When a Harvard Divinity School student discovered last fall that the School had accepted a $2.5 million gift from an Arab leader whose name graces a think tank spewing anti-Semitic propaganda, she decided to find out more. What Rachel Fish found in December 2002 horrified her. The Abu Dhabi-based Zayed International Center for Coordination and Follow-up was founded, according to its website, “in fulfillment of the vision of His Highness Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan,” President of the United Arab Emirates. The center’s executive director has called Jews “the enemies of all nations,” according to a 2002 story in the Los Angeles Times, and has published material containing other offensive references.
With some of her classmates. Fish, 23, met in March 2003 with Divinity School Dean William Graham, to request that the university return the Sheik’s gift. They also founded Students for an Ethical Divinity School, complete with a website and petition calling on Harvard to reject the sheik’s money. When the dean extended his hand for Fish to shake at graduation in May—Fish received a master’s degree in contemporary thought in Judaism and Islam—she handed him a 130-page bound copy of her research on the Zayed Center. With it she included a copy of the petition, and a letter asking him to denounce anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Fish also delivered copies to the office of Harvard president Lawrence Summers. In May, the story hit the national media.
Dean Graham, who in May 2002 had signed a petition demanding that Harvard divest from Israel, did not respond to Fish’s letter. In mid-May, Harvard issued a statement that they were “carefully investigating the matter.” At press time, a Harvard spokesperson told LILITH that she does not know whether the Zayed gift, which is to fund a chair in Islamic studies, will be returned.
“It’s now at the university level,” said Wendy McDowell, a Divinity School spokeswoman. “It’s being decided by Harvard’s president, not really by Dean Graham. And there is no time line.”
Fish says that “raising my head and protesting” is nothing new. She grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee, where hers was one of only 60 Jewish families in the whole region. When she and her brother were sent out to the hall during prayers at school, she says, her parents spoke up. Thanks to the Fish family, the school district now forbids school prayer.
“When I talked to the Harvard Divinity School administration and faculty, I said that I knew the school was the first to address issues of race, gender, and sexuality,” said Fish. She was referring to the Divinity School’s longtime reputation for sensitivity. “I don’t understand why the school has remained silent on the issue of religious intolerance.” Harvard Divinity School has been actively seeking Jewish female donors and lecturers for the past few years.
In June, Fish wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal about the Divinity School controversy. When it appeared, some protested that her account was misguided. But when asked to comment specifically about the details, no official at Harvard would speak on the record.