Did publishing giant influence Israel studies post in British university?

The University of Sussex is among five British colleges to offer courses in Israel studies. (Wikimedia Commons)

What is the real agenda behind the teaching of Israel studies in Western universities?

While its leading advocates profess a commitment to “rigorous academic scholarship,” the subject cannot be considered politically neutral. The idea for these studies was conceived because of a perception among Israel’s supporters that some US-based professors were too sympathetic towards Palestinians.

An association promoting Israel studies was formed in 1985 but the subject did not really gain a foothold in universities until the early years of this century. It has grown since then. Today, courses in Israel studies are available on both sides of the Atlantic.

These courses are heavily reliant on pro-Israel donors. And documents obtained under Britain’s freedom of information law illustrate how college administrators can go to considerable lengths in trying to keep such donors happy.

“Your kind suggestion”

The University of Sussex – headquartered near the English coastal city of Brighton – was particularly eager to receive financial support from George Weidenfeld, a publishing magnate.

Weidenfeld had been an adviser to Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, in 1949, later joining the House of Lords, an unelected chamber in the British parliament.

After Weidenfeld offered to help finance an Israel studies program, he received a letter from Michael Farthing, then the vice-chancellor at Sussex University, in October 2010.

Farthing indicated he would be grateful if Weidenfeld would transfer money pledged to the university by the following summer. Approximately $1.5 million was required, Farthing wrote, to “endow” a chair of Israel studies over a 10-year period.

Weidenfeld headed a group of donors, which had promised more than half that sum. But the value of the group’s donation could be increased through a “matched funding scheme” run by the British government, provided that the payment was received ahead of a July 2011 deadline.

Other donors included Len Blavatnik, a major figure in the entertainment industry who was subsequently named Britain’s richest person, the property tycoon Gerald Ronson and the venture capitalist Ronald Cohen.

George Weidenfeld also sought to influence the choice of chair for the Israel studies program – the position which the donors were funding. In a June 2011 letter, Weidenfeld gave Farthing a list of potential candidates for that post.

Weidenfeld’s letter begins by informing Farthing that the list of candidates was supplied at “your kind suggestion.”

That contradicts a comment subsequently made by Farthing. Responding to a query about the Israel studies program, Farthing claimed the University of Sussex had a policy that “it will not accept donations that in any way compromise the academic freedom” of the institution.

He added that “donors will have no influence on the outcome of the research funded or the selection process” for the post they were financing.

Fair selection?

As Weidenfeld’s letter has been redacted by the University of Sussex, it is not known who precisely he recommended for the Israel studies chair. The post was ultimately awarded to David Tal, an Israeli historian.

After receiving Weidenfeld’s letter, Farthing chaired an eight-person committee to decide who should be appointed chair of Israel studies. That raises questions about whether the selection process was fair.

The university also offered the Pears Foundation the opportunity to suggest names for a position on the appointment committee that was intended for someone outside the university. Nominally dedicated to “good causes,” the foundation is a leading funder of Israel studies programs in Britain.

The offer made to the Pears Foundation directly contradicts assurances made by the university’s administration.

Chris Marlin, then another senior figure in the university, stated at the time that “those providing the funding for this chair have had no influence over the appointment process, including the composition of the appointing committee.” Marlin has died since then.

David Tal’s title in Sussex University is the Yossi Harel chair of Israel studies. Yossi Harel – originally Joseph Hamburger – was part of the Special Night Squads led by Orde Wingate, a British soldier with a reputation for extreme cruelty, in the 1930s.

The historian Anita Shapira has documented how Harel was directly responsible for killing Palestinians.

“Profit over people”

Weidenfeld died at the age of 96 in 2016. During the last few years of his life, he emphasized that he regarded Israel studies as explicitly political.

Teaching the subject, he said, was “very important” in universities “with an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic presence.” Weidenfeld’s comments indicate that he conflated criticism of Israel as a state with bigotry against Jews.

Weidenfeld was known to be exercised by the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. As Oxford, another British university, prepared to appoint its first Israel studies professor, Weidenfeld argued in 2011 that “nothing is more conducive to fighting the boycott.”

Farthing did not reply to a request for comment, instead referring it to the University of Sussex, where he ceased working in 2016.

A spokesperson for the university claimed the choice of the Israel studies chair was “entirely an academic decision” that “followed a publicly advertised, global search and went through our standard, rigorous recruitment process for professorial appointments.”

Farthing’s tenure as vice-chancellor in Sussex proved controversial. He oversaw the privatization of services on the university campus.

Farthing was accused of curbing free speech, when five students were suspended for protesting against the privatization measures. Efforts to discipline the students collapsed, after a lawyer representing them challenged the basis of the suspension.

Despite that controversy, Farthing received a payment worth a few hundred thousand dollars when he left his Sussex post.

Alia Al Ghussain, a British-Palestinian activist who graduated from Sussex, said that Farthing’s legacy at the university was “the prioritization of profit over people in many areas.”

The documents from the University of Sussex are published below. Al Ghussain said these documents “make it clear that there were attempts by private donors with strong pro-Israel political agendas to improperly influence” an appointment.

At least five British universities now run courses in Israel studies. The experience at Sussex demonstrates why the purpose of these programs needs to be carefully examined.

Hilary Aked is a London-based writer, researcher and activist.