US university returns $5 million donation over professor’s criticism of Israel

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Liora R. Halperin is Associate Professor of International Studies, History, and Jewish Studies, and the Jack and Rebecca Benaroya Endowed Chair in Israel Studies, at the University of Washington [@richards1052/Twitter]

An American university has returned a $5 million donation intended for an Israel Studies Program after the donor learnt that it was headed by a scholar who criticised Israel’s attacks on Palestinians last year.

The $5 million gift to the University of Washington’s Israel Studies Program was meant to fund a number of components that make up the program, including the position of Chair or Head of the Program which was held by Liora R. Halperin, an acclaimed scholar on Israel.

That funding was pulled, however, after the donor,, Becky Benaroya, found out that Halperin had signed a letter last year – along with other scholars and academics – which criticised the brutal Israeli response to protests against Jewish settlers’ attempted theft of Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem.

In that letter, they stated that “we condemn the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza; their evictions of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem; and their suppression of civilian protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jewish-Arab cities, and Palestinian towns and villages in Israel.”

They also expressed “profound sadness at the recurrence of intercommunal violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and anger at the impunity enjoyed by most Jewish attackers.”

Benaroya then demanded meetings with the University, which led to Halperin being stripped of her position as Chair of the Program – although she still holds positions at the institution – and the $5 million donation being returned to the donor.

According to the site Inside Higher Ed, Halperin said in an email that the withdrawal ultimately resulted in the fact that the Israel studies program “no longer has dedicated funds to support student research, visiting lecturers, public programs or staffing”.

INTERVIEW: ‘In US universities students who criticise Israel are under attack’

The incident has ignited a controversial debate on the question of how the University could approve of the donor’s demand to return a gift based on the political opinion or expression of a professor involved in the program, as educational institutions hardly do so.

In the email, Halperin said that “in making the nearly unprecedented choice to return the endowment money—in the absence of any contractual obligation to do so—UW [University of Washington] has dealt an immediate blow to the students … and sent a broader chilling message about the potential material consequences of engaging in principled political speech.”

That was reiterated by Aaron Terr, the program officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who said in a statement that “If the University of Washington’s decision was consistent with the endowment’s terms, the University should not have accepted an endowment that allows a donor to claw back funding whenever a faculty member expresses a viewpoint that upsets the donor”.

He added that giving in to such a demand by the donor ultimately means “the University outsources to donors the power to trample faculty members’ First Amendment rights and academic freedom. This will inevitably chill faculty members’ speech, even in their areas of expertise.”

The incident comes at a time when universities in the US – as well as western Europe – are increasingly becoming a battleground between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine ideas or measures. That has even led to Israeli officials themselves attempting to intervene in universities and apply pressure to remove professors critical of Israel’s policies or actions.

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