Law firm pulls $250,000 gift to Harvard over Palestine event (demonstrating Zionism’s pervasiveness)

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This disturbing story appeared yesterday in an independent publication at the Harvard Law School. HLS Justice for Palestine says that the law firm of Milbank Tweed has withdrawn a gift of $250,000 to the law school because $500 of that money was spent on a pro-Palestinian event that Milbank wanted its name dissociated from. The law school refused to accept those terms for the gift; and Milbank, Tweed walked.

Though Law Dean Martha Minow showed spine in the matter, she also did not announce the withdrawal. No, the Palestinian solidarity students did, in this letter to the Harvard Law Record:

At the start of this semester, HLS announced, without explanation, the sudden termination of the Milbank Fund. We are writing today so that the record may reflect that the termination of the Milbank Fund is, in fact, completely our fault.

In our defense, we couldn’t have possibly foreseen how our actions would come to affect the rest of the campus community. On the eve of our first-ever Milbank-sponsored speaker event, [October 20, 2015] titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack”, the only thing we were really concerned about was what type of food to order for our fellow classmates…

So we ordered pizza—about $500 worth…

Even though we had only used Milbank’s money for the pizza (our speakers, two civil rights attorneys and an undergraduate student, graciously offered their time at no additional cost to the school), we held up our end of the deal by including, in all promotional e-mails and at the bottom of the event’s official Facebook page, some iteration of the following sentence: “This event is brought to you by the generous support of Milbank LLP.”

Between bites of Milbank-funded formaggio, event attendees listened as speakers discussed the widespread suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy in the United States. One of the cases highlighted was that of Steven Salaita, an academic whose tenure position at the University of Illinois was revoked after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s 2014 aerial bombardment over Gaza. Salaita’s lawyers later discovered that the university had caved in to significant pressure from donors who had threatened to pull their donations if the university insisted on retaining him.

Ironically enough, a very similar sequence of events would unfold at Harvard Law School in the aftermath of our event. The very next day, the Dean of Students office—citing a flood of angry phone calls and emails received from Milbank executives and other off-campus parties over the previous 24 hours—asked an organizer of the event to disassociate from Milbank in all past and future Justice for Palestine programming. [1] As a start, the organizer was asked to immediately remove the reference to Milbank’s “generous support” from JFP’s Facebook event page.

After acknowledging that they recognized the irony in asking a student to retroactively edit the description for an event that was about free speech and its exceptions, the Dean of Students administrators proceeded to make it very clear that our cooperation would be greatly appreciated. Even though the event had already passed, it was evident that the administration was feeling tremendous pressure to do something, anything, to appease Milbank.

In exchange for a written guarantee that JFP’s future funding (be it from Milbank or any other source) would not be adversely affected, we agreed to remove the sentence from the Facebook event page. Though that guarantee was promised to us, we never got it.

Turns out, that’s because our request was directly incompatible with what Milbank was demanding. Administrators would later reveal that Milbank had gone so far as to demand that JFP’s Milbank funding be rescinded completely. According to Dean Minow, this was not a demand her administration could honor, so Milbank decided to pull out all of its annual $250,000 in student activity funding as a result of her administration’s “principled stance” in support of our right to speak openly and honestly about Palestine.

We are grateful to Dean Minow and the law school administration for refusing to buckle under intense anti-Palestinian pressure. We are also disappointed, though not particularly surprised, that at Harvard Law School, too, there exists such an exception to free speech when it comes to Palestine.

I called the law school today for confirmation of the facts; am waiting for a response. But the school plainly came under pressure from NGO Monitor last year. And the students say that a Carlos Latuff cartoon on its Facebook page was at one time cited by the law school administration– disingenuously, say the students– as a pretext for the withdrawal of the $500 the school had passed on from the Milbank fund. The real issue was simply the association of Milbank’s name with the student group and its cause.

Latuff cartoon cited in Harvard Law School donor-pressure case
Latuff cartoon cited in Harvard Law School donor-pressure case

Let us be very clear what this case is about: donor pressure that reflects an institutional attachment to Zionism. I can’t imagine that Milbank, Tweed’s partners are all Zionist. But the firm is clearly frightened by the idea that the use of its gift to sponsor such free speech would be used against it publicly, and would then hurt its business. It communicated its fear to Dean Minow. And she held her ground (notwithstanding her commitment, at the behest of a donor, to the study of Israeli law).

