Jewish groups keep watchful eye as schools receive Saudi donations

new york | Harvard and Georgetown universities both say a Saudi prince attached no strings when he gave them $20 million gifts — but at a time when Arab influence in American classrooms is coming under scrutiny, some observers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We realize that this is a sensitive topic, but the purpose of this gift is to support the study of Islam as a religious and cultural tradition, which is a significant factor in today’s world,” Harvard spokeswoman Sarah Friedell said.

The schools announced earlier this week that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud had made the contributions to further Islamic studies at both institutions, which were planning to rename centers after the prince.

A recent JTA investigation linked bin Talal with a group producing teaching materials for American public school students. The materials contain content that is pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.

In 2001, the prince donated $10 million to a fund for the families of uniformed workers who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refused the money after learning that bin Talal had tried to link the attacks to U.S. support for Israel.

Some observers of academia are wondering if the gifts to Harvard and Georgetown may be the latest in a series of attempts by the Saudis and other Arab countries to influence how the Middle East is taught in U.S. schools.

“Of course that’s the concern, and it’s not an unreal concern,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress. “But you can’t assume that the universities improperly sold out for money. Because it comes from an Arab or Muslim source, you can’t assume that there’s something untoward about it.”

According to federal law, the schools are required to file papers disclosing the amount and date of foreign donations as well as a description of any conditions or restrictions on the gifts. AJCongress will check the forms once they’re filed, Stern said.

But it’s not the prince and his money, per se, that concern Daniel Pipes, founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia think tank. The forum runs Campus Watch, which reviews and critiques Middle East studies on American campuses.

Pipes frets about the “virtual monopoly” that he says academics espousing anti-American and anti-Israel points of view hold on university positions.

The donations are “pushing an open door, because the academics who are dealing with Islamic studies are, in general, already quite willing to go along with the Saudi outlook,” he said.

Concerned about the perceived anti-Israel tilt in academia, some universities have received gifts to ensure that Israel studies are taught at U.S. colleges as well.

UCLA’s International Institute announced last year that it was launching an Israel studies program, which its creators said would be the first teaching, research and community program at an American university focusing solely on the Jewish state in its multiple facets.

In 2002, the Helen Diller Family Fund committed $5 million to the Jewish studies program at the University of California at Berkeley, to bring an Israeli professor to the university each year.

Georgetown will use bin Talal’s gift to bolster its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, to be renamed the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The funds will endow three faculty chairs, expand programs and scholarships and improve library facilities.

Harvard indicated that it would create a new Islamic studies program, increasing faculty in areas such as the history of science.