When Donor Pressure Threatens to Erase Palestine from Academia

J. W. AssociateBDS, Blog, Discourse suppression, Israel, Jewish-American Affairs, Palestine, Zionism

by Alice Rothchild, MD

We are pleased to crosspost this article by Alice Rothchild, MD, JWE Board Member and member of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Health Advocacy Council. The image above is from Fazal Sheikh’s haunting photographic exploration of the physical erasure of Palestinian life and culture in historic Palestine.

In today’s society there is awareness that the interests and demands of funders influence what topics are studied, the definitions of acceptable norms, hidden meanings of language, and sources of knowledge, and that ultimately funding may easily taint research findings. In February 2022 at the University of Washington, a controversy became public that serves as an example of just this issue as well as the wide divisions within the Jewish community when it comes to Israel/Palestine, and the disastrous but predictable consequences when these different worldviews collide.

The origins of this contentious debacle began in 2014 when a number of UW faculty organized an academically vetted, peer reviewed research collaboration addressing “Palestine in the Public Sphere,” with faculty from the departments of English, anthropology, international studies and public health. They received a $6,000 grant from the Walter J. Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. There was much criticism. (I am reminded of a comment by a radiologist who came late to a talk I was giving on health and human rights in Israel/Palestine, and announced, “I haven’t heard your talk but I am against everything you said.”) Criticisms ultimately focused on an invitation to Omar Barghouti, a respected Palestinian activist and thinker, founder of the Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award. When Barghouti was asked to reflect on BDS as a political strategy, the backlash was swift and intense. The professors were accused of advocacy rather than scholarship, of one-sided partisanship, and endangering Jewish students; just the issues the research cluster was tasked to analyze.

Shortly thereafter, several of the outraged faculty founded a local chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and received funding from the provost’s “Race and Equity Initiative” to invite opposing, (“pro-Israel”) speakers to campus, thus implicitly validating their concerns but without academic vetting of their programs. Their website invited academics to “Report BDS Activity at your School.” They condemned “anti-Israelism” and “antisemitism” as if critical analysis and discourse about a country was in the same category as bigotry and hatred of an entire people. They used coded words like supporting a peace that includes “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within safe and secure borders,” which sounds innocuous but gaslights contentious issues about the state’s “right to exist,” the pros and cons of a Jewish state versus a secular democracy of all its citizens, the unresolved battle over borders and occupation. 

The Benaroya family, major Sephardic Jewish philanthropists in Seattle who donate to medical and cultural institutions and universities, reportedly called the Dean of Arts and Sciences and threatened to pull all funding for UW. StandWithUs, a right-wing, “pro-Israel” advocacy organization, protested Barghouti the speaker, in particular, and the BDS movement in general, as antisemitic and threatening of Israel’s right to exist. 

Conversations on the national American Association of University Professors listserve revealed repeated efforts to 

“constrain the meaning of free speech so as to effectively prevent critical discussions and actions on the topic of Israel…these faculty members invoke civility, politics, and freedom to end the conversation….not only position[ing] critique as politics and thus beyond acceptable speech but also reinforce[ing] the principle of Israeli exceptionalism….a pattern in which certain critiques of Israel are refused on the basis of ostensibly shared norms of speech and civility…Instead of persuasion or consensus, the purpose here is to limit the sayable about Israel in terms of academic freedom and the denial of politics in the academy.”

This pushback does not occur when speakers or courses in the university setting provide an uncritical “pro-Israel” point of view, resulting in research and analysis being constrained to avoid the topic of Palestine, Israeli apartheid, BDS, etc. and the silencing of dissent through a largely performative, emotional strategy. AAUP members pointed out that the academy is one of the rare settings where such discourse should be possible and encouraged.

Two years later, in an effort to promote a more positive view of Israel, Becky Benaroya, the widow of real estate developer and venture capitalist Jack Benaroya, created an Endowed Fund for Excellence in Israel Studies.  The endowment agreement indicated that it would fund an endowed chair position and a lectureship (i.e. lecture series) with a five million dollar donation to the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies in the Henry M. Jackson School for International Studies. The goal was to “disseminate ‘knowledge about Jews and Judaism as well as modern Israel’ and build relationships with Israeli institutions and faculty.” The endowment “instructed the program ‘to promote the study of Israel through multiple disciplinary perspectives’ and ‘to integrate the study of Israel into a global context, highlighting the comparative and international relevance of Israel in the Middle East and beyond.’” According to the university, the agreement could be changed if UW and Benaroya mutually consented; the document did not specify promoting a positive attitude towards Israel, which would be incompatible with academic standards. 

