Against the backdrop of Arab anti-Semitism -- the most virulent Jew-hatred since the Hitler years -- the closing of a single anti-Semitic institute in the Middle East barely registers as a blip on the screen. But it's a blip worth pausing to note, for it shows what can be achieved when one gutsy individual decides to push back against bigotry. And it illuminates the complicity of intellectuals whose passion for social justice evaporates when dollars are at stake.
The story begins in July 2000, when Harvard's Divinity School accepted $2.5 million from the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The money was to endow an academic chair, the Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Professorship in Islamic Religious Studies. It was a welcome shot in the arm for the divinity school, one of Harvard's smallest and least affluent. The university expressed its gratitude, praising Zayed for his liberality in an article in the Harvard Gazette.
"Islamic social justice asks every Muslim to respect others," the Gazette piece quoted him as saying. "Islam is the religion of tolerance and forgiveness… of dialogue and understanding."
But Harvard wasn't the only recipient of Zayed's largesse. And tolerance wasn't all he paid for.
The sheikh, it turns out, was also the founder and namesake of the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up, a think tank established in 1999 in his capital, Abu Dhabi. Chaired by his son and describing itself as "the fulfillment of the vision of Sheik Zayed," the center quickly became one of the Arab world's leading intellectual arenas for anti-Jewish and anti-American poison.
In 2002, the Zayed Center published a report on the Holocaust that said Zionists -- not Nazis -- "were the people who killed the Jews in Europe."
Examples mushroomed. In 2002, the Zayed Center published a report on the Holocaust that said Zionists -- not Nazis -- "were the people who killed the Jews in Europe." It hosted a lecture by Saudi professor Umayma Jalahma, famous for her claim that Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim by killing innocent victims and eating pastries baked with their blood. The US war in Iraq, Jalahma asserted in her lecture, was timed to coincide with the same Jewish holiday.
The Zayed Center honored French author Thierry Meyssan, whose book "The Appalling Fraud" says that US military officers staged the 9/11 attacks. The center published an Arabic translation of the book, and hosted a lecture in which he said the "legend" of Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers "was not true" and that no plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
Yet another guest was Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, the mufti of the Palestinian Authority known for such vile sermons as the one in which he pleaded: "Oh, Allah, destroy America, for she is ruled by Zionist Jews." In the opening speech of a conference last August, the director of the Zayed Center declared: "Jews claim to be God's most preferred people, but the truth is they are the enemies of all nations." And in one of many anti-semitic tracts offered on its web site, the center extolled "those who challenged Israel," including David Irving and Roger Garaudy, two infamous Holocaust deniers, and Jorg Haider, head of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.
Harvard officials probably knew none of this when Zayed made his gift three years ago. But that changed in December, when the founder of the David Project, an organization created to combat global anti-Semitism, spoke at Harvard and called attention to the link between the $2.5 million windfall and the hatred peddled by the Zayed Center.
In the audience that day was Rachel Fish, an Islamic Studies student at the divinity school. What she heard distressed her and she set about researching the issue. The more she learned about the Zayed Center, the more convinced she became that Harvard should have nothing to do with the man for whom it was named.
In March, Fish took her evidence to the divinity school's dean, William Graham, and asked that Zayed's money be returned. Her argument was simple: Harvard would never accept money from a Ku Klux Klan financier. The hate funded by the sheikh is no less abhorrent.
Graham, who had first heard about the Zayed Center's anti-Semitic and anti-American output in January, told Fish he would have an independent researcher look into the issue. He promised to get back to her within six weeks.
But six weeks passed and Graham said nothing. Nor did most of the divinity school faculty -- a faculty that normally prides itself on its social conscience and its commitment to human rights. An online petition urging the university to decline Zayed's money (www.moralitynotmoney.com) drew thousands of signatures. But the administration seemed in no hurry to move.
Months went by. Harvard did nothing.
Fish refused to give up. With the help of the David Project, she contacted the media. By the end of May, Harvard's tainted money was drawing attention, and not just in Boston: It was covered on CBS and NPR, in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, on scores of web sites and on talk shows. Meanwhile, the Harvard Crimson called for returning Zayed's gift, to show "that there is no room for bigotry and corruption at Harvard, not even in our pocket books."
Months went by. Harvard did nothing. "It's a complicated matter," a spokeswoman said, "and we have to look at everything."
Last month, Fish's persistence finally paid off -- sort of. The United Arab Emirates, stung by the bad publicity, announced that the Zayed Center would be shut down. In time it may resurface under a different name, but for now it is out of business, its web sites are closed, and its anti-Semitic output has been turned off. Because one young person refused to back away from a fight, because she cared more about morality than money, the plug has been pulled on a leading purveyor of hatred.
Oh, and Harvard? It announced on Friday that it would need another year to decide what to do about Sheik Zayed's money. Rachel Fish's work isn't finished.