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After a 34-year partnership, the Wexner Foundation will end its financial and programmatic relationship with Harvard and the Harvard Kennedy School, condemning the University’s response to the Hamas attack on Israel as a “dismal failure.”
In a letter to the Board of Overseers — Harvard’s second-highest governing body — on Monday, Wexner Foundation President Elka Abrahamson, Director General Ra’anan Avital, and chairmen Abigail S. Wexner and Leslie H. Wexner criticized University President Claudine Gay’s “tiptoeing, equivocating” response to a joint statement by more than 30 Harvard student groups holding Israel responsible for the ongoing violence.
“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 Wexner letter stated.
The joint student statement provoked international backlash and was denounced by more than 4,000 Harvard affiliates across two open letters.
The Wexner Foundation donated significantly to HKS and helped support 10 fellows annually to complete the school’s one-year Master in Public Administration program through its Wexner Israel Fellowship. The fellowship — which will now be discontinued — aimed to “provide Israel’s next generation of public leaders with advanced leadership and public management training,” according to the foundation’s website. More than 280 Israeli public officials have participated in the fellowship.
HKS spokesperson Sofiya Cabalquinto wrote in an emailed statement that Gay and HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf “made clear our rejection of the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” in statements last week.
“We are grateful to the Wexner Foundation for its very longstanding support of student scholarships,” Cabalquinto wrote.
In a statement to HKS affiliates on Friday, Elemendorf condemned Hamas, calling the attacks against Israel “terrorist atrocities.”
“I am outraged by the savageness and brutality of the crimes perpetrated by Hamas against defenseless Israeli civilians,” he wrote.
Gay also fiercely condemned Hamas in video remarks — her third statement in four days on the attacks — released to Harvard affiliates on Thursday.
“Let me be clear: Our University rejects terrorism — that includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” Gay said. “Our University rejects hate — hate of Jews, hate of Muslims, hate of any group of people based on their faith, their national origin, or any aspect of their identity.”
The Wexner Foundation’s decision to cut ties with HKS represents the latest reproach of the University over its response to the invasion and the subsequent student statements. Harvard has faced intense criticism from political leaders and top scholars over its delayed response and initial lack of explicit condemnation of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
The letter announced that the current class of Wexner Israel Fellows will be the last after 34 years of partnership with the University, adding that in years, the fellow have been “increasingly marginalized” and their voices “shouted down.”
“We have observed that this cherished tolerance for diverse perspectives has slowly but perceptibly narrowed over the years,” the letter read. “Disappointingly, HKS has been slow to craft a strategy to enable Israeli students to engage in productive - even if difficult - dialogue within the school.”
In late August, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir banned Israel police and firefighters from the Wexner fellowship due to what he described as the “left-wing political bent” of the foundation.
Leslie Wexner, the co-founder of the Wexner Foundation and the founder of Bath and Body Works, donated more than $42 million to the Kennedy School before 2012. One of the school’s six main buildings is named after him. Wexner has faced scrutiny over a pattern of inappropriate conduct and misogyny under his watch as CEO of Victoria’s Secret, as well as for his ties to sex trafficker Jeffrey E. Epstein, who served as his financial manager for decades.
Wexner is not the first prominent donor to sever ties with the Kennedy School over the University’s response to the attacks by Hamas.
On Friday, CNN reported on Friday that Israeli billionaires Idan and Batia Ofer quit the Kennedy School’s executive board in protest of the University's leadership's response to Hamas’ attack on Israel.
“Unfortunately, our faith in the University’s leadership has been broken and we cannot in good faith continue to support Harvard and its committees,” the couple said in a statement to CNN.
The backlash against HKS in the wake of Hamas’ attacks is the latest example of controversy at the school over its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Earlier this year, Elmendorf faced calls to resign after allegedly vetoing a fellowship for former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth over perceived anti-Israel bias. Elmendorf later reversed his decision. During a February Institute of Politics forum, Roth accused Harvard of demonstrating “plenty of pro-Israel tilting.”
In April 2022, protesters with Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine — an initiative of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee — staged a walkout of a talk with Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog, condemning the school for hosting “perpetrators of apartheid.”
In a May interview with The Crimson, Elmendorf said the school hosts affiliates with a “range of views about Israel and the Palestinians” and denied that HKS is biased on any political issues.
“The school is not pro- or anti- any particular position on public policy issues,” he said. “The school is a place for people to learn and form their own views about public policy issues.”
Correction: October 17, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Leslie H. Wexner is Israeli. In fact, Wexner is American.
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