OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Study doesn’t show Arab donations to universities cause antisemitism

Many of the problems now seen on campus, including those created by the left, have been present for decades and preceded the spending spree by Muslim-majority states.

Financial donations. Heather Paque/Pixabay.
Financial donations. Heather Paque/Pixabay.
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.

I have been studying Arab contributions to universities since I began research for my book on the Arab Lobby (2010), and I’ve tried to be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions. I’ve since done additional research, most recently published in May, which found that while there are some concrete examples of contributions having nefarious purposes and harmful effects, it is difficult to say that Arab funding is intended to promote criticism of Israel, let alone prompt antisemitism.

One of the most significant problems I identified is the failure of the U.S. Department of Education to enforce the law requiring universities to report donations of more than $250,000 and its refusal to insist that the purpose of those contributions be publicly disclosed. The Network Contagion Research Group (NCRI) has focused on the unreported funds in the study, “The Corruption of the American Mind: How Concealed Foreign Funding of U.S. Higher Education Predicts Erosion of Democratic Values and Antisemitic Incidents on Campus.”

The problem with this report is that it starts with the conclusion reflected in the title and then tries to contort the data to fit it. The failure to do so is reflected in its equivocations: Contributions “may be dedicated to purposes that are controversial at best and malevolent at worst,” “secret money may be used to create a generally intolerant intellectual environment on campus,” “money might be used to support … faculty who are … antisemitic” and “might be used to support extremist groups on campus.”

Prevarication is necessary because the study doesn’t prove any of those suppositions.

Uniquely, it tries by using quantitative methods. Unfortunately, ignoring qualitative evidence makes the results illogical and inconsistent with documented examples.

The report highlights the findings of a DoE report on undocumented contributions from 2014 to 2019, which referenced Qatar and Saudi Arabia but was mainly concerned with Russia and, especially, China, which it viewed as a threat to national security. “There is very real reason for concern,” the report concluded, “that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching,” but it did not prove that was the case for Arab donations or that they had anything to do with antisemitism.

NCRI claims that approximately $13 billion in contributions (including non-Arab sources) from 2014 to 2019 were undocumented, but the DoE report they cite said the total was $6.5 billion. Regardless, the critical issue is not the amount but the purpose, and the authors don’t have any idea because of the lack of documentation.

Mathematical correlation to real world of dubious value

My study, however, does provide answers based on documented contributions by Arab states from 1986 through 2022, which totaled $10.8 billion. Because of the lack of transparency by universities and slack enforcement by DoE, it was only possible to identify how about one-quarter of the donations—some $2 billion—were spent.

Out of more than 10,000 donations, only three were identified with a political purpose: two $643,000 contributions to Brown in 2020 from a giftor in “The State of Palestine” to provide support for a professorship in Palestinian Studies within Middle East Studies; and one for $67,969 for the same purpose from the UAE. Brown hired a BDS supporter.

The Brown case is an exception, along with a few others I verified in my report and the Arab Lobby. NCRI, however, assumes Arab donations are nefarious because most of the Middle East sources “have long histories of antisemitic and antizionist agendas.” That is certainly true of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but not so much of the other Gulf states that are large donors.

Rather than encourage universities to reflect views hostile to Jews or Israel, the Arab states are more interested in promoting their interests. It would be counterproductive for Arab donors to foment antisemitism on campus since one of their primary goals is to improve their images. This is undoubtedly true of Qatar, which went so far as to invite Jewish leaders on junkets a few years ago to try to win their support, and of the Saudis, who want their role in 9/11 and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to be forgotten. Those countries are less concerned with Israel than discouraging investigations of radical Islam.

Qatar is by far the largest donor with more than $5.1 billion in contributions from 1986 to 2022 (most Arab money was donated after 9/11). Of the top 25 largest gifts, 22 are from Qatar. The largest—$151, $137 and $149 million—went to Cornell to establish and operate Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar. Does it seem logical that giving hundreds of millions of dollars to a medical center in Doha would stimulate antisemitism in Ithaca, N.Y.? Qatar also made large donations to Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon, neither of which is known as a hotbed of antisemitism.

