When she received a master's degree in theological studies last month, Rachel Fish accepted her diploma from the dean of Harvard Divinity School and handed him something in return: 130 pages of research and a petition.
The research was on anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda allegedly emanating from a Middle Eastern think tank, the Zayed International Centre for Coordination and Follow-Up. The petition urged Harvard University to give back a $2.5 million gift from the center's namesake, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates.
Over the past six months, Fish, 23, has almost single-handedly created a furor over the sheik's three-year-old donation, which was earmarked for a professorship in Islamic studies at the divinity school and had attracted little notice.
The endowed chair is on hold as the divinity school dean, William A. Graham, and the university president, Lawrence H. Summers, examine the sheik's links to the think tank and consider whether to reject his money, a university spokeswoman said.
With her research, which she conducted alongside her coursework but not for credit, Fish has handed Harvard a dilemma. Despite the university's $17.5 billion endowment, faculty members say $2.5 million is far from pocket change for the divinity school, Harvard's smallest graduate school, with 39 faculty members and about 475 students.
Moreover, giving the money back might be seen as an admission that university officials failed to vet the gift. There could even be diplomatic repercussions if Summers, who served as treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, publicly spurns a gift from the leader of a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
"Knowing Sheik Zayed -- knowing his generosity, knowing he's not anti-Semitic, he's not anti-America -- it will not sit very well" if the money is rejected, said Abdulla Saboosi, a spokesman for the UAE's embassy in Washington. "I hope it doesn't come down to that."
On the other hand, if Harvard keeps the sheik's gift, some students, faculty members and alumni will accuse the university of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism. "Harvard has got itself entangled with the founder and patron of a group that spews forth anti-American and anti-Jewish hate, and Harvard needs to extricate itself as soon as possible," said Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies.
Levenson is one of seven faculty members at the divinity school who have urged the university to return the money. More than 8,500 people, including hundreds of Harvard students and alumni, have signed Fish's petition since January.
This is not the first time that Fish has challenged school administrators.
When she was in the first grade in Johnson City, Tenn., she recalls, her teacher began each day with a prayer in the name of Jesus. Though she was too young to know that the Supreme Court had declared organized prayer to be unconstitutional in the public schools, she did know she was Jewish. So she sat in the hallway for a few minutes each morning -- until her parents went to the principal and the school board, and the prayers stopped.
"When you're growing up in a small town in the Bible Belt, it's important to know who you are and what you believe in," she said.
After graduating from George Washington University in 2001, Fish went to Harvard to study contemporary thought in Islam and Judaism, intending to earn a doctorate and work on foreign policy.
But at Harvard Divinity School, "of all places," she said, she encountered what she believes is a rising form of anti-Semitism. "The sentiment on Harvard's very liberal campus is that to be pro-Israel is to have this black label on you. Somewhere along the line, being pro-Israel became being anti-Palestinian, which is really not what it means at all," she said.
Last December, Fish organized a panel discussion on the issue, and it was there that she first heard about the sheik's gift and the Abu Dhabi-based Zayed Centre. They were mentioned by Charles Jacobs, a Boston-based management consultant who runs the David Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to fighting "the new global anti-Semitism."
Fish said she began investigating on the Internet and soon concluded that the Zayed Centre promotes Holocaust denial, anti-American conspiracy theories and updated versions of medieval libels against Jews. In April 2002, for example, it hosted French author Thierry Meyssan and published an Arabic translation of his book "The Appalling Fraud," which claims U.S. military officers staged the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Also last year, the center issued a report saying that Zionists -- not Nazis -- "killed the Jews in Europe," and the Los Angeles Times quoted the center's executive director as saying that Jews "are the enemies of all nations." This year, the center hosted Umayma Jalahma, a Saudi professor who has written that Jews use human blood to make pastries known as hamantaschen for the Purim holiday.
Fish said references to many anti-Semitic speakers and publications have disappeared from the center's Web site, www.zccf.org.ae, since she began calling attention to them early this year. They are archived on a Web site she created, www.moralitynotmoney.com.
Summers and Graham declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, Graham called some of the center's activities "extremely offensive" and said Harvard had begun "a process of inquiry into a possible connection" between the center's programs and Sheik Zayed.
The Rev. Bryan Hehir, who was dean of the divinity school when the gift was accepted, said he "knew nothing about this institute, never heard of it until it came up a few months ago." He added that "we did do due diligence" on the donor at the time of the gift.
Fish said university officials have questioned whether the sheik bears any responsibility for the center. But she noted that the sheik's son, Deputy Prime Minister Sultan bin Zayed Nahyan, is the center's chairman. She also cited news reports that the sheik's wife gave $50,000 in 1998 for the legal defense in France of Roger Garaudy, a writer who questions whether the Holocaust took place.
"If he doesn't endorse these things, why hasn't he ever disassociated himself from them?" Fish said.
Saboosi, the embassy spokesman, said the center is "not connected in any shape or form to Sheik Zayed, nor to the government of the UAE. It's an independent institution" established in 1999 by the League of Arab States. The sheik's son plays an honorary role as chairman, but programming decisions are made by the professional staff, he said.
While conceding that the center has made some "bad judgments" on guest speakers, Saboosi said it has also made "some good ones." Among the U.S. and European leaders who have spoken at the center are former president Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore, former secretary of state James Baker and President Bush's younger brother, Neil Bush.
James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, said that on a recent trip to the Middle East, senior UAE officials advised him against appearing at the Zayed Centre, which he took as a sign that the government was embarrassed by some of its activities.
But Zogby said he is convinced that there are "at least six degrees of separation between Sheik Zayed" and the center's programs. Using that standard, he said, "you could smear any politician or corporation" in the United States.
Fish's campaign "smacks of a witch hunt," Zogby said. "The purpose is to smear and to taint and to create a McCarthyite attitude so that people will be afraid to associate with any Arab country, or Arab business, or Arab leader."
Jacobs, the campaigner against anti-Semitism, said the sheik's defenders make the Zayed International Centre sound like "a few isolated crackpots," when it is a prominent, state-funded institution operating under the auspices of the Arab League.
As for Fish, he said he had never met her before he spoke at Harvard last fall, but he has been so impressed that he hired her this month to open a New York office for the David Project. She said she is not saying goodbye to Harvard.
"Even though I've graduated," she said, "I don't plan to just let this issue fall to the wayside."