Richard Robertson
Academic, Writer, Advocate.

Those in Glass Houses…The Hypocrisy of Foreign Funding at American Universities

The phenomenon of the BDS (Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction) movement is nothing new. The 21st Century has seen the polemic discourse that facilitates the movement’s existence permeate into the mainstream media and flourish across North American university campuses. Increasingly, the vitriol is taking root amongst various cohorts of students. The consequence of this is the corruption of academic objectivity and the implementation of official legislation by student governments that either endorses or actuates upon the principles of the BDS movement. The breadth of the movement is now global with universities from Malaysia; the University Teknologi in February of this year, to Canada, where the student senate of the University of Toronto Scarborough recently re-endorsed a BDS movement amongst its student government.

The BDS movement amounts to a de facto punishment of Israel for what its supporters allege are Israel’s continued violation of the human rights of those within the Palestinian territories. Many of the abuses perpetuated by the movement as justifying its actions relate directly to the day to day quality of life within the territories, influence over which is increasingly being ceded by Israel to the Palestinian control. Nevertheless, the BDS movement champions that institutions disassociate themselves from the likes of corporations such as Coca Cola; who dare to operate factories in and employ the citizens of the Palestinian territories, and Puma; for their grave act of sponsoring Israel’s national football team.

However, as recent disclosures by the United States’ Department of Education reveal, the Israeli state is not the only one in the Middle East whose financial interests are tied to institutes of higher education. While Israel, and frankly any entity that can be associated with the Israeli state in a positive manner, is scrutinized for their actions or influences on university campuses, it is only in this calendar year that changes to the Department of Education’s policies have necessitated that American schools disclose the nature of the foreign funding they received. Such a requirement is a breakthrough in the name of academic freedom through transparency and the result of advocacy from groups such as the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). The ISGAP produced a report, entitled “Follow the Money: Undocumented Foreign Funding of American Universities”, for the United States Department of Justice’s 2019 Summit on Combating Anti-Semitism.

One may ask, what interest does an institute focused on studying anti-Semitism have in the undocumented nature of foreign investment in American post-secondary institutions? The answer is quite troubling for those who believe in the sanctity of academic freedom. The investments, donations which amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, include those from the Arab Gulf States. While not directly culpable prima facie, these contributions can be traced to some disconcerting results. Additionally, the disclosures reveal that millions of dollars were donated by members of the Palestinian Legislative Council to American universities, a revelation that is worrying in and of itself.

Ignoring that these donations appear to be made with the intention of avoiding public review, the ISGAP report, compiled by Charles Asher Small and Michael Bass, reveals links between the donations of Arab governments and the degradation of the values and morals that enable academia to thrive. Many of the donations, upwards of 75% at the time of the publication of the ISGAP Report in July 2019, were made by Qatar or its affiliated enterprises. The report found a correlation between schools that received funding from the Qatari Foundation and those that had chapters of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on their campus. The SJP is a group whose tactics include intimidation and the corrupting of the academic environ to promote an aggressive anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli agenda. Further, the recent disclosures reveal methods to hide the donations from scrutiny by channeling them through American corporations or staggering the specific amounts so that they do not surpass a threshold for disclosure.

The State of Qatar, as is evidenced by Human Rights Watch’s 2019 World Report, is a country whose own human rights record is far from illustrious. Qatar’s repression of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the treatment of women, the LGBTQ community, and migrant workers have been routinely condemned by international organizations ranging from the International Labour Organization to Amnesty International. Despite the well documented human rights abuses emanating from Qatar, there is no overt outcry over the donations made by or on behalf of the Qatari state to American schools. There is no insistence that such donations and future interactions with the Qatari government be revoked due to Qatar’s condemnable human rights abuses.

The same could be said for donations from Saudi Arabia, which directed, according to the New York Times, over $650 million to American schools. It is worth noting that Saudi citizens remain subject to corporal punishment and illegitimate judicial trails, while its women face prosecution for their activism in the name of equality. And yet, the focus of movements to disassociate university campuses from governments who abuse human rights remain transfixed almost exclusively on the State of Israel. Apparently, the internationally denounced dismemberment of a journalist by his own government on foreign soil pails in comparison, in regards to human rights violations, to the actions of Israeli actors in the Palestinian Territories.

Donations from individuals closely linked to or who are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which is led by political parties associated with Hamas and Fatah; whose armed wings are listed terrorist entities in Canada, the European Union, and the United States, appear to, at least those that are disclosed as many are not, focus mainly on funds to assist Palestinian students studying in the United States. This is a noble endeavor and one that should be encouraged. However, the usage and nature of many of the gifts are unreported and not all those that are reported are as meritorious as directly funding financially vulnerable students.

