CSU system debates restarting Israel study abroad programs

During the past few months, top California State University administrators, who oversee 23 campuses with 420,000 students, were spending a good deal of time wrestling with upcoming draconian state budget cuts and protesting students, yet they set aside some time to consider whether the largest four-year college system in the United States should restart its study abroad program in Israel.

CSU shut down the program in 2002, during the height of the Second Intifada, citing U.S. State Department warnings against travel to Israel.

But now, with relative quiet in Israel, and under considerable pressure from Jewish organizations, student groups, legislators and even Israeli diplomats, CSU seemed on the verge of announcing a resumption of the Israel program.

Not everyone applauded the new attitude. In early December, a petition in the form of an Open Letter landed on the desk of CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, under the boldface header, “We strongly urge you not to reinstate the CSU Israel Study Program Abroad.”

The petition had been signed by some 81 faculty members, nearly half from the university’s Northridge campus (CSUN), as well as 46 students and alumni. Among the signatories were a number of deans and department chairs, as well as Harry Hellenbrand, who at the time was CSUN’s provost, vice president for academic affairs and the campus’ second-highest administrator.

On Jan. 1, Hellenbrand was named the interim president of the campus, following the recent retirement of its president, Jolene Koester. (Under the CSU nomenclature, the head of the entire system is the chancellor, while each campus is led by a president — the reverse of the University of California designations.)

The chief organizer of the petition, as of most anti-Israel activity on campus, was David Klein, a veteran mathematics professor at the school. Klein’s Web site on the CSUN server is a compendium of just about every charge ever leveled against Israel, starting with the quote “Israel is the most racist state in the world at this time.”

Not surprisingly, Klein has been the bête noire of pro-Israel groups for some years, and the petition — which also warned that American students might be killed by Israeli soldiers or face discrimination if of Arab descent — stoked the anger.

CSU’s announcement in mid-December that the study program in Israel would be resumed with the 2012 fall semester at the University of Haifa, did little to lower the level of acrimony. (Asked why the Hebrew University or Tel Aviv University is not included in the program, CSU spokesman Erik Fallis cited security considerations.)

One of the first formal outside complaints against Klein’s Web site came to CSUN President Koester in late November from Leila Beckwith, a professor emerita and child psychologist at UCLA, who wrote in conjunction with Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz. The two recently co-founded the Amcha Initiative, described as a grassroots Jewish organization focusing on problems of public higher education.

Amcha’s charges were quickly reinforced by two other organizations, StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).

A series of phone interviews, e-mail exchanges and correspondence made available by the university to The Jewish Journal yielded a general outline of the evolving dispute.

In the first round of e-mail exchanges, Amcha, StandWithUs and ZOA focused on Klein’s “anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Web pages,” citing the “most racist state” quote, alongside “gruesome photos of dead children to imply that Israel intentionally murders Palestinian babies.”

As a follow-up, the pro-Israel groups argued that, while Klein was free to express his ideas, “however abhorrent,” as an individual, he was violating university regulations and the law by posting his material on the CSU server.

He was thus not only implying the university’s imprimatur for his opinions, but also using taxpayers’ funds in the process, the critics charged.

In response, Koester wrote that a full administrative review found that while Klein’s views might be offensive, he had the academic freedom and free-speech rights to express his opinions.

She also affirmed that Klein’s rights “extend to the use of an individual’s Web pages as part of the university’s Web site.”

Amcha and ZOA shot back challenging the use of the CSUN Web site for “political propaganda,” and Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, said in an interview that she would explore the possibility of taking legal action.

For her part, Rossman-Benjamin received in response to a lengthy memo to Koester listing a series of objections, a curt e-mail consisting of just two words — “Too bad” — followed by Koester’s initials.

This seemingly contemptuous reply from the school’s then-president quickly made the rounds of CSUN’s critics, until Koester hastily drafted a somewhat awkward apology. She explained that she had sent the message from her cell phone while traveling, intending to forward the information to her staff, but had accidentally pressed “reply” instead of the “forward” button.

“The comment ‘too bad’ was meant to express to internal staff regret about the controversy and the distress it had caused,” Koester wrote. “It was not a comment directed at you … and was not intended to disrespect or dismiss either you or your point of view.”