'When Someone Offers You $50m, You Sign Their Letter': Tel Aviv University President Defends Abramovich Donations

Tel Aviv University President Ariel Porat's letter calling on the U.S. to refrain from sanctions on Russian-Israeli oligarch Roman Abramovich, signed months ago, is dividing faculty on its relationship with what some see as dirty money

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
Roman Abramovich, worth $14.2 billion.
Roman Abramovich, worth $14.2 billion.Credit: Reuters
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

“When someone donates $50 million to an institution and asks you, along with others, to sign a letter — I don’t see a decent person declining.” These were the words of Tel Aviv University President Ariel Porat in reference to the letter calling on the United States to refrain from financial sanctions on Russian-Israeli oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Porat, who made the comments in a closed meeting of the university’s senate, also harshly criticized the United Kingdom's decision to sanction Abramovich and other Russian businessmen following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling it “a very odd populist approach.”

The president’s position has drawn internal opposition and has reignited discussions on the connection between philanthropy and ethics. “Signing the letter for oligarch immunity stains our institution,” Prof. Jonathan Goshen-Gottstein charged at the meeting.

One professor said, “We are supposed to serve as a moral compass, not an LLC. We can’t moralize to the whole world — and at the same time support the oligarchs.” Another faculty member added that “no one is disputing the necessity of donations — but not at all costs and at any condition. It is embarrassing that an academic institution is willing to sell its prestige and social standing for money.” In recent years, the university has rejected all protests denouncing the use of the Sackler family name — considered the originator of the U.S. opioid epidemic— on the building of the medical school,

In late February, a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Channel 12 News reported on an unusual appeal made to the American ambassador to Jerusalem, Tom Nides: to prevent Abramovich’s sanctioning. The appeal was signed by the heads of seven institutions, who in the past enjoyed the billionaire’s patronage. Porat’s signature appeared at the top of the list, followed by the Director-General of Sheba Hospital, Prof. Yitzhak Kreiss, Yad Vashem Chairman Danny Dayan, Chief Rabbi Israel Lau and the director of the Elad NGO David Be’eri, among others. Later, after the UK announced fresh sanctions against Abramovich, Yad Vashem announced the suspension of receipt of a large donation from the tycoon.

While the letter to Nides is dated February 6, its formation began even earlier. At the time, tensions between Russia and Ukraine were palpable. The letter “expresses concern” at reports that the U.S. might sanction Abramovich. “We are examples of institutions that have benefited from Roman Abramovich, and have long-standing ties with him,” it read. “We implore you warmly to consider Roman Abramovich’s position and importance to the community and to Israel. We warn that any action against him will not only be unfair, but will also negatively impact the Jewish world and Israel.”

In response, Prof. Porat said at the meeting last week that “the letter was issued long before the war,” and that the goal of appealing to the U.S. ambassador was “for them to consider if it’s really correct to sanction him.”

Shortly after the letter became public, Prof. Goshen-Gottstein requested that the school of psychology hold a discussion on the subject, sources at the university said. Last week, President Porat reported the letter and the donation to the university’s “small senate,” which consists of several dozen senior professors. Prof. Goshen-Gottstein responded. The entire discussion lasted only about 15 minutes. A recording of the discussion was obtained by Haaretz.

Abramovich donated some $50 million to the university for the construction of a new nanoscience building, to be named after him. The center will employ over 100 researchers and is “of great importance to the campus,” said Prof. Porat. The donation, reported several years ago, has yet to be fully delivered. “Two months before the war broke out, another donation was given plus a commitment completing the donation,” said the president. “There were some reporters’ questions about it here and there,” he added. “The response is that if someone donates 50 million dollars to us and we make a contract with them and promise that the building will be named for them — we follow through on that promise.

“Nothing has changed about the person himself because of the outbreak of the war, nothing new has been discovered about him,” Porat explained. He says that the object of the sanctions imposed on Abramovich by the UK "with no trial, no nothing," is “to neutralize the influence of those who may support the Russian regime. From my perspective, a donation to the university doesn’t exactly support Russia in any way.”

He added that “Unfortunately there is a legal impediment to taking money from [Abramovich]. After the war is over, I imagine the sanctions will be lifted.”

“In the letter of support the president gave to Abramovich, red lines were crossed," Prof. Goshen-Gottstein, said, noting the “appearance of a contradiction between philanthropy and ethics.”

“In a time of a principled moral test, there is no place for singular nuances benefitting Abramovich. The whole Western world has gone to war against the oligarchs and not for nothing — they are Putin’s wallet and his cloak," he said. "These are funds that now Putin’s nourish war crimes. The oligarch, or someone representing him, asked the heads of institutions to write a letter of support because he knew, precisely or approximately, what Putin was up to and saw to a letter of recommendation. The only question is: Why agree to give it? Does money really answer everything?”

According to Porat, “95 percent of the letter, if not more, notes the simple fact that the institutions we head benefit from Abramovich’s donations and imposing sanctions on him will hurt us. That’s exactly what’s happening now."

Porat did not shy away from denouncing the UK's decision to sanction Abramovich. “It’s amazing how low populism can go in all kinds of places, including the campus,” the president said. “An administrative body in Britain [decides] without any legal process, de facto, almost to expropriate a person’s assets…who thinks that [a decision like this] in another country has to obligate a university in Israel? So my opinion differs.”

Senior faculty criticized the president’s conduct. “The letter of support for Abramovich does not add honor to the university, especially at a time that Putin is leading the forces of darkness. Money blinds the eyes of the wise,” said one professor. According to another faculty member, after the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial “renounced Abramovich’s donation, the momentum could have been used to take, at the very least, a step back in our relationship with the oligarch."

As a citizen and a faculty member, the president’s statement is disturbing and disappointing, another professor said. “Will the university be willing to accept a contribution from a convicted rapist, for example? And what about a neo-Nazi? It’s a mistake to limit the discussion only to legal issues… The university doesn’t have to enlist to defend Abramovich. It is inconceivable that by legitimizing oligarchs, the academic world will indirectly associate itself to criminal acts.”

In a meeting last week, Prof. Porat informed attendees that about two months ago, after the letter of support for Abramovich was penned, he established an “advisory committee” on donations and ethics, whose members consist of “people I trust.” He turned down a request for the committee to be overseen by the university senate.

In response to a query from Haaretz, Porat reiterated what he said last week, adding: “Other than a remark by one person, no one in the senate found it right to disagree with me.”

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