The University of Washington has returned $5 million to a donor unhappy with the views expressed by the chair of its Israel Studies Program, whose position and other aspects of the program were largely funded by the gift.

The rare action, tapping into emotional divisions among Jews and society at large about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, sparked criticism from scholars across the country and beyond. Nearly 1,000, as of Thursday, signed an open letter accusing UW of undermining academic freedom — though the university says that’s exactly what it was trying to protect in late January by returning the endowment to longtime philanthropist Becky Benaroya.

Its decision to do so has exposed ambiguity in the relationship between donors and universities relying ever more on philanthropy. UW has an endowment fund worth nearly $5 billion as of last June, according to its 2021 financial report.

“Does this mean that every endowment is essentially vulnerable to the ideological preferences of the donor?” asked Eva Cherniavsky, president of the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which this week wrote its own letter of protest to university President Ana Mari Cauce.

The university has pledged continued support for the Israel Studies Program and its chair, Liora Halperin. According to a statement, nearly $6 million remains in an endowment for the program because of interest on Benaroya’s gift, $2.5 million given by the university and other investments. UW spokesperson Victor Balta said the university has committed to $20,000 a year in additional money over three years and plans to add more money to make up for much or all of what was lost.

Yet, questions remain, not least from Halperin herself.

“The university has publicly stated that I will be made whole,” she wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times. “I am gratified by this commitment. However, the university has not yet effectuated this promise, nor has it explained exactly how and when it will do so.” She called the program “imperiled.”

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The controversy has pained many faculty and supportive community members associated with the prominent Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, of which the program is a part.

“It’s time to reset and rebuild,” Mika Ahuvia, who takes over as the center’s director in July, wrote in an email last week to Jewish Studies colleagues. “What bridges have been burned and which do we still have a hope of repair with?” she also asked.

In May of last year, Halperin was among dozens of Israel and Jewish studies professors who signed a statement critical of Israel as it launched heavy airstrikes on Gaza, retaliating for Hamas rockets fired into Israel. The statement commiserated with the pain and lost loved ones on both sides, and denounced antisemitism as well as Islamophobia. It also referred to the Zionist movement as shaped by “settler colonial paradigms” that have led to “Jewish supremacy, emotional segregation, discrimination and violence against Palestinians…”

Devin Naar, head of UW’s Sephardic Studies Program, signed the statement too. Naar, “among the Sephardic community in Seattle, was treated as a god,” said Sonny Gorasht, echoing remarks he made to The Cholent, a Jewish newsletter in Seattle that first wrote about the controversy. Naar’s signature was “a total slap in the face” to supporters who assumed his views on Israel were the same as theirs, according to Gorasht, a onetime chair of the center’s advisory board.

Yet, focus among some community members fell upon the Israel Studies Program and Halperin, who held an endowed chair in Benaroya’s name. Gorasht said he and others understood the intent of the program, created in 2016 with the philanthropist’s donation, to present Israel in a more positive light. On campus, support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement could often be heard.

Those who wanted a positive view were not only angered by Halperin’s signature on the statement, but by her use of the term “Israel/Palestine” in describing courses. Gorasht calls it a code “that suggests that Israel does not have a right to exist.”

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Halperin said she is not using the term that way, rather to reflect “the layered political history of the land and its status as the object of multiple groups’ aspirations.”

Her use of the term should not have come as a surprise. Before coming to the UW in 2017, Halperin was an endowed professor of Israel/Palestine studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Yet, some community members felt deceived, according to Emily Alhadeff, who wrote the Cholent piece and runs the newsletter.

Benaroya, 99 and still very active, according to her son Larry Benaroya, could not be reached. “My mom wishes this never became public and doesn’t want to continue or add to the story,” he said by email.

“If there was a misfit, it was around something I learned only after I accepted the university’s offer and began the job,” said Halperin in her statement, adding she has “upheld the highest academic standards.” David Myers, who supervised Halperin’s dissertation at UCLA, where he is the Kahn Chair in Jewish History, said she is well-regarded in the field, known for her work on the cultural life of Jews.

Balta, the UW spokesperson, referred to the written agreement with Benaroya when asked about the intent in creating the Israel Studies Program. The nine-page document says the endowed chair will disseminate “knowledge about Jews and Judaism as well as modern Israel” and build relationships with Israeli institutions and faculty. It does not specify a positive outlook.

It does, as Balta pointed out, say the agreement can be amended by mutual consent of UW and Benaroya.

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“Mrs. Benaroya initially asked to amend the endowment agreement in several ways, including to prohibit the holder from making political statements or signing agreements seen as hostile to Israel,” the university’s statement said. “The UW would not agree to these amendments. The return of the original $5 million gift was, in the UW’s view, the best way to protect academic freedom to make clear that endowment agreements cannot limit academic freedom in any way, and to maintain the program free from external influence and pressure to adopt any specific positions.”

Halperin sees it differently. “In making the nearly unprecedented choice to return the endowment money — in the absence of any contractual obligation to do so — UW sent a concerning message about the potential professional and material consequences of engaging in principled political speech,” she said.

She also noted the influence of StandWithUs, a national pro-Israel group. Randy Kessler, executive director of the Northwest chapter, acknowledged attending a meeting with Benaroya, Halperin and university officials. He said he could not confirm that Benaroya gave the returned $5 million to his organization, as reported in The Cholent.

“Mrs. Benaroya brought advisers into the discussion, however no one at the meeting was introduced as representing an organization,” Balta said by email, asked about Kessler and StandWithUs. “These conversations were done in good faith and, in hindsight, we would not have permitted this individual to participate in the meeting had we known he would be soliciting Mrs. Benaroya.”

The return of Benaroya’s money means that Halperin will no longer hold the endowed chair in her name. UW, however, says reports that Halperin has been stripped of a chair are incorrect. She will hold a new chair in Jewish Studies.

Halperin says she was not told this at first. “As of now,” she said Friday, “I have not yet been formally offered a new, equivalent endowed chair nor offered clarity about whether the Israel Studies Program will continue to operate at its prior levels and through what funds.”

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That has yet to be pinned down, Balta said. Minus Benaroya’s money, the difference in the endowment amounts to about $180,000 a year, he calculated. On top of Halperin’s salary, funding for the program goes toward research, conferences and support of students.

In addition to figuring out funding, the university is working on new language for donor agreements with the aim of preventing similar situations in the future, Balta said, adding the language will make clear the university’s commitment to academic freedom.

That may face headwinds, though. In an article about the UW controversy, Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, wrote that donors have every right to “place conditions on their gifts” and “ask for their money back if they believe a university is failing to fulfill the intent of their endowment.”

To Cherniavsky of the AAUP, that amounts to donor review of academic work. Donors either need to renounce control, she said, or there needs to be a recognition that “private funding of research is a terrible model.”