When donor pressure threatens to erase Palestine from academia

A controversy at the University of Washington over donor efforts to stifle scholarly work critical of Israel raises serious questions about the role of money and academia.

By Alice Rothchild | Mondoweiss | Oct 27, 2022

It became clear…that the holder of the Benaroya chair was expected to refrain from making ‘certain political statements’ and to ‘accept the proposition that study of ‘modern Israel’ is incompatible with the concurrent study of ‘Israel/Palestine.’”

In today’s society there is awareness that the interests and demands of funders influence what topics are studied, the definitions of acceptable norms, hidden meanings of language, and sources of knowledge, and that ultimately funding may easily taint research findings. In February 2022 at the University of Washington, a controversy became public that serves as an example of just this issue as well as the wide divisions within the Jewish community when it comes to Israel/Palestine, and the disastrous but predictable consequences when these different worldviews collide.y harvested. 

The origins of this contentious debacle began in 2014 when a number of UW faculty organized an academically vetted, peer reviewed research collaboration addressing “Palestine in the Public Sphere,” with faculty from the departments of English, anthropology, international studies and public health. They received a $6,000 grant from the Walter J. Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. There was much criticism. (I am reminded of a comment by a radiologist who came late to a talk I was giving on health and human rights in Israel/Palestine, and announced, “I haven’t heard your talk but I am against everything you said.”) Criticisms ultimately focused on an invitation to Omar Barghouti, a respected Palestinian activist and thinker, founder of the Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award. When Barghouti was asked to reflect on BDS as a political strategy, the backlash was swift and intense. The professors were accused of advocacy rather than scholarship, of one-sided partisanship, and endangering Jewish students; just the issues the research cluster was tasked to analyze.

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