Philanthropy must come without ideological strings

Some donors try to steer Israel studies to political ends, but gifts must fund impartial enquiry, says Charles Keidan

July 24, 2014

Source: Elly Walton

The growing prominence of philanthropy in higher education can be a force for good or bad. It can compensate for public sector cuts and inject innovation into the academy, but it can also distort the direction and content of scholarship. This dichotomy is particularly evident in the field of Israel studies.

A wave of philanthropic donations resulted in the number of posts in the subject at US universities rising by 69 per cent between 2005 and 2009, according to a survey conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Many of the academics recruited are deeply committed to rigorous scholarship and do not shy away from criticising the historical role or contemporary behaviour of Israel.

Some of the philanthropic foundations investing in Israel studies are also genuinely committed to promoting objective academic enquiry. When I was the director of the Pears Foundation from 2004 to 2012, we advocated for scholarship about Israel, not for Israel. I believe that our investments in numerous posts provide a model for how philanthropic foundations and higher education institutions can work together in a spirit of trust and openness to advance understanding about controversial issues.

Sadly, however, not everyone shares these goals. At the 2013 annual conference of the Association for Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Mitchell Bard, the executive director of pro-Israel body the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, emphasised the centrality of Israel studies – and the classroom more generally – to efforts to bolster support for Israel. He also trumpeted the programmes he runs, on behalf of the major American-Jewish philanthropy organisation the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, that support visiting Israeli professors and doctoral students in Israel studies; these, he said, were “grooming a new generation of scholars” who can “speak up” for Israel at universities around the world.

In 2012, the foundation established a new Israel Institute in Washington DC. Headed by Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, its concept paper makes clear that it aims at not only “elevating” Israel studies but also “supporting the work of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise” and, most troublingly, “convening and briefing philanthropists…on the case for supporting Israel studies…and advising on structuring and negotiating donations”.

Such activity is not altogether surprising: many supporters of Israel believe that urgent action is needed to fight what they see as the delegitimisation of the country sweeping the academy. Similar efforts outside the US are smaller but should not be underestimated. In the UK, the philanthropist Lord Weidenfeld – who has explicitly linked the creation of posts in Israel studies to the fight against boycotts of Israel – has brokered the establishment of chairs in Israel studies at the universities of Oxford and Sussex. He told the Jewish Chronicle in 2012 that he viewed the Sussex post as vital in the fight against anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Although, officially, universities have safeguards to preserve their independence in selecting post-holders, their growing appetite for philanthropy may make them more tempted to indulge donors’ proclivities. Any lack of alignment between donors’ stated motivations and universities’ standards undermines the demarcations between the two and damages the academy.

At the very least, the much contested nature of knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes appointments in Israel studies highly politically charged. And the fact is that non-Zionist scholars do tend to be excluded, or end up excluding themselves, while those more sympathetic to Israel receive funding and positions. It is also notable that Palestinian and other scholars and scholarship that critique Zionist axioms are grossly underrepresented within Israel studies conference programmes, associations and journals.

Another unintended consequence of the growth of Israel studies is the expansion of Palestine studies – as exemplified by the recent establishment of a Centre for Palestine Studies and a master’s in Palestine studies at Soas, University of London. Although it currently lacks the philanthropic firepower of Israel studies, the subject may come to mirror some of its tendentious traits, leading to a sort of area studies arms race.

There are several remedies. The first is more transparency in gift relationships. Full public disclosure of both funding agreements and background correspondence should become standard. Second, steps are needed to ensure a genuine diversity of perspectives in Israel studies. Third, scholarly associations must be circumspect about their sources of support and endorsement; the 2012 and 2013 Association of Israel Studies conferences included the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli government among their sponsors. The 2014 conference, held last month, included an Israel Institute-sponsored workshop, plenary and prize, a paper by Bard and a field trip sponsored by the Jewish National Fund. None of this fosters confidence that Israel studies is an unambiguously scholarly undertaking.

Philanthropists should also adopt a more disruptive role, backing areas of innovation and promoting space for alternative approaches. The creation of a centre for the joint study of Israel and Palestine, as well as an Association of Israel and Palestine Studies, is overdue. Experiential learning opportunities, which take students to the region and provide them with access to a wider range of perspectives, would also help.

It is not inevitable that philanthropy is a negative force in higher education. By documenting its pitfalls, hopefully we can avoid them better and point to new directions and possibilities.

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