Harvard donors push university to express support for Israel, threatening to pull funding and quitting boards

Yossi Sagol, a graduate of the business school, says he may transfer a planned donation to Israeli victims instead; Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer resigns from Kennedy School of Government board

A growing number of prominent Harvard University alumni are condemning the school’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis, seeing it as insufficient and condoning terrorism. Some are threatening to pull funding if Harvard doesn’t change course — while others have already made the move. 

In two letters sent on Saturday, one to the university’s president and the other to the dean of Harvard Business School, Yossi Sagol, chairman of Sagol Holdings Corporation and 2008 HBS alum, said he will withhold his recent donation to the business school and instead give it to the families of victims of the terrorist attacks if the school does not more clearly express its support for Israel and its condemnation of the Hamas terror group. Sagol would not disclose the amount he donated to HBS. 

As of Sunday afternoon when Sagol spoke with eJewishPhilanthropy, the Harvard administration had not responded to either letter. But, Sagol said, “there’s a good chance I will get a response because I know it’s reached the right people.” 

Others aren’t taking a wait-and-see approach. Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and his wife, Batia, announced on Friday they are quitting Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government executive board in protest over how university leaders have responded to the massacre. Ofer is ranked No. 80 on Bloomberg’s billionaire index. 

The controversy over what Jewish students and alumni say is the Harvard administration’s lack of an appropriate response comes as a letter signed last week by 31 student organizations at Harvard published on social media claimed Israel is “entirely responsible” for Hamas terrorists’ murder of 1,300 Israelis. Gay and other university leaders said days later in a statement that the school is “heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas” but did not mention the students’ letter or condemn it. Still, several Harvard alums have called on the school to release a stronger response.

Immediately after Harvard released its statement, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), posted on X, “Harvard’s leadership has failed. The president and deans refuse to denounce the antisemitism of Harvard student groups. Instead of moral clarity and courage, they offer [a] word salad approved by committee. I am ashamed of my alma mater.” 

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) wrote on X, “Terrorism is never justified nor someone else’s fault. As hundreds of Israelis and others, including several Americans, remain kidnapped, injured, or dead, the 31 Harvard organizations that signed a letter holding Israel ‘entirely responsible’ for Hamas’ barbarous terrorism should be condemned, as should Harvard leadership for whom silence is complicity.” He added, “I cannot recall a moment when I’ve been more embarrassed by my alma mater.”

Sagol echoed that Gay’s response was “disappointing.”

“I don’t think they are standing for the truth and they failed in my view to distinguish what’s wrong and what’s right,” he told eJP. Sagol said he is pushing fellow Harvard donors to send similar letters. “I have a big network and think we will see more people following this,” he said. 

“I understand their constraints, but the response from the administration has been disappointing to say the least,” Sagol continued. “They create an environment when they are not condemning a genocide and standing with Israel loud and clear.” 

More than 1,000 demonstrators rallied in Harvard Yard on Saturday in support of Gaza in a rally jointly organized by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and Graduate Students 4 Palestine. The following evening, Harvard Hillel and Chabad hosted a vigil on Sunday night on the steps of the main Harvard library. 

Sagol noted in his letter that Gay’s predecessor, Lawrence Bacow, issued a statement in February 2022 in support of Ukraine immediately following Russia’s invasion. “Today the Ukrainian flag flies over Harvard Yard. Harvard University stands with the people of Ukraine,” the statement said. 

“I am wondering why your statement couldn’t state that simple message: ‘Harvard University stands with the people of Israel.’ Is it that difficult to make such a simple statement?” wrote Sagol, who began working with Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2018 to develop an Israel-based program similar to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. 

Influential longtime donors have announced they will pull funding from other American universities too, citing similar lack of support for Israel. 

Mark Rowan, CEO of Apollo Global Management and board chair of UJA-Federation of New York, urged fellow alumni of the University of Pennsylvania to “close their checkbooks,” in an open letter published by eJP.

Rowan also called for the university’s president, Elizabeth Magill, and the chairman of its board of trustees, Scott Bok, to step down. 

On Sunday, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that 1987 graduate Jon Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah and a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, told Magill that his family will stop donating to the university. The Jon M. Huntsman Hall and the Jon Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at UPenn are both named in honor of the Huntsman family.

“Moral relativism has fueled the university’s race to the bottom and sadly now has reached a point where remaining impartial is no longer an option,” Huntsman wrote in the letter.