Fighting Sheikh Zayed’s Funding of Islamic Studies at Harvard Divinity School: A Case Study

, November 17, 2005
  • In July 2000 a $2.5 million endowment was made to the Harvard Divinity School by Sheikh Zayed, the dictatorial ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi Emirates, for the creation of a chair of Islamic studies.1 The stated purpose of the gift was “to promote a better understanding of Islam among the non-Muslim peoples of the world and to foster dialogue among the world’s great religions.”2
  • Upon learning of this donation, Rachel Fish, a graduate student of the Harvard Divinity School, took the initiative to expose Sheikh Zayed’s multiple abuse of human rights, including the use of child slave labor, and his indulgence in ant-Semitic propaganda. This led to the closure of the Zayed Center, the Sheikh’s think tank in Abu Dhabi.
  • Harvard Divinity School faculty, including many Jewish academics, were often unhelpful to Fish, closing their eyes to the tainted character of the funds.
  • Fish’s almost single-handed action led Harvard to suspend the funding for lengthy investigations. Ultimately, Sheikh Zayed withdrew his donation.

“Anti-Semitic in Effect, if Not Intent”

Harvard, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, found itself in a pivotal position in the fight to influence public opinion on campus toward the state of Israel. In May 2002, several Harvard faculty members and students began a campaign to divest Harvard endowment funds from Israeli companies and from certain firms that do business with Israel. This drew a strong reaction from the university’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, who called the endeavor “anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent.”3 Although the campaign ultimately faltered, the sharp comments by Summers, a Jew, further inflamed the controversy.

With the effects of this anti-Israeli activity reverberating through the campus, students at the Harvard graduate schools created a group to facilitate pro-Israeli communication between the schools called HUGFI (Harvard University Graduate-Students Friends of Israel). When faced with the Sheikh Zayed donation to the Divinity School, graduate student Rachel Fish, a founding member of HUGFI, utilized this group to increase awareness of the issue on campus.

Exacerbating the situation was the autonomous nature of the graduate schools, which made each one responsible for its own funding. Although the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) is the oldest Harvard graduate school, it has the smallest endowment of any Harvard institution thus making the $2.5 million donation a substantial contribution.

 

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (1918-2004)

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan became the dictatorial ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi in 1966 when he succeeded his brother who was deposed in a bloodless palace coup. He was subsequently elected president of the newly formed United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971 by the six other ruling Sheikhs who sit with him on the UAE Supreme Council.4 During his thirty-three-year rule of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed was condemned countless times by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International for abuses such as corporal punishment of prisoners5 and conducting a slave ring of Bangladeshi children whom he would have kidnapped, starved, and then force to compete as jockeys in the country’s popular camel races.6

As absolute ruler of the country, the wealth from controlling its oil supply had placed Sheikh Zayed among the world’s ten richest men with an estimated personal fortune of $23 billion.7 The Sheikh created a think tank called the Zayed Center of Coordination and Follow-up. Based in Abu Dhabi, the Zayed Center was headed by the deputy prime minister, Sheikh Zayed’s son. It was established in 1999 as the official think tank of the Arab League, an association of twenty-two Arab nations, and it represented, according to its website, “the fulfillment of the vision of the President of U.A.E. His Highness, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan.”

Since its inception, the Zayed Center has promoted Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, anti-American conspiracy theories, as well as hate speech in its lectures, symposia, and publications. The Los Angeles Times quoted the Center’s director as saying: “Jews are the enemies of all nations.”8

On 9 April 2003, the Zayed Center hosted Dr. Umayma Jalahma, an Islamic- studies professor at King Faysal University in Saudi Arabia. Briefing the Center on the U.S. war in Iraq, she asserted that it was specifically timed to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Purim, “which symbolizes the Jewish victory of Haman in Babylon.”9

On 11 March 2003, the Zayed Center gave a platform to Michael Collins Piper, a political author and writer for the American Free Press. His speech was laced with references to “Jewish control” of the U.S. government and media. Piper also said that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was “not a theory but a real fact.”10

On 6 April 2003, Saleh al Qallab, a former Jordanian information minister, spoke at the Zayed Center and claimed that influential “rabbis” in the Washington administration sought to “reshape the world” through U.S. military intervention.11

Furthermore, in 1998, Zayed’s wife donated $50,000 to the defense of Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy in a French court. In his book, The Founding Myths of Modern Israel, Garaudy maintained that there was no Nazi program of genocide during World War II and that Jews had fabricated the Holocaust.12

 

Rachel Fish’s Activism13

The controversy over the Zayed endowment began in December 2002 when Rachel Fish, then a graduate student at HDS, organized a panel to discuss the rise of global anti-Semitism. She initiated this meeting because she was frustrated with the growing trend of whitewashing questions about anti-Semitism in religion classes by students and HDS faculty.

