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Brown U. Professor's Donation Caught In Israel-Palestine Conflict

This story was written by Nicole Dungca, Brown Daily Herald

It sparked a debate earlier this year whena Brown Universityemeritus professor donatedprize money from an Israeli non-profit to a Palestinianuniversity and another group that promotes the Palestinians' freedom movement.

David Mumford, professor emeritus of applied mathematics David Mumforddrewworldwide attention for donating his$33,333 sharefrom the Wolf Foundation to Palestinian Birzeit Univeristy and Gisha. BZU is located in the West Bank, and Gishais Israel-based non-profit that promotes the freedom of movement for Palestinians.

The award was for mathematical theories on algebraic sufraces and geometric invariant theory.

The donation sparked both praise and criticism for the self-proclaimed "non-political" academic, who suddenly found his name being invoked in the same breath as "racist," "anti-Semite" and "naive fool" after the news was covered by several wire agencies and widely-read newspapers in Israel.

For Mumford, who is retired, the negativity was far from surprising, but he has refused to second-guess himself. "I don't regret it," he told The Herald from his home in Maine. "It was the best thing to do."

The May donation came not long before Israeldenied permission to leave the country forPalestinian students in Gaza who were set to go to the United States on Fulbright Scholarships.

Israel had tightened the blockade in Gaza over a year ago after the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized power of the strip. The issue gained international attention after the students were rescinded by the U.S. State Department because of the traveling restrictions, inciting a response from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who insisted that the scholarships be reinstated.

Difficut Decision

The day he received the prize, Mumford heralded the cause of granting Palestinian scholars more freedom of movement so they could easily participate in an international community of scholars.

(UWIRE) -- "Mathematics in Israel flourishes today on this high international plane. Its lifeblood is the free exchange of ideas with scholars visiting, teaching, learning from each other, travelling everywhere in the world," he said in a statement released May 25. "But sadly this is not the case in occupied Palestine where education struggles to continue and travel is greatly limited."

Mumford, who grew up in England and the United States, said he had few personal connections to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he was growing up and paid little attention to the conflict during his youth.

"Plenty of people around me grew up politically conscious, but I was a math nerd," he said. "I wasn't really paying attention, and when I was, I was vaguely paying attention."

But Mumford eventually became more conscious of the conflict as he aged, partly because his work as an academic gave him a chance to visit both Israeli and Palestinian universities and also put him in touch with a number of Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.

In 2002, Mumford visited BZU, where he said he saw how difficult travel was for professors and students. Mumford heard stories from professors about waiting weeks for permission to enter Israel for various conferences or lectures, only to be denied at the last second.

"It's that personal experience of seeing what's happening that's crucial," he said. "What you see is simply that these Palestinian universities can use all the help that they can get. They're so isolated, and that's a huge problem."

But though Mumford felt strongly about helping Palestinian universities, he still knew it was a hot-button issue and was loath to make the decison rashly, he said. "To take a step like this donation, I worried about how many friends I would lose," he said. "Would people ostracize me? Would I be seen as a nutcase?"

Mumford knew there were some risks involved, said David Myers, a professor and director for the Center of Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"He made it clear to me that his expectation was that he would be severely criticized," Myers said. "He said, 'So be it. I believe in the free exchange of ideas.'"

Hoping to gauge the public's reception to his choice, he consulted frequently with a small group of friends and acquaintances, including Myers and his son, a history professor at the University of Michigan.

Myers helped Mumford choose the organizations that would receive the money and was largely supportive of the idea, saying it was a great step to take in a charged topic.

"In the midst of antagonism and violence and ill will, he was putting forth a ray of humanity," Myers said.

Editorials and praise

Shortly after the donation, Mumford found himself receiving a wide spectrum of feedback, from unbridled support to vilification.

(UWIRE) -- Some of the criticisms were from those close to home -- before announcing his donation, he approached colleagues who he thought would be less than enthusiastic about his decision. Many of their reactions, he said, were of "muted acceptance."

"I have several colleagues at Brown who, I think, are doubtful about whether this is a positive thing," he said.

Public discussion also brought many additional critics. After the story ran in Haaretz, one of Israel's oldest daily newspapers, freelance writer Frimet Roth contributed an op-ed to the publication that called his decision "a mathematical miscalculation."

Roth began a non-profit dedicated to the memory of her daughter, who was murdered in a restaurant by a suicide bomber, she said. In her article, Roth claimed that two of the perpetrators of the incident that killed her daughter came from BZU, adding that terrorism seemed to be the university's "cup of tea."

Donating to BZU, Roth said, showed Mumford's ignorance on the topic.

Roth noted that the stringent travel restrictions are absolutely necessary for the safety of Israelis, citing a dramatic drop in terrorist attacks since the restrictions have been in place.

"We were suffering from terrorist attacks several times a week," she told The Herald. "Everyone always forgets what's behind (these restrictions)."

Roth said she also saw the prize as disrespectful.

"I was incensed," she said. "It showed such disdain for the people who had given him this prize."

But Mumford vehemently insists that the donation was in no way a criticism of Israel or the Wolf Foundation. "In a way, the point of my gift is not really political at all," he said. "It's a win-win for both Israel and Palestine to have an educated Palestinian population."

In an e-mail, Wolf Foundation Chief Executive Officer Ilan Pilo noted that the organization "does not get involved in how prize winners use the money they receive," which he said was the foundation's "formal and only response to the issue."

But while Mumford had to deal with various angry criticisms -- the hate mail was a bit "hard to take," he said -- he also received numerous testimonies from Palestinians who were glad their situation had been recognized, he said.

The recipients of the donation were also grateful, and not just because of the financial support.

"When a world-renowned mathematician expresses so clearly the need to allow young people acess to educational opportunities, it's an important statement in Israel and abroad," said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha.

Henry Jaqaman, a professor of physics at BZU, said he constantly witnesses the frustration of professors and students who are not able to travel outside the West Bank.

"Palestinian universities are very much isolated, and it's good that we can count on professors like Professor Mumford to support our cause," he said.

There were also mixed reactions at Brown. Danya Chudacoff '11, vice president of Brown Students for Israel, called the donation "commendable," though she thought it was a bit "misdirected."

"It makes a gesture about education giving hope, and that's what we need," she said. "But I think it could have been more productive on a grassroots level."

Chudacoff said she feels many of the travel restrictions arise from legitimate reasons not always apparent to the public, but called Mumford's donation "a beautiful gesture."

The money will most likely go to a new summer school that is being started at BZU, Jaqaman said.

Mumford said he is excited for the summer school, which will give students a chance to interact with other international professors and lecturers.

According to Jaqaman, the retired professor may even give a lecture during BZU's summer session. And since donating the prize, Mumford has been active in trying to start up an exchange program between West Bank and American universities.

"It's now sort of something that I need to follow through on," Mumford said. "After having done that one thing, I really owe it to the people that I've met who have tried to help in the past. I need to follow up on it."