Columns, Opinions

Overall ’19: The Israel Fund is undeniably political

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, April 2, 2018

In late 2016, the Israel Fund was established at Brown. An endowment created from alum donations, the Fund seeks to support new and existing programs and courses centered on Israel. As The Herald previously reported, the University has raised $3.8 million toward a $10 million goal for the Israel Fund’s endowment. Upon reaching the $10 million goal, the Fund will return $500,000 annually for a programming budget. In the face of accusations leveled against the Fund by Brown Students for Justice in Palestine that call out the inherent injustice of creating an academic fund for Israel-related programming, Interim Director of Judaic Studies David Jacobson told The Herald that the Fund’s intention is “purely academic, not political.”

But because the Israel Fund was created without any involvement or critical input from the Middle East Studies department’s faculty, it is nearly impossible for the Israel Fund to be apolitical. If Brown was hoping to foster an academic conversation about Israel through the Israel Fund, it started a conversation encumbered by the bias associated with the Fund’s sponsorship. When money is given to fund the study of a specific nation or national context, nothing is apolitical, even if there are some moderate steps taken to create nuance in the conversation. The Israel Fund is an expressly political initiative that implies the University’s support for Israel, owing to its top-down origins and its close links to Israeli business.

In an attempt to distance Brown’s Israel Fund from a politicized rhetoric, Jacobson’s statement that the Fund is “purely academic” unfortunately lacks substance, for two main reasons. The first way the Israel Fund departs from its purported academic aims is the nature of its inception. As Professor Beshara Doumani, director of the Middle East Studies program, told The Herald, “the Middle East Studies faculty have never been approached about this . . . It would be great if we had more information or were brought into the loop of what the thinking is and what the plans are.” The Middle East Studies faculty had not heard about the Israel Fund before the Jan. 30 press release that announced its establishment or the fact that the Fund had been in the works for over a year, he said. Since Israel is, in fact, located in the Middle East, the exclusion of the Middle East Studies faculty raises a red flag about the so-called “academic” intent of the Fund.

Further, in comparison to other academically oriented and regionally focused groups that exist on campus, the Israel Fund was created from the top-down with money from external donors. It seems ill-fitting for the Fund to flaunt academic roots and integrity when the ideas for the Fund were not generated within any scholarly framework of a department or program. Typically, if there is a genuine, grassroots demand for the creation of a scholarly program within the University, students and faculty will take the lead, organize on a grassroots level and work to transform their institutional objectives into reality. In the case of the Israel Fund, however, it seems that the wishes of wealthy alums have been uncritically mapped onto the University, without any apparent organic demand from students.

The Israel Fund’s self-proclaimed “academic” origins are disingenuous, given that Brown is home to a broad range of grassroots, student-led and scholarly organizations and initiatives that are trying to get certain programs of study institutionalized. In fact, five years ago, Middle East Studies spearheaded the New Directions in Palestinian Studies Initiative. “New Directions” aims to shape scholarly works in the field of Palestinian studies through annual workshops at Brown and a book series that brings together emerging and established scholars. Brown Students for Justice in Palestine is another student-led group on campus that stands in solidarity with the Palestinian fight for equality and freedom, and supports the boycott, divestments and sanction movement. Additionally, consider the Southeast Asian Studies Initiative, an entirely student-led and student-driven project that seeks to enhance the visibility of Southeast Asia in the University’s academic offerings and faculty. Students involved in SEASI have had to advocate intently for the intellectual value of Southeast Asian studies, developing their own independent studies.

Despite the Israel Fund’s efforts to support academic programs that, in the words of the Fund’s supporters, aim to “introduce students to the Palestinian experience,”  teach students “to see things through other peoples’ eyes,”and study — rather than reproduce — the “power imbalance” inherent in the narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the secretive and exclusive origins of this Fund undermine its seemingly peaceful academic pursuits.

The second way the Israel Fund assumes elements of a political project — as opposed to a purely academic one — is its inclusion of not only academic programs, but also entrepreneurial enterprises. Last summer, the University launched the Israel Entrepreneurship Internship program. According to Executive Director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship Danny Warshay ’87 P’20, students “not only got to experience what it’s like to work at a startup, … (but) they also got a cross-cultural experience to see what it was like to live in another international culture.” While Jacobson defends the Israel Fund as having solely a “academic” purpose, the Fund’s blatant business component proves this rhetoric is misleading.

By allocating a portion of the Fund’s capital to support Brown students immersed in tech startups, the Fund closely and undeniably aligns itself with Israeli politics. It is, after all, Israel’s technology and science sectors that have led to the development of drones, armed bulldozers, border fences and surveillance equipment that are used to carry out violence against Palestinians. As a result, the internships funded by the Israel Fund will most likely reveal to students, through a “cross-cultural experience,” the single-story narrative of how developed, tech savvy and forward-looking Israeli society is. And, in the process, the University — which allowed for little community deliberation about the potential pitfalls of the Israel Fund —  becomes complicit in the systems of racial and ethnic oppression synonymous with Israeli policies today.

Even if the Israel Fund’s academic programs have any redeeming qualities, the Fund’s internship component directly places the Fund within a political framework. It is important to remember that while region-specific programs and scholarly initiatives are integral to pursuing a holistic and liberal education, the methods by which some programs are implemented can, in fact, undermine their academic intentions. In terms of the Israel Fund, its top-down creation and internship component transform the Fund into a political tool. As Brown students, it is our job to remain continuously engaged in and constructively critical of the University’s academic endeavors. The Israel Fund is the perfect opportunity to unite as a community and speak out against an alum-driven and potentially dangerous political project masquerading as an academic program.

Sophia Overall ’19 can be reached at sophia_overall@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Topics: