Proposed USC-Dubai journalism school concerns faculty and community

Faculty members at the USC Annenberg School for Communications are deep into a controversy that should be of interest to the Jewish community.

It concerns a proposal from USC for a $3 million contract for Annenberg to work with the American University in Dubai to create a journalism and communications school in the Middle Eastern nation.

Some on the USC faculty are concerned that Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will discriminate against student applicants and faculty who are not Muslim, including Jews. Critics also cite past United Arab Emirate opposition to Israel.

What makes this of interest to local Jews — even those not connected to the home of the Trojans — is the close connection USC has forged with the Jewish community over the years. The Jewish presence among students, faculty and the board of trustees is strong, USC’s Hillel is bustling and the university also has the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, which works with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as well as the Shoah Visual History Foundation. In addition, Jews are among USC’s financial supporters.

The current university is far different than the old anti-Semitic USC. That era was recalled in a 1996 article by The Jewish Journal’s Tom Tugend, who described the school’s pre-World War II quota system that was “strikingly simple. One Jewish student was admitted to the medical school, one to the dental school and one to the law school.”

Today, Jewish faculty members are divided over the Dubai proposal. “So many of the people involved in this are Jewish,” said Ed Cray, a veteran journalism professor.

According to a proposed memorandum of understanding, Annenberg would receive $1 million a year for three years to provide the American University and its Mohammed bin Rashid School for Communication with curriculum advice and faculty assistance. Annenberg would also work with its Dubai partner to set up an international conference center and think tank there.

The memorandum states that neither USC nor the Rashid school would “discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, color, age, physical or mental disability, national origin, veteran status, marital status or any other category protected by law in employment or in any of its programs and/or activities.” But it’s unclear how this clause would be enforced.

Annenberg dean Ernest J. Wilson III told me that USC will be “providing training to a significant part of the journalists who will be distributing information all through the Middle East and into India.”

Annenberg professor Philip Seib, principal director of the project, said in an article on the Annenberg Web site, “The news business is much less mature in Arab countries…. We’re eager to contribute to the enhancement of journalistic fundamentals … by fostering appreciation of American journalism values — everything from ethics to professional production skills….”

Faculty critics with long memories recall a proposal in the 1970s for a USC Middle East Studies Center financed entirely, Tugend reported, “by Arab oil money.” The Jewish community, fearing creation of a nest of pro-Arab, anti-Israel academics, protested, and the proposal was killed.

A vocal opponent of the Dubai plan is professor Jonathan Kotler, who was joined by a half-dozen colleagues. He told me he was concerned about UAE support for the PLO and its “civil rights record … in its treatment of foreigners, women, children and gays….” And he noted that Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, has been sued for forcing young boys into slavery to serve as jockeys in the popular sport of camel racing. The Dubai communications school was named for him.

“I don’t think we should get into bed with such a person,” he said, and he believes the proposal “besmirches the name of the university and the Annenberg school.” He was particularly concerned about past United Arab Emirate support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he considers a supporter of jihad and terrorism.

“As a Jewish American, I am offended,” he said.

Murray Fromson, an emeritus journalism professor and a longtime foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and CBS, sees it differently.

Fromson, who every year visits his daughter Aliza Ben-Tal, assistant to the president of Ben-Gurion University, in Israel, told me this is not a Jewish issue unless Dubai discriminates against Jews or academics who are involved in communications programs in Israel. “It’s a Jewish issue if we start a program in Israel and they [Dubai officials] say we can’t do it,” Fromson said.

He said his years as a reporter overseas taught him the value of such programs, a view that was reinforced when he headed a USC program in Mexico, in the days when the PRI political party clamped down on dissent in a brutal way, and the government bribed the press.

His students there learned about a free press. “Two of our students were among those who got the National Assembly to adopt a First Amendment [free press guarantee],” he said.

I’ve taught at Annenberg on and off for several years. As a part-time Trojan, here’s what I think:

Like Fromson, I believe a program such as this can do much good, even in a country with a poor human rights record. But USC should insist on ironclad anti-discrimination clauses in the contract to prevent the Arab rulers of Dubai from discriminating against Jews and other non-Muslims.

Anti-Zionism Views Reach UC Riverside

An inflammatory poster equating Zionism with Nazism at the University of California’s Riverside (UCR) campus has mobilized Jewish students and faculty, drawn strong condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and cautious responses from university officials.

The offensive poster appeared in a display case of UCR’s sociology department in mid-October, prominently featuring photos of a Star of David and swastika, separated by an equal sign, and of an Israeli soldier pointing a rifle at a Palestinian woman.

To "explain" the Star of David/swastika "symbolism," the text noted that Israel was imposing a Nazi-like final solution on the Palestinians and that "Zionists believe that Israel is to be the land from which God’s chosen people will rule over the rest of the world, in accordance with God’s master plan."

The poster was the work of Debbi LeAnce, a 28-year-old senior, who leads a campus anti-war group, founded after Sept. 11, known as the Student Coalition for Peace and Human Rights, and, alternately, as the UCR Resistance.

