Harvard University's Divinity School returned a $2.5 million donation to an Arab leader who was being investigated for links to an anti-American, anti-Semitic think tank.
In a statement posted Monday on Harvard's Web site, the school noted that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the unelected, billionaire president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), requested the return of his gift to the university in advance of formal deliberations on his ties to the Zayed International Center for Coordination and Follow-Up. The donation, made in 2000, was to have been used to endow a professorship in Islamic studies, and Harvard pledged to pursue alternate funding for the appointment.
The sheikh's donation came under scrutiny last year after a Harvard theology student, Rachel Fish, compiled a report on the Abu Dhabi-based think tank, which, in addition to hosting the likes of former US secretary of state James Baker and former vice president Al Gore, has given a platform to a variety of speakers known for spouting anti-Semitic slurs, Holocaust denial, and Zionist conspiracy theories.
According to the center's English-language Web site, which was taken down last year, past speakers included a Saudi columnist who wrote that Jews use the blood of Christian and Muslim youth to make Purim pastries and the author of The Appalling Fraud a French best-seller which argues that the US military is responsible for September 11. On September 11, 2001, the center hosted a lecture entitled "The Making of the Holocaust between Nazism and Israeli racism."
"In light of the Zayed Center's having promoted activities in evident conflict with the purposes of the gift, Harvard indicated to representatives of the donor that the University was seriously considering returning the gift funds," Harvard noted on its Web site.
The UAE announced the halting of all funds to the center in August 2003; a university press release stated that some of the center's activities had "contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance."
Still, hundreds of students and alumni and several faculty members signed a petition last year urging Harvard to return the sheikh's donation.
According to Fish, Harvard's action this week should be seen as an inspiration for other students concerned with universities' sources of funding. "If students do get involved, they can make a difference," said Fish, who now works for The David Project in New York.
"What this really exposes is that there are prominent individuals out there who are related to global anti-Semitism, and until they are disassociated from [anti-Semitic activity] they shouldn't be associated with prestigious universities," Fish said.
A spokesman at the UAE Embassy in Washington, Abdulla Saboosi, continued to deny the sheikh's connection to the Zayed Center, according to The Washington Post. "It's like Reagan National Airport. What does it have to do with the late president Reagan, God rest his soul?" Saboosi said.
Saboosi also said that negotiations between the UAE and Harvard "were conducted in an atmosphere of cordiality and mutual respect, but since no decision was taken by the university, we regretfully thought we had no option but to retract the grant."