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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.

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8 Comments

  1. If this were the response to literally any other minority donor there would be students marching all over campus in protest of the BDH and this author.

  2. The author is deluded if she believes Middle East Studies itself is an apolitical department. Its prime goal is to promote the Palestinian victim-hood narrative and delegitimize the region’s only secular, modern democracy, absent any semblance of balanced scholarship.

    Do you really think Doumani or any of the other faculty would have even given consideration to the Israel Fund if they had been previously approached?
    No, they would have done everything in their power to derail the fund and push their ideological agenda (as evident in almost every MES seminar and lecture over the last few years). With zealots like these in place, it was only reasonable to create the Israel Fund behind their backs.

  3. How the hell was this allowed to be posted?! There’s nothing wrong with legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, but so many of the statements in here are just plain antisemitism. Not to mention the huge number of assumptions on the author’s part.

  4. ClassOf2020 says:

    I have no problem with criticism of specific Israeli policies, but this is a very dangerous post that fails the 3D Test of Antisemitism in several spots.

    Several of your claims are just absurd leaps. For example, “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.” Why is inclusion of one department what defines the nature of something? Would it be different if the Judaic Studies, History, Political Science, or Religious Studies departments were involved? Did you even check to see if they were?

    “It seems that the wishes of wealthy alums have been uncritically mapped onto the University, without any apparent organic demand from students.” I’m a student. I’m interested. I would imagine many other students are interested in learning about Israel as well. Why is it so hard for you to believe that people actually can have an interest in Israel?

    “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.” I honestly can’t even believe this assertion made it to publication. Can you imagine if this were said about any other country? Should students not be exposed to American technology because it has been used to create nuclear weapons and drones? Believe it or not, despite your blood libel, a lot of the parts in and probably a lot of the apps on your phone come from Israel. It’s one of the most innovative countries in the world, and it’s not just making fences.

    “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.” Here’s another place where the 3D Test comes in handy. You can criticize specific policies, but you cannot claim that oppression is “synonymous” with Israeli policies. If this were true, there would be no Arabs on Israel’s Supreme Court and a Druze wouldn’t be the new military liaison to the Palestinians.

    “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.” Again, you really do nothing to prove this claim. No matter your stance on politics, companies are not the government.

    This article makes it very clear that you’re anti-Israel, but that does not give you an excuse to question the motives of those who would like to learn more instead of burying their heads in the sand. Despite your convoluted attempts to spin this as anything but, I encourage you to treat this as what it is: an academic endeavor. No matter what your position is on Israel, this is a chance to actually learn something. Of course you’re allowed to criticize Israel and of course you’re allowed to sympathize with the Palestinians, but you need to make sure you pass the 3D Test, or you, like this article, will just come across as antisemitic.

  5. If it bothers you so much that a minority group is interested in giving others the opportunity to study it, the solution is to fundraise and start a fund of your own, not to whine and drag everyone else down with you. No matter your stance on Israeli politics—and it’s more than clear what your stance is—Israel is extremely important to a lot of Jewish students at Brown (many of whom, might I add, have family in the country you’re demonizing), and your attempt to demean them through unfounded conspiracy theories is truly abhorrent. Did it never cross your mind that this could be a learning opportunity? Or would you prefer the entire university to remain a safe space for your antisemitism?

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