Among the speakers was Dr. Charles Jacobs, cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Group and president of the David Project, an organization that educates students and the Jewish community at large about Israel. At the panel, Jacobs informed the audience that the “Harvard Divinity School [had] accepted funds from the president of UAE who was promoting anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.” After the panel had concluded, Fish asked Jacobs for more information regarding who it was that gave the money. “This is all I know,” he replied. Fish then began investigating the details of the endowment.

Fish researched the matter from December 2002 to March 2003. In early March, Fish, accompanied by two other HDS students, met with William A. Graham, dean of HDS. They presented him with a seventy-page indicting dossier that Fish had compiled on the Sheikh and requested that the administration seek funding for this important position from credible sources that did not promote hatred of Jews.

Perhaps the most troubling piece of information presented by Fish and the other students was the endowment’s “Terms of Agreement.” When they questioned Dean Graham as to his knowledge of these terms, he stated that he did not know of their existence or if they were accurate. Fish immediately gave him a copy of the terms. Several aspects troubled her, most of all the lines about the appointment of a “liaison officer.” This position would “advise the U.A.E. on procedures relating to application and admission to the University” as well as “encourage relations in other areas of research and development.”14 The first part seemed to provide the Sheikh with inappropriate knowledge of who was entering the program.

Furthermore, it seemed that “relations in other areas of research” might include academic exchanges with the Zayed Center as it was the primary think tank in the region.

Dean Graham, who in September 2000 hailed the donation as “a most welcome gift,”15 assured the students that he would have an independent researcher look into the matter and that he would respond to them in four to six weeks. “It should be noted,” wrote Fish, “that Mr. Graham has not been afraid to take a public stand on Harvard’s ties to the Middle East – last year he signed a petition calling for the university to disinvest from Israel.”16 Immediately after her confrontation with Dean Graham, Fish proceeded to President Summers’s office and gave his assistant the same material.

Subsequently, Fish began to raise awareness among Jewish and non-Jewish students, faculty, and alumni. She founded the Students for an Ethical Divinity School and created a website titled “Morality Not Money” to track the efforts to freeze Zayed’s donation and to expose the Zayed Center. The site was created with the aid of the David Project, Dr. Charles Jacobs’ organization.

Eight weeks later, having received no response from Dean Graham and serving his office with due warning, Fish gave her first press interview on the subject to the Boston Globe. From March to the end of July 2004, she worked to raise awareness of the donation by writing letters to newspapers, giving numerous media interviews, and sharing her research with the general community.

In the early stages of the issue’s development, Dean Graham responded to concerned individuals who had learned of the matter from Fish by simply stating that the “UAE is the most moderate voice in Middle East.” When contacted by the JCPA in 2005 to comment on what had transpired on his campus, Dean Graham refused to give a statement, referring this author to Harvard’s official response website. There it was stated that HDS was “pleased to announce that we are going forward with this important appointment in Islamic religious studies, so that we can advance our mission at HDS to provide teaching and scholarship about the world’s religions with the greater aim of promoting understanding and dialogue among them.”17

Given Harvard’s lack of action, Fish weighed whether she would accept her diploma from the university despite her two years of hard work. After much consideration, she decided to attend her graduation and use it as a means to send a clear message to the administration. With the help of the David Project, Fish recruited students from the local Jewish high schools to hand out hundreds of flyers in Harvard Yard on graduation day so that everyone attending the ceremony would be aware of the situation at HDS.

In a bold public statement, Fish accepted her diploma from Dean Graham with one hand and with the other gave him a 130-page indictment of documented evidence against Sheikh Zayed, an open letter asking him to publicly denounce anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and a petition with 1,500 signatures expressing concern to the Harvard administration. Immediately after graduation, Fish presented the same material to President Summers’s office and during the next year and a half continued to raise awareness of the Zayed endowment.

