OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Qatar’s back door to higher education

Evaluating the impact of Arab funding on American universities is a chicken-and-egg proposition.

Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar. Credit: Joey Coleman/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar. Credit: Joey Coleman/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

In an earlier column, I debunked a recent study suggesting that foreign contributions to higher education were responsible for the rise in antisemitism. In my work, I have illustrated some cases where Arab donations have had a nefarious impact, but it’s difficult to do because universities don’t report what most of the money they receive is used for. Besides demanding greater transparency, the United States and the world need to expand our investigation to trace indirect funding to “independent” institutions.

Qatar is by far the largest donor to universities. Since 1986, it has contributed more than $5 billion (billions more are undocumented) contributions since 1986. The largest gifts were for the creation and operation of Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar in Doha, which can’t be said to cause antisemitism at the Ivy League’s main campus in Ithaca, N.Y. Because of the U.S. Department of Education’s failure to require universities to publish how they spend the foreign donations, we don’t know if any is going to professors or departments because they are pro-Qatar, anti-Israel or antisemitic, or if they adopt those policies after receiving the money. We can only surmise that universities will not want to risk losing funding by publishing anything critical of the emirate.

Meanwhile, gone largely unnoticed is Qatar’s backdoor to universities, the Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), which is affiliated with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.

The ACW describes itself as “a nonprofit, independent and nonpartisan research organization dedicated to furthering the political, economic and social understanding of the Arab world in the United States and to providing insight on U.S. policies and interests in the Middle East.”

It says it relies on tax-deductible contributions from “individual supporters, organizations, foundations and corporations.” However, according to its tax return, all but $900 of its $2,262,150 in donations came from the center in Qatar.

A hint of its orientation can be found in its two most recent events: “Gaza and the Crime of Genocide: Legal and Political Dimensions of Accountability” and “Repression of Palestine Activism Amid the War on Gaza.”

Khalil E. Jahshan, the executive director and a veteran of several Arab lobby groups, has said the “clearest political message” of Hamas’s attack on Israel was “the one addressed to the ‘Camp of Normalizers’—be they Israeli, Arab, Americans or Europeans—that their plans to forge a ‘New Middle East’ without Palestine shall not pass unopposed.”

He also tweeted: “Top #Biden adviser and confidant Brett #McGurk is obsessed with rewarding #Israel for its #genocidal war in #Gaza by furthering the #Trump-era cash-&-carry #normalization deal between #Saudi_Arabia & Israel at the expense of #Palestinian national rights.”

The center has 14 academic advisers, 13 of whom are professors from universities such as Georgetown, George Washington, Maryland and Princeton. It does not indicate whether any members are paid. Among the professors on the list are Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi. He refers to ISIS as “murderous thugs” and says, “Their Israeli counterparts meanwhile conquered parts of Syria and declared it part of their Zionist settler colony.” Dabashi does see one difference, which suggests that he doesn’t read The New York Times, “ISIS does not have a platoon of clean shaven and well coiffured [sic] columnists at the New York Times propagating the cause of the terrorist outfit as the Zionists columnists do on a regular basis.”

While Dabashi wears his disdain for Israel on his sleeve, a more slippery example is the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami. An Israel critic, he is best known for producing widely quoted surveys related to Israel with questions consistently written to elicit negative responses towards the Jewish state.

Another adviser, Osama Abi-Mershed, an associate professor in the influential Walsh School of Foreign Service and Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at Georgetown University, is a supporter of the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He has pledged “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.”

Abi-Mershed’s colleague, Marwa Daoudy, an assistant professor in International Relations at the Walsh School and CCAS, tweeted “Palestinians are denied the right to exist as human beings.” He also praised South Africa’s foreign minister for comparing Israeli policy to apartheid, and accused Israel of genocide and “cultural genocide.”

Another adviser is retired USC professor Laurie Brand, former president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and now chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom, which devotes much of its attention to criticism of Israel and defense of antisemitic speech, as in its post-Oct. 7 letter to universities denying that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. While expressing heartbreak over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives, the letter has nothing to say about the Hamas massacre that created the toxic campus environment. She is indignant over the supposed silencing of Israel’s detractors while defending the boycott of Israel.

George Washington University history professor Dina Khoury is another former MESA president who supports BDS and has condemned Israel in a prior Gaza conflict for its actions to defend its citizens. Another BDS’er is Amaney Jamal, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics at Princeton University.

Sheila Carapico, a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, is another BDS supporter and a consultant to Human Rights Watch. She wrote an article complaining about Saudi Arabia bullying Qatar.

Interiorof Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar
The interior of Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar. Credit: Joey Coleman/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.

‘The price we had to pay’

ACW also has 18 research fellows, including Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post assailing the normalization of relations between Israel and the Gulf states, claiming that rather than advancing peace, Israel is giving the Arab regimes tools to solidify their authoritarian rule. She claims the Palestinian issue is the “root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict” and suggested that the Abraham Accords emboldened Israel to annex Palestinian territory, ignoring that Israel gave up a plan to exercise sovereignty to achieve the agreement with the Gulf states.

One member of the ACW board is Mohammed Abu Nimer, director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University. Hamas, he says, has “engaged in the fight against the Israeli occupation since 1987”; that is, two years after every Israeli was withdrawn. He also repeats the canard that Hamas changed its charter and no longer seeks Israel’s destruction. The man who received the 2023 Distinguished Scholar Award for his “groundbreaking work in interreligious dialogue and faith-based peacebuilding” refers to the situation in Gaza as “genocide.”

Another board member is Laurie King, an anthropology professor at Georgetown who was a co-founder of the virulently anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada. She has compared Israel to Afrikaner South Africa and called for it to be boycotted. She falsely accuses Israel of “ethnic cleansing.” Not surprisingly, she objects to antisemites being called out for antisemitism.

Predictably, I found no statements condemning Hamas for massacring 1,200 Israelis.

The creation of the ACW is not Qatar’s first effort to use a Washington think tank as part of its influence operation. In 2007, it convinced the Brookings Institution to open a center in Doha. A few years later, the emirate agreed to a $14.8 million, four-year donation to help fund the affiliate in Qatar and a project on United States relations with the Islamic world. Brookings closed the center in Doha and stopped taking money from the emirate in 2017. Previously, it listed Qatar as one of its top donors, giving more than $2 million. Brookings’s divorce came after its president, Gen. John R. Allen (Ret.), was investigated by the Justice Department for illegally lobbying for Qatar (no charges were brought).

A former visiting fellow at the Doha Center who went on to teach at the University of Queensland in Australia offered one clue to the impact of associating with Qatar. Saleem Ali told The New York Times, “If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware—they are not getting the full story.” He said he had been warned during his job interview not to criticize Qatar in his published work. “There was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” said Ali. “It was unsettling for the academics there. But it was the price we had to pay.”

Qatar didn’t hide what it expected to get for its contributions. When Brookings renewed its agreement for the Doha center in 2012, the Times reported that the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, “the center will assume its role in reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones.”

When Brookings finally dumped Qatar, the emirate lost the prestige of associating with a prominent think tank. Undeterred, the Qataris created their own to give an academic veneer to their influence campaign.

Evaluating the impact of Arab funding on higher education is often a chicken-and-egg proposition. Are professors on the advisory board spreading propaganda because they get paid or are they recruited by Qatar to its stable of apologists because they are anti-Israel (I’ll leave it to others to decide if they’re also antisemitic)? If there is no financial or professional benefit, why associate with Qatar?

Whatever their reasons, they have affiliated themselves with the country that supports Hamas and Islamists.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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