The University of Washington has put its five-year-old Israel Studies Program on hold after a major donor, angry about a professor’s criticism of Israel, took her money back.
Becky Benaroya, a prominent Seattle philanthropist, gave $5 million in 2016 to create the program. But after a professor who held the Jack and Rebecca Benaroya Endowed Chair in Israel Studies was among hundreds of Jewish studies and Israel studies professors to sign a widely circulated statement criticizing Israel last year, Benaroya became concerned about what was happening in the program she had funded.
She requested months of meetings with the professor, Liora Halperin, and university officials to discuss her views on the program’s direction. Those meetings — which also included a representative of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, according to a person familiar with them — culminated in the university returning the entire endowment to Benaroya earlier this year.
“Based upon the direction the program had taken, my mom didn’t want her name connected with it,” Larry Benaroya, Becky Benaroya’s son and the current CEO of the family real-estate firm The Benaroya Company, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an email.
As a result, the university stripped Halperin of her chair position and halted programming related to Israel studies — moves that Halperin told JTA will have consequences both on campus and well beyond it.
“In making the nearly unprecedented choice to return the endowment money — in the absence of any contractual obligation to do so — UW has dealt an immediate blow to the students who have come to rely on the resources of the program, limited our opportunities to bring innovative academic programming, and sent a broader chilling message about the potential material consequences of engaging in principled political speech,” she said.
The turmoil was first reported by The Cholent, an independent newsletter about Jewish Seattle. It is sending shockwaves across academia, where the freedom to comment on political issues without fear of professional retaliation is a hallmark value.
“We should not be imposing litmus tests on who is and is not virtuous enough to receive an endowed chair at a university,” David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles, told JTA. “I think any defender of the university system and the right of free speech has to be deeply concerned about it.”
Unlike Halperin and some of her colleagues, Myers did not sign the 2021 “statement on Israel/Palestine” that kicked off the turmoil at the University of Washington. That letter, published amid a deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, condemned Israeli actions against Palestinians and stated that “the Zionist movement … was and is still shaped by settler colonial paradigms.”
But he said one needn’t agree with Halperin’s personal positions on Israel to be alarmed by the consequences she is facing at her university and fearful about the future of academic dialogue about the region. He started an open letter to support Halperin, who was his student, and close to 500 professors have signed on this week — many, he said, who don’t share her views.
“I see this as the next front in the battle to adopt and fortify a conformist American Jewish view on Israel,” Myers said.
The University of Washington already had a vaunted Jewish studies program in 2016, when Benaroya made her gift. Its first professor was Deborah Lipstadt, currently nominated to become the US State Department’s anti-Semitism monitor. Now, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies has 27 faculty members as well as one of the world’s most celebrated collections of Sephardic and Ladino-language artifacts.
But Benaroya, a Sephardic Jewish philanthropist in Seattle and widow of real-estate developer and venture capitalist Jack Benaroya, wanted to see more teaching about Israel. Her $5 million donation to the Stroum Center created an endowed chair, part-time assistant and research funds “with the intention of putting forth scholarship on the history and contributions of the modern State of Israel.”
The endowment language instructs the program “to promote the study of Israel through multiple disciplinary perspectives” and “to integrate the study of Israel into a global context, highlighting the comparative and international relevance of Israel in the Middle East and beyond.”
Halperin told JTA that she was proud of the Israel Studies Program’s work over the last five years and that she believed that “no one who has attended the many programs I planned or got to know the students whom the funds supported could in good faith claim that I failed to uphold the endowment’s stated mission.”
But she also said there were “donor expectations that were not and could not legally have been stated in the endowment agreement” that became apparent. It became clear, she said, that the the holder of the Benaroya chair was expected to refrain from making “certain political statements” and to “accept the proposition that study of ‘modern Israel’ is incompatible with the concurrent study of ‘Israel/Palestine.'”
That phrase — ”Israel/Palestine” — is present in many of Halperin’s course descriptions and, according to The Cholent, has long been a flashpoint for tension between the vocally pro-Israel contingent of donors who spearheaded the Stroum Center’s recent expansion and the faculty who have been hired as a result.
