Benefactor Cancels Bequest to Israeli University Over Snub of Anti-occupation NGO

93-year-old donor says university's cancellation of prize to Breaking the Silence was 'shameful surrender to the nationalistic and anti-democratic mindset.'

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A nonagenarian benefactor had informed Ben-Gurion University that she no longer intends to leave the institution 1 million shekels ($260,000) in her will due to its cancellation of a prize awarded to the non-profit organization Breaking the Silence.

"Such behavior represents shameful surrender to the nationalistic and anti-democratic mindset," Gina Nissimov, 93, wrote in a letter to university president Rivka Carmi about 10 days ago.

Haaretz reported at the end of June that Carmi had nixed the decision by the university's Middle East Studies Department to award the 20,000 Berelson Prize for promoting understanding between Jews and Arabs to Breaking the Silence.

The latter is an Israeli NGO that highlights the everyday experiences of Palestinians and abuse by the Israel Defense Forces in the occupied territories.

Carmi defended her decision to ban the award of the prize, arguing that the NGO was “outside the national consensus” and that giving it the award "could be interpreted as ostensibly reflecting political bias.”

Carmi's action prompted considerable criticism from both within and without the university. A public drive raised 30,000 shekels for an alternative prize that will be awarded to Breaking the Silence at the start of the next academic year.

Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Nissimov's endowment was earmarked for the university's School of Pharmacy. As far as is known, its cancellation is the most serious consequence yet of Carmi's decision to cancel the award.

"It is sad that a respected academic institution like the university chose to conform and submit to the anti-democratic winds blowing in Israel," wrote Nissimov's lawyer in the letter to Carmi.

"Your institution might have been expected to act differently. In these circumstances, Nissimov has decided that your institution is not worthy of the donation, which she is removing from her will."

"After all the attacks on Breaking the Silence, when someone finally comes and speaks positively about them – the university decides to cancel the prize," Nissimov said.

"That decision made me very angry. I am no longer a young woman and it's difficult for me to go to protests, but I can still alter my will."

Ben-Gurion University responded that it "has received and receives donations of millions of dollars from people who value its actions, objectives and the important role it plays."

"The university respects and regrets the benefactor's decision. With that, the university strictly maintains its integrity and its policy against any outside influences."

"The university will continue to be a leading international center of education and research with open, free and critical debate on every subject."