Major donors to Brandeis University have informed the school they will no longer give it money in retaliation for its decision last month to host former President Jimmy Carter, a strong critic of Israel.
The donors have notified the school in writing of their decisions — and specified Carter as the reason, said Stuart Eizenstat, a former aide to Carter during his presidency and a current trustee of Brandeis, one of the nation’s premier Jewish institutions of higher learning.
They are “more than a handful,” he said. “So, this is a concern. There are evidently a fair number of donors who have indicated they will withhold contributions.”
Brandeis history professor Jonathan Sarna, who maintains close ties with the administration, told The Jewish Week, “These were not people who send $5 to the university. These were major donors, and major potential donors.
“I hope they’ll calm down and change their views,” Sarna said.
Sarna indicated he knew the identity of at least one of the benefactors but declined to disclose it. He said only that those now determined to stop contributing include “some enormously wealthy individuals.”
Eizenstat said his information came from discussions Tuesday with university administrators, who did not disclose to him who the donors in question were, or how much was involved.
Kevin Montgomery, a student member of the faculty-student committee that brought Carter to Brandeis, related that the school’s senior vice president for communications, Lorna Miles, told him in a meeting the week before Carter’s appearance that the school had, at that point, already lost $5 million in donations.
Asked to comment, Miles replied, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
Miles said that university President Jehuda Reinharz was out of the country and unavailable for comment. The school’s fundraising director, Nancy Winship, was also unavailable, she said.
“I have not heard anything from donors,” said Miles. “I don’t know where Stuart’s information is coming from. I don’t think there is any there there, in your story.”
The apparent donor crisis comes on the heels of a series of Israel-related free speech controversies on the Waltham, Mass., campus, of which Carter’s January appearance is only the latest and most high-profile. Critics of Israel last year protested Reinharz’s removal of an art exhibit from the school library containing anti-Israeli paintings — denounced by some as crude propaganda — by youths from Palestinian refugee camps.
The university got flack from the other side when it awarded an honorary doctorate in June to renowned playwright and frequent Israel critic Tony Kushner, who once referred to Israel’s founding as “a mistake.”
The run-up to Carter’s appearance was also punctuated by acrimony when the former president declined an initial invitation to appear in a debate format with Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. Instead, Dershowitz appeared only after Carter left the hall.
Yet, the school has also won notice for a course it offers on the Middle East conflict co-taught by Shai Feldman, a prominent Israeli strategic analyst, and Palestinian Khalil Shikaki, a leading West Bank demographer. It also conducts an exchange program with Al Quds University, a Palestinian school in East Jerusalem. The Brandeis student body of about 5,000 is about 50 percent Jewish but also contains a significant population of Muslims.
Nevertheless, the free-speech controversies seemed to pit Brandeis’ commitment to maintaining its status as a top-tier, non-sectarian university —with all the expectations of untrammeled discourse this brings — against its determination to remain, in Reinharz’s words, a school under “continuous sponsorship by the Jewish community.”
The alleged action by some top donors has now sharpened the tensions between those two goals, intensified by the school’s commitment to the ideals of its namesake. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a founder of American Zionism and one of the judiciary’s fiercest free speech defenders.
“The American Jewish community understands the visit by Carter to Brandeis to be reflecting a heksher” — a stamp of approval — “from the university,” said Sarna, whose field is American Jewish history. “They see it as a statement that Brandeis certifies him as kosher.
“The faculty views it very differently,” he said, “that Brandeis is a forum; that views are uttered in that forum, some of which we agree with and some of which we don’t. But the faculty does not view his appearance as a heksher.
“It’s that gap in perception that seems to require greater dialogue between the two entities so at least one understands the other,” said Sarna.
But the Carter event may have instead opened the door to greater tensions. Emboldened by it, a group of left-wing students are now seeking to bring to campus Norman Finkelstein, a controversial Holocaust scholar who charges that Jewish leaders exploit the tragedy to fend off and silence criticism of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. He charges, too, that Jewish organizations have inflated the number of Holocaust survivors to inflate reparations payments.
