Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley. (Photo by Cliff Mak; some rights reserved.)

At first glance, an open letter published in last week’s Forward seemed like business as usual. The letter, signed by about 70 Bay Area Jewish intellectuals including the biblical scholar Robert Alter and the poet Adrienne Rich, protests a decision by the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation to restrict its funding to groups and projects that hold what it deems to be acceptable views on the State of Israel. Given both the ongoing acrimony within the region’s Jewish community over Israel politics and the propensity of Bay Area Jewish intellectuals to sign open letters, one might suppose that not much was at stake for the signatories beyond the hardening of lines around their political camp.

But for many of the signatories, there’s much more on the line. The “Israel-related content” guidelines that the San Francisco Federation adopted in February grew out of a particularly heated debate that started last summer, after the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a major annual event that receives Federation funding, outraged donors and community members with a film screening that many regarded as anti-Zionist. But though the festival was the stated impetus for and target of the new guidelines, some observers say there will be collateral damage: Jewish-studies programs at Bay Area universities including the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz, and at Stanford University, which have received grants from the Federation and other Jewish donors for decades—and which routinely sponsor flagrantly left-wing professors and guests. Now academics at these programs, 17 of whom signed the Forward letter, worry that they could lose their funding as well—a particularly troubling predicament for those who teach in California’s financially collapsing public university system.

“It’s absolutely disastrous if we lose funding,” said Chana Kronfeld, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Berkeley. “In times of huge cuts, we have no funding from anyone sometimes except Federation or community organizations. It’s clearly a campaign to control academic freedom.”

The University of California, widely regarded as one of the best public university systems in the country, was slammed last summer with a $637 million—or 20 percent—cut in state funding, as California itself has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Since then, the university system—along with California’s other, lower-tier public schools of higher education—have been struggling to stay afloat with drastic measures like mandatory furlough days (and accompanying pay cuts) for faculty and staff and a 32 percent undergraduate tuition hike planned for this fall. “Nothing is off the table,” the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year.

Under these circumstances, the Federation, along with area Jewish-community donors like the Koret Foundation, the Helen Diller Family Foundation, and the Bernard Osher Foundation—all of which give money both on their own and through the Federation-operated Jewish Community Endowment Fund—have played a vital role in keeping the region’s Jewish-studies programs up and running. At Berkeley, for instance, according to the school’s budget office, the Jewish studies program’s entire $750,000 annual discretionary budget comes from private donations (that budget does not pay for tenured and tenure-track professors, who are loaned from other departments that do get state funding, and it also does not include some graduate student financial aid). The Federation isn’t the biggest donor in this group, but it is important for another reason as well: The philanthropy sponsors the Bay Area Jewish-studies Consortium, which for 20 years has worked to foster intellectual partnerships among Jewish-studies programs or professors at 11 colleges in the region.

That’s not to say that these Jewish-studies programs are powerless before their donors. Universities generally have strict rules that limit donors’ participation in day-to-day academic decisions, and thus far, even cash-strapped UC campuses will walk away from money that comes with too many strings attached. Likewise, Stanford University’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies has received extensive funding from Tad Taube, the Bay Area’s largest Jewish community donor, but Taube’s conservative politics are far from visible at the program that bears his name.

“Some of the gifts come from donors who are not happy with the political opinions of the faculty” at these programs, said David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at Davis (and a signatory of the Forward letter). “And to their credit, they have continued to support the programs on academic grounds and have not tried to impose their political positions on the programs. But my worry is that, as the atmosphere becomes much more politicized, that could change.”

Things aren’t easy for the Federation either. Pressure on the philanthropy began last summer when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented Rachel, a documentary about a radical young American activist named Rachel Corrie who was killed under disputed circumstances in Gaza and invited Corrie’s mother to speak at the screening. The film festival stokes controversy almost every year, but Rachel caused the biggest fracas yet: A few days before the screening, the president of the festival resigned from her post, and two of the festival’s biggest donors, the Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies—both of which are run by Tad Taube—issued a statement condemning the festival’s “egregious error” in showing the film and announcing that funding might be withdrawn the next year.

Much of the anger over the screening was directed at the Federation, another major festival donor, which had offered cautious support for Rachel. On the eve of an Federation board meeting in November, a group of influential donors and community members (including Mem Bernstein, who sits on the board of Nextbook Inc., Tablet Magazine’s publisher) placed an open letter in the local Jewish newspaper, urging the Federation to adopt a proposal making groups “that demonize or defame Israel” ineligible for funding. This, the letter said, would, put the “Film Festival debacle behind us once and for all.” The Federation voted down the vaguely worded proposal but organized a committee to create the more elaborate guidelines that were eventually adopted.

