WASHINGTON - The question repeats itself over and over: "Is it good for Israel?" And in this case, everyone's answer was the same: Certainly. The questioner here was Sheldon Adelson - the richest Jew in the world, so they say. The people being asked were professors and activists, and the subject under discussion was a $20 million donation to Georgetown University, in the American capital.
Adelson is considering whether to donate the money to expand the university's Program for Jewish Civilization, part of its School of Foreign Service, into a full-fledged Center for Jewish Civilization.
The move would involve hiring three more professors, and possibly a new building. The Jewish and Israeli presence at Georgetown, a Jesuit university that sends its graduates into the heart of the American political establishment, would reach a totally different level, according to one participant in the discussions. The Georgetown rabbi, Harold White, said a Jewish center would balance out the university's Arab center.
Indeed, one of the key goals of Adelson and other advocates of the Jewish center is to moderate the Arab presence at the university, which is strong and getting stronger. This is particularly important because, as White said, many Georgetown graduates end up at the State Department.
Last year a Saudi billionaire made the headlines when he donated $20 million each to Georgetown and to Harvard University. The Georgetown donation was meant to expand the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, also part of the School of Foreign Service. The center is considered pro-Arab, as is the university's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
The same Saudi billionaire, Prince al-Walid bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, was at the eye of a storm that broke out in October 2001, when Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, sent back a $10 million check the prince sent to a fund for casualties of that September's attack on the World Trade Center.
Giuliani decided to return the check after he was informed that the prince had called on the United States to reconsider its Mideast policy and to take what he called a more moderate stance on the Palestinian issue.
The Saudi prince has also said the Palestinians were continuing to be massacred by the Israelis while the world was turning the other cheek.
One of the Jewish center's supporters said that the fact that the universities took the prince's money is a good explanation of why it is now necessary to make sure that the prince won't be the one to set the tone at Georgetown and why someone has to give the students an alternative view.
Prof. Yossi Shein headed the Program for Jewish Civilization until a few months ago, and he is the one who drafted the vision that will be implemented to a greater extent once the money comes in: Not Judaic studies, but the study of the Jewish theme as a paradigm in international relations. As White said, that translates into a more political program. This makes the Georgetown program different from those that have recently opened in other Catholic colleges and universities, which focus more on the religious aspect of Judaism. And Adelson appears to be convinced that this is indeed good for Israel.
"It's important to do it specifically in Georgetown for a few reasons," said Shein. "Because it's a Jesuit school, because it's in Washington, because it's in the foreign service school."
The program has been led by Shein, who also heads Tel Aviv University's School of Government and Policy, since it was established in 2004, and is considered quite a success. However, his candidacy for the presidency of Tel Aviv University - which Shein confirmed to Haaretz - could preclude him from continuing to lead the Georgetown program.
The center that may be built at Georgetown could be a very big thing, according to one of its supporters, who advises the university president.
The adviser said he hopes that if Adelson does make the donation, it will inspire other donors to contribute more money. He said that since many of the students go on to work in government, it is important to give them tools to understand the Jewish people and the Middle East conflict.