An endowed chair was created and Liora Halperin, an Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies, and the Endowed Professor in Israel/Palestine Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was appointed as the inaugural Benaroya Chair. Halperin later noted, there were “‘donor expectations that were not and could not legally have been stated in the endowment agreement’ that became apparent. It became clear, she said, that the holder of the Benaroya chair was expected to refrain from making ‘certain political statements’ and to ‘accept the proposition that study of ‘modern Israel’ is incompatible with the concurrent study of ‘Israel/Palestine.’”

Many of the course descriptions used the phrase “Israel/Palestine” to describe the region that includes Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, a word commonly utilized by both scholars and activists. Vocal “pro-Israel” donors found that insulting. Sonny Gorasht and his daughter, Jamie Merriman-Cohen, had conceived of the program as a counter offensive to the increasing criticism of Israeli policies on campuses. Gorasht described critics of Israel as “rabid anti-Israel, BDS, rabid antisemitic people” whose stances were a threat to the very legitimacy of the state. 

In May 2021, after rising tensions around the planned forced expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an aggressive series of provocations by Israeli forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, and the launching of Hamas rockets, Israeli forces unleashed an intense assault on Gaza. Amidst international calls for a cease-fire, hundreds of Jewish and Israel studies professors signed a statement critical of Israeli state violence, evictions, and suppression of civilian protests while empathizing with the pain and loss on all sides and denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia. The signatories described Zionism, “a diverse set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies,” as grounded in “settler colonial paradigms” that have led to “Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians.” They called for “structural change that would bring equality and justice in Israel/Palestine, a systemically unequal space that, nonetheless and inescapably, has a common history and future.” Devin Naar, the chair of the Sephardic Studies Program; Liora Halperin, the chair of the Israel Studies Program; and Sasha Senderovich, professor of Jewish Studies and Slavic Language and Literatures and Halperin’s partner, were among the signatories, expressing themselves as private individuals. Halperin did not feel this statement would threaten her permanently endowed position. “I felt like it needed to be said…I felt I had a lot of people who were looking to me as a leader, as a guide. I decided I couldn’t be silent.”

In response, Merriman-Cohen, chair of an advisory board sharing community input on UW’s Jewish studies program, wrote a letter suggesting that Halperin’s role as Benaroya Chair and director of the Israel Studies Program be reassessed. A deeply unhappy Benaroya requested a meeting with Halperin and university officials that led to further meetings which also included Randy Kessler, executive director of the Northwest chapter of  StandWithUs. Benaroya wanted to change the agreement to prohibit the chair from making political statements hostile to Israel and to focus on Israeli accomplishments and US/ Arab relations with the country.  Gorasht described Halperin’s focus on Jewish cultural history and collective memory, Zionism, and Ottoman Jews prior to the Zionist movement, as a code, “that suggests that Israel does not have a right to exist.”  Other critics felt (also erroneously) that calling Israel a settler colonial state fed into the trope of Jewish world domination. Despite multiple efforts to repair the discord, Halperin was informed that ultimately, Benaroya wanted her money back and the university president, Ana Mari Cauce, agreed. Decisions regarding Halperin’s chairmanship and the program were to be made at the Dean and Department level and were initially focused purely on the financial issues of payment of salary and the loss of funding for the program.

Nearly one thousand people signed an open letter in support of Professor Halperin, accusing the university of threatening free speech in the academy by caving to donor pressure in the absence of a contractual obligation, and creating a dangerous and chilling precedent that affected both faculty and students. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Association of Jewish Studies, the Middle East Studies Association, and the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors in a letter to the university president and provost.

David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles and head of the New Israel Fund, stated: “We should not be imposing litmus tests on who is and is not virtuous enough to receive an endowed chair at a university. I think any defender of the university system and the right of free speech has to be deeply concerned about it…I see this as the next front in the battle to adopt and fortify a conformist American Jewish view on Israel.” 

Eva Cherniavsky, president of the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors, noted, “Does this mean that every endowment is essentially vulnerable to the ideological preferences of the donor?”  The Association reiterated that, “Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education expressed their concern and argued that the university should not accept endowments with unacceptable terms. 

