Follow the Money: How Israel-Linked Billionaires Silenced US Campus Protests

Thousands of students face severe consequences for protesting Gaza violence. Alan Macleod investigates the powerful financial and ideological ties to Israel driving the harsh responses from America’s top universities.

America’s universities are on fire. A protest movement against the violence in Gaza and U.S. colleges’ complicity in them has swept the nation, with encampments on college campuses in 45 of America’s 50 states. The crackdown has been swift; thousands of students have been arrested, charged, fined, lost their degrees, or even deported. Amid corporate media demanding a “Kent State 2.0”, riot police, armored vehicles and snipers have been deployed across the country to terrify those campaigning for justice into silence.

Why have overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations against a foreign power’s actions been met with such a heavy-handed response? A MintPress News investigation finds that those same elite institutions have deep financial and ideological ties to the state of Israel, are funded by pro-Israel billionaires who have demanded they take action to crush the student movement, are partially funded by the Israeli government, and exist in a climate where Washington has made it clear that the protests should not be tolerated.


Israel’s Billionaire Backers

The movement began on April 17 at Columbia University, where a modest Gaza solidarity encampment was established. Protestors hardly expected to be welcomed by university authorities but were shocked as university president Minouche Shafik immediately called in the NYPD – the first time the university had allowed police to suppress dissent on campus since the famous 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Shafik’s decision was no doubt influenced by the enormous pressure put on her by the university’s top donors – many of whom have deep connections to the Israeli state and its military.

Robert Kraft

Billionaire businessman and sports executive Robert Kraft, for example, publicly announced he was cutting the university off from his lavish funding over its failure to suppress the protests effectively enough. “I am deeply saddened at the virulent hate that continues to grow on campus and throughout our country,” he said in a statement, claiming that Columbia was not protecting its Jewish students.

The turning point, Kraft said, was watching a publicity stunt by Shai Davidai, an Israeli-American academic at Columbia, who claimed his access to campus was revoked. Davidai had previously called the student protestors “Nazis” and “terrorists” and called for the National Guard to be set upon the encampment, obliquely referencing the Kent State University Massacre while doing so.

Kraft is one of Columbia’s most important donors, giving the institution millions of dollars, including $3 million to fund the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life.

He also has deep connections to Israel, having visited the country over 100 times, including to have private lunch with his friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said, “Israel does not have a more loyal friend than Robert Kraft.”

Netanyahu is correct. Kraft is one of the Israel lobby’s primary benefactors, donating millions to groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), The Israel Project and StandWithUs. He pledged a gigantic $100 million to his own Foundation to Combat Antisemitism – a group that presents critics of Israeli policy with the charge of anti-Jewish racism. He has also funded a host of pro-Israel politicians in races against progressive, anti-war challengers. A recent MintPress News investigation took a closer look at how Kraft is a key actor in trying to launder Israel’s image in America.

Leon Cooperman

Another billionaire benefactor pulling his Columbia funding is Leon Cooperman. The hedge fund manager suspended his donations in October, citing student support for Palestine. “These kids are fucking crazy. They don’t understand what they’re doing or what they’re talking about,” he fumed, adding that they “have to be controlled.” One person who does know what he is talking about on this issue is Columbia’s Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, Joseph Massad. Yet Cooperman demanded Massad be fired after the academic took positions on Palestine he objected to.

Cooperman has enormous influence at Columbia precisely because he is one of its chief income sources. In 2012, for instance, he donated $25 million to support the construction of the university’s new Manhattanville campus.

However, Columbia is far from the only organization that receives lavish Cooperman cash. He is also a regular donor to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF), a group that collects money to purchase supplies, equipment and support for active-duty Israeli soldiers. In addition, he was the first person to provide an endowment to Birthright Israel, an organization that provides free propaganda trips to Israel for young Jews.

Len Blavatnik

A third billionaire backer using his financial clout to pressure Columbia is Soviet-born oligarch Len Blavatnik, who demanded that the university protestors be “held to account.” Leaked messages reveal that for Blavatnik,  this meant using the full weight of the law against protestors.

Blavatnik was a member of a secret WhatsApp group created in October 2023 that included many prominent Americans, former Israeli prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Benny Gantz, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog. Its mission was, in its own words, to “change the narrative” in favor of Israel and “help win the war” for U.S. public opinion. This included donating to pro-Israel political candidates and trying to pressure black celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and LeBron James to publicly “condemn antisemitism” – i.e., attempting to conflate the protestors with racists.

Blavatnik also bankrolls Birthright and the U.K. Friends of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers and has funded at least 120 scholarships for former IDF soldiers. Together, Kraft, Cooperman and Blavatnik are thought to have donated nearly $100 million to Columbia.

Idan Ofer

From Columbia, the protests quickly spread across America, including to many of the country’s most prestigious institutions, including Harvard.

From the start, the university was actively hostile to the protest movement and suspended dozens of protestors, effectively stopping them from graduating. This hostility is no doubt in part due to the university’s big-money donors pulling out en masse since October 7. Chief among these is Israeli shipping magnate Idan Ofer, who cited what he called “the lack of clear evidence of support from the university’s leadership for the people of Israel” and expressed his dismay that the Massachusetts college would not condemn Hamas strongly enough.

