The effort by some Jewish groups to establish a government review procedure to address claims of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism on university campuses appears to be under threat just as it's making serious headway.
Buried in a massive budget bill passed recently by the Senate are two paragraphs with language stating that the US Department of Education must not "mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction."
The inclusion suggests resistance among conservatives in Congress and elsewhere to reforms that Jewish groups say are needed to alleviate what they claim is a hostile environment toward Jewish students on some campuses.
The resistance came to the fore last Friday when three Jewish groups testified on the matter before the US Commission on Civil Rights, encountering tough questions from the more conservative commissioners.
The Senate language, inserted in the Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005 and passed by the Senate on Nov. 3, would gut plans to make universities that receive federal funds accountable to the Education Department to the degree that some Jewish groups have sought.
"There should be something in there that requires a balance of viewpoints," said Susan Tuchman, director of the Center of Law and Justice at the Zionist Organization of America, a group that has been lobbying hard for federal review of universities' Middle Eastern studies. "It's not enough to ensure that appropriate changes are made."
The American Jewish Congress, also a leader in the effort, has been fighting hard to remove exactly the same language from another bill making headway in both houses, said Sarah Stern, the AJCongress' director of governmental affairs.
Stern said the inclusion of the language in the deficit-reduction bill came "completely under the radar." Three other Jewish groups involved in pressing for the legislation said they only learned of the language in recent days, some because of JTA's questions.
At least one of the groups was still reviewing the legislation and wasn't ready to condemn it outright.
The American Jewish Committee said other provisions in the bill might meet the standards it has been seeking by giving the secretary of education some limited powers of review.
"It has always been our contention that those reforms would not allow the secretary to interfere with academic freedom or autonomy of institutions," said Richard Foltin, the AJC Committee's legislative director.
A US House of Representatives version of the deficit-reduction bill that scraped through last Friday does not include the language, and Jewish groups were hoping it might disappear in the version that emerges in the House-Senate conference before Christmas break.
It's not clear which senator inserted the language during the lengthy process of composing a bill that deals mostly with budget cutting to offset the costs of war and hurricane recovery, but it would have had to pass Republican muster. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), the chairman of the Senate's Budget Committee, initiated the bill, and it passed 52-47, largely along party lines.
As Foltin noted, the bill does provide some redress. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings would be able to suspend federal funding for a university for 60 days if she deems a complaint serious enough, but after that she would be required to resume the funding whether or not the complaint has been resolved. She also would be authorized to take such complaints into account when renewing grants to universities.
Additionally, the bill suggests linking funding for universities to their success in creating a cadre of Middle East experts in government.
However, the language that keeps the education secretary from touching "specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction" means that she wouldn't be able to require a university's Middle East studies department to balance a reliance on Arabists such as Edward Said with other historians with a more pro-Western tilt, such as Bernard Lewis.
Groups like AJCongress, ZOA and the Institute for Jewish and Community Research allege that anti-Western bias pervades American universities's Mideast studies departments. Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the AJCommittee, agree that there is a problem but say progress is being made.
"Institutional anti-Semitism, discrimination and quotas against Jewish students are largely a thing of the past," the ADL said in written testimony to the Commission on Civil Rights.
Should the language survive the House-Senate conference, another bill promoting much tougher measures could fall by the wayside, Jewish lobbyists said. Legislators could argue that a solution is already on the books, so they don't need to pursue the matter further.
Jewish groups favor another bill that would establish an advisory committee to review complaints of bias, a measure that academic organizations say smacks of McCarthyism. That has passed a House committee but has yet to be considered by the full House, meaning the diluted version passed by the Senate on Nov. 3 is much further advanced.
Witnesses at the Civil Rights Commission hoped they would get a sympathetic ear for the proposed advisory committee. The commission has no enforcement powers, but its recommendations would have moral force in Washington.
Citing a litany of complaints from Jewish students across the country, Stern of the AJCongress, Tuchman of ZOA and Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, painted a picture of a pervasively hostile environment.
"Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism are systemic ideologies in higher education," Tobin said.
Instead of the sympathy they expected, the witnesses got a sometimes-testy exchange on the role of government in policing campuses.
Significantly, the toughest questions came from commissioners most closely associated with the Bush administration, which recently revamped the commission to more closely reflect its own conservative values.
"I am extremely nervous about administrative oversight on university campuses," said Abigail Thernstrom, the commission's vice chairwoman. "You do not want administrators waking into classrooms and deciding what a professor is teaching is acceptable or unacceptable."
Stern said such worries were unfounded. By mitigating bias, a federal advisory panel that would review complaints would encourage debate, not inhibit it, she said.
"Any intellectually honest person with integrity would say, 'Wait a minute, there is another side here,' " she said.
Tobin said the threat of withdrawing federal funding would be a last resort meant to spur universities into using tools already at their disposal - for instance, increasing the involvement of trustees in hiring and firing decisions.
"This truly is a nuclear option," he said of the proposed legislation.
The witnesses got a more sympathetic hearing from the two Democrats on the eight-person commission.
"Simply because something happens in the arena of a university does not qualify it as untouchable," said Michael Yaki, a San Francisco lawyer.
He also chided conservatives on the commission who suggested that only physical harassment was out of bounds, noting that the legal definition of sexual harassment includes its verbal forms.
The conservative commissioners were equally skeptical of a federal role in policing anti-Semitism on campus.
Thernstrom, who is Jewish, said posters that had appeared on campuses that depicted Israelis as baby-killers were appalling, but might be part of the necessary give-and-take of university life.
"I don't want universities to be comfortable places for students," she said.