“This shouldn’t be hard,” said University of Florida president Ben Sasse, speaking about his university’s decision to condemn the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli civilians on October 7th. But for many universities, it has been – and as a result, a number of major donors to important American academic institutions have started talking about pulling their donations. Some have done so already.
It sounds like a problem, but I see this as a unique opportunity to build stronger ties between Israeli academia and the USA, shift the picture of global academic donations, and help support freedom of speech and hope for the future on Israeli campuses.
Victim-Blaming, Anti-Semitism and Lack of Student Safety on US Campuses
Academic institutions typically aim to create politically neutral space for diversity of perspectives to flourish, and where mutual respect for rational argument can provide a strong foundation for an environment in which students can discuss even controversial and emotive topics in a meaningful and productive manner. A number of donors feel that the respect and neutrality of the foliage in the Ivy League has been wilting under pressure.
Student reactions to the October 7th massacre and the war which followed it have made it all but impossible for their institutions to remain neutral. A single day after October 7th, before the war had begun, over 30 student organizations signed a letter written by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Graduate Students for Palestine saying they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” – explicitly and bizarrely placing full blame for the murders, mutilations, rape and kidnapping of Israeli civilians, many of whom were children or elderly people, on Israel rather than on the actual perpetrators from Hamas.
The inevitable inclusion of the Harvard name in the signatories meant that students, alumni and public figures turned to Harvard to determine whether this represented an official university position, and if not, what the university’s position was.
Public statements by university educators have placed their institutions in even more difficult positions. Cornell Professor Russell Rickford said just after the attacks that “It was exhilarating. It was energizing,” a sentiment for which he has since expressed remorse after the university’s president and board of trustees stated that, “This is a reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity.”
Yale University American studies professor Zareen Grewal’s reaction to the slaughter and kidnappings was a tweet on October 7th that “Israel is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity.” Columbia’s tenured Middle East studies professor, Joseph Massad, wrote on October 8th that the Hamas attacks were “innovative,” a “major achievement,” and a source of “jubilation and awe.”
It may be that donors would not have been moved to pull their funding if only words had been involved, but universities are also grappling with how to ensure the safety of their students on campus. At Columbia an Israeli student was attacked when he objected to posters of Israeli hostages being ripped down; by the end of the altercation he reported one bruised hand, one broken finger, and the determination not to return to campus in the near future due to safety concerns.
At University of Massachusetts Amherst, 57 anti-Israel students were arrested after rioting and taking over the administration building. At Cooper Union college, Jewish students were locked in the college’s library to protect them from a mob who broke through campus security guards to bang on doors and windows. At Cornell, a student was arrested after threatening online, according to prosecutors, that he would “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot you all,” as well as specifying other murderous attacks including against Jewish babies, and allegedly targeting the campus’ Center for Jewish Living.
All this has taken place in a context which has led to FBI Director Christopher Wray recently saying in a Senate hearing that antisemitism was reaching “historic levels” in the United States.
Donor Deliberations and Decisions
The situation is arguably too fraught already for neutrality to be a meaningful concept, particularly once student safety and security is involved. A number of influential donors seem to share the sentiment expressed by Jon Huntsman, former US Ambassador to Russia, China and Singapore and former Governor of Utah, who explained his decision to stop donating to the University of Pennsylvania by saying that, “Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate, the very thing higher ed was built to obviate.”
US Senator Mitt Romney, hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, and three other Harvard Business School alumni harshly criticized Harvard for permitting the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and commented that, “Given that Harvard has been vocal in its advocacy for the rights of students from other religious, racial and ethnic groups, this silence, amidst the meteoric rise in antisemitism, is deafening.” Their letter has been signed by more than 900 people. Leslie Wexner, the founder of Limited Brands, announced he would be pulling funding from Harvard. Clifford Asness made the same announcement about the University of Pennsylvania and Ronald Lauder about UPenn’s Lauder Institute at the Wharton School of Business.
“Condemning Hamas’ atrocities should not be hard. Unfortunately, if you lack moral courage, it is,” says Marc Rowan, CEO of Apollo Global, who has been active in not only publicly pulling his funding from UPenn but also encouraging others to do so as well. “All the actions I’ve taken in this matter have been to encourage exactly the kind of moral courage that I believe to be absolutely essential to true academic excellence and value. Without that, other attainments of any kind, or weak steps taken to give the appearance of equality in student care, are meaningless.”
There are two interesting things about the donors who have expressed public outrage. The first is that they are not from a single side of the political aisle; both Republican leanings and Democrat leanings are represented. The second thing is that a number of them are individuals (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who have no history of being active in pro-Israel issues. In fact in many cases the language used suggests that they feel passionately about the topic for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel specifically, but rather are connected to a strong sense of what is right.
