How the IRS Can Rein In Radical Islam and Anti-Israel Propaganda Courses at Universities

In its Fall 2018 catalogue, Tufts University’s Colonialism Studies and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies departments offered the course “Colonizing Palestine” which “will address crucial questions relating to this embattled nation, the Israeli state which illegally occupies Palestine, and the broader global forces that impinge on Palestinians and Israelis.” Several Jewish organizations, news outlets, and students quickly reacted to the course’s stated premise, characterizing it as “political propaganda masquerading as an academic class.”

One student wrote: “This language is not merely inflammatory -- it positions a one-sided narrative as truth from the outset of the semester.” A student group pointed out that the course violates the school’s presidential guidelines. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) responded, demanding that Tufts University “must ensure that classes examining the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not one sided platforms for propaganda that demonize Israel & empower anti-Israel activists.”

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) noted: “In addition to the title of the course suggesting a distorted account of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, the course professor, Thomas Abowd is an outspoken activist against Israel. He is on the advisory board for the Boston branch of Jewish Voice for Peace -- an extremist pro-BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] organization that has hosted and honored the terrorist Rasmea Odeah.”

The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) painted a broader picture: “[T]his class is a paramount example of what has been occurring in the field of Middle East Studies over the last quarter of a century, where the truth -- and a good solid education -- is being sacrificed on the altar of mere political propaganda.”

The concerns expressed had no impact on the school’s policy. Indeed, the Tufts administration merely responded: “We will not let these spurious attacks derail inquiry at our university.”

No one mentioned, and the university does not seem concerned, that this course and many courses like it put the university’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy.

Educational facilities such as Tufts and all other universities are required to adhere to specific tax-exempt status clauses embedded in the Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) and Treasury Regulations 1.501(c)(3)-1(d)(3). Under the regulation, an organization may be educational even if it advocates a particular position or viewpoint, so long as it presents a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts as to permit an individual or the public to form an independent opinion or conclusion.

In 1986, the IRS developed the “methodology test” to supplement the regulation’s “full and fair exposition” standard -- Revenue Procedure 86-43. The test assists in determining whether the method used by an educational organization to communicate a particular viewpoint or position is educational. Under the test, a method is not educational if it fails to provide a “factual foundation” for the position or viewpoint or “a development from the relevant facts that would materially aid a listener or reader in a learning process.”

The IRS identified four factors that would lead to the conclusion the method of instruction is not educational:

  • a significant portion of the group’s communications consists of the presentation of viewpoints or positions that are unsupported by facts;
  • facts that purport to support the viewpoints or positions are distorted;
  • the group’s presentations make substantial use of inflammatory and disparaging terms and express conclusions based more on strong emotional feelings rather than objective evaluation; and
  • the presentation’s approach is not aimed at developing the audience’s understanding of the subject matter because it does not consider their background or training.

The presence of any one of these factors indicates the organization’s method of communicating its views does not meet the criteria to be “educational” and therefore subject to having their tax-exempt status revoked.

So far, two cases applying the methodology test have gone to court. In Nationalist Movement v. Comm’r, 102 T.C. 558, *4 (April 11, 1994) the Tax Court held for the government, finding that this group did not qualify as educational when its newsletters were filled with inflammatory language and unsupported conclusions. The court also rejected the argument that the methodology test was overly vague. Further, the court did not find the test’s purpose or effect to be the suppression of “disfavored ideas.”

In National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools v. Comm’r, 71 T.C. 118 (1978) the court held that a group that advocated for the use of alternative schools met the “full and fair exposition” test when it (1) made publicly available copies of all the briefs, including those of the opposing parties in relevant legal actions; (2) encouraged those with different viewpoints to submit articles to its newsletter; and (3) provided information on a subject that was useful and beneficial to the public.

A review of several universities’ approach to Israel and Middle East studies indicate a failure to meet the IRS criteria of being an educational facility.

