emailed statement that the programs Mr. Drake proposed would be voluntary.

“The University of California remains deeply committed to shared governance and the academic freedom of our faculty,” the statement reads. “The president’s remarks were referencing voluntary educational programming on our campuses, not classroom content or curriculum. We are actively working with our campuses to determine how to distribute these funds in ways that will benefit our campus communities.”

UC Berkeley Sued for ‘Unchecked Spread of Anti-Semitism’

The Nov. 30 letter came after two Jewish civil rights groups brought a lawsuit against UC Berkley, accusing the university of fostering the “longstanding, unchecked spread of anti-Semitism.”

In their lawsuit filed on Nov. 28, the Brandeis Center and Jewish Americans for Fairness in Education alleged that “hatred and threats” targeting Jews on the UC Berkeley campus “erupted” following the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre because the school allowed anti-Israel policies that are, in fact, anti-Semitic.

For example, according to the Brandeis Center, in order to volunteer to provide pro bono legal services through a number of Berkeley Law legal services organizations, Jewish students must undergo a “Palestine 101” training program that “emphasizes the illegitimacy of the State of Israel.”

The suit also pointed to a decision last year by nine law student organizations to amend their constitutions with a bylaw that bans all “Zionist speakers.” The Zionist ban has so far been adopted by 23 UC Berkley groups, including academic journals that prohibit Zionist authors from publishing and pro-bono organizations that prohibit speakers who hold Zionist views.

“Anti-Zionism rejects the very right of Israel to exist and denies Jews the fundamental right to self-determination,” the Brandeis Center stated, noting that a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 80 percent of American Jews see Israel as integral to their Jewish identity.

“While UC Berkeley leaders have repeatedly acknowledged the Zionist ban is blatant anti-Semitism, they have done nothing to address it. This has allowed anti-Jewish bigotry to normalize and escalate.”

The lawsuit is the first of its kind to be filed against a public university in light of the nationwide increase of reports of on-campus anti-Semitism fueled by the Gaza war. A temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas, which allowed more than 100 hostages to be released in exchange for Hamas prisoners, expired on Dec. 1.