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.
Cowboys & Indians
One of the bizarre effects of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 is better holiday movies. I realize that sounds coarse and facile at the same time, but it’s demonstrably true.
The major Christmas releases in the 2000 holiday season — the year before Sept. 11 — were “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Red Planet,” “Unbreakable,” “Dracula 2000” and “Miss Congeniality.”
Not a serious, political picture in the bunch, though in “Miss Congeniality” Sandra Bullock did play an FBI agent.
Now look at what’s come out this season, amid the standard fluff: First there was “Jarhead,” about an American soldier in the first Persian Gulf War. Next was “Good Night and Good Luck,” about newsman Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
And then came “Syriana,” and the soon-to-released “Munich.”
Last week I saw those last two, the latest movies to tackle the issues that Sept. 11 forced us to confront: terrorism, oil, Islam, the Middle East and religious fundamentalism.
One thing that stands out is this: Hollywood is making Westerns again, but this time, the Indians are Arab.
I’m not talking about the early Hollywood Indian — a cartoon bad guy or buffoon who spoke pigeon English and was played by a white guy.
I mean the latter-day Indians of film — the more politically correct, primitively honorable “Native Americans.” The ones who resist when the misguided “settlers” prove ignorant of native ways or, worse, when the newcomers become greedy or resort to violence.
With adjustments for nuance and modernity, these themes play out like clockwork in “Syriana.” In this film, the flawed Westerners are the film’s primary movers — whether government officials, CIA spooks or oil execs. They wrestle with the moral dilemmas that our suicidal energy policy raises. They worry about the political and human costs; they second-guess their actions; they call their Arab counterparts on the carpet for their own shortsightedness.
The Arabs, for their part, react: They fight back when the CIA encroaches on their turf; they turn to terror when oil company policies impoverish them; they preach against a West that interferes with their lives.
Of course it’s true that corporations, in tandem with our government and corrupt Arab regimes, have often acted despicably to slake our petroleum thirst. But there is something simplistic and misleading about heaping scorn on oilmen, lawyers, politicians and operatives, but making a murderous Arab (the mullahs, the suicide bombers, the torturer) look perpetually like a victim. We have ideology, desire, goals and misgivings; they react. We are the cowboys out to settle their West; they are the Indians.
I don’t buy it.
Director-writer Stephen Gaghan flays open the ideology and greed that underlay much of our presence in the Mideast, but he never even mentions troubling aspects of Islamic ideology and tribal tradition that were developing long before petrol was king.
The plot of “Syriana” is being hyped as purposefully complex and opaque — but it ignores an ideological strain of Islam that seeks the destruction of opposing values and people as incompatible and threatening to one interpretation of Quranic truth. The Arabs who plan and perpetrate these acts are more often than not homicidal fascists, but in “Syriana” they are all just reacting to Western predation. The cowboys have ideology and depth and complexity; the Indians just suffer and try to defend themselves.
Was Gaghan trying to make, say, 1950’s Western “Broken Arrow,” where Apaches rise up against encroaching whites, using the tableau of oil instead of land? If that’s the case, it’s morally obtuse. The Indians truly were victimized. We invaded their lands, and destroyed them with our guns, germs and steel.
Those who perpetrate terrorism are not innocent — even if they have sometimes been victims. It’s true that Western policies often exacerbate or even incite Islamic fundamentalism. But there is also a strain of Islamic fundamentalist driven by a sick religious ideology, as demented as that of the Crusaders. They are one-starred Sneetches who kill no-star Sneetches in the name of the Great Sneetch. Nazis killed to establish their superiority over non-Nazis. Islamic extremists kill primarily for that reason.
By being hooked on oil we supply them with money. Through asinine policies and actions, we supply them with fertile persuasion for recruitment. But our wrongs and our stupidities don’t negate the responsibility of those who must endure them. Radical Islamists espouse and are prey to an ideology rooted in death and destruction of the Other. For this film not to dramatize — or even recognize — this in some way left me flabbergasted.
Interestingly, “Syriana” is based on the book, “See No Evil” (Three Rivers, 2002) by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer. Baer goes into great detail on how much Mideast terror is the work of Iranian mullahs whose ideological enmity to the West has deep theological roots — a fact that “Syriana,” for all its vaunted complexity, avoids.
