Wexner Foundation cuts ties with Harvard amid backlash over college responses to Israel attack
The billionaire businessman Leslie Wexner, founder of the Wexner Foundation, receives
the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship. Photo: Wikipedia.

By Philissa Cramer

(JTA) — The Wexner Foundation is cutting ties with Harvard University, where it has funded a fellowship for emerging Israeli leaders for more than three decades, over Harvard’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

More than 30 student groups signed a letter on the day of the attack blaming Israel while Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, said nothing for two days, then issued a statement that critics panned as tepid. (Gay then issued two additional statements that more forcefully condemned Hamas.) The sequence of events has made Harvard a focal point for Jews and others concerned about how colleges and universities are responding to the attack and the ensuing Israel-Gaza war.

The Wexner Foundation funds a wide range of leadership programs for Jewish professionals, including a program at the Harvard Kennedy School that has brought 280 Israeli leaders to Harvard over 34 years. The current class will be the last, the foundation said, because of Harvard’s “tiptoeing, equivocating” response to the attack, in which 1,400 people were murdered.

“In the absence of this clear moral stand, we have determined that the Harvard Kennedy School and the Wexner Foundation are no longer compatible partners,” the foundation wrote in a letter made public on Monday.

The letter suggests that Gay’s response was a final straw in a diminishing relationship. The Israeli fellows have felt “increasingly marginalized,” the letter charges, and the university had not figured out how to “enable Israeli students to engage in productive — if difficult — dialogue within the school.”

The foundation’s decision drew applause from many of its former and current fellows on social media. “As both a Harvard alum & a Wexner alum, I was pleased to see this news today,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz posted on Facebook.

The decision also accomplished what some critics of the foundation had sought because of its ties to Jeffrey Epstein. The deceased convicted sex offender and alleged sex trafficker, who long touted his Harvard connections, was the personal financial advisor of Les Wexner, the foundation’s benefactor, causing some students to question their school’s continued acceptance of foundation funding.

Other prominent Harvard donors have raised concerns about the university’s handling of the attack in Israel but the foundation was the first to definitively and publicly cut off funding.

Harvard is not the only elite university to face backlash from major donors over Israel in recent days. Jon Huntsman, the non-Jewish politician and businessman, told the University of Pennsylvania this week that his family foundation will “close its checkbook” to the university because of “the University’s silence in the face of reprehensible and historic Hamas evil against the people of Israel (when the only response should be outright condemnation).”

Huntsman’s announcement followed a call by Marc Rowan, a member of the board of overseers of Penn’s Wharton School, for donors to halt their giving to the school to protest its response to the attack in Israel and its hosting last month of a Palestinian writers festival.

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