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Alums finance Israel Fund as first regional endowed fund

Students, professors disagree on whether fund is academically or politically motivated

More students may find their way to Israel during their time at the University thanks to the Israel Fund, an endowed fund created from alumni donations designated to support new and existing programs related to Israel. Established late 2016, the Israel Fund is the first endowed fund at the University that focuses on programs for a particular region of the world, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

So far, the Israel Fund has allowed students to travel to Israel for both summer internships and Wintersession courses, Mandel said. While these programs will continue, the fund is also slated to bring speakers to campus through the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and support the creation of a new student exchange program between the University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she added.

The University has raised $3.8 million toward a $10 million goal for the Israel Fund’s endowment, according to a University press release. Once the endowed fund reaches $10 million, it will return $500,000 annually that can be spent on programming.

Brown Students for Justice in Palestine oppose the existence of the Israel Fund. “We … are not in support of these efforts to expand Israeli programs for Brown students. We have found that historically, these programs are in line with Israel’s attempts to entrench itself in American political and academic spheres,” BSJP wrote in a statement to The Herald. “We believe that academia is responsible for revealing injustices and speaking honestly about issues like these. … The fruits of this fund … will be met with resistance.”

Interim Director of Judaic Studies David Jacobson pushed back on BSJP’s claims, stating that the Israel Fund’s “intention is purely academic and not political.” The Israel Fund aims “to provide Brown students with an opportunity to study Israel in all its complexity,” Jacobson said. “It was not at all motivated as an attempt to support anything having to do with Israeli policies.”

But Director of Middle East Studies Beshara Doumani expressed uncertainty about the agenda behind the Israel Fund. Unlike the Middle East Studies program, which “was built slowly, organically, from the bottom up,” by students and faculty, Doumani said the Israel Fund “completely descends from the top down. Instead of (being) student- or faculty-driven, it seems to be donor-driven.” Alums who donate to the Israel Fund may be politically motivated “to influence perceptions about a particular country or connections to that particular country,” Doumani added.

Faculty involved with the Israel Fund “would never support a course that had that kind of political agenda,” Jacobson said. “If you look at the programs that have been supported, it really does not affirm what the Israel Fund is being accused of.” Projects that study Israel also “introduce students to the Palestinian experience,” Jacobson added.

Doumani said he is not against student- and faculty-driven programs that study Israel. Instead, he said his concerns with the Israel Fund arise from a lack of transparency. Although the study of Israel falls within Middle East Studies, Doumani said he hadn’t heard of the Israel Fund prior to the Jan. 30 press release that publicized its existence. “The article just came out of the blue, but it said that this has been going on for a year now,” he said. “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.”

One project supported by the Israel Fund — an exchange program developed by Professor of History and German Studies Omer Bartov — plans to bring six students from the University together with a group of three Palestinians and three Israelis enrolled at the Hebrew University. Starting in fall 2019, these students will spend a semester on College Hill and a semester in Jerusalem learning about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Bartov said he aims to expose students to “discourse about coexistence rather than conflict” and teach students “to see things through other peoples’ eyes.”

“This is my attempt at making a small contribution to a conflict that has gone on far too long,” Bartov added.

Doumani said people will likely perceive the Israel Fund as a “calculated move” to create connections between the University and Israeli institutions, such as the Hebrew University. Such connections conflict directly with international campaigns to boycott, sanction and divest from Israeli institutions in protest of Israeli policy, Doumani said. “I’m not sure if this Israel Fund is really an intellectual or research or academic project as much as it is a way to bring Brown and Israel closer together,” he added.

Director of the Watson Institute Edward Steinfeld P’20 emphasized the importance of building connections with scholarly communities around the world. “My hope is for expanded communication and ties from the Brown campus and Watson to a number of international settings,” he said. Steinfeld envisions that the Israel Fund will allow the Watson Institute to bring more scholars from Israel to speak on a variety of topics including public health, social science, policy issues and Israel’s international relations. Once the Watson Institute begins receiving funding from the Israel Fund, a faculty committee will decide on speakers to invite, Steinfeld said.

The Israel Fund has already allowed some students to learn about the conflict between Israel and Palestine on the ground. Jacobson taught the 2017 Wintersession course, UNIV 1001: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Narratives, which aimed to teach students about the conflict from both the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives.

Jacobson and his students stayed in East Jerusalem during their trip, which is the predominantly Arab side of the city, and traveled to  the West Bank, Israeli cities and the border of the Gaza Strip. Jacobson said he hopes to make students more informed in their discussions of Israel and Palestine by taking students to Israel and exposing them to both sides of the conflict. “Israel is very controversial on campus,” he said. “I’m glad that students will now be able to make up their own minds by actually being there.”

BSJP’s statement claimed that Jacobson’s course misrepresents the conflict. The course “portrays both sides as egalitarian actors in a conflict, erasing the actual dynamic of the occupier and the occupied, colonizer and colonized, oppressor and the oppressed,” the group wrote in its statement. “These types of efforts result in normalization of an existing military occupation, erasure of the narratives of Palestinians and, ultimately, violence towards the Palestinian people.”

Jacobson said his course respects the perspectives of both Palestinians and Israelis. “The students who wrote this about my course, I assume, did not take the course,” Jacobson said. “There’s a difference between saying we want to understand where each side is coming from and saying that there’s no power imbalance. Of course, there’s a power imbalance. I don’t deny that,” he added. “When we’re on the ground (in Israel), we see the occupation. We see what it’s like. … The power imbalance is not being supported, but rather it’s being studied.”

Davis Tantillo ’19, a Herald copy editor who took Jacobson’s course in January 2017, said he appreciated the varied perspectives students heard from Israelis and Palestinians, “given that a lot of the narrative (of the conflict) that we receive in this country is more one-sided” in favor of Israel. Tantillo added that Jacobson’s course “opened my mind to the possibility that it’s maybe not best to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, (but) rather to be pro-peace.”

Academic opportunities supported by the Israel Fund will not be limited to learning about the conflict between Palestine and Israel. In Wintersession 2018, students traveled around Israel to learn about the HIV epidemic in Associate Professor of Medicine Rami Kantor’s course, BIOL 1980: “HIV/AIDS in Diverse Settings: Focus on Israel.” The course brought 12 students to HIV clinics in both Providence and cities across Israel where they met patients with HIV and health care providers.

Danielle Advani ’18 called Kantor’s Wintersession course “one of the best courses, if not the best course, that I’ve ever taken at Brown.” Advani said studying HIV/AIDS in Israel proved to be especially interesting because “there are very few places elsewhere in the world where you can go and see so many different opinions on one single disease.”

The scope of the Israel Fund also extends beyond academic programming related to Israel. Last summer, BrownConnect partnered with the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship to place seven students in internships at Israeli startups, said Executive Director of the Nelson Center Danny Warshay ’87 P’20. Students who participated in the pilot run of the Israel Entrepreneurship Internship Program “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,” Warshay said. After positive reception, the program is expanding to provide 15 students with internships in Israel this summer, he added.

Mandel said she hopes to see endowed funds established for other regions of the world as well. “I think you’ll start to see other things like (the Israel Fund) popping up,” she said. “I can’t promise that, but that’s my sense.”

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