Ofer is a crucial player in Israeli intelligence. As a previous MintPress News investigation revealed, his family’s Zodiac Maritime cargo ships have regularly been used to secretly ferry Israeli commandos around the Middle East for assassination operations. This includes the killing of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Khalil al-Wazir in Tunisia.

Leslie Wexner

Another billionaire apparently “stunned and sickened” by Harvard’s pro-Hamas positions is former Victoria’s Secret CEO Leslie Wexner. Apart from Wexner’s exceptionally close and well-publicized connections to child sex traffickers and Israeli intelligence asset Jeffrey Epstein, Wexner is a major donor to Israeli causes.

A 2007 list of potential political donors compiled by Benjamin Netanyahu includes Wexner prominently. (Also included were Ofer’s brother Eyal, Blavtnik, and Donald Trump). In 2023, Wexner donated a six-figure sum to AIPAC, the chief pro-Israel force in American politics.

Marc Rowan

Nowhere, however, has the elite backlash to student protests been as bitter as at the University of Pennsylvania. Leading the charge to suppress pro-Palestine sentiment on campus there has been Marc Rowan. The billionaire investor demanded that his side must “exact a price” on students who express solidarity with Palestine. “These kids who are marching, they don’t think about it because there’s been no price to pay,” he explained, suggesting that they should never be allowed to work again: “I would not hire you if you were anti-Black. I wouldn’t hire if you were anti-gay. I wouldn’t hire you if you were anti-anything. Why would I hire an antisemite?” he stated, effectively conflating antisemitism with criticism of the Israeli government.

Rowan strongly opposed UPenn’s hosting of a Palestinian literature festival in 2023, demanding that college president Liz Magill and UPenn board chair Scott Bok be fired. After October 7, Rowan and his allies succeeded in forcing both from their jobs.

Rowan has tremendous influence at his alma mater, primarily because of his extraordinarily deep pockets. In 2018, for instance, he donated $50 million to the Wharton School of Business at Pennsylvania. But like with Columbia and Harvard’s big-money benefactors, he is far from a neutral actor on the subject of Israel and Palestine. In fact, he has considerable business interests in Israel. He has described himself as someone who has a “building and overwhelming commitment” to the country and “looks to the IDF and to what Israel does” for guidance.

Rowan and other oligarchs, Jonathon Jacobson and Ronald Lauder, helped organize a university funding strike until their demands were met. Jacobson, who claimed that the university refuses to stand for American values, is the chairman of the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank whose current director is former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. Unsurprisingly, for a man of this background, he has a long history of making donations to pro-Israel groups in the U.S.

Lauder, meanwhile, is even more ingratiated with the Israeli establishment than Jacobson. A close confidant and supporter of Netanyahu, he was appointed a negotiator for Israel with the government of Syria in 1998. His presence at a One Jerusalem rally in front of religious and nationalist extremists in 2001 led to a boycott of the Estée Lauder brand across the Muslim world.


Academic Collaboration

In addition to pressure from donors, elite U.S. universities have close academic and business ties to Israel. For example, Columbia announced last year that it would open a “global center” in Tel Aviv, which would serve as a research hub for academics and graduate students. This would expand the university’s dealings in Israel, where students can already pursue a joint degree with Tel Aviv University or study abroad in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. This development, however, will only benefit Israelis, as Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere are generally barred from entering Israel.

The plans for a new global center drew heavy criticism from Columbia faculty members, nearly 100 of whom signed a letter asking it to reconsider the decision, given Israel’s human rights record. Moreover, in recent years, many Columbia academics have been barred from entering Israel, likely because of their political views. These include Rashid Kalidi, the Edward Saïd Professor of Modern Arab Studies, and law professor Katherine M. Franke, who was detained and interrogated by Israeli authorities for 14 hours before being deported.

Yet, when it comes to American educational institutions, Columbia’s Israeli collaboration is not unusual. In 2003, Cornell University and the U.S.-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund established a program for joint agricultural research. In 2014, Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs announced a joint program with the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya in Israel. (The Lauder School is named after its founder and benefactor, Ronald Lauder, a longtime advocate for the Zionist cause). The University of California signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s National Technological Innovation Authority to increase cooperation between the two organizations.

Despite the growing movement calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, intellectual collaboration between American and Israeli academics has grown. Between 2006 and 2015, there was a 45% increase in the number of articles in academic journals whose authors included researchers affiliated with both American and Israeli universities.

This collaboration was primarily among elite institutions. Topping the list of schools was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which, between 2006 and 2015, had 1,835 joint publications with researchers from Israeli institutions. MIT was followed by the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard and Stanford, respectively. The most common fields of research were medicine, physics and astronomy, biochemistry and biology. Tel Aviv University was the most prevalent Israeli collaborator.