A group of right-wing students has invited to campus Professor Daniel Pipes, an Arabist and policy analyst who writes often of the security threat he sees to the United States and Europe from Muslim immigrants. Pipes has also founded Campus Watch, a program that seeks to monitor what professors teach in class and publicize those it regards as extremists. This has provoked charges he is a McCarthyist, which he denies.
In a contentious meeting with faculty after the Carter event, Reinharz denounced Finkelstein and Pipes as “weapons of mass destruction,” according to a report in The Justice, the Brandeis campus newspaper. His executive assistant, John Hose, explained, “These are people who tend to inflame passions, whose mission is not so much discussion and education as it is theatre, a show … If you want serious discussion, there’s lots of resources available for that already at Brandeis.”
At the Feb. 5 meeting, Winship, the school’s chief fundraiser, also alluded to the brewing problem with donors. The e-mails from them “kept coming and coming,” The Justice quoted her as saying. “We’re just trying to repair the damage. The Middle East is just this trigger of emotions for our alumni and for our friends. For the most part, the donors who come to us come through the Jewish door.”
Reinharz sharply criticized the committee that brought Carter to campus for leaving the university with $95,000 in logistical and security costs, according to The Justice.
“Faculty members should not be allowed to invite whoever they want and leave Brandeis with a huge bill,” Reinharz complained, according to the paper.
The school’s budget for 2005, the latest year for which tax records are available, was $265.75 million against revenues of $310 million.
Members of the sponsoring committee protested that Reinharz had earlier assured them money would be no barrier to bringing the first U.S. president to Brandeis since Harry S Truman’s 1957 commencement speech there.
“I think Jehuda [protested the cost] because he wanted to distance himself from Carter,” said Montgomery, the student member of the Carter committee. “I feel this is Jehuda’s attempt to appease the harsh donor critics.”
The Brandeis president did not attend the Carter event, with his office making it known that Reinharz was out of town.
At the faculty meeting, Susan Lanser a professor of English, complained, “I know many, many faculty who do not feel they can speak freely about the Middle East” in public forums. And in an interview with The Jewish Week, Mary Baine Campbell, another English professor, spoke of “the chilling effect of knowing one speaks about things unwelcome by the administration in charge of working conditions and pay. They could be angels. I don’t know. It’s a slightly chilled atmosphere.”
Lanser said the administration’s warnings about donors had reinforced that sense. “I’m not saying that was the intent of the meeting,” she said. “I think Brandeis is committed to open intellectual inquiry. But this issue gets complicated because of the strong feelings of some donors.”
This vexed aftermath contrasted sharply with the widely praised tenor of the event itself. The university audience of almost 2,000 received Carter with notable civility and even gave him several standing ovations. At the same time, student questioners challenged him with tough and critical queries.
The focus of hostility toward Carter — his new book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — has led to no less than Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman charging him with “engaging in anti-Semitism.” Many others have echoed this.
The protests start with the book’s title, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” implicitly comparing Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to apartheid-era South Africa. The book itself contains gross factual errors, charge critics, and a lopsided bias that lays blame almost exclusively on Israel for the failure to resolve the conflict.
Critics object especially to Carter’s claim that pro-Israel forces in the United States have a disproportionate and stifling impact on public debate of the issue — denounced by Foxman as “the old canard and conspiracy theory of Jewish control of the media, Congress and the U.S. government.”
At the event, Carter defended himself against such charges. Interviews with audience members suggested their ovations stemmed more from respect for Carter’s former office and their acceptance of his basic integrity and good faith than agreement, necessarily, with his views.
“I think everyone was surprised at how well he was received,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and historian unaffiliated with Brandeis. “That may be the most important part of the story. Instead of coming as partisans, they listened to Carter attentively, asked tough questions and gave him an audience. The Jewish community may have a more significant generation gap than they understand between what young people are prepared to hear and what older activists are prepared to hear.”