The spotlight is on American college and university campuses, where protests and threats have become outright antisemitic, and the campuses have become dangerous places for Jews. In the wake of widespread support of Hamas (and its genocidal war against Israel, the Jewish people, and the West in general), antisemitism is at an all-time high, particularly in public venues.
As a consequence of this new reality, a growing number of Jewish donors to major colleges and universities are rethinking and withholding financial support to institutions from which they graduated and/or to which they have anticipated sending their children and grandchildren. Their investments in major American universities have turned sour. The idea of creating a legacy for their progeny has become a hollow investment, as the very institutions that they have funded are neither welcoming nor safe for Jews.
People are withdrawing funding from those organizations and institutions that are refusing to condemn the most heinous crime against Jews since the Holocaust – or even from those that are just being ambivalent by condemning both sides.
Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of Limited Brands and generous donor to many philanthropic causes, has severed his ties with Harvard, and many others are following suit. Henry Swieca has quit the board of Columbia University, where more than 100 professors signed a letter in defense of students defending Hamas.
Harvard alumnus and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman called upon his alma mater to publish the list of students who signed a letter stating, “the Israeli regime is entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Ackman explained, “I don’t want any supporters of terrorism in our company.”
And there are many others.
Counting their losses, these generous philanthropists and successful business leaders are legitimately rethinking their failed investments in institutions that do not represent their ideals and are no longer safe for Jews; and outing students whom they do not want to hire because of their support of terrorism.
Why should anyone ever invest in US universities?
Even if investing in American universities were not a bad investment, the question is whether it’s a smart investment. Do universities even need the money? Fortunately, American donors have started to ask these difficult questions. It’s heartening to see people rethinking these donations, whether $100 or $100,000,000. Here are some facts to consider.
There are 79 private colleges and universities with endowment funds of over $1,000,000,000. Yes, that’s $1 billion. Harvard leads the pack at $49 billion. There are 50 public colleges and universities with endowment funds of over $1,000,000,000 ($1 billion, again), with the University of Texas leading this group with $42 billion. Analyzing it another way, there are 20 universities with endowments of more than $1 million per student.
These 150 institutions (and more besides) earn more on the interest income from their accounts than most people earn in a lifetime. (Let that sink in.) They have fund managers earning tens of millions of dollars a year. Their endowments far exceed the budgets of some developing nations, and of entire government offices and ministries of some developed nations such as Israel.
Yes, universities do good work, but no, that is not a sufficient criterion for supporting one financially. They are such big businesses that it’s even hard to comprehend how such donations are tax deductible.
While the work of 12th-13th century Sephardi philosopher and prolific Torah scholar Moshe ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides and as the Rambam) is rarely on the curriculum of any American college or university, perhaps it should be. In regard to philanthropy, his words could not be more relevant.
Rambam opens his treatise on the laws of charitable giving by saying, “We must be especially careful to observe the mitzvah [commandment] of tzedakah [charity] more so than any other positive mitzvah,” and, as the Rambam says clearly, we must be even more careful to ensure that as much of our donation actually goes toward our chosen goal as possible.
In light of what is happening on American campuses, we add that it’s time to consider what one’s philanthropic priorities and investments are and ought to be.
American Jews must rethink what their legacy really is. Is it funding institutions at any level at which debate and dialogue in the context of learning has fallen hostage to threats to Jewish life and violent assaults on Jews, and to which their children and grandchildren will not be welcome, or safe? Is it in the endowment of chairs and research facilities that have been kidnapped by violent extremism?
Or is it, and should it be, the investment in Jewish life, in Israel, in the future of the Jewish people through those organizations that are the most effective and efficient users of your precious tzedakah shekels?
Arnie Draiman is a philanthropic consultant helping people and foundations give their tzedakah money away wisely, efficiently, and effectively. He is also an experienced social media and website guru and enjoys reviewing restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions.
Jonathan Feldstein is a long-time nonprofit professional and president of the Genesis 123 Foundation, which builds bridges between Jews and Christians in support of Israel. He hosts the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast.