NEW YORK, June 29 (JTA) — Rachel Fish believes homegrown values can make a big difference.
That's how a Jewish girl from Tennessee got Harvard University to return a $2.5 million gift this week to the president of the United Arab Emirates.
Growing up as one of the few Jews in Johnson City, Fish often defended her religion before her peers, and got "used to standing up for what I believe in," she told JTA.
She took that principle to Harvard Divinity School. As a graduate student of contemporary Jewish and Islamic thought, Fish led a campaign asking the school to return a donation from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who backed an Abu Dabi-based think-tank that sponsored anti-Semitic and anti-American speakers.
The 2000 donation was meant to go toward a chair in Islamic studies, but Harvard froze the gift after questions were raised about the integrity of the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up.
The catalyst for the campaign came from a December 2002 panel Fish organized on global anti-Semitism, during which she heard a speech linking the divinity school to Zayed.
Fish began researching Zayed's connections. Over several months, she said, she turned up articles showing that Zayed backed Holocaust denial, and that his country's state television channel peddled the blood libel against Jews.
In the spring of 2003, Fish brought documentation to the divinity school's dean, William Graham, and asked him to find an alternative source of funding for the chair.
She added more pressure at her June 2003 graduation by enlisting local high schoolers to hand out leaflets on the issue. When it was time to accept her diploma, Fish refused to shake hands with Graham, instead handing him 130 pages of documentation against Zayed and a petition with some 1,500 signatures asking Harvard to reject Zayed's money.
Later that summer, Zayed announced he was shutting down his center. Harvard postponed a decision about what to do with his money.
The decision finally came Monday, when Zayed withdrew his gift before it was slated to be investigated by Harvard, the New York Times reported.
The divinity school did not return JTA's calls seeking comment.
Fish said she feels her efforts have been validated.
"It was a battle," she said. "If this situation happened at the divinity school with regard to any other minority, I think they would have resolved it more quickly."
"Right now it's politically correct to be anti-Israel, which often morphs into anti-Semitism," Fish said. "I think most universities want to whitewash it. I think they're afraid to touch it."
But Fish says her work is just beginning.
After her experience at Harvard she began working for The David Project, an Israel advocacy group headed by Charles Jacobs — the man who spoke about Zayed's dubious connections on Fish's panel in 2002.
As the group's New York regional coordinator, Fish works closely with students at Columbia University — where Sheik Zayed has funded a chair in Islamic studies named after the late Edward Said, a literature specialist and fierce critic of Israel.
Fish works with colleges, high schools and Christian and Jewish communities to promote discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an environment free of hostility.
"I didn't necessarily think this was what I would be doing after graduation," she said. But "I realized after my experiences at Harvard Divinity School that if this is happening at Harvard University then it has to be happening at other universities, and I didn't want other students to feel isolated or feel as if their concerns were being marginalized. That's why I decided to get involved at the grass-roots level."
For Fish, much of her drive stems from her beginnings.
Hers was one of only 60 Jewish families in the part of Tennessee where she grew up. In that environment, she said, "my parents really made it a priority for us to have a Jewish identity" and "stand up for what you believe in."
They shuttled Fish and her three siblings to Camp Ramah each summer, and weekly attendance in synagogue was mandatory. She recently married an old camp friend.
When confronted by people in her hometown who wanted to convert her, or when a swastika was drawn on her school locker, Fish said she felt impelled to respond in a positive manner.
"I felt my role was to educate those individuals rather than to ignore it or to not do anything," she said.
Growing up among so few Jews, she added, "you have to be able to articulate why you're different, and so because of that you learn why you're Jewish and you understand what that means and you take pride in why you're different."