Harvard Divinity School graduate student Rachel Fish became disturbed last winter by what she heard at a conference she helped organize on global anti-Semitism.
The 23-year-old Tennessee native learned there might be a connection between a new $2.5 million endowed chair in Islamic studies at the divinity school and an Arab cultural center that promotes Holocaust deniers, and anti-Semitic and anti-American concepts.
Harvard had accepted the $2.5 million gift from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, in July 2000. The money would fund the Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Professorship in Islamic Religious Studies.
It would "promote a better understanding of Islam among the non-Muslim peoples of the world," the divinity school said at the time.
Fish wanted to learn more about the connection between the Arab leader, who has been the UAE's unelected president since 1971, and the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up that bears his name. The center, approved by the Arab League in 1999, says it promotes the unification of Arab nations through historical and cultural education.
So over the next few months she and two other students scoured the Internet and other resources.
"We did about 31/2 months of research, looking at Web sites, publications, news releases, lectures and articles," Fish told The Jewish Week.
What they found, she said, was chilling and prompted Fish to demand that Harvard return the gift: The Zayed Center not only bore the UAE president's name but was "the fulfillment of the vision of Sheikh Zayed," according to its Web site.
That vision, Fish discovered, apparently included the center offering programs such as "Zionist Collusion with the Nazis" and "Jewish Control of the American Government and Media."
Its executive director began a symposium at the center by calling Jews "the enemies of all nations," she said. Fish said she found a Zayed Center report stating that "the Zionists are the people who killed the Jews in Europe."
She discovered that in April 2002 the Zayed Center hosted Thierry Meyssan, French author of "The Appalling Fraud," which claims that America was behind the Sept. 11 attacks and also widely promotes the book. And Fish learned that Zayed's wife donated $50,000 to Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy.
Asked about the connection between the center's problematic programs and the sheik himself, Fish insisted "it's all being said in his vision."
In March, she presented her findings to Divinity School Dean William Graham.
"He said he'd have a research team look into it and get back to me in four to six weeks," Fish said.
But when eight weeks went by and there was no word, Fish said she agreed to answer media questions from Boston newspapers and television stations, after notifying Graham.
Since then it was revealed that the Zayed Center last month hosted Saudi Professor Umayma Jalahma, who made headlines last year when she wrote an editorial in a Saudi paper claiming that Jews use human blood to make Purim hamantaschen.
The center also has hosted former President Jimmy Carter and Neil Bush, a brother of President George W. Bush.
In demanding that Harvard return Zayed's gift, Fish, who is working on a master's degree in Jewish and Islamic thought, said: "I absolutely agree that an Islamic chair needs to be at Harvard. However, the funding for that position needs to come from a reputable source that promotes tolerance and pluralism rather than hatred and intolerance. You can't accept money from individuals associated with an organization that promulgates blood libel in the 21st century and denies the atrocities of the Holocaust."
The controversy at the divinity school is the latest involving charges of anti-Semitism on the Cambridge campus. Earlier this year, in a battle over free speech, noted Irish poet Tom Paulin was invited, uninvited and reinvited to read from his works at Harvard, which some found replete with anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiments.
And last fall, Summers made headlines when he described a national campaign by pro-Palestinian forces calling for universities to divest from Israel as anti-Semitic "in their effect if not in their intent."
Fish says there are "plenty of legitimate Muslim and Arab organizations that could fund this kind of position at Harvard."
This week, Fish launched a Web site late last week featuring her research and an on-line petition calling for Harvard to return the sheik's money. Some 288 people had signed the petition as of early this week.
"We support the creation of a chair in Islamic studies but … Harvard cannot accept money from donors who oppress and abuse their own citizens, spread Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, promote hatred of Americans, and validate conspiracy theories about September 11th," the petition states.
It cites Amnesty International's report about the UAE's "shameful human rights record, which includes … corporal punishment of dissidents and dictatorial governance."