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Liora R. Halperin

University of Washington

The University of Washington has returned a $5 million gift from a donor intended for an Israel studies program, setting off a debate about academic freedom at the university and beyond.

The money funded, among other things, an endowed chair to be held by the head of the program. The chair was held by Liora R. Halperin, a scholar of Israel whose books and articles have won acclaim.

She, along with other scholars, signed a letter last year that criticized Israel.

“As scholars of Jewish studies and Israel studies based in various universities, departments, and disciplines,” the letter said, “we condemn the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza; their evictions of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; and their suppression of civilian protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jewish-Arab cities, and Palestinian towns and villages in Israel. We express profound sadness at the recurrence of intercommunal violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and anger at the impunity enjoyed by most Jewish attackers.”

The letter also said, “We affirm the pain, fear, and anger of Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel who have lost loved ones and homes to unjustifiable and indiscriminate Hamas rockets.”

When it became known that Halperin had signed the letter, the donor, Becky Benaroya, demanded meetings with the university. The university agreed to the meetings and eventually, after not finding a workable resolution for all parties, returned the gift. The university also stripped Halperin of the endowed chair that she held, although she is still an associate professor of international studies, history and Jewish studies.

Halperin said via email that “no one who has attended the many programs I planned or got to know the students whom the funds supported could in good faith claim that I failed to uphold the endowment’s stated mission: to promote the study of modern Israel through ‘multiple disciplinary perspectives, including historical, sociological, legal, political, and cultural’; ‘to teach and disseminate knowledge about Jews and Judaism as well as modern Israel,’ and ‘to integrate the study of Israel into a global context, highlighting the comparative and international relevance of Israel in the Middle East and beyond.’”

She added, “If there was a misfit, it was around something I learned only after I accepted the university’s offer and began the job: That there were donor expectations that were not and could not legally have been stated in the endowment agreement itself: that the holder of the position must refrain from making certain political statements and, accept the proposition that study of ‘modern Israel’ is incompatible with the concurrent study of ‘Israel/Palestine.’”

The Israel studies program “no longer has dedicated funds to support student research, visiting lecturers, public programs, or staffing,” she said. “My colleagues and deans have been generous partners in helping replace my lost personal research funds in the near term and helping me envision how to move forward. I continue to feel privileged to work at UW. But in making the nearly unprecedented choice to return the endowment money—in the absence of any contractual obligation to do so—UW has dealt an immediate blow to the students who have come to rely on the resources of the program, limited our opportunities to bring innovative academic programming, and sent a broader chilling message about the potential material consequences of engaging in principled political speech.”

Generally in academe, colleges will not give back a gift because a scholar takes a political position that offends a donor.

“If the University of Washington’s decision was consistent with the endowment’s terms, the university should not have accepted an endowment that allows a donor to claw back funding whenever a faculty member expresses a viewpoint that upsets the donor,” Aaron Terr, program officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in a statement. “In doing so, the university outsources to donors the power to trample faculty members’ First Amendment rights and academic freedom. This will inevitably chill faculty members’ speech, even in their areas of expertise.”

The University’s Perspective

Victor Balta, a spokesman for the university, said that Halperin still holds an (unnamed) endowed chair and that the Israel studies program still exists. The university returned the $5 million gift that it received in 2016 to create the program, but not the interest it received on those funds, which was more than the size of the original gift.

As to questions of academic freedom, Balta said that Halperin “expressed views that were not shared by the donor, Becky Benaroya.” He said, “Our mission as a university demands that our scholars have the freedom to pursue their scholarship where it leads them. After several months of good-faith conversations between Professor Halperin, UW leadership and the donor, Mrs. Benaroya requested that her gift be returned and it was determined that returning the gift was the best path forward. ”

Balta said, “The return of the original $5 million gift was, in our view, the best way to protect academic freedom and to ensure that the Israel studies program would continue to thrive at our university and within our community.”

He explained that Benaroya “initially asked to amend the endowment agreement in several ways, including to prohibit the holder from ‘political statements or signing agreements hostile to Israel’ and requiring them to teach about ‘Israel, not Israel/Palestine.’” The university “would not agree to these amendments,” Balta said. “Further good-faith discussions did not lead to a resolution. The university is committed to supporting Israel studies, including through additional community fundraising, and we believe that not returning the gift would be detrimental to these efforts and have a more long-term negative impact on the program and to Jewish studies more broadly.”

Benaroya could not be reached for comment. Her son Larry Benaroya, who has spoken for her on this issue in past interviews with media, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Professors Weigh In

Dozens of professors of Jewish and Israel studies have weighed in as well, signing a joint letter in defense of Halperin.

“The right to free expression is the foundation of the modern university,” the letter says. “But the actions of the University of Washington administration in response to donor discontent over the letter Professor Halperin signed marks a dangerous capitulation and violation of that bedrock principle. Ideas generated within the academy—and by academics outside of the university—may break with received patterns of thought. That kind of iconoclasm is not to be discouraged or penalized; it is a key part of the advancement of knowledge for the betterment of society. In its statement on free speech, the flagship American Association of University Professors has declared: ‘Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new.’”

The letter continues, “It is essential to repeat that Professor Halperin has done nothing wrong. She has discharged her professorial and program leadership duties with distinction … The university’s actions have endangered the principle of free speech that lies at the heart of every credible institution of higher learning in the world—and it should acknowledge its serious mistake and pledge to uphold that principle without regard to a faculty member’s political views.”

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