For example, a $643,000 contribution was made in 2020 to Brown University. Brown is a member of the esteemed Ivy League. Brown accepted the funds, from the Masri Development Fund, a charity administered by Palestinian Legislative Council member Munib Masri, to create a professorship in Palestinian Studies at the school’s Center for Middle East Studies. There is nothing wrong with this undertaking at first glance. That is until one realizes as was explained by AJ Caschetta, of the Rochester Institute of Technology and Fellow at the Middle East Forum, “Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, its Center for Middle East Studies, and its New Directions in Palestinian Studies research initiative will now collaborate in a synergistic venture, spending money and hiring teachers to indoctrinate students and ‘inform the community’ about the evils of Israeli colonialism, while stamping its imprimatur on the virtues of the Palestinian cause.” As Caschetta predicted, the funds were subsequently used to hire Beshara Doumani, an open critic of Israel and vocal supporter of the BDS movement as the first holder of the chair.

Why does this matter? It matters because Palestinian leaders, the same ones responsible for such donations, continuously lament about the lack of funds it has and about its need for additional monies to support itself. Palestinian advocates routinely insist that the stipend, stemming from taxes, which the Territories receive from the Israeli government, are insufficient for the domain’s needs. This despite Israel’s decision not to restrict the payments, despite the continued use of the funds by the Palestinian government to pay stipends to the families of its associated militants. Clearly, the money designated for the needs of infrastructure and the population is further squandered on Palestine’s foreign agenda.

Often,  the appearance of the financial unviability of the Palestinian Territories is blamed upon Israel. In fact, an aim of the BDS movement is to denounce Israel’s alleged economic exploitation of the Palestinian peoples. Israel is held unfairly to a higher standard than its global peers and the Palestinian authorities themselves. Israel’s progress as a democratic nation with constitutionally entrenched equal rights is forgotten. Howard Rosenbloom and Michael Bard of the Jewish Virtual Library report that since 2003 Israel and affiliated entities donated $40 million dollars to American universities. In comparison, Arab states donated billion of dollars to American universities. And yet, somehow, a bona fide Arab lobby aimed at influencing the affairs of American post-secondary institutions has failed to garner the same criticism that Israel and its associate entities have at the behest of the BDS movement.

Recently, the economic issues in the Palestinian territories have intensified. The factions that control Palestine’s legislative council have suggested that they lack the funds to eradicate COVID-19 within their jurisdiction, blaming Israeli actions for their lackluster response to the pandemic. However, Dr. Mitchell Bard, the director of the American- Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, reports that between 2016 and 2020 Palestinian based benefactors made approximately $4.5 million dollars in donations to American schools. Including, over $1.5 million dollars gifted to the well-endowed Harvard University between 2017 and 2019. Perhaps, instead of seeking to further vilify Israel for the hardships of its citizens, stakeholders within the Palestinian Legislative Council, like Munib Masri,  should have spent the monies donated on Palestinian medical infrastructure or on its teachers; some of whom claim to have not been compensated for their work since May 2019, before the latest donations to Brown and directly following the siphoning of millions to the Harvard coffers.

While the spending of individual Palestinians is really only the business of the state and its citizenry, the secretive and dubious manner in which those who support the BDS movement invest in American academic institutions amounts to a pathetic double standard, one enabled by the greedy silence and indifference of America’s universities. Why should every interaction between Israel and parties with even the most remote linkages to the Israeli state be scrutinized and condemned, when those who propagate the vilification of Israel, and who have demonstrable records of human rights abuses, are able to pragmatically invest in American academia in transactions void of accountability or transparency?

Israel and its associates, often Jewish individuals and organizations caught in the conflagration of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, are demonized as the corrupters of the academic sphere; whose human rights violations, if left undenounced through the BDS movement, will surely threaten the very existence of our post-secondary education system. The reality, however, is that universities are big businesses. Like other businesses, they operate with an eye towards profit and attempt to accumulate as much revenue as possible. As a result, they will continue to accept donations, objective and subjective in their intentions, to enhance their prowess. What needs to change is the bigotry with which such fiscal realism is criticized. American universities must either adopt a universal standard by which they accept donations or must take action against the hypocritical manner in which Israeli and Israeli linked donations and financial interactions are reviewed.

There is nothing wrong with supporting the educational aspirations of members of specific cohorts or to fund research and employment in specific fields of scholarship. However, when such virtuous acts become corrupted to the point that they run contrary to the morals and values of academia, then accepting funds of this nature becomes antithetical to progress in the academic realm. When this occurs, all such merit is lost and a situation results where those who cry foul can partake without rebuke in the vary same actions they condemn.

About the Author
Richard Robertson was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and is a proud Thornhillian. He holds a Juris Doctor (Dalhousie University, 2017) and is presently a graduate student in York University's Department of History where his research focuses on the field of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is a member of the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies and is presently a Research Associate at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Center for Jewish Studies at York University.
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