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November 16, 2021 4:41 pm

Lessons Learned When Planned University Giving Inadvertently Funds Antisemitism

avatar by Yael Lerman and Jonathan Rotter


A pro-BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Since writing about how donors to universities are increasingly finding themselves locked into funding anti-Israel professors and programs, requests have poured into StandWithUs seeking further guidance and analysis. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Some donors will continue to contribute to a university they love, even if it means overlooking anti Jewish trends on campus. While we recommend crafting donor agreements to help protect Jewish students, donors can be influential in other ways as well.

One Zionist donor informed us of their seven-figure gift last year — without any contractual language to protect Jewish students and Israel — to a university rife with anti-Zionist activity.

When the latest Gaza crisis hit, Jewish students at the university faced an onslaught of faculty and student vitriol, and a silent administration. The family contacted us to ask what they could do. We suggested that a timely phone call by the donor to university leadership based on a longstanding relationship could be effective. In this case, the university administration finally made a statement condemning antisemitism, no doubt thanks to this donor’s engagement.

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Likewise, a donor can help and protect Jewish students — and the cause of Zionism — by including specific conditions in a gift. A family reached out to us in the final stages of their negotiation for an endowed speaker series at a university. The family ardently champions Jewish causes, but had yet to include language in the contract expressly prohibiting the speaker series from becoming a pulpit for anti-Zionist activism.

Ultimately, they conditioned the gift on the family having selection input over speakers in the series. We also helped them craft additional language that clearly expressed the endowment’s pro-Israel and Jewish intent.

Some argue that such terms unduly interfere with university decision-making. But a university does not have to accept a gift if it does not like the terms. We have seen this as well, with a donor’s six figure gift for a Jewish Studies course returned in full when the donor and president could not agree on a professor. While frustrating, that is a better result than a gift used to marginalize or attack Jewish students.

Unfortunately, donors also need to provide continuing oversight of their gifts.

Several years ago, a Jewish family endowed a university with an Israel Studies professorship. They included language in the endowment expressly stating that the professor’s role was to teach about Jews, Judaism, and Israel. Yet during the latest Gaza crisis, this professor signed a letter denouncing Israel and supporting an academic boycott against it.

The family engaged in multiple meetings with the professor and university; they asserted that the professor’s anti-Israel activity violated the contract. The parties eventually reached a consensus that the professor would offer additional and varied courses on Israel that do not have a political Israel-Palestinian bent. However, given the university’s views of academic freedom, the professor will remain free and able to sign anti-Israel statements.

For that family and others, we spoke with relevant attorneys and foundations — and obtained some gems of wisdom. First, when creating an endowment, they recommended structuring it as an independent entity outside of university management. This ensures that the funds disperse gradually over time, and preserves the ability to stop payment if the endowment deviates from the contractual purpose.

Second, we were told to make contractual language as specific as possible. This applies when establishing endowments or family foundations. Do not simply describe the purpose as a desire to support “Jewish causes,” because this could later be twisted to mean supporting organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, an ostensibly Jewish group dedicated to ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Instead, include contractual language such as, “Part of this endowed fund shall be used to educate about Jewish and Israeli history in a manner that must not meet the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism or promote the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.”

Despite rising anti-Jewish hostility, individuals will continue to donate to institutions where they feel connected. We hope these donors will seek help in drafting their gifts to protect them from eventually being used for anti-Jewish activism. For those setting up family foundations, we hope they will include language that protects their legacy and reflects their connection to Israel and the Jewish people.

Yael Lerman is the founding director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing legal resources to students, professors, and community activists confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. She can be reached at [email protected]. Jonathan Rotter practices with the class action law firm Glancy Prongay & Murray, and represents StandWithUs pro bono in a variety of matters.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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