The guidelines’ most specific restriction holds that grantees may not endorse any kind of boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel. This type of campaign has garnered vocal support on the Berkeley campus and within some local leftist Jewish advocacy groups. Nor are grantees permitted to cosponsor programs with groups that do support divestment or that otherwise “undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” Within this boundary, though, the guidelines are fairly open-ended. Acceptable, for instance, are “presentations by organizations or individuals that are critical of particular Israeli government policies but are supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a secure independent Jewish democratic state.”

But even if the guidelines are applied forgivingly, they would seem likely to exclude from funding at least some of the Jewish-studies programs the Federation currently supports. Berkeley’s and Stanford’s programs each include a faculty member—respectively, the Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin and the Middle East historian Joel Beinin—who loudly self-identify as anti-Zionist. And several other professors at these schools, as well as the University of California campuses in Davis and Santa Cruz, have publicly supported some form of divestment campaign or belong to organizations that do.

Additionally, any number of staunch Israel critics have spoken or taught as guest lecturers at these programs, including Israeli writers and scholars flown in from the abroad. Berkeley’s Chana Kronfeld, who has sponsored visits by the Israeli novelist David Grossman and the poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, among others profoundly critical of their own country, put it bluntly: “All the major Israeli writers would probably be banned.”

On the subject of any individual writer or professor, it’s difficult to say whether Kronfeld is right. The Federation’s chief operating officer, Jim Offel, told Tablet Magazine that the Federation does not have a list of acceptable and unacceptable organizations and individuals, and that it will make each decision on a case-by-case basis. And the guidelines are too new to have had much effect thus far—they came out after the deadline for most 2010 funding. Grantees are welcome to call the Federation with questions about whether a potential program meets the guidelines, Offel said. “We didn’t invent this,” he added. “It’s general practice for a funding agency to ensure that fundees’ dollars are being used in ways consistent with the core values of the funder.”

But, because of university restrictions on donors’ relationships with the programs they fund, that practice is more complicated in an academic context. Offel maintained that the guidelines apply to all Federation grantees, but David Biale said that in December, while they were working on the guidelines, Federation officials had privately acknowledged to him that they understood “how things work at the university” and “wouldn’t try to meddle in issues of academic freedom.” But, he added, “That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t put pressure on us.”

Ironically, the Helen Diller Family Foundation, whose board members were prominently represented among the signatories of last fall’s open letter urging the Federation to adopt Israel guidelines, faltered in its own attempt to impose similar guidelines on the Jewish studies programs at Berkeley. According to Robert Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature there, when Bay Area philanthropist Sanford Diller expressed reservations several years ago about the number of leftist Israelis who had been invited for residencies at Berkeley’s Jewish studies program, a university vice-chancellor told him, “If you feel that way, we’ll have to give back the endowment because that conflicts with our academic standards.” Diller, he said, backed off. (Diller declined to comment for this story.)

A similar dispute at Davis, though, went the other way. In 2006, the Koret Foundation added language to its grant contract with Davis stipulating that grant money could not used “in connection with any program that includes anti-Israel sentiments or anti-Semitic elements, speeches, or positions.” Biale, who was chair of the program at the time, said that he sent the letter to the development office and that he believed it had been taken up for review by Davis’s lawyers, but the language has remained in each annual contract to this day.

Faced with this kind of standoff, it seems likely that the Federation would likewise have to choose between not enforcing its guidelines for academic grantees or cutting off funding to the Jewish-studies programs that are among its most prestigious causes.

“I think in the end the policy means they can’t really fund academic programs, because what they’re asking for is that they be the ultimate decider on programmatic issues,” said Charlotte Fonrobert, the co-director of Stanford’s Jewish-studies program. “At some point that decision will have to be made.”

The other option—the one predicted by the Forward letter—is that Federation grantees will simply avoid controversial subjects in order to circumvent the process of consulting with their funders. That can happen even before funders get involved. Diane Wolf, the chair of Jewish studies at Davis and another letter signatory, sheepishly acknowledged that she’s been “trying to get away from those hot-button issues” ever since her program came under attack from some professors in other departments for a panel it hosted two years ago on the 2006 Lebanon War. “It’s so difficult and so time-consuming and emotionally draining,” she said.

It seems unlikely that the Forward letter will lead to any official change in the Federation guidelines, which took so many months and compromises to produce. But it remains an open question whether the letter will damage the relationships between the philanthropy and the grantees who signed. Alter, who chairs the Bay Area Jewish-studies Consortium, said that Amy Rabbino, the consortium’s Federation liaison, called him, “quite upset,” when the letter came out online and asked him why he didn’t consult with her before he signed.

“Maybe I should have,” Alter said. “But then there was an odd turn of the conversation, where Amy said, ‘If Federation is supporting you, why should you attack the Federation?’

“I said to Amy that the same thing goes for Israel,” Alter said. “I personally support the state of Israel but object to some of its policies.”