In Commentary’s July/August 2018 issue, Boston College’s Sociology Course 3367, “Human Rights and Social Justice in Israel & Palestine” is extensively discussed in the Ardie Goldman article “My Time Among the Propagandists”. Like Tufts’ Professor Abowd, this class is taught by Associate Professor Eve Spangler, who also promotes the BDS movement and is a speaker for the campus’ Students for Justice in Palestine. Goldman observed the students’ hostility and “presumed to have been the product of a combination of sources: the bias of their classroom lectures, the partisan readings they had been assigned, and the politically skewed experiences of their tour up to that point.” Like Tufts, the course description raises serious issues as to whether the university is promoting a prohibited political agenda. While it purports to “prepare students to better understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a “human rights framework” it invokes terms as “apartheid,” “genocide,” and “ethnic cleansing,” attributing these negative precepts to the state of Israel; “ … students will be “bearing witness’ ... to the sufferings and resilience of occupied communities and the courage and wisdom of dissidents,” a barely veiled reference to Palestinians Arabs living under Israeli authority.

Is the charged and partisan language educational, or does it fail the IRS criteria for use of inflammatory and disparaging terms, and express conclusions based on strong emotional feelings rather than objective evaluation?

The course description also indicates an unacceptable bias. “[N]arratives often trump facts … For this class, we will not be interested in the often described and seemingly contradictory land claims found in the Old Testament and the Quran.” In fact, there are no contradictory land claims between the Old Testament and the Quran. The Old Testament -- the Bible/Torah -- claims the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, while the Quran never claims the land of Israel belongs to Muslims.

Goldman observes: “Conflicting facts were dismissed, even ridiculed. Anecdotes that described coexistence between local Jews and Arabs were ignored because they didn’t fit the recognized paradigm. Such tours target the heart, not the mind.” A strong case could be made that Sanger’s class and the tour violate criteria 1, 2, and 3 of Rev Proc 86-43, putting Boston College in the crosshairs of the IRS.

Let us review the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley. In September 2015 that department sponsored a talk by Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the anti-Israel BDS campaign. According to U of C Student Adah Forer: “A double standard is evident, as multiple departments refused to host Professor Alan Dershowitz but have hosted anti-Israel speakers in the past, thus taking away from the academic integrity they supposedly stand for.” It is also in violation of its tax-exempt status as an educational institution.

Like many universities in this country, UC Berkeley’s Middle East Studies program is subsidized by Saudi Arabia. According to an article by Giulio Meotti, “Islam Buys Out Western Academia (June 2011)”: “Riyadh spent one hundred billion dollars to spread Wahhabism, the most anti-Semitic and extremist version of Islam … 5 million dollars were donated to the Center for Middle East Studies at Berkeley, 20 million dollars were donated to the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Arkansas.”

On April 14, 2017, Prof. Phyllis Chesler, the world's foremost expert on honor killings, was disinvited from an honor killings conference at the University of Arkansas by three professors from The King Fahd Center of Middle East Studies because she wrote for “right wing publications.” Disinviting Ms. Chesler was a violation of Revenue Procedure 86-43. (To its credit, University of Arkansas suspended the director of the Center for disinviting her.)

The Alavi Foundation, a private, Iranian-American not-for profit organization, has provided since 1973 over $50 million to clinics and universities including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers University, Bard College, the University of Virginia, Brandeis University, Catholic University of America, and Sacred Heart University to promote the study of Persian culture and civilization. Hamid Azimi, communications director for the Iranian-American Community of Northern California, said the Alavi Foundation is just one part of Iran's "propaganda machine" in the United States. In June 2017, a Manhattan jury found that the Alavi Foundation was controlled by the Tehran regime, a violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

“Did this foundation attempt to subvert American academic institutions?” asked Congressman Dan Donovan (R-NY), on August 1, 2017. “We need to investigate this, and universities have to do a better job of vetting their donors.” “This is all about Iran laundering their policies through academe,” said Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Consider the teachings of the following university professors

Rutgers Professor Hooshang Amirahmadi: “Unfortunately, a large part of the problems between Iran and the US are not based in reality, but are based on myths. The problem of terrorism is a true myth. Iran has not been involved in any terrorist organization. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas are terrorist organizations.” If this viewpoint is not based on facts it is a violation of Rev. Proc 86-43, subjecting Rutgers to losing its tax-exempt status.

Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi admonished Washington, D.C. for its "hysteria about suicide bombers,” “worries that Jews will 'Infest' the Trump Administration,” and insists that "Jerusalem is and has to be seen as the capital of Palestine, of a Palestinian-Arab state." During 2015 and 2016, 93% of Israel-related events sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University, directed by Khalidi, included anti-Israel, pro-BDS speakers" -- more than double any other U.S. school. These teaching are violations of Rev. Proc 86-43, i.e., viewpoints unsupported by facts and which are inflammatory and disparaging.

Georgetown University’s H.R.H. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding received $20M from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (recently arrested for financial corruption). The past director of this program, John Esposito, taught that “Islamist violence is beyond the bounds of approved research … Islamist movements are movements of democratic reform.” The Investigative Project on Terrorism found Esposito allied with a series of people directly involved in terrorist and extremist movements, including convicted terrorist Sami Al-Arian, an acknowledged member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The late Muslim American Society Imam W. Deen Mohammed did not mince words when he said, referring to the bin Talal Center, “these donations are not intended to fund objective scholarship, they’re meant to forward the Wahabi School of thought.”

Georgetown’s violations are not restricted to the classroom. It is open to the world via its online “The Bridge Initiative” dedicated to the exposing and disposing of “Islamophobia.” On the surface this sounds like a worthwhile endeavor. It sets out to “examine attitudes and behaviors towards Muslims; dissect public discourses on Islam; and uncover the operational mechanisms of engineered Islamophobia in an effort to raise public awareness and enrich public discourse on this pernicious form of prejudice.” The Bridge Initiative sets the stage for the view that any criticism of anything Islam is Islamophobic. Its premise is that, “in recent decades, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination has increased exponentially in the United States and Europe, with national and global consequences. Pseudo-scholars and polemicists peddle their writing online, are viewed by many as credible and reliable voices, and therefore strongly impact popular culture. ... As a result, Americans -- the majority of whom look to the Internet for information and answers on pressing questions -- miss credible empirical information and are bombarded with pseudo-scholarship that fosters prejudice and fear.”

Consider the article on the Bridge Initiative website written by Brooklyn College, “Prof Moustafa Bayoumi on Being Muslim and American During the War on Terror” posted on May 8, 2017, written by Bridge Initiative Team. He explains that Islamophobia existed long before 9/11, but that afterward the government started using it for political purposes. This is stated without any examples or proof of how the government is using Islamophobia for political purposes. Thus, it is a violation of Rev Proc 86-43.

The piece “As Islamophobia Surges, Anti-Muslim Speakers Exploit Fears”, posted on June 29, 2016, and also written by Bridge Initiative Team, states: “In the decade-and-a-half since 9/11, anti-Muslim speakers, bloggers and activists like Robert Spencer and Brigitte Gabriel have become a dime a dozen. “

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and has led seminars on Islam and jihad for the United States Central Command, the United States Army Command, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He is the author of numerous books, including Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs.

Brigitte Gabriel is founder and chairman of ACT for America, a large national security grassroots organization in the United States. She has addressed the United Nations, the Australian prime minister, members of British Parliament/House of Commons, members of the United States Congress, the Pentagon, the Joint Forces Staff College, the U.S. Special Operations Command, The U.S. Asymmetric Warfare group, and the FBI. In 2016, she was knighted by the Knights of Malta in Europe for her international work on fighting terrorism and standing up for Western Judeo-Christian values. Others knighted include Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She has said: "Moderate Muslims must organize and engage those enlightened, educated and westernized Muslims in the community to begin a dialogue to discuss the possibility of reform in Islam.”

Is it a fact that Robert Spencer and Brigitte Gabriel are anti-Muslim, or are they being unfairly labeled by the Bridge Initiative because they speak out against radical Islam? Is it presenting a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts to permit an individual or the public to form an independent opinion or conclusion about Robert Spencer and Brigitte Gabriel? Or is the Bridge Initiative espousing a disparaging opinion and trying to spin it as a fact, rendering Georgetown University in violation of its tax-exempt status?

While the Bridge Initiative does acknowledge that “rational criticism of Islam or Muslims based on factual evidence is not intrinsically Islamophobia,” a browser would be hard-pressed to find any examples of this on its website. Nor would one find any consideration of the view that Americans are not Islamophobic, but concerned and wary of the lack of Muslim recognition and condemnation of radical elements in Islam responsible for worldwide terrorism.

