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March 3, 2022 2:20 am
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The Role of Private Donations in the Academic Debate Over Israel

avatar by Roz Rothstein

Opinion

University of Washington in Seattle. Photo: Steve Ginn/Wikimedia Commons.

There is an ongoing controversy in some corners of academia about a donor rescinding a major gift to the University of Washington (UW). My organization, StandWithUs, has been mentioned — and in some cases misrepresented — as part of this controversy. As such, it is important to fully share our perspective on the situation, as well as the broader questions it raises about academic freedom, the rights of donors, and the state of higher education.

In the current case, the donor’s gift — originally made for the purpose of creating an Israel Studies program at UW — was returned due to disagreements that the two parties could not reconcile. One of the key factors in the dispute was regarding a professor — whose position was funded by the gift — signing a statement primarily condemning and blaming Israel for the tragic war with Hamas in May 2021. The statement also claimed that Zionism is an ideology “shaped by settler colonial paradigms.” This was part of a series of events and interactions that led the donor to conclude that the Israel Studies program was not being conducted in alignment with her known intentions.

The donor made the contribution with the goal of supporting Israel and the Jewish people, and felt it was counter-productive to continue funding such a one-sided narrative.

StandWithUs has written extensively about these types of situations, and our desire to help university donors achieve their goals and avoid similar conflicts. As such, the donor asked to speak with us regarding her discussions with UW.

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At no point did anyone call on UW to shut down the academic department or penalize the professor. The donor simply didn’t want to continue funding or having her name associated with the program. StandWithUs fully supports academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Our priority is to respond to ignorance, misinformation, and even hate speech with proactive education — not censorship. Contrary to some reports, the university has stated that the professor will retain her position, and that the Israel Studies program will continue.

The primary issue at stake here was the donor’s intent and the terms of the endowment contract. While scholars are entitled to academic freedom, universities are not entitled to donations from private citizens and foundations. Donors have the right to give or not give, and place conditions on their gifts. They also have the right to ask for their money back if they believe a university is failing to fulfill the intent of their endowment, as the donor to UW chose to do.

Protecting academic freedom is the responsibility of universities. Individuals and foundations should not be forced to remain invested in programs they don’t support. Similarly, universities are free to reject gifts if they don’t agree to the conditions attached to them.

In the bigger picture, the notion that minority views in the Jewish community and criticisms of Israel are being silenced in higher education is absurd.

Since the 1980s, Qatar and other Arab states have donated billions to American universities, with much of their funding flowing to Middle East Studies. As I write, the Middle East Studies Association is planning to vote on an academic boycott singling out Israel among all states in the region. During and after the latest Hamas-Israel war, entire academic departments at many universities released statements attacking the Jewish state, ignoring Hamas, Palestinian terrorism, and erasing 3,000 years of Jewish history in Israel through the use of smears like “settler-colonialism” to deride and deny the Jewish history in the land. In February of 2022, a coalition of Sephardic and Mizrahi organizations sent a letter to the National Endowment of Humanities, concerned about academia’s “potential distortion and politicization, and intolerable weaponization, of the memory and history of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry.”

Many donors want their gifts to help counter this institutional bias and foster a diversity of viewpoints. This is an entirely legitimate goal that should be stated explicitly in agreements with universities. Supporting scholarship that reflects the perspectives, history, and real-life experiences of most Jews around the world is not a threat to academic freedom or free speech. On the contrary, it is one way to enrich an academic debate that has only grown more one-sided and divorced from reality over time.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that people who both support Israel and give to universities, monitor how their money is spent. Before making a gift, donors should very clearly state, in writing, their expectations about what they are funding. Upon agreeing to the terms of their gift, they should remain involved and ideally not invest all the money upfront.

If universities were to reject such gifts in the future, they would only undermine their own academic integrity, subvert intellectual diversity on campus, and increase public distrust in higher education.

Roz Rothstein is the CEO of StandWithUs, a bipartisan non-profit Israel education organization. For more information on this issue, contact Yael Lerman, StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department Director, at [email protected]

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