Philanthropy Cannot Leave a Void in Universities

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The recent radical anti-Israel protests and the hesitant response of university leaders worldwide have raised ethical and practical questions for many longtime academic philanthropists, who view their contributions to advance scholarly research and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of civic engagement and activism. Society entrusts universities in democracies with two primary responsibilities: upholding scientific standards and promoting democratic values. A delicate balance between philanthropic support and interference must be maintained to ensure academic freedom, yet donors select beneficiaries that embody their moral, ethical, and civic values. What should the donors do when a beneficiary university breaks the unwritten contract and betrays its values?

Jewish and Zionist philanthropists have faced this question in recent months, with many responding by withdrawing their donations from universities as an act of civic protest. I will argue that withdrawing funds misses the goal of philanthropic activism.

Consider the work of volunteer board members in a local community center. They invest no funds but contribute time, expertise, and energy because they feel integral to the community and want it to thrive. They promote issues they believe are essential to its overall health. Now, imagine that the community begins to go against the values of the board members. The board members have two options: quit to declare their frustration and disappointment (and be swiftly replaced by new board members with different agendas) or continue to serve and invest their resources strategically to influence the community’s trajectory.

Philanthropy is a mode of civic participation that seeks to influence the community in which it operates. Donors withdrawing financial support when their values are undermined effectively relinquish their power over the situation. In politics, every void is immediately filled. The same applies to the civic sphere. Other investors, who may feel more comfortable with the current university leadership, will rush in and strengthen the prevailing discourse.

Those wishing to influence reality cannot afford to leave and create a void. Our civic duty is to use every lawful form of power available to influence this dangerous situation. Philanthropists have an unparalleled power to challenge university leaders, confront the current discourse, and demand changes to practices that undermine their moral and ethical values.

About the Author
Tali Yariv-Mashal (LL.B Tel Aviv University, MA Columbia University; Ph.D., Columbia University; EMC Insead University) is Currently Director of Interdisciplinary Research and Engagement at the Center for Applied Research on Risks to Democracy at the Tel Aviv University. She also works as an independent advisor for Philanthropists, Philanthropic Foundations and NGOs, and is a researcher of Civil Society, Philanthropy and Education. Tali was the Director of the Beracha Foundation between 2010 – 2023 and served as the Chair of the Israeli National Forum of Foundations between 2020-2023. Prior to her roles in Philanthropy , Tali was a fellow researcher and lecturer at the Gilo Center for Civic Education (Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2016-2019), served as the director of the Excellence program at the ‘Beit Berl ‘ Teachers College (2016-2018) Which is a joint program for Arab speaking teachers, art teachers and Jewish Hebrew speaking teachers; and worked with various NGOs and with the Ministry of Education on topics of Civic Education , Education for Democracy and Democratic Leadership. Tali serves as board member in various NGOs: she is the founding Chair of "Haira - Urban Sustainable" , a board member of "121 For Social Change" and a board member of "Bonot Alternativa".