In the Bridge Initiative world, any criticism of Islam is Islamophobic -- including, and especially, of the Muslim Brotherhood. It heaps praise on this organization, touting it as a “force for democratization and stability in the Middle East.” It criticizes “Ted Cruz’s Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Bill” (posted on January 18, 2017, and written by Bridge Initiative Team), declaring: “The basis for Cruz’s bill is one solitary document: a memo from the early 1990s supposedly written by a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, which details a plan to subvert Western civilization. Cruz’s guide on this matter, Frank Gaffney, is the leader of the Center for Security Policy -- a recognized anti-Muslim hate group. Their claims about the memo have been debunked.”

What does the Bridge Initiative mean by “recognized?” It means recognized only by the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center. The article omits that important fact. And how was it “debunked?” It was “debunked” in an earlier article by the Bridge Initiative Team themselves, and no one else.

Nor is it a fact that Ted Cruz’s bill is based on one solitary document. The Bridge Initiative makes no mention of Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a practicing Muslim and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, who views the Muslim Brotherhood as “an organization with global reach that endlessly produces Islamic terror progeny.” Dr. Jasser has testified before Congress for designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Additionally, in March 2014 Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Thus, the Bridge Initiative fails to present a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts as to permit an individual or the public to form an independent opinion or conclusion about the Muslim Brotherhood, and violates all four criteria of Revenue Procedure 86-43.

Why hasn’t the IRS acted on this?

One reason may be that after the 2013 “Tea Party” concern, when the IRS was accused of delaying approval of 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status to organizations associated with the staunchly conservative “Tea Party,” the IRS is now guarded about doing anything that may give the appearance of targeting any specific ideological group. A 501(c)(4) status allows a social welfare tax-exempt organization to engage in some political activity. The director of the Exempt Organization, Lois Lerner, was accused of deliberately slowing the approval processes for political reasons to prevent these groups from taking any part in the 2012 election, and may have even received her marching orders from the Obama Administration, though that has never been proven.

But there is a big difference between illegitimate interference in government affairs and legitimate enforcement of tax laws. How long will the IRS allow this embarrassing incident to hamstring itself from doing its rightful task of enforcing tax-exempt status laws? An argument can be made that just as the Tax-Exempt division purposely dallied over Tea Party applications, it similarly turns a blind eye to universities thwarting compliance to tax-exempt laws.

It’s a job that’s been neglected for over thirty years. Budget constraints are a factor. It is a fact that Congress has skewered the IRS budget for several years. But it has been reported that for every dollar invested in the IRS, the IRS reaps six.

If fighting Islamic encroachment is a government priority, then stripping universities that enable Islamic encroachment by means of distortion and whitewashing of their tax-exempt status should be made a priority and reflected in the budget.

The IRS may claim that they do not have the personnel with the expertise of educators. Their auditors are accountants, not political scientists. What did the IRS do when faced with the dilemma of appraising art for estate tax purposes and charitable donations? They hired art appraisers and created a special division specializing in art appraisal. It could do the same by hiring educators and creating a separate division focused on Rev Proc 86-43 compliance.

Finally, there is the fear that the IRS would be accused of trampling on universities’ First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Of course, there is no First Amendment right to tax-exempt status.* If universities wish to offer courses that continue to distort facts and not offer sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts as to permit an individual or the public to form an independent opinion or conclusion, they can do so. But they should not be doing it with a government subsidy.

If Georgetown University was not tax-exempt, it would be subject to approximately $66M in federal income taxes, and lose $165M in government grants and $255M in deductible contributions.

The sum of this is a great deal more than they are receiving from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

If this law was to be enforced, the question to ask would not be “why are universities suddenly being targeted under the Trump Administration?” The question is why has the IRS, under every administration for the last quarter-century, allowed universities to flaunt, ignore, and get away with violations of their tax-exempt status? They continue to distort facts and make inflammatory statements in the classroom, and then send off students into society with a distorted -- and taxpayer subsidized -- vision of the world. This can be stopped. All that is needed is the will.

Leonard Getz is a CPA and retired from the Internal Revenue Service. His last position was Technical Guidance Specialist in the Appeals Division.Cliff Rieders is a board certified trial advocate and a past president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.