A few years ago, a woman contacted the pro-Israel organization where I work, StandWithUs, worried about her late husband’s legacy. He had spent his career as a professor at a University of California (UC) school, and was devoted to both his university and the Jewish community. Upon his death, he left a considerable and irrevocable gift to this UC school. Yet today, the school no longer serves as a consistently welcoming place for Jewish or Zionist students and faculty.
Campus buildings there have been defaced with antisemitic vandalism; anti-Israel classes and events now permeate campus life, including in the professor’s former academic department. His wife said that he would be horrified if he knew what had become of his school, and what he was now financially supporting in perpetuity.
After reviewing the matter, we concluded that there was nothing that could be done legally. This pro-Israel, proudly Jewish, and generous donor had given an unconditional gift to a university where support of Zionist students has become conditional on their denunciation of Israel.
As news articles show — and the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department’s ever-increasing intake of complaints about college campus antisemitism suggests — antisemitism and anti-Israel activity on US campuses has been rising.
While particular schools and departments differ, most universities today have embraced anti-Zionist activism through their curricula, student clubs, and campus events. They often tolerate the corresponding antisemitism that invariably shadows the anti-Israel activism.
Two examples demonstrate attempts by major donors to assert control over this problem. They both came to my attention recently through antisemitic incidents on their respective campuses that required legal attention.
At one university, a donor was approached about endowing a Jewish Studies chair. While BDS had not yet come to this university, the donor was concerned, and wanted to proactively protect his gift from supporting any future university support of BDS. The donor insisted on clauses in the endowment contract reflecting his values: if the university should enable or support BDS, funding would cease; furthermore, payments would be made annually over a five-year period, and the donor maintained a right to cancel any payments if the university were to become supportive of BDS.
Crucially, the donor required the contract to stipulate that the donor’s family would determine what constituted support of BDS. The family also retained in perpetuity the right to use the family name in association with the chair. If the donor’s name ever became associated with anything to which the family was fundamentally opposed, the university could be required to cease use of the family’s name.
With the terms accepted and contract signed, after an extensive search process, the university hired a Jewish Studies professor for the endowed chair. Astonishingly, the new professor was an active and vocal supporter of BDS. The professor used his position and title — which included the donor family’s name — to sign anti-Israel petitions and to promote anti-Israel rhetoric. The donor was furious to see his substantial donation enabling the very cause he most abhorred. He made every effort to urge the university to comply with their agreement, but to no avail. Thus the donor, invoking the terms of the contract, stopped payments and demanded the university remove his name from the chair.
Around the same time, Temple University was courting a different donor to give a seven-figure gift. The donor loved the institution, but was appalled by a particular tenured professor, Marc Lamont Hill, who frequently uses his position to espouse virulent, anti-Zionist rhetoric that meets the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism.
The university refused to address Lamont Hill’s conduct, but was open to other ideas. It agreed to a major gift given entirely through Israel Bonds, and to be renewed only through Israel Bonds in perpetuity. This was a compromise approach: the donor wanted to make a gift, but knew the university would not budge on addressing the professor’s antisemitic rants. So she compromised by funding a gift in a way that financially benefited the State of Israel.
How and where to donate is an intensely personal decision. I asked one of the above-mentioned donors what advice he would give to others concerned about rising anti-Israel activity and antisemitism on college campuses. He said, “There are many charitable options. If you want to give to a university, remember that you have power when you give, especially if it’s a major gift. Ask direct questions, and if you’re not happy with the answers, give [money] elsewhere. Most importantly, think about what you want your money to accomplish.”
Yael Lerman is the director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing legal resources to students, professors, and community activists confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. She can be reached at [email protected].