Brandeis University — often regarded as America's premier Jewish-sponsored institution of higher learning — is facing threats of a boycott from an organization once known as the standard-bearer of American Zionism.
The Zionist Organization of America issued a statement Tuesday calling on donors to rethink their financial support for Brandeis if the university fails to reconsider its appointment of Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki. A well-known commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Shikaki was recently made a senior fellow at the university's Crown Center for Middle East Studies.
The ZOA alleges that more than a decade ago, Shikaki had ties to the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad, of which his late brother was a leader. Critics of the appointment have pointed out that Islamic Jihad was responsible for the 1995 terrorist bombing in Israel that killed Brandeis alumnus Alisa Flatow.
Shikaki and his defenders, among them pro-Israel scholars, deny that he ever had taken part in terrorist-related activities. "None of what I know about Khalil Shikaki is consistent in any way, shape or form with what is alleged," said Shai Feldman, an Israeli scholar who heads the Crown Center and arranged Shikaki's appointment there. "We have to trust U.S. law enforcement, and Khalil has never been charged." Feldman is a former head of Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Stephen Flatow, Alisa's father, has criticized the university's appointment of Shikaki, as well as the failure of either the American or Israeli governments to take action against the Palestinian scholar. But Flatow told the Forward that he was not in favor of boycotts. He noted that the family had established a scholarship in Alisa's name at Brandeis to assist one student every year.
The ZOA, a vigorous opponent of Israeli territorial concessions and Palestinian statehood, has a largely unsuccessful record in seeking to stop American efforts to press for such compromise. However, it has succeeded upending nominations and appointments of people whom it finds objectionable.
In this case, the 108-year-old organization is taking on a venerable institution with its own Jewish bona fides. The school—founded in 1948 and named for America's first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis—boasts a well-respected Jewish studies department and a campus generally thought of as one of the most friendly in America for Jewish undergraduates.
The ZOA — which claims Brandeis as a past president — suggests that this pedigree makes Shikaki's appointment more disturbing. "The ZOA is appalled that an institution like Brandeis University and its Crown Center for Middle East Studies appointed Khalil Shikaki as a scholar last year," ZOA National President Morton Klein said in the organization's statement.
Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis, dismissed the objections. "We live in a country where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty," Reinharz said in a statement issued to the Forward. "If someone has real evidence, let them bring it forward. The university has full faith in law enforcement in America. In the future, if something arises we will act accordingly, but at this moment there is absolutely no evidence of any offenses."
Feldman hailed Shikaki, who runs a research and polling institute in Ramallah, as a courageous peace advocate who has spoken out against authoritarianism and corruption within the Palestinian Authority. Shikaki is a sought-after speaker at major American think tanks, including the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is currently an adviser to the State Department and recently helped raise money for Israel's Hebrew University, Reinharz said.
Shikaki was the focus of an article published Tuesday in The New York Sun, which raised concerns over Shikaki's apparent role in distributing money a decade ago on behalf of individuals with alleged ties to Islamic Jihad. The individuals were associates of University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who was recently acquitted of terrorism charges, along with three associates, in a high-profile trial in Tampa. During the trial, government wiretaps of discussions with Shikaki were presented as evidence.
The Sun article cites wiretaps of conversations from early 1995, in which an associate of Al-Arian asked Shikaki to bring money to the West Bank for Palestinian "orphans," allegedly code for Islamic Jihad. Shikaki initially agreed, but later changed his mind, a few days after President Clinton signed an executive order barring financial transactions with Islamic Jihad because of its terrorist activities.
Shikaki, whose brother Fat'hi was a founder of Islamic Jihad, could not be immediately reached for comment. He has repeatedly denied connections to his late brother — who was slain in Malta reputedly by Israeli agents — as well as to Al-Arian and his activities in Florida.
One of Shikaki's main critics, terrorism expert Steven Emerson, acknowledged that no evidence exists linking Shikaki to Islamic Jihad since Clinton signed the 1995 executive order. The problem, Emerson said, is that Shikaki denies ever having had any link to Islamic Jihad.