Diller familys $5 million will boost Jewish studies: Grant to level playing field for Israel at Cal

Pro-Israel elements on the U.C. Berkeley campus have 5 million new reasons to believe the university is listening to them.

A grant from the Helen Diller Family Fund — at $5 million, far and away the largest donation ever received by the university's Jewish studies program — will ensure a permanent Israeli presence on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Starting in the fall, the grant will be utilized to bring an Israeli professor to the university every year.

The funding will also enhance graduate studies and research within the program.

In addition to the grant to U.C. Berkeley, Diller gave a matching $5 million to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev toward a building to house its humanities departments.

Diller felt compelled to make the grant to U.C. Berkeley because, as an alumna, she was disturbed that the campus has been the scene of some of the most fervent pro-Palestinian activism in the nation. She views the donation as a vehicle for change.

"You know what's going on over there. With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there," said the Woodside philanthropist, who met her husband, Sanford, at U.C. Berkeley in the 1950s.

"Hopefully, it will be enlightening to have a visiting professor and it'll calm down over there more."

Diller added that U.C.'s Center for Middle Eastern Studies is heavily funded by Saudi Arabian sultans, industrialists and other members of the Arab or Muslim community, while "Israel is not well-represented academically, and I think this will help."

For Phyllis Cook, the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund, which administers the Diller fund, the new gift is all about "balance."

"They have other endowed monies, but a visiting scholar from Israel is not there," said Cook, who acted as a go-between for Diller and U.C. Berkeley.

"We have to find balance so the fringes don't take over. This is a very important time and this had to happen soon."

With the guarantee of an Israeli professor on campus, U.C. Berkeley is countering the trend of boycotting and divestment seen throughout the world, according to Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

"The establishment of a formal Israeli academic presence on campus is the most graphic and powerful response to the insidious notion of academic divestment of Israel that I can imagine," he said.

"We've heard from Jewish students who have felt subjected to gratuitous anti-Israel commentary by faculty members, which is particularly egregious in courses that have nothing to do with politics. Israel has become, somehow, the politically correct whipping boy of academia on this campus…Having an Israeli professor as a permanent fixture on the U.C. campus provides Jewish students and faculty with a sense of validation."

Jewish studies professors hope the arrival of the Israeli scholar will spur dialogue at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which "hasn't had a regular Israeli presence," according to Robert Alter, a U.C. Berkeley professor of Hebrew literature for the past 35 years.

Alter added that while relations between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel student groups have often descended into the gutter over the past two years, the same tensions have not "manifested themselves between professors…By and large, I think people get along well."

Starting this month, academic departments will submit requests for Israeli professors, with the final decision being made by Alter; David Leonard, the dean of international and area studies; and Nezar AlSayyad, director of the CMES and an architecture professor.

Cook, Alter and Diller said a potential visiting scholar's political beliefs would not be an issue of consideration. Diller said she would communicate with the selection committee but planned to leave the process in its hands.

In addition to financing the visiting scholar, starting in 2004 the Diller grant will fund a pair of fully endowed graduate fellowships in Jewish studies. Program head Ron Hendel, a professor specializing in Hebrew Bible, said the grant will level the playing field for U.C. Berkeley, allowing the public university to compete for the world's top graduate students with Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and other wealthy private institutions.

Portions of the grant will also be utilized to underwrite small research projects for undergraduates, graduate students and Jewish studies faculty members.

Diller said she'd received e-mails from friend and fellow philanthropist Tad Taube, president and director of the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, asking her to consider funding U.C.'s Jewish studies program as he had done at his alma mater, Stanford.

"Tad's got Stanford, so I'll take U.C. Berkeley," Diller said with a laugh.

The Dillers, self-made millionaires in the real estate field, have donated millions of dollars to Jewish educational causes ranging from day schools to adult education.

Diller believes much of the unrest at U.C. Berkeley stems from a lack of education, and hopes the visiting professor and an enhanced Jewish studies program can make a difference.

"I feel, through education, both sides will come out with a more positive approach to the situation," she said. "I'm hoping to even get the [pro-Palestinian] students to take the courses."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.