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Regarding Return of Israel Studies Gift to Donors

By Alliance for Academic Freedom

Alliance for Academic Freedom Statement Regarding Return of an Israel Studies Gift at University of Washington

The Alliance for Academic Freedom condemns the return of a gift by the University of Washington endowing an Israel Studies program. This action, which drastically reduced the program’s funding, constitutes a violation of the tenets of academic freedom. According to news reports in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Seattle-based Cholent, as well as the University of Washington’s statement, donors to the program, including its major donor, Becky Benaroya, objected to the ideological direction of the program. After discussions with the university, Mrs. Benaroya asked that the gift be returned and the university complied.

If academic freedom is to be upheld, those granting gifts to academic programs at universities must neither seek nor be allowed to micromanage faculty hiring, course offerings, other events associated with the program, or faculty members’ speech. Only in an instance of gross pedagogical malpractice should a tenured professor be removed from a chair, and, in that case, a new search should yield a new chair without affecting funding. The university was wrong to acquiesce in the return of Mrs. Benaroya’s gift. University leadership has an obligation to uphold the independence of scholarship even when it veers in directions of which its donors disapprove. Universities also have an obligation to inform donors from the outset that they may not maintain ideological or political control over academic affairs. Donors may reasonably insist on the terms of their gifts. It is legitimate, for instance, to stipulate that a gift go to support “Israel Studies” as opposed to “Middle Eastern Studies” or “Israel/Palestine Studies.” But they may not dictate individual hires, teachers, speakers, and the like.

Some online statements allege Prof. Liora Halperin was being punished for signing an anti-Israel petition. Although that assumption appears to be mistaken, it bears repeating that academic freedom protects the right of Prof. Halperin to express whatever political opinions she wishes. The university acted properly in refusing the donor’s request to restrict the speech of any professor holding a chair endowed by her gift. The university has also properly maintained Prof. Halperin’s salary and benefits where they were before the gift was returned. Nonetheless, the withdrawal of the gift has meant that the overall funding level of the program has been reduced. Prof. Halperin may not have been harmed financially, but the Israel Studies program itself has been, at least in the opinion of some graduate students in the program.

Finally, it is essential to understand the broader context of this incident, which involves a significant threat to academic freedom from the opposite direction as well. As we have noted in the past, particularly because questions around Israelis and Palestinians are deeply contentious, there is an ongoing danger that academic freedom on this issue will be diminished in the service of political goals. We worry whenever “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian” actors, inside or outside the campus, try to make Israel Studies reflect a political line rather than a place for scholarly inquiry. As was evident last May when fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas, some academics, including in Jewish Studies and Israel Studies, now openly insist that only a political framework hostile to or skeptical of Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state should be regarded as legitimate—a position that itself runs contrary to tenets of academic freedom. It is important that academic officers at universities take care to ensure that such ideological bias not come to dominate Israel Studies or the teaching of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general.

On Behalf of the AAF Executive Committee: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern

2 Responses to “Regarding Return of Israel Studies Gift to Donors”

  1. Ralph G Seliger
    March 9, 2022 at 2:16 pm #

    This is tangential to the AAF’s main point, but I disagree with describing the statement that Prof. Halperin signed as simply “anti-Israel.” It’s more accurately characterized as “sharply critical of Israel,” since it also criticizes Hamas and says some admirable things about Israel’s diversity and the circumstances that propelled Zionist immigration. (This URL links to it: https://israelpalestinejs.weebly.com/.) It’s definitely more critical than I would have been comfortable signing onto, and it should have emphasized clearly that Hamas initiated and prolonged the war with its massive rocket assaults. Still, this paragraph is one example of the fine lines and nuances it attempts to convey:

    “Israel is not the only state that must reckon with a history of land settlement and its enduring structural impacts on native or racialized populations. However, Israel, and those who study it or care about it, must do so even while recalling the challenges and limitations of applying a settler colonial paradigm to the Zionist case, the unique historical Jewish connection to and presence in the Land of Israel, and the modern desperation and victimization that has propelled Jewish and Zionist settlement.”

  2. March 10, 2022 at 9:48 am #

    Oh come on. There is an other-worldly quality to this statement.

    Back in the real world this nonsense has been going on for years.

    Very few donors give to Israel Studies and Jewish Studies departments and centres thinking they are funding anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism, Israel Denial, antisemitic anti-Zionism, BDS profs, and brainwashed students.

    And yet that is exactly what has been going on.

    Frankly, it would be bloody marvellous if time was called on the whole charade.

    It is like hens funding foxes to run the coup because they were told the foxes were hens. Well, donors are waking up: foxes are foxes.

    Good for the donor. No one is stopping anyone signing any petition they like. But why should a private donor be sold a false prospectus about what their money is funding? It has to stop.

    Hope they send the money to Fathom journal instead – compared to a lot of academia it has higher intellectual standards, sharper writing, better editing, and you can actually read the articles there – many critical of Israeli policy – without a madrassa-like training in anti-Israel demonising academic gobbledygook. https://fathomjournal.org/

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