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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

Foreign lobbies are controlling what you can say and do on your own college campus

Through a concerted political effort, foreign countries are utilizing extensive financial ties to influence academia

Talk about foreign interference in American politics seems to be everywhere these days.

From allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to debates over the role of  the Israeli and Saudi lobbies in persuading Washington politicians, discussion about the influence of foreign powers in the United States has become increasingly popular  — and college campuses are no exception to this trend.

Last fall, The California Aggie broke a major story at UC Davis on Canary Mission, a website known for doxxing and blacklisting pro-Palestinian students and academics. An investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz further revealed that an Israeli non-profit known as Megamot Shalom secretly funded the Canary Mission. Such Israeli lobbying grew particularly powerful on college campuses in recent years, pushing Hillel organizations towards a heavier pro-Zionist stance and calling for universities to discipline pro-Palestinian faculty. These practices have received criticism from a number of prominent academics who see the trend as an increasing threat to their freedom of speech.

Although people often think of Israel as the prime example of foreign lobbying in the United States, countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia continue to exert substantial influence on American college campuses. The Saudi government and related institutions have donated some $354 million to 37 different American universities since 2011, according to a report by the Associated Press. Among the biggest beneficiaries were Northwestern University, which received $14 million from a Saudi research center, and UCLA, which collected an additional $6 million from the same organization.

Even with the increased scrutiny placed on Saudi-American relations since the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October, the U.S. government continued to pursue expanded relations with the Kingdom, and most American universities refused to reconsider their current funding ties. UC Berkeley refused to review their $6 million investment from the Saudi government, claiming that it represented only a fraction of the grants and contracts issued to university researchers and was thus not worthy of reconsideration.

Despite routinely priding itself on values of inclusion and non-discrimination, certain campuses in the UC system seem bizarrely unwilling to re-evaluate their relationship with one of the most repressive regimes in modern history. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is routinely ranked among the “worst of the worst” by the watchdog Freedom House, and the country continues to export toxic Wahhabist religious ideology that serves as inspiration to terrorist groups across the globe.

The Turkish government has similarly exercised a great degree of influence upon American academia, utilizing its extensive financial and political ties in the U.S. to dissuade universities from freely discussing the country’s ongoing descent into authoritarianism. Columbia University, for example, suddenly called off a panel on the collapse of the rule of law in Turkey last month. According to a number of panel speakers, the event was likely cancelled due to the inclusion of Alp Aslandogan, a lecturer associated with the Hizmet, a socio-religious movement based on the teachings of Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government blamed Gülen, an Islamic cleric currently living in exile in the U.S., for allegedly playing a role in the country’s 2016 coup d’état attempt. Critics noted that Columbia, which previously fashioned itself as a bastion of First Amendment rights (once infamously allowing then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a speaking opportunity in 2007), received a number of major donations from Turkish nationals, including a $10 million investment in 2016 to create a center for Turkish studies.

Previously, Turkey’s primary lobbying efforts in the U.S. were directed against congressional efforts to recognize the Turkish role in the Armenian Genocide. Turkey continues to deny the Ottoman Empire’s role in the mass killing of some 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Greeks and 500,000 Assyrians from 1914 to 1923, annually spending millions of dollars on lobbying efforts related to the controversy.

All nine UC campuses, including UC Davis, voted to formally disaffiliate from Turkey based on the country’s continued denial of its part in the genocide. But due to the dangerous precedent set by other universities like Columbia University, the UC system may not be entirely immune to the pressure of foreign powers.

Diaspora politics are an inevitable component of life in a multicultural democracy — and they certainly do have an important role in ensuring adequate group representation. It becomes a problem, however, when such diasporas are manipulated by foreign governments, who care not about their descendants in the U.S., but about accruing their own power and prestige in another land.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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