Victor Balta, a university spokesman, stated that Halperin’s views were not shared by Benaroya. In order to support the freedom of academics to pursue their scholarship and after months of discussion, Benaroya requested a return of her endowment and the university had agreed. “The original Benaroya endowment had grown to nearly $11 million through accrued interest, university matching funds of $2.5 million and other investments that were not returned. Following the return of the $5 million gift, nearly $6 million for Israel studies remained in an endowment. Distributions from this new endowment will continue to support Halperin’s new endowed chair, along with additional funds to provide benefits equal to what Halperin received as the Benaroya chair.” The university is also working on clarifying language for future donor agreements. It could also be argued that the university’s overall budget is so large, that it was not in their interest to get into a tussle with a major donor over a minor donation and a small program.

Halperin’s position and funding for the Israel studies program have been restored, thanks to the University’s general operating fund taking on half of Halperin’s salary (all of which was previously paid out of the Benaroya endowment).  But the public funding for the Israel studies position  “could’ve been used to hire a new faculty member, or to support graduate students…It’s a really chilling precedent. I didn’t express the political views the donors wanted, and then a bunch of money went away.” Professor Halperin and others have stated that the potential professional and material consequences of the university’s decision were so dangerous to academic freedom that their explanation, defending that freedom, did not ring true. 

In terms of the impact of this controversy on students, the graduate students affiliated with the Israel Studies Program condemned the return of the endowment and were very concerned with the threat to academic free speech, the possibility of future self-censorship, and the potential loss of professional opportunities and grants for graduate level research. Likewise, students engaged in Palestine solidarity organizations such as SUPER, (Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights), were deeply troubled and stressed the right to challenge Zionist ideology, to organize for BDS against Israel, and the risk of accepting funds from donors who tacitly expect a celebratory scholarship on the Jewish state. They also pointed out that UW has financial ties to companies that are complicit with Israeli apartheid. On the broader campus, this debate was mostly invisible.

It is important to ask how and why did StandWithUs, a rightwing Israel advocacy group, become intimately involved in this process and how did they stand to gain? It is unclear if Benaroya, an elderly woman in her late 90s, recruited this organization for her cause or if StandWithUs saw this conflict as an opportunity and enlisted Benaroya. In any case, Kessler, of StandWithUs, acknowledged being present at a meeting as an “advisor” and Victor Balta, a university representative, stated that no one at the meeting was ever introduced as representing StandWithUs. The surreptitious presence of this organization at these negotiations as an enforcer of “pro-Israel” sentiment was utterly inappropriate, as the university agreed in retrospect. 

StandWithUs conflates any criticism of Israel or Zionism and support for BDS as inherently antisemitic and has a history of viciously and aggressively attacking those perceived as” enemies” of the state. Thus the organization confuses disapproval of the policies and behavior of the state (Israel), a national political movement (Zionism), and a strategy for resisting oppression (BDS), all of which are legitimate topics to analyze, discuss, and criticize, with hatred of Jews and Jewish institutions solely because they are Jewish. They conflate the right of Jews to self-determination with a right to create a Jewish state that oppresses non-Jews. It can certainly be argued that no nation has a “right to exist;” nations are born out of a complex mix of aspirational, military, political, cultural, and economic forces. 

StandWithUs openly engages with university donors to help them insure that their donations are used to present a positive view of the State of Israel and its policies and they were quite public in their satisfaction with the sabotaging of the UW Israel program. They see this as protecting Zionism, Israel, and Jewish students on campus and use the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism. It has also been reported, by “The Cholent” that StandWithUs received Benaroya’s retracted five million dollars. 

If this all sounds too complicated, consider this: A French organization endows a US university department to study French political movements and culture, with the unwritten understanding that the research will not investigate anything critical of France. The Koch brothers make a hefty donation to research on the benefits of fossil fuels. (See “UnKoch My Campus.”) A Russian oligarch donates millions to scholarship on Russia, Vladimir Putin, and his historical aspirations. Feels wrong?  Is this any different?

Halperin and others have been accused of signing a letter that harbored one-sided, antisemitic statements more akin to the attitudes of the Ku Klux Klan, which endangered Jewish students on campus. Others argued that the letter was a reasoned academic assessment challenging the old guard and its belief systems. More traditional Jews and their youthful acolytes find postcolonial studies of Israel/Palestine threatening as they force students to confront the colonial origins of Zionism, Balfour’s desire to rid Britain of its Jews, and the dominant, racist belief (still present in much of Israeli society) in the superiority of white European culture. The traditionalists are threatened by Palestinian indigeneity and their right to resist an oppressive regime. These ideas challenge the “Jews returning to their homeland after centuries of unrelenting antisemitism only to find a few hostile backward antisemitic Arabs” theory of Middle East history. 