 

Reactions

One important aspect of this story was the reaction of members of the campus community to the Sheikh’s donation. Aside from the various students and teachers who were brave enough to sign Fish’s petition, few people actually gave her any material support for her efforts.

Fish sought support from the Muslim student population at HDS, many of whom she knew from her classes. Approaching them, she informed them of the problems with the donation, clarifying that she strongly favored creating an Islamic-studies chair but felt the funding for it must come from reputable sources.

Although many of the Muslim students agreed with Fish that the money was from a tainted source, they virtually unanimously favored accepting the donation as they felt establishing the position was desperately necessary. “We can do good things with bad money,” they said according to Fish, to which she responded that it is a prestigious honor to be associated with Harvard, and at a place such as HDS one cannot separate the means from the ends. Some Muslim students even claimed that the hate propaganda disseminated by the Zayed Center was “just words over there [in the UAE],” to which Fish responded that, as a Jew, she knew that words have consequences.

The response from the Jewish student body at Harvard was also disappointing. Although many expressed support for Fish’s cause, no one would assist with her research or advocacy campaign. The vast majority of the students felt they were too busy preparing for final exams, graduation, and postgraduate positions to get involved with the issue. Even HUGFI, which Fish notified of this situation, did little groundwork to further the cause.

Hillel, the Jewish students’ association, said they did not deal with confrontation and, at best, they offered Fish an opportunity to bring in a speaker. When the Hillel administration told Fish that it was an apolitical organization, she replied that she had not known Holocaust denial was political. Although Hillel did become more involved behind the scenes after Fish’s graduation, the apathetic response of the Harvard Jewish students led her to realize that cases similar to the Zayed endowment must be occurring on other campuses across America.

The HDS faculty was generally unhelpful to Fish’s cause. The sympathetic faculty members whom Fish approached were usually afraid to take a vocal stance. Tenured professors who agreed with her refused to condemn the donation publicly for fear of professional risk. Nontenured faculty members were all the more timorous. Although one senior faculty member wrote privately to President Summers, and some nontenured ones privately expressed agreement with the petition, there was a general reluctance to go public.

Although it appeared that no one would assist Fish in her endeavor, one professor, Jon Levenson, came to her aid in the spring of 2003. Levenson, whose field is Jewish studies, was one of the academics who initially suggested that Jacobs speak at Fish’s panel on anti-Semitism, but had been unaware of the Zayed donation at the time. He informed the associate dean for development and then the dean of HDS about the situation. In March 2003, he brought the issue to the entire faculty’s attention at a discussion after a presentation about the then impending search for a chair in Islamic religious studies.

Levenson addressed the issue again at the HDS faculty retreat that spring. He continued assisting in a consultative capacity, discussing the issue with people involved and also addressing a meeting of interested faculty at Harvard Hillel in June 2003. Levenson was also interviewed by several newspapers that summer.

Levenson said generally that he heard both defenses of the Sheikh and attacks on Fish from the faculty. Those who defended the Sheikh mostly claimed that he had no connection with the Center. They also asserted that the chair was not named after him but after his grandfather, who, given the custom of papponomy, had the same name. In one instance, when Levenson pointed out that the Sheikh’s wife had funded a French Holocaust denier, one feminist professor sardonically asked, “Which wife?”18

Others also came to the defense of Sheikh Zayed and the Zayed Center. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, generated a negative campaign against Fish’s efforts. Abdullah Saboosi, a spokesman at the UAE’s embassy in Washington, claimed Zayed had nothing to do with the Center. “It’s like Reagan National Airport. What does it have to do with the late President Reagan, God rest his soul?”19

 

The Closure of the Zayed Center

In August 2003 the UAE announced its decision to close the Zayed Center, citing activities by the Center that “starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance.”20 Harvard, in turn, announced that it would put the funds on hold during the current academic year and would then assess whether circumstances enabled fulfilling the gift as originally intended. HDS, meanwhile, affirmed its intention to pursue an appointment in Islamic studies, funded by other means.

Under intense media pressure, Sheikh Zayed decided to save face. Realizing that Harvard would likely return the donation, after eleven months of the endowment’s suspension, he requested the funds be sent back.

