Wednesday, August 17, 2022
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UWashington Returns $5M Gift to Israeli Studies Program


The University of Washington (UW) has returned a $5 million donation to its Israel Studies program from a prominent Seattle philanthropist.

Inside HigherEd reported that UW received the money in 2016 to fund, among other things, an endowed chair for the head of the program. The chair was held by eminent scholar of Israeli studies, Liora R. Halperin, who, along with other faculty, has been vocal about the Israeli government’s violence in Gaza.

“We condemn the state violence that the Israeli government has been carrying out in Gaza; their evictions of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem,” Halperin and other scholars wrote in their letter.

When donor Becky Benaroya learned of Halperin’s stance, she asked to meet with university officials. After a series of discussions on the matter — none of which led to a workable solution — the university agreed to return Benaroya’s gift.  

UW also removed Halperin from her chair position, although she still holds a position as associate professor of international studies, history, and Jewish studies. 

Halperin expressed her disappointment in the university’s decision “in making the nearly unprecedented choice to return the endowment money” by arguing that the move “dealt an immediate blow to the students who have come to rely on the resources of the program.”

Curtailing Freedom of Speech?

UW’s decision to strip Halperin of her position has sent shockwaves throughout academia, with scholars arguing that the decision goes against the freedom to take a stand on political issues without fear of professional retaliation.

“We should not be imposing litmus tests on who is and is not virtuous enough to receive an endowed chair at a university,” professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles, David Myers, told The Jerusalem Post. “I think any defender of the university system and the right of free speech has to be deeply concerned about it.”

UW Statement

According to UW spokesman Victor Balta, “Mrs. Benaroya initially asked to amend the endowment agreement in several ways, including prohibiting the holder from making political statements or signing agreements seen as hostile to Israel. The university would not agree to these amendments.”

“The return of the original $5 million gift was, in our view, the best way to protect academic freedom and to ensure that the Israel studies program would continue to thrive at our university and within our community.”

The university added that it would create an Israel Studies endowment using the interest earned on Benaroya’s gift.

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