Controversy Over Israel Studies At University Of Washington Did Not Have To Happen – Forbes

Posted By on April 13, 2022

Campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, April 21, 2015. (Photo by Smith ... [+] Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Last month, the University of Washington (UW) made headlines when it returned a gift of $5 million for a named chair in Israel Studies to donor Rebecca Becky Benaroya. Outlets like Inside Higher Ed covered the incident as another example of a well-heeled university donor attempting to compromise academic freedom by stifling a professors political speech. Digging below the surface, however, the incident is far less about violating academic freedomand far more about understanding donor intent.

In 2016, Ms. Benaroya gave $5 million to UWs Stroum Center for Jewish Studies with the primary purpose of endowing a chair, whose holder will demonstrate a strong commitment to studying, teaching, and disseminating knowledge about Jews and Judaism, as well as the modern State of Israel. Additional funds could be used for studying the evolution of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. In retrospect, the point of contention, counterintuitive as it may seem, is what the modern State of Israel signifies. It is a reminder of the absolute need for explicit, written understanding between donor and recipient.

UW hired Professor Liora Halperin in 2017 as the Jack and Rebecca Benaroya Endowed Chair in Israel Studies. Prior to her appointment at the University of Washington, Professor Halperin had served as Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Endowed Professor of Israel/Palestine Studies at the University of ColoradoBoulder: Her web page twice mentions her interest in the history of Israel/Palestine (emphasis added), a name that arguably signals an approach not fully aligned with the modern State of Israel. Regarding the name Israel/Palestine, in a phone conversation, David Myers, who holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles and had taught Professor Halperin in her graduate work, agreed that the choice of name is significant and added that in his own teaching, he could not disentangle the history of Zionism and the history of Palestinian nationalism.

Other scholars find the nomenclature substantially more problematic, and perhaps at the very beginning there were clues to the tension that would erupt between the donor and the scholar whom UW selected to hold the inaugural chair bearing the donors name. Professor Ilan Troen, of Brandeis University, who created the first major Israel Studies program in the United States, asserted by email that Israel Studies as traditionally defined is not the same as Israel/Palestine Studies and points out that the insistence on changing accepted terminology reflects a commitment to an alternate agenda. He added that the UW misunderstanding, like a previous controversy at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley that led to the withdrawal of a gift for an endowed chair, could have been avoided.

Last year, Professor Halperin joined other scholars in signing a Statement on Israel/Palestine, which condemns state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza. While the statement also notes the damage of indiscriminate Hamas rockets, the weight of its criticism is directed at Israel and Zionism, blaming it for: unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians.

Was there a verbal understanding between UW and Ms. Benaroya that was not part of the written gift agreement? That is unknown. (Neither UW nor Ms. Benaroya agreed to my request for an interview.) Professor Halperin communicated to me that she had always abided by the language of the gift agreement. What is clear is that after the Statement on Israel/Palestine appeared, Ms. Benaroya expressed concerns about the direction of the program she had funded and requested a series of meetings with Professor Halperin and UW leadership. Then, in February 2022, the university announced that it would return the $5 million gift to make clear that endowment agreements cannot limit academic freedom in any way, and to maintain the program free from external influence and pressure to adopt any specific positions.

The UW statement puts academic freedom front and center, but in a way that obscures a more complicated picture. Professor Halperin has the right to express herself, inside the classroom and out, without fear of sanction or censure. But should a donor be compelled to support this speech if it strikes at the very heart of a gifts purpose?

If UW had taken punitive actions against Professor Halperin, that would indeed constitute the grave threat to academic freedom warned of by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). But UWs statement makes clear that Professor Halperinas appropriatewill maintain her stature within the Jewish Studies department and will receive the same salary and research support, including a new, endowed chair in Jewish Studies (funded by interest accrued on the original gift, the universitys original matching funds, and other gifts totaling almost $6 million). Professor Halperin communicated to me by email that she is now pleased with the resolution, though she found it regrettable that the university did not make the new arrangements at the same time it returned the gift to the donor.

Considering the complexity and sensitivity of the issues at hand, the UW action appears to have aptly threaded the needle by giving due consideration to both academic freedom and donor intent. MESA and others have chastised the university for capitulating to donor pressure, but this simplistic view neglects the universitys responsibility to make a good faith effort to accommodate donor intent.

That there was a mismatch between Professor Halperin and Ms. Benaroya was apparent well before the disagreement over Professor Halperins decision to sign the Statement on Israel/Palestine. At the 2017 MESA conference, for example, Professor Halperin expressed discomfort with her position as Benaroya Endowed Chair in Israel Studies, saying on a panel, Many of us want to be in Middle East Studies. . . . I dont like the fact that the money I have to give graduate students is called Israel Studies money.

By hiring Professor Halperin as the Jack and Rebecca Benaroya Endowed Chair in Israel Studies, UW placed a distinguished scholar in a position at odds with objectives that Rebecca Benaroya apparently sought to advance. What transpired was akin to a university hiring an avowed socialist whose courses focus on how to overturn capitalism to occupy a donor-endowed chair in free market economics. Or hiring a climate science skeptic to lead a center funded to study the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

When a university agrees that bringing an underrepresented perspective to the campus will enrich the marketplace of ideas, it can adhere to donor intent without establishing an ideological litmus test for faculty hires. But deans and chairs must appoint a faculty hiring committee sympathetic to the aims of the benefactor. This does not mean a donor can dictate who is hired, what is taught in class, or the content of any professors political speech; but it does mean that the donors intention should be an important criterion in the search. If university faculty and administrators do not agree with the donors guiding purpose, it is not up to them to redefine it; rather, they have a responsibility politely to decline the gift.

UWs statement obscures its own role in making a mess of what ought to have been a win for the campus and the community it serves. At least it got the ending right. Despite the uproar in the press, what took place at UW is more like a conscious uncoupling than an acrimonious divorce. As fields of scholarship become increasingly polarized, other universities should give more attention to finding the right match for donor-endowed chairs and programs. Those that do not can at least take note of how UW honored the intent of Rebecca Benaroya after the fact, while working admirably to protect the intellectual freedom of the affected faculty member

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Controversy Over Israel Studies At University Of Washington Did Not Have To Happen - Forbes

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