Palestine Legal Calls on Congress to Reject Israel-Aligned Groups’ Interference with Academic Freedom


Last week, Palestine Legal wrote to members of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee urging Senators to reject rightwing Israel lobby groups’ efforts to condition federal funding of Middle East studies programs on viewpoint-based regulations of academic activities related to the Middle East. The letter was co-signed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Lawyers Guild, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

This year, Congress is expected to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). Through Title VI of the HEA, some colleges and universities receive federal funding for language and international studies programs, including Middle East studies programs.

For years, rightwing Israel advocacy groups like the Amcha Initiative and the Brandeis Center have attacked Middle East studies programs across the country, using flawed research to mischaracterize them as “biased,” “anti-American,” and “anti-Israel.” In previous years, these groups have lobbied Congress and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to cancel all Title VI funding or mandate a mechanism for the DOE to receive complaints of “bias” to trigger investigations aimed at coercing academic centers to promote pro-Israel viewpoints.  

This year, Amcha Initiative, Brandeis, and their partners called on members of Congress to insert statutory requirements in the reauthorization of the HEA that would require DOE to scrutinize university departments’ programming, and would condition federal funding on their ability to show that programming related to Israel is sufficiently sympathetic to Israeli government policies and practices, under the guise of requiring such departments to demonstrate a commitment to “diverse perspectives.”

If implemented, these requirements would violate academic freedom, raising serious First Amendment concerns. Our letter noted:

“To be clear, we embrace the notion that universities should endeavor to expose students to diverse points of view, particularly those to which they may not otherwise be exposed outside the university context…. The policy proposals from Amcha Initiative, Brandeis Center, and their partners, however, invite unconstitutional political meddling in academic programming.”

Importantly, many of the Israel advocacy organizations pushing for this statutory change are the same organizations that routinely pressure colleges and universities to censor speech critical of Israeli government policies and to punish those who speak out for Palestinian rights on campuses. We have documented these efforts extensively in our 2015 report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech, and its 2016 and 2017 updates.

Palestine Legal and its partners are not the only organizations to raise concerns with the reauthorization of the HEA. In April, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, and 46 other civil rights and education groups published a list of principles that must be included in any bill reauthorizing the HEA. The principles, aimed at maintaining the HEA’s role in “providing greater opportunity for low-income people, people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and immigrants to go to college” can be found here.

Click here to read our letter.