To be fair, Gaghan has made a serious, perhaps even courageous, effort to wrestle with contemporary issues. But Arab intransigence and irredentism, Islamic fundamentalism, religious and national fascism, are as much a part of the Middle East muck as Western predations.
Can a single movie fairly dramatize all of this? Sure, and one day they’ll make the cowboys gay.
Calendars Remove Anti-Israel Day
A campaign by Berlin-based activists has resulted in the erasure of “Al Quds Day” from some interfaith calendars in the United States and United Kingdom.
As Iran’s president was calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, members of Together Against Political Islam and Anti-Semitism were busy calling for “Al Quds Day” to be wiped off calendars — and the campaign is paying off.
Institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, from Harvard University to Northumbria University in England, have announced that they are deleting Al Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day — a holiday that focuses on the destruction of Israel — from calendars where it had been listed as a religious holiday. Al Quds Day fell on Oct. 28 this year.
The point is not just to clean up calendars, said political scientist Arne Behrensen, a co-founder of the activist group, but “to engage the political left in confronting Islamism and Islamist anti-Semitism.”
Members of the pro-democracy group include people of Iranian, Kurdish and Turkish background. Many of the Iranian and Kurdish members are refugees from their homelands.
The annihilation of Israel is the raison d’etre of the “holiday” that the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is marked with anti-Israel demonstrations in some Islamic countries, as well as in cities with large Muslim populations outside the Islamic world.
Berlin police have taken increasing interest in defusing the event in recent years, since an incident in which an Al Quds Day demonstrator proudly displayed his small children wrapped in mock suicide bomb belts. All posters and banners at the event now must be submitted for approval, including those in Arabic, and statements calling for Israel’s destruction are banned.
That may be why Berlin’s Al Quds Day demonstrations have declined in numbers, Behrensen said. His group has held counter-demonstrations for three years running.
That trend held true this year as well. Only some 400 marchers attended this year’s event on Saturday, down from 1,500 in 2004 and 3,000 in 2003, said Anetta Kahane, a co-organizer of a counterdemonstration and a member of the Berlin Jewish community.
The group also succeeded in getting a German organization to remove Al Quds Day from its calendar in 2003. This year, Behrensen focused on British and American institutions that he found on the Internet.
One recipient of the campaign’s recent e-mail, Debra Dawson of Harvard United Ministries in Cambridge, Mass., said she had checked with her group’s Islamic chaplain “and he assured me that this day is not an Islamic holiday, so I am removing it from the site.”
Spike Ried, president of the Northumbria University Students’ Union in Newcastle, England, said his group had removed the event from its online calendar and issued a written apology. It reads in part, “We now understand that this day is considered offensive to Israeli and Jewish people worldwide.”
Students submit dates to the calendar, and Al Quds Day “was included on the understanding that it was a religious day,” Ried said. After discussions with both Islamic and Jewish student groups, he added, “we understand now that it is a political day, and have therefore removed it.”
The union also has “drawn up measures to ensure that this does not happen in future,” he said.
Del Krueger, creator of an online interfaith calendar (www.interfaithcalendar.org) that is a source for many others, said he also had removed Al Quds Day from future calendars.
However, the event remains on the calendar for 2006, where it is defined as a “somewhat controversial Islamic observance.”
George Fraser, a city council spokesman in Dundee, Scotland, said the “entire calendar is being removed” because of the issue. The University of North Carolina in Asheville said it had removed the Al Quds Day listing from its calendar of holy days.
Terry Allen, administrator at the Charnwood Arts Center in Leicestershire, England, said he added Al Quds Day after finding it on Krueger’s site, believing it “was a Muslim religious festival.” The activists’ letter pressed him to look deeper.
“I would like to apologize for any offense which has unintentionally been caused by this mistake,” he wrote to the group.
A spokesperson for the Boy Scouts of America said the issue was under discussion there as well.
Behrensen chose to focus on the calendars after reading a lecture by Mansoor Limba, an Iranian, in Malaysia in December 2004. Limba spoke with pride of how Al Quds Day was becoming accepted as an Islamic holiday around the world, recognized by a long list of organizations, including some Jewish ones.
“This is their strategy, to spread their propaganda worldwide,” Behrensen said. “We thought, if we want to counter them, let’s see what they’re doing, and we’ll try to prevent their success.”