Two Donor Controversies Show the Precarious Position of Jewish Studies ProgramsBreaking News
tags: Zionism, Jewish studies, academic freedom
In 2015, a family in Bellingham, Wash., pledged to fund the first-ever endowed chair in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Western Washington University. The Jaffe professorship in Jewish history would be a particularly meaningful position in the university that trains more social-studies teachers than any other in the state.
Two years later, the Jaffes stopped giving to Western Washington, apparently because they disagreed with comments that the Jaffe professor, Sarah Zarrow, had made about Israel. The Bernard and Audrey Jaffe Foundation never finished out its pledge.
The situation calls to mind another, more recent donor conflict in the region. Last month, an independent journalist broke the news that the University of Washington returned $5 million to a donor, Rebecca (Becky) Benaroya, after she objected to the Benaroya chair and other faculty members signing a May 2021 public letter. The letter criticized Israeli government actions, said Zionism is “shaped by settler colonial paradigms,” and called the region Israel/Palestine, instead of just Israel. The university decided to refund Benaroya after she wanted to amend her gift agreement to include clauses limiting the political statements the Benaroya chair could make, a university spokesperson said.
The highly unusual return set off a chorus of criticism from academics. “UW programs funded by private donors must not face potential elimination or unstable contingent funding because of a donor’s political demands,” reads a “statement of solidarity” on the University of Washington’s history-department page. “Academic freedom does not only mean permitting scholars to express opinions without institutional reprimands. It also means protecting the ability of faculty, staff, and students to conduct their work.”
The freedom to push boundaries is required for “scholarly excellence,” said David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history who has an endowed chair at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Together, the University of Washington and Western Washington cases are fresh examples of the ways in which big donors try or expect to exert influence on universities. While donor pressure can happen all across a campus, these cases reveal Jewish studies’s particular vulnerabilities: namely, the third-rail politics of modern Israel and the fact that the field has depended heavily on donors since its founding in the 1970s.
The cases differ in degree. The Benaroya gift was an order of magnitude larger than the Jaffe Foundation pledge, and the University of Washington’s decision to return its gift was unusual, while not finishing pledges is more common.
Either way, however: “It’s certainly a form of exerting power,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history at Temple University. In her book The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion Dollar Institution, Berman argues American law gives big-time philanthropists undue influence because charities decide, without public input, what causes to fund, while taking tax breaks that are ultimately subsidized by the public.