Administrators at the Elkins Park school, as well as backers of the center -- which is in the very early stages of planning, and is at least a year away from being up and running -- argue that such a vehicle is needed in order to counteract what they deem as a pervasive antipathy toward Israel in many of the nation's universities, in the classroom and on the overall campus.
"This is our way at Gratz of doing something about it," said Frederic Fox, who is part of the center's steering committee. He offered brief remarks during an Oct. 12 dinner held at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El of Wynnewood, aimed at raising funds and support for the project.
Once a director is hired and in place, the plan is to recruit a yet-to-be determined number of professors to complete one-year fellowships at Gratz.
In addition to teaching relevant courses, academics would be charged with: producing curricula and electronic learning tools on the Middle East conflict; conducting and publishing research, including books, papers and articles; and promoting free and open dialogue on the Middle East on college campuses. The center will also periodically play host to public events.
While organizations like the Philadelphia-based think tank the Middle East Forum, with its Campus Watch project, as well as the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, known as CAMERA, monitor and seek to counteract anti-Israel bias in various mediums, supporters of the proposed center argue that by being anchored to an accredited college, this project will ultimately have more influence within the academy.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, president of Gratz College, acknowledged that the center will have to walk a fine line by striving to counteract the often one-sided arguments broached in the classroom -- particularly by professors in Mideast-studies departments -- with objective scholarship.
The danger, he said, is in the center being perceived as a pro-Israel, activist engine, and not a center for rigid academic scholarship that promotes facts above rhetoric.
"The center will serve as an intellectual center for discussion and debate," Rosenbaum assured several days after the big kick-off event. "We will avoid taking a polemical approach.
"It is about critical scholarship," he stressed. "We will look at data as fairly and objectively as we can. It's something that is fundamental to the academic community as a whole."
From Left to Right
Among those who criticize academics who've lost their objectivity vis-à-vis Israel is David Horowitz, founder of Frontpage magazine, and author of Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left and The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. As part of the Beth Hillel-Beth El program, Horowitz -- a prominent member of the New Left in the 1960s who has since veered sharply to the right -- gave a lecture about how, in his view, support for Israel is being undermined at institutions of higher learning.
During the nearly hourlong talk, Horowitz launched into an assault on the worldview of many on the left, claiming that such a political philosophy favors moral relativism in lieu of objective truth, and decries America and Israel as imperialistic powers.
Afterward, Rosenbaum noted that Horowitz's views did not reflect those of the college, and that the center is slated to be a nonpartisan, nonpolitical enterprise.
"Jewish students are under siege," said Horowitz, noting the influence in academic circles of harsh Israel critics such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and the late Edward Said.
It was Said's 1978 treatise Orientalism that perhaps did more than any other work to drum up support for the creation of separate Middle East studies departments, which Horowitz argued are full of anti-Israel activists.
He told the audience that the structure of the curriculum "is designed to make Israel the target" -- to portray it as the "little Satan" and America as "the big Satan."