Another major donor, Sonny Gorasht, told The Cholent that he had strongly objected to seeing the term “Israel/Palestine” in university brochures, and voiced his displeasure directly to the Stroum Center’s director, Noam Pianko. “I called Noam, and I said I’ve never heard of Israel referred to as Israel-slash-Palestine,” he said. “What the hell are you talking about, having truth in education?”
Gorasht and his daughter, Jamie Merriman-Cohen, told The Cholent that their efforts to create the Israel Studies Program in 2016 to rival its acclaimed Sephardic Studies Program were conceived as a way to counter what they believed was rising anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses, including at the University of Washington.
“There came a time when the university was inviting rabid anti-Israel, BDS, rabid anti-Semitic people to come speak. The community was up in arms about it. They looked to the Jewish studies program to stop that,” Gorasht told The Cholent. “Of course, it’s a place where people have a right to speak, so we had a sense that, sure, academic freedom, people have a right to speak, but you can’t present one side of the story.”
Both Gorash and Merriman-Cohen have also chaired an advisory board that organizes community input into the university’s Jewish studies program. In that role, Merriman-Cohen wrote a letter recommending that the university hire Halperin, a historian whose work focuses on pre-state Israel, in 2017.
But after the 2021 Israel letter, Merriman-Cohen wrote a new letter to the university’s president recommending that Halperin’s tenured position be “reconsidered.” She also requested that Pianko, who had not signed the letter but had supported Halperin during her initial hiring process, no longer be the Stroum Center’s director.
Merriman-Cohen told The Cholent that she now believes the hiring of Halperin was rushed and that she had been pressured into writing her initial recommendation. Halperin’s partner, Sasha Senderovich, is also a professor affiliated with the Stroum Center and also signed the 2021 Israel letter; other UW signatories included Susan Glenn, Devin Naar and Noga Rotem.
“The University of Washington has been very supportive of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies and my leadership during my 11-year tenure as Director,” Pianko told JTA in a statement. “My appointment is not now, nor has it ever been in jeopardy.”
University spokesperson Victor Balta told JTA in a statement that, “Informed through her research area of expertise, the faculty member supported by the endowment expressed views that were not shared by Mrs. Benaroya. Our mission as a university demands that our scholars have the freedom to pursue their scholarship where it leads them. After several months of good faith conversations between the faculty member, UW leadership and the donor, Mrs. Benaroya requested that her gift be returned and we agreed this was the best path forward.”
The statement added that the school “is committing to provide $20,000 each year for the next three years as research/discretionary funding to support Prof. Halperin’s work,” and that UW would continue to be in conversation with Stroum Center faculty “on next steps to realize the mission of the program.”
According to The Cholent, Benaroya is redirecting her gift to StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group that organizes on college campuses and elsewhere. A person familiar with the meetings between Benaroya and university officials told JTA that Randy Kessler, executive director of StandWithUs’s Seattle office, had been present.
StandWithUs confirmed that it had played a role in Benaroya’s discussions with UW, but would not comment to JTA on the status of the donation.
“Mrs. Benaroya contacted StandWithUs after learning her endowment was no longer fulfilling the intent of her gift,” Roz Rothstein, the organization’s CEO and co-founder, told JTA in an email. “We helped her engage with the university to address her concerns but the parties were not able to reach an agreement.”
Rothstein said that, “as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activism rises on college campuses,” StandWithUs regularly engages with university donors “concerned about the use of their gifts,” and that the group outlines “the steps donors can take to ensure their generosity is being respected and used for programs consistent with the understandings they had reached with universities.”
A recent op-ed penned by the director of StandWithUs’s legal department advises would-be university donors to insert language into their endowments requiring that they only be used to fund pro-Israel speech and scholarship – and ensure that donors have “continuing oversight of their gifts.”
Halperin, who is currently teaching a course billed as a “survey of significant scholarly texts on Israel and Palestine during the 19th-21st centuries,” says she hopes her experience can be a turning point for her field and for universities where Israel is a political lightning rod.
“I would encourage my fellow academics and engaged members of the community to speak out in defense of academic freedom, particularly but not only when it comes to Israel/Palestine,” she told JTA. “I also call on communities sympathetic to a more inclusive vision of Israel Studies and Israel/Palestine Studies and committed to the principle of academic freedom to show their support for university departments, centers, and colleagues engaging in such work.”