This is obviously deeply frightening to a particular worldview that is losing traction among younger generations, and not surprisingly, triggering culture wars that are more about emotional fears and attachments and less about the actual, on the ground realities. The Zionist right is aware that it is losing the academic debate; the antisemitism card is frequently used to bully, harass, and censure scholarly work. 

Ultimately, it is important to ask, what happens when donors’ (implicitly or explicitly) expect university administrators as well as scholars to present Israel in a positive light? How does that affect academic freedom? Although Palestinian scholars actively researched the history of Palestine and the history of the founding of Israel, much academic research traditionally was done in service of Israel and Zionism. With the opening of Israeli archives and the scholarship of the New Israeli Historians in the 1980s, a critical analysis became more mainstream. In 1985, US scholars formed the Association for Israel Studies with a focus on studying Israel with the academic distance and critical eye reserved for any other country. The explosion in enthusiasm regarding funding (pro)Israel studies started with the 1993 establishment of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise whose mission was and continues to be to improve the image of Israel on campus. “Donors think of buying an academic like you buy a used car: someone who will do your bidding and basically protect Israel from any criticism,” reported Gershon Shafir, a professor of sociology at UC San Diego. Israeli advocacy disguised as scholarship continued to grow, especially after the establishment of the Palestinian BDS movement in the mid-2000s. 

Because of the university’s need for wealthy donors, the institution will likely have fealty to its donors and will protect the feelings of its donors in the interest of future endowments.  Donors clearly have a right to freedom of speech, but once a donor makes a major gift and signs a legal agreement, they should not be allowed to change their minds because of a disagreement over political views. When signing a gift agreement, it is possible for development offices to explicitly state the limits on a donor’s power to influence curricula, programs, and personnel. 

In this case, it was especially egregious that the endowed chair and the Israel program was dismantled, thus allowing the donor to control the chair and the academic program in violation of the university’s pledge to uphold academic freedom. The university is obligated to decline donations that threaten the academic freedom of their faculty, but many argue that this will limit the largesse that Israel studies scholars rely on.  As public funding has shrunk, gifts from private donations have grown to one-third of all giving to US universities. Students and faculty have increasingly argued that gift agreements must be made public, which would increase transparency, but does not address the foundational issue of university funding.

In terms of other institutions, there have been similar controversies over academic freedom, pro-Israel propaganda, and funding, with groups like the Shusterman Foundation and the Israel Institute expecting a “pro-Israel” slant to the programs they establish or support and a willingness to use hard power to “punish scholars and restrict knowledge.” Faculty such as Norman Finkelstein, David Miller, and Steven Salaita have lost tenured positions, and programs and individual faculty have come under extreme pressure from groups like Campus Watch, AMCHA and the Canary Mission when there are serious attempts to do critical research on Israel/Palestine. 

These episodes embolden donors and harm the reputations of universities attempting to do serious scholarly work on a topic that is fraught with political and financial pressures. These attacks are a form of epistemicide, an attempt to destroy knowledge of Palestinian existence and the challenging realities of living under siege and occupation, or in a society which relegates Palestinians to second-class citizenship. This also reveals the corruptive effect of universities relying on donations from wealthy philanthropists who are eager to promote a world view, especially when it comes to Israel.  The arguments get twisted under the rubric of civility and a desire to remain “apolitical” which stifles critical analysis and reinforces Israeli exceptionalism. Both of these are inherently political stances, often disguised as preventing antisemitism and maintaining the social values of the powerful, but in actuality, limiting what is knowable and acceptable discourse. The “Israeli viewpoint” is assumed to be normative and topics such as BDS or Palestinian resistance, transgressive; the arguments made tend to be emotionally, rather intellectually-based on the physical realities of the region. 

As Israel is increasingly defined as an apartheid, antidemocratic state, the volume and fierceness of its defenders is also intensifying, and the more challenging it will become to investigate and discuss Palestinian reality, rights, and resistance in the public sphere. Scholars are integrating a human rights-based research approach that encompasses an awareness of apartheid, settler colonialism, and structural racism. This critical view of Israel is seeping into mainstream consciousness, especially among younger populations, even in Jewish communities. Just as international groups must challenge the Israeli government’s attacks on civil society, it is critical to ensure that academic communities in the US have the funding to create, debate, and disseminate their knowledge. To do otherwise would make invisible our knowledge about Palestinians existing within Israeli control and discredit scholarly work on the entire topic of Israel/Palestine.