A shocked Hanna Gershfeld, president of the campus Hillel chapter, turned for advice on counteraction to two sources, the ADL regional chapter in Los Angeles and UCR philosophy professor Howard Wettstein, faculty adviser to the Hillel group, which is currently without a director.

Wettstein said the attack came as a surprise because the campus, with a large number of Asian American and Latino students, is generally marked by a "pleasant, nonhostile environment."

ADL Director Amanda Susskind and Associate Director Alison Mayersohn turned first to UCR Chancellor France Cordova, asking her to condemn the hateful attack.

Cordova, who had been advised by counsel that the poster came under the free speech protection of the First Amendment, responded with a generalized statement, asking for a civil campus environment, but without mentioning the poster incident.

A follow-up letter by ADL elicited a further statement by Vice Chancellor James W. Sandoval, which also asked for respectful discourse, but did label the poster as "offensive and reprehensible."

At the same time, Robert Dynes, president of the statewide UC system, issued a statement to the board of regents, denouncing the poster as "reprehensible," but constitutionally protected.

Wettstein praised one high-level official, Patricia O’Brien, dean of humanities, arts and social sciences.

"She got it right away and was very supportive," he said.

By the end of October, the poster was removed, after the mandated two-week display limit had expired, but the controversy continued.

Last week, LeAnce and her student group announced a panel discussion at an off-campus coffee shop, which Gershfeld and seven other Hillel members decided to attend. Gershfeld asked for backup from StandWithUs, a grass-roots pro-Israel organization, which sent a three-person delegation, headed by Roz Rothstein, its executive director.

Gershfeld, a 20-year-old senior in political science, said that after an opening "rant" by LeAnce, the tone became calmer. Both she and Rothstein said they relished the opportunity to present the Israeli side to some 40 largely uncommitted and uninformed students, including a number of moderate Muslims.

Meanwhile, Wettstein was working with the UCR administration and fellow professors to organize an open forum to discuss the incident’s underlying political, free speech and campus ramifications.

The Nov. 3 meeting drew some 150 faculty, students and staff, including the chancellor and top administrators. Wettstein and a moderate leader of the local Muslim community spoke, and although LeAnce presented her customary list of anti-Israel charges, Wettstein described the event as "positive."

A series of additional forums is planned for the future.

Although pained and angered by the poster, Wettstein felt it produced some positive results.

"The incident drew Jewish students and faculty together, and energized them," he said. "Despite their anger, they didn’t become strident, stayed focused and kept their eyes on the ball.

"I was disappointed by some of my liberal and left-leaning colleagues, who are usually quick and loud to speak out against bigotry, but stayed silent in this case," he added. "But I was pleased by the student newspaper, which bluntly criticized the campus administration for not speaking out more forcefully."

A Fresh Crop

A delicious breeze wafted through the white tent erected on the brand-new, football field-sized parking lot of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on May 14, cooling gowned graduates, faculty, and alumni — plus a bevy of proud relatives and friends — as the school awarded degrees to a group of freshly minted Jewish educators and communal service professionals and a clutch of rabbis-to-be.

The students were all smiles as they
received scrolls, academic hoods and congratulations from Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school, and Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, acting president of the four-campus system, along with the leaders of the various academic schools at the local campus.

Cohen outlined the remarkable growth of the Los Angeles campus, which has added faculty and programs in recent years and will ordain its first class of rabbis next spring. Twelve of the students honored May 14 were rabbinic students, nine earning master of arts degrees in Hebrew letters, who will be ordained two years from now; the other three completed their rabbinic studies in Los Angeles and were headed to New York for ordination on May 20.

The school also awarded five master’s degrees in Jewish communal service and 11 in Jewish education. Three other students, including commencement speaker Jordanna Cooper, earned joint degrees in both disciplines.

In her address, Cooper pointed out that trends in American Jewish life tended away from communal activity and toward idiosyncratic practice.

“If Jews want to define Judaism for themselves in their own homes and are not interested in being part of a community, should you and I be afraid for our very new jobs?” Cooper asked her fellow graduates. “What are you going to tell [people] … when they ask us, ‘Why should I be Jewish?’ ‘Why should I be active in the Jewish community?’ We have to come up with something to tell them, and it’s gotta be good.”

Ruth Weisberg, dean of USC’s School of Fine Arts, gave the commencement address, underscoring HUC-JIR’s close relationship with its larger neighbor. Weisberg was awarded an honorary doctorate, as was Sister Karen Kennelly, president emerita of another HUC-JIR neighbor, Mount St. Mary’s College.

During a morning worship service, 17 HUC-JIR alumni — not only rabbis but educators, communal service workers and a cantor — were awarded honorary doctorates on the 25th anniversary of their having graduated from the college. Among the local honorees were Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Jerald Brown of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, and Rivka Dori, longtime Hebrew professor at HUC-JIR.

The commencement exercises came three weeks after the college’s 125th anniversary celebration on April 22, which was a day of study, song and schmoozing during which L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas presented a proclamation honoring the school’s long presence in the city.

Graduation ended with a bountiful dessert reception, a sweet ending to a happy day for the L.A. Jewish community as well as the new degree-holders.