PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A new endowed fund to promote Israel-related programming at Brown University has been scrutinized by some students and faculty members, who are concerned the money will inject a political bias into the campus and its classrooms.
In late January, the university announced the creation of the Israel Fund, a fundraising initiative to raise capital earmarked for learning opportunities within and about the region. The fund, which has a $10-million dollar endowment goal, has launched internships at startups in Tel Aviv and financed a trip to Israel and the West Bank as part of a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A news release on the fund compared it to the university's other "regional studies programs" like those devoted to Africa, China and Brazil.
Financing the study of this region in particular, though, has upset some on campus, where the Israel-Palestine conflict is "a cause that is close to the hearts of students," according to junior Sophia Overall, who has become invested in the issue during her time at Brown. Some of these students felt it was difficult, and others impossible, to endow programming on Israel in a neutral manner.
"You can't look at that region without it being political," says Kayla Thomas, a senior at Brown who enrolled in the course supported by the fund. Even calling it the Israel Fund, she adds, is a political statement, ignoring "the inherently hyphenated name that that region has to have."
A statement released by Brown Students for Justice in Palestine said the group found the fund "in line with Israel's attempts to entrench itself in American political and academic spheres."
"The fruits of this fund," the statement warns, "will be met with resistance."
These students, says David Jacobson, the interim director of Judaic Studies who taught the course on the conflict financed by the fund, are "seeing it as kind of a power struggle as to who wins in the market of public opinion." But, he says, the fund's purpose is to "give students an opportunity to study in Israel, to do internships in Israel — it's not to put forward a view of Israel."
Other faculty members say they are troubled that the Middle East Studies department had not been consulted about the fund before the university announced it in January. In an interview with the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, director of Middle East studies Beshara Doumani said he had not heard of the Israel Fund before the university publicized it. He questioned whether it was "really an intellectual or research or academic project as much as it is a way to bring Brown and Israel closer together."
In an email to The Journal, Hanan Toukan, a visiting assistant professor in Middle East studies, wrote that she fears the fund may be used to study "the 'conflict' through honing in on Israel alone, which is I suppose the real reason MES were not consulted."
The department and "in fact, most serious scholars would have questioned the very purpose and direction of the fund," she wrote.
Cass Cliatt, Brown's vice president for communications, says it's clear "that people are misunderstanding the fund."
"The Israel Fund is a funding source for programming much like many other funds raised through philanthropy to support programming at Brown," she says. "If you think about it this way, the Israel Fund is really one of hundreds of funds that serve as a path for raising investment and an opportunity for students."
As for the concerns voiced by some in the Middle East Studies department, Cliatt said she would understand the concern about not being informed "if we were establishing a program in the Middle East without consulting our Middle East program." But, she emphasizes, "This is not a program. It's a funding source."
Benjamin Gladstone, a senior at Brown, says he sees the pushback to the Israel Fund as part of a recurring pattern on campus. "Any time there is any interest in serious study of Israel, there is a sharp negative reaction," he says, pointing to past academic boycotts led by Students for Justice in Palestine. To him, this suggests that the backlash to the fund has "less to do with the particulars of the Israel Fund and more to do with an aversion among many students and some faculty at this university to the idea of serious and critical study of Israel."
Gladstone, who concentrates in Judaic studies and Middle East studies, says he believes the fund is "seeking to fill a gap in the offerings here," as he's found Israel studies to be "largely neglected" by the university. He calls it "deeply unfortunate" that "any funding of an Israeli studies program comes under such attack" and donors for such programs "should have an additional responsibility to expose themselves to this kind of onslaught."
Many students interviewed called upon the university to publish the names of donors to the Israel Fund, with some students turning to the internet for answers. In late January, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a foundation that aims to strengthen Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews, announced in a press release that it would be awarding a total of $7 million in grants to four organizations, one of which was Brown University in support of its Israel Fund. The other three were Taglit-Birthright Israel, Hillel International and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Brian Clark, the university's director of news and editorial development, wrote in an email that the donation is one of a number of gifts Brown has received and they "are grateful for the generosity of the donors." Thomas said the donation was "telling of the political leanings of the donors and the intentions with the money that they're giving to this fund."
Jacobson says it's not unusual for donors to have distinct motivations when giving to Brown.
"People who give money to the university often have agendas. It's kind of the nature of fundraising," he says. "The challenge of the university is to make clear to people, 'There are no strings attached. We're happy to take your money, but we are going to use it in the most academically objective way that we can.'"
Cliatt says that "if a donor chooses to give money to Brown, we make it very clear that there are no conditions upon that donation that can be made that are counter to our priorities or our values."
In the case of the Israel Fund, Jacobson says it's possible that donors will be motivated by a desire to present Israel in a positive light.
"I can be very honest about it. I think many people, many Jews, think that Israel is being portrayed on campus overly negatively, and they would like to counter that," he says. But, he adds, "the way the money is being spent is not for that purpose at all. It's not presented as advocating any support for the government, any policies. It's actually presented in a way that does not have a political bias."
Jacobson said his course on Israel-Palestine, which was offered over winter break in January 2017, was intended to provide an objective and nuanced view of both sides of the conflict.
Evan Lehmann, a junior at Brown, said he went into the class "critical of Israel and its role in international politics." When he found out one year later that the course had been financed through the Israel Fund, he said he felt students were "essentially lied to." He worried the fund could have affected the information presented in the class, as he saw the fund positioned to promote "a political bias on campus — and that political bias is going to be anti-Palestinian." He says the fund made him rethink "what we were learning, what books were assigned ... (and) what cities we didn't go to" in the West Bank.
Four other students who took the course published a letter in The Herald, saying the "Israel Fund shatters any claims of a balanced political approach altogether."
Junior Davis Tantillo said, though he thought it "weird" that the class wasn't told its trip was supported through the Israel Fund, he felt "nobody was promoting the state of Israel." Overall, he said the trip was reasonably balanced with both Israeli and Palestinian guides present. Tours included Dheisheh, a refugee camp in the West Bank.
"I don't think anyone came back with a positive, honestly, view of how the state of Israel is handling things," he says.
Jacobson stresses that there was no intention of deceiving students.
"I don't go around with caveats, 'This is brought to you by...,'" he explains. "It just didn't even occur to me." He adds that the course was essentially unchanged from when he offered it in the spring of 2015.
Jacobson says he understands why some students are upset, but doesn't see any evidence of the dangers they see in the Israel Fund.
"There's a whole narrative of a kind of a conspiracy here, which I deny," he says. "The people who have benefited from or are about to benefit from the Israel Fund that I know about, including myself, have maintained that standard of academic objectivity."
—Rebecca Ellis, a senior at Brown University, majors in urban studies.