The Israeli war on the Gaza Strip has put private universities in the United States in front of a delicate dilemma, as they are required to meet the demands of their wealthy pro-Israel supporters, while preserving the right of their students to express their pro-Palestinian views.

A number of wealthy Americans have stopped, or at least waved, their donations to prestigious institutions of higher education such as Harvard University in Massachusetts and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Wexner organization, which prepares "leaders of the American Jewish community and the State of Israel," ended its partnership with Harvard Kennedy School.

The wealthy family justified its move by citing "the dismal failure of the Harvard leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the brutal crimes and murder of innocent Israeli civilians by terrorists."

Mark Rowan, chief executive of the Apollo Global Management investment fund and one of the main donors to the University of Pennsylvania, called for the resignation of its president, Elizabeth Magel, criticizing the university's hosting two weeks before the outbreak of the war a forum for Palestinian literature in which what he said were "people known for their anti-Semitism and their promotion of hatred and racism."

Other donors to Harvard and Pennsylvania have also expressed displeasure with the universities' performance at the moment, such as Harvard's Kenneth Griffin and Pennsylvania's Ronald Lauder, according to US media.

Harvard faculty and student groups continue to protest against Israeli massacres in the Gaza Strip.

— • Al Jazeera Net (@AJArabicnet) October 22, 2023

Feeling of fear

On October 7, the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, launched an unprecedented attack on Israeli military sites and settlements in the Gaza envelope, while the occupation forces responded with continuous shelling throughout the Gaza Strip, and mobilized forces at its border in preparation for a possible ground operation.

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, 4385,1400 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the Gaza Strip by the shelling, while more than <>,<> people were killed on the Israeli side, most of them on the first day of the attack, according to Israeli authorities.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay condemned the attack by Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades, but critics said her stance came too late and in words that did not reflect sufficient severity.

Officials from Columbia University in New York and Stanford University in California have also faced demands to unequivocally distance themselves from pro-Palestinian student groups accusing Israel of committing "genocide" in leaflets distributed during its actions.

A group of Harvard professors called for an end to the harassment of students who signed an anti-Israel petition. These harassment included passing a vehicle near the university's campus in Boston, holding pictures and names of students under the slogan "Top Harvard Anti-Semites."

Student movements at Columbia University have faced similar criticism.

Christine Shahvardian, director of the Freedom of Expression and Education Program at PEN America, said: "What we hear directly is that some students at some universities are worried about expression, maybe worried about protesting."

Shahvardian stressed the importance of donors recognizing that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of higher education, and that sometimes means views to which one may strongly oppose.

Event at Harvard University to demand an end to the bombing of Gaza #حرب_غزة

— Al Jazeera Palestine (@AJA_Palestine) October 19, 2023

Freedom of expression

The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and opinion, and many university officials rely on the 1967 Calvin Commission report to defend students' freedom to express their positions.

The report, released by the University of Chicago amid angry protests against the Vietnam War and civil rights riots, concluded that the role of universities should be to promote pluralism rather than take a stand on controversial issues.

Lynn Pasquirella, president of the Association of Colleges and Universities of the United States, said: "Leaders are being criticized for not taking a swift or firm enough stance. They are forced to choose a party. However, many of them insist that it is not possible to take an institutional stance on such complex international issues due to the diversity of opinions on campus."

Pasquirella said the pressure donors exert on universities undermines the goal of U.S. higher education, which is "promoting an unfettered pursuit of truth and the free exchange of ideas."

These pressures have re-highlighted the weak government support for private universities and left them vulnerable to the whims of the wealthy. Reliance on private support imposes restrictions on professors and officials "because they are afraid of losing donations", Pasquerella said.

The issue comes at a time when American society is increasingly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

A recent Gallup poll showed that the percentage of Americans who show "high confidence" in their country's higher education fell from 57 percent in 2016 to 36 percent this year.