In the weeks since the initial donor response arose, a number of universities have taken steps to try to protect Jewish students on campus. Harvard, for instance, has established an Antisemitism Advisory Group and said that it will expand its diversity program to combat antisemitism, while Cornell’s president stated that “Threats of violence are absolutely intolerable…. We will not tolerate antisemitism at Cornell.” However, it is not clear that these responses will be enough to balance the initial problem and its evolution, and many donors appear to be waiting to see whether these measures and statements bear fruit in practice and are sustained long-term, or whether they are effectively window dressing. It is also uncertain whether the emotional ties that lead to such donor funding can be easily healed once they have been broken.
This opens up new horizons in terms of academic funding. Once you’re thinking holistically about this, you start to be more creative about the possibilities. And some of those are extremely interesting.
The Power of Foreign Donations
The concept of universities accepting money from foreign sources is certainly nothing new. In the context of the complex issues surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, it is worth noting that since 2001, Qatar (which also funds Hamas) has become the largest foreign donor to American academia. The decisive share of the donations comes from the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organization established by the government.
Such relationships inevitably come with expectations and consequences, some of which are possibly not anticipated by the academic institutions involved. The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, of which Elie Wiesel served as Honorary President, released a study in 2020 which found “a direct correlation between the funding of universities by Qatar and the Gulf States and the active presence at those universities of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which foster an antisemitic and aggressive atmosphere on campus.”
This feels particularly relevant given that the often repeated message from student groups that Israel is somehow responsible for the attacks against its own citizens echoes the statement of Qatar’s foreign minister that “Israel alone is responsible” for the massacre carried out by Hamas.
Other aspects of the relationship fall more clearly in the quid pro quo realm; a 2022 study from the National Association of Scholars found that the universities that benefit from Qatari funding set up institutions in Qatar as well, which are subject to Qatari censorship and restrictions and which sometimes aid Qatar’s strategic interests. (A notable example was when Northwestern University entered a formal agreement with the Qatari-owned news outlet Al Jazeera designed to train journalists for the outlet.) The universities also receive Qatari government funds for research, proposals for which “must address how the research benefits Qatar or aligns with the Gulf State’s National Vision.”
Squaring the circle must sometimes be a challenge for these universities, but it’s easy to see that it might seem worth an attempt. Kelly Brown, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University, said about the institution’s relationship with Qatar: “Maintaining relationships with countries like Qatar serve a broader purpose, including fostering international dialogue and cooperation. Texas A&M’s relationship with Qatar is focused on educational and research activities, which contribute to the academic and intellectual development of both countries. That, in turn, hopefully will one day lead to peaceful resolutions rather than conflict.”
In the context of Qatar, this might seem rather on the optimistic side. In the context of US-Israel relations, these same sentiments are a natural fit.
Investing in Israeli Academia
Academia is highly valued in Israel. According to the OECD, about 46% of Israelis have higher education degrees, and Israeli determination shows itself in the fact that 80% of bachelor’s students graduate within three years after the end of the theoretical program duration, compared to 68% on average across the OECD.
The investment and cultural value given to higher education has a knock on effect. Thirteen Israelis have been awarded the Nobel Prize, and in fact Israel is 12th globally in terms of Nobel Prizes per capita, putting it ahead of countries including Germany, the United States, Finland, Canada and France. It has more laureates, in real numbers, than India or Spain. Israeli academia, in other words, is worth investing in.
Moreover, as in the US and unlike in Qatar, public discourse at Israeli universities and in classrooms is open and free, even on the most sensitive and controversial topics. Palestinian students and the large Jewish community that advocates for Palestinian rights and sovereignty hold organized activities and protests to articulate their positions on campus, educating a new generation on this vital issue and raising awareness among the broader population. Israeli universities also have major campaigns to enroll Palestinian students and as a result often have higher inclusion rates of Palestinian students than American Ivy League universities typically have of African American students.
Professor Ariel Reichman, President of Reichman University in Israel, comments that, “At our university, one third of the student body comprises 2500 students from 90 different countries. Our teaching is based on the beliefs of humanism, free enterprise, and international co-existence.”
Within that context, pivoting the funding that donors no longer intend to give to universities in the US towards funding the kinds of programs and values that these same donors – and many Americans – treasure, within Israeli campuses, seems a direction which is positive and proactive rather than solely reactive.
Putting Israel into the picture expressed by Texas A&M highlights the inherent logic of this direction. In the context of Israel, the concepts of “fostering international dialogue and cooperation” that will “hopefully will one day lead to peaceful resolutions rather than conflict” are not mere words. These are powerful forces that could literally change the way the up-and-coming generations think about the role of Israel in the Middle East, and their own role in shaping that future. Given additional resources and support, who knows what kind of creative partnerships and fresh ideas might arise?
“With regard to the idea of donating to Israeli academia,” says Marc Rowan, “I believe that now more than ever, Israeli academic institutions will need to educate their students with both morality and courage at the forefront of their minds. I want to give them the support they need to succeed, where many American institutions are tragically failing.”
In terms of the Israel-Hamas conflict, funding (by Qatar) has been flowing strongly in one direction. Now is the ideal time to leverage the donations no longer being given to US institutions to change the tide by investing in Israeli academia, and in building stronger ties between Israeli and American institutions. The donors who do so might just create a brighter future for everyone.