On 26 July 2004, HDS issued an official statement on its decision regarding Sheikh Zayed’s donation:

Recently, representatives of the U.A.E. informed Harvard of the donor’s desire to withdraw the gift for the Zayed Professorship, in advance of the University’s scheduled consideration of the matter later this summer. Harvard has agreed to honor this request and to return the funds. Harvard remains strongly committed to advancing the understanding of Islam, and the Divinity School is actively pursuing two faculty appointments, one senior, and one junior, in this important field.21

Thus, this particular controversy regarding hate speech ended. Fish, in a widely published article, wrote: “It’s sad and a little frightening to experience the indifference toward Jewish concerns and Jewish students that so many Harvard professors…exhibited. Equally frustrating and disappointing is to see the reluctance of some Jewish professors and students to speak out against the institutional insensitivity of the Harvard divinity school.”22 Overall, Fish said she was pleased with the outcome of her efforts, having fulfilled both her goals of increasing awareness and stopping Harvard from accepting the donation.

Columbia University, however, has decided to keep an estimated $200,000 donation from the UAE toward the creation of the Edward Said Chair of Middle East Studies, in which the former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi now sits. 23 Furthermore, Fish mentioned that there are rumors that the money returned by Harvard may have been transferred to another, undisclosed American university.

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Notes

 

* Gratitude is extended to Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Elisabeth Mayman, and former research intern Rebecca Leibowitz of the JCPA for their assistance, and to Rachel Fish for providing documentary support for this case study.

1. Rachel Lea Fish, “A Troubling Gift: Will Harvard Take $2.5 Million from a Man Tied to Holocaust Denial?” Opinion Journal, Wall Street Journal, 6 June 2003.

2. Harvard Divinity School Statement on Zayed Gift, 26 July 2004, http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/zayed_update.html.

3. Scott Kennedy, “Divestment Campaign Not Anti-Semitic,” Harvard Crimson, 23 September 2002.

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zayed_bin_Sultan_Al_Nahayan.

5. http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/are-summary-eng.

6. http://www.iabolish.com/update/by-country.php?code=AE.

7. www.forbes.com/forbes/2000/0703/6515256a.html.

8. Rachel Lea Fish, “Losing Veritas,” Harvard Crimson, 23 May 2003, http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=348172.

9. “Author of Saudi Blood Libel and Professor at King Faysal University Lectures at Arab League Think Tank: ‘U.S. War on Iraq Timed to Coincide with Jewish Holiday Purim,’” MEMRI, No. 494, 11 April 2003.

10. http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/399.

11. Ibid.

12. http://www.adl.org/holocaust/denial_ME/western_deniers.asp.

13. The following information, unless otherwise noted, is from an interview with Rachel Fish conducted on 28 June 2005 at the JCPA.

14. Terms: The Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Professorship in Islamic Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

15. Wendy S. McDowell, “Divinity School Establishes New Islamic Studies Chair,” Harvard Gazette, 28 September 2000.

16. Fish, “A Troubling Gift.”

17. http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/article_archive/zayed.html.

18. From Prof. Jon Levenson’s email correspondence with the JCPA, 7 and 10 July 2005.

19. Alan Cooperman, “Harvard Will Refund Sheik’s $2.5 Million Gift,” Washington Post, 28 July 2004.

20. http://www.harvard-magazine.com/on-line/110406.html.

21. Harvard Divinity School Statement.

22. Fish, “A Troubling Gift.”

23. “Farrakhan for Columbia,” Editorial, New York Sun, 10 January 2005.

 

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Jonathan Jaffit is a senior at the University of Toronto where he is pursuing a double major in human biology and Jewish studies. He was the founding president of Betar-Tagar, the university’s Zionist Student Association, and currently is director of campus affairs for Betar-Tagar Canada. He also co-initiated and works as the recruitment and logistics coordinator for the Maimonides Project, a fellowship for developing campus Jewish leadership. This case study was written during his research internship at the JCPA.

 

About Jonathan Jaffit

Jonathan Jaffit is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a double major in human biology and Jewish studies. He was the founding president of Betar-Tagar, the university's Zionist Student Association, and director of campus affairs for Betar-Tagar Canada. He received rabbinic ordination and is currently teaching at Ohr Sameach's Shoresh program in Jerusalem.