Under similar pressure, the chancellor the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign folded and fired Steven Salaita a year and a half ago. The chancellor’s emails, which Salaita’s attorneys produced, show panic among the school fundraisers over Salaita’s tweets on behalf of Palestinians being massacred in Gaza in summer 2014. So the chancellor was running to Chicago to meet with angry Jewish donors. And to be clear, not all Jews are Zionists. But Zionism is lodged inside the Jewish community like a lure in the belly of a northern pike.

We see the same process in the utter suppression of the Palestinian issue by the Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton takes millions from pro-Israel groups and Bernie Sanders tapdances about his own personal commitment to Israel. And neither will go near any criticism of Israel, and Hillary vows to fight boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in a letter to her contributor Haim Saban– who is one billionaire donor that Bernie Sanders refuses to criticize.

Let’s broaden this analysis: Neoconservatism still has influence because of donor pressure. Jane Eisner of the Forward, an Israel lover, explained last month that criticism of Israel is tamped down in the U.S. Jewish community because of “fear of alienating the powerful donors, mostly from the right, who increasingly dictate the contours and acceptability of American Jewish discourse.” Another Jewish political leader said the same thing last year in a piece lamenting rightwing pressures: “In our community, there is this strange hegemony of big donors demanding control of decisions.”

They are speaking about an inside-Jewish-community conversation, but that rightwing Jewish community is influential publicly. Look at the foreign policy consulting group Beacon Global Strategies, run by former Clinton aides Jeremy Bash, Andrew Shapiro and Philippe Reines. All these men had positions of great power; and they dispense foreign policy advice to Democrats and Republicans alike, of a neocon/interventionist flavor. When Reines was at the State Department and someone circulated an article by Stephen Walt criticizing the lobbying efforts of pro-Israel groups, Reines cracked, “My people control the banks too.”

He was issuing the standard warning, to talk about Zionism’s influence is to be anti-Semitic. Earlier this week, the usual critics leaped on Steven Salaita for alleged anti-semitism for this piece in the Nation (from last year) describing the pervasiveness of Zionism. Salaita was eloquent:

Support for Israel… exists in sites of authority, often an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables.

It’s not merely ideological Zionism that leads upper administration to support Israel—or, to be more precise, to entertain and normalize Zionist activism. Palestine solidarity represents democratization, grassroots organizing, anti-racism, and decolonization; it’s deeply involved in ethnic studies and other subversive fields. An upper administrator needn’t be amenable to West Bank settlement to understand the value of Zionism in his line of work.

Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power. It lends itself to top-down decision-making, to suppression of anti-neoliberal activism, to restrictions on speech, to colonial governance, to corporatization and counterrevolution

Though I come at this as a liberal (bourgeois white Jewish Bernie-loving) anti-Zionist with concerns about the US public interest, and describe the problem as the “Israel lobby,” I completely share Salaita’s analysis of the problem. On this basis Salaita is not going to vote for Bernie Sanders, he announced this week: because Salaita honorably draws the line at Zionism.

This is a conversation the left has been unable to have for nearly 50 years now, since black power groups recognized the ’67 War as a war of aggression and they were shunned by the progressive, enthusiastically-Zionist wing of the Democratic Party for saying so. 50 years of PEP (Progressive Except Palestine) inside liberal institutions! Christ what a blockage.

Let us have this out. The young left is ready, the young Jewish community is ready. Youth must lead us.

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald.

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I had to rein myself in to not post a rant about the malign influence of ” … money” (still taboo as anti-Semitic?) in respect of American democracy, free speech and foreign policy.

Zionism is lodged inside the Jewish community like a lure in the belly of a northern pike.

you have such a way w/words phil.

I only half agree with Salaita’s comments about Palestine activism representing grassroots activism and democratisation and therefore getting up the noses of administrators. If activists on behalf of ill-treated races in say Latin America had wanted to put on an event and buy formaggio I’m sure that the same administrators would have smiled proudly and would have met protests from Mexican millionaires, even if they were potential donors, and from the Paraguyan Embassy with a… Read more »

Interesting. A law FIRM must protect its business, just as a university must protect its donors-worthiness. Big-$$ has got everyone by the short and curlies. Maybe foundations would be immune if they were already fully funded and no longer sought new funds? Odd that Millbank was not willing to leave the $250,000 upon an understanding that it could vet how the money was spent (or how the spending of the money was announced) in future… Read more »

“This is a conversation the left has been unable to have for nearly 50 years now, since black power groups recognized the ’67 War as a war of aggression” sayeth Phil Weiss. I disagree with this facile characterization of the 67 war. Even if one were to accept this characterization of the 67 war, to offer this statement without the context of the times is to distort history. The black power groups, at the same… Read more »