The next two largest donors were Saudi Arabia ($2.9 billion) and the United Arab Emirates ($1.3 billion). The Saudis’ biggest donation was to the University of Idaho for tuition and fees for Saudi students. The UAE’s largest contributions were to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Is there a reason to believe these contributed to antisemitism?

Of the 25% of reported contributions listing a purpose, about 87% are for tuition, fees, scholarships or other financial aid. This raises a question that is worthy of study—namely, the behavior of foreign students. Before COVID, more than 34,000 students came from 11 Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority. Arab students are often campus provocateurs engaged in promoting BDS and demonizing Israel. It would be interesting to investigate how many are on campus thanks to the generosity of their governments and whether any are encouraged or paid to be political activists.

Many of the problems we see today, including those created by the left, have been present for decades and preceded the spending spree by Arab states. Many progressives are anti-Israel and disdainful of Arab regimes. The proof of their antisemitism is the double standard of condemning Israel but not Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Still, Arab donors have no incentive to support progressives who see them as human-rights abusers.

Also, how do the authors explain that some of the most problematic campuses are not among the largest recipients of foreign donations? For example, Berkeley, which has been ground zero for anti-Israel activity for decades, received $56 million—far less than some universities received in a single year.

Also, the authors offer no evidence that the principal anti-Israel campus organizations today, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, are funded by Arab states, whereas Arab groups in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were subsidized by them.

A relatively small amount of money has gone to faculty and centers of Middle East Studies (which get more money from the U.S. government!) antagonistic towards Israel. The faculty more responsible for antisemitism on campus by their support of boycotts and vitriol towards Israel are from departments like anthropology and gender studies, which, to my knowledge, are not funded by Arab states.

To try to demonstrate the relationship to antisemitism, NCRI does an analysis that mixes incompatible data from the FBI, ADL and AMCHA. The FBI doesn’t trace campus hate crimes, and AMCHA’s methodology was problematic.

During the period they examined, the Anti-Defamation League, which has the most consistent data, recorded an average of 139 incidents per year, troubling but hardly the tsunami we’re seeing today. Furthermore, looking at “incidents” ignores the qualitative differences. A physical assault is far more serious than a swastika spary-painted on a wall. There were only four assaults in the ADL data. If the only incident on campus during a 10-month school year is the appearance of a swastika, is that an indication of the climate on campus? And, logically, why would you expect vandalism to be related to Arab money?

Astonishingly, the organization does not present a single example of how undocumented money was spent in a way to impact antisemitism. A mathematical correlation detached from the real world is of dubious value.

Another problem with the NCRI study is that it didn’t stick to examining antisemitism but drifted into concerns regarding China and Russia. The authors want to prove that Arab money has a broader impact on “democratic norms of pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” They conclude that “there clearly has been an erosion of democratic norms on campus, self-censorship, censorship by scientists, disinvitations rising, abandonment of free speech/academic freedom by academics.”

I agree; however, they provide no examples of it being related to Arab donations. Furthermore, this claim contradicts the supposition that antisemitism is being fomented. It is the antisemites who have freedom of speech and are typically shielded by academic freedom. Perhaps some antisemitic faculty censor themselves, but professors who use “Zionists” as a euphemism for “Jews” are ubiquitous.

The erosion of campus norms can be attributed to other factors. While Arab contributions can corrode values, it happens differently than suggested. Accepting funds from objectionable regimes compromises institutional values by encouraging acceptance of discriminatory terms to secure support for campuses in Arab countries. Recipients are also disincentivized to criticize Islam and donor nations to avoid alienating patrons.

Ultimately, after all the quantitative sleight of hand, the authors conclude that the impact on campus is “complex and multiply determined,” which is shorthand for “we couldn’t prove our case.”

This is unsurprising because the current wave of antisemitism has little to do with money. It’s a culmination of decades of faculty indoctrination of students with a warped social-justice narrative and intersectionality; the ostracism of Israel from Middle East Studies and paucity of courses treating Israel as a country rather than a conflict zone; the proliferation of Jewish professors whose attitudes mirror those of Israel’s detractors; the failure to educate Jews about Israel before college and nurturing snowflakes instead of warriors; and the willingness of university administrators to tolerate academic malpractice and apply different standards to prejudice against Jews and non-Jews.

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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