Campus Protests The Reckoning
Police crack down on pro-Palestinian sutdent protests on the UCLA campus, in Los Angeles, May 2, 2024. Jae C. Hong | AP


Paid for by Israel

However, more controversial than the academic collaboration is the Israeli government’s direct funding of American educational institutions. MIT, for example, is awash in Israeli cash. Scientists Against Genocide, a group at MIT, report that, since 2015, the university has received over $11 million in authorized research funding from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. This cash has reached various departments, including Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Biological Engineering, Physics, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

MIT labs and centers receiving funding include The Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, the Computer Science And Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The money has paid for research that directly benefits the Israeli military and helps them in their campaigns against the civilian population of Palestine. For example, one MIT project funded by Israel since 2022 is titled “Autonomous Robotic Swarms: Distributed Coordination and Perception.” According to Scientists Against Genocide, the research has helped the IDF carry out aerial drone bombings, surveil protestors, and drop tear gas on Palestinians. Israel is known to be developing flocks of small autonomous drone aircraft guided by artificial intelligence to locate targets, direct airstrikes and aid military advances.

Another project, “Planning and Sensing Algorithms for Underwater Persistent Monitoring,” has seen the Israeli Ministry of Defense give MIT $1.5 million to develop technology to help them police the Mediterranean Sea. Scientists Against Genocide have suggested that this has helped Israel enforce a naval blockade against Gaza, including targeting fishing ships to prevent Gazans from being able to feed themselves.

Israel has long limited the amount of food entering Gaza, keeping residents on a “diet.” However, during its seven-month-long assault on the densely-populated strip, the food crisis has reached critical levels. The United Nations has warned that famine is imminent, and its high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, suggested Israel was carrying out a war crime by using starvation as a weapon.


Ties to the Military Industrial Complex

It could be argued that MIT could reasonably be accused of directly abetting a genocide in Gaza. However, MIT and other elite institutions are under enormous governmental pressure from the other side. Its president, Sally Kornbluth, as well as Harvard president Claudine Gay and Pennsylvania’s Magill, were brought before Congress and grilled on their universities’ alleged support for Hamas and indifference to antisemitism. The case made national news and focused waves of pressure on universities nationwide.

The U.S., of course, has an extremely close relationship with Israel, using it as an outpost of its power in the Middle East. Washington has vetoed successive bills at the United Nations that attempt to address the dire situation, including those calling for a ceasefire and full Palestinian statehood. The U.S. supplies Tel Aviv with nearly $4 billion worth of military aid each year, and in April, Congress voted to send $17 billion of additional U.S. taxpayer money. Critics have blasted the aid as pointless at best and supporting a genocide at worst. But President Biden maintains that every penny given to Israel is money well spent and has stated that if Israel did not exist, the United States would have to invent one.

American support for Israel comes at more than just a monetary cost. The U.S.’s international reputation is sinking. A recent poll shows that a majority of people in Southeast Asia would now choose China over the U.S. if forced to choose, with Washington’s continued backing of Israel being a critical factor in this shift. A number of American officials have also publicly resigned from their positions in protest. Lily Greenberg Call, the first Jewish Biden appointee to publicly resign over Gaza, left her job as special assistant to the chief of staff at the Interior Department. Explaining her decision, Greenberg Call wrote:

The President has the power to call for a lasting ceasefire, to stop sending weapons to Israel, and to condition aid. The United States has used nearly no leverage throughout the last eight months to hold Israel accountable; quite the opposite. We have enabled and legitimized Israel’s actions with vetoes of UN resolutions designed to hold Israel accountable. President Biden has the blood of innocent people on his hands.”

The United States has long enabled Israeli war crimes and the status quo of apartheid and occupation. That status quo does not keep Israelis safe, nor Jews around the world.”

Each campus protest is different. But they generally share the same goal: pressuring their universities into divesting their endowments from Israel and from companies linked to the ongoing Israeli occupation. Some have called for cutting academic ties with Israeli universities, while others, such as Cornell and Yale, have asked their schools to stop investing in weapons corporations that are making a killing from the bloodshed.

These requests have precedent. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a host of American institutions cut off collaboration with Russia almost overnight. Going further back, student protests forced many U.S. universities to sever financial ties with Apartheid South Africa.

But Israel and the military-industrial complex are so intertwined with the U.S. economy that an extensive boycott might prove difficult, especially considering elite American universities’ deep ties to the defense industry. MIT, for example, has entered into long-term partnerships with a host of top weapons manufacturers, including RTX (formerly Raytheon), Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who has leased 100,000 square feet of research and lab space at MIT’s new mixed-use building in Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA.

While corporate media has demonized the students as out-of-touch supporters of terrorism, they enjoy widespread support among their peers. Students approved a resolution calling on MIT to cut all research and financial ties to the Israeli military, with 63.7% of undergraduates and 70.5% of graduates voting in favor of it. American adults aged between 18 and 44 support the nationwide protests by a ratio of 4:3.

Israel-Palestinians-Campus Protests
A protester is arrested at S. 34th St. near the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, May 17, 2024. Steven M. Falk | AP


The Crackdown

Authorities, however, have been in little mood to negotiate, and images of black-clad riot police beating up and dragging away students and faculty members have gone viral across the globe.

MintPress spoke with Bryce Greene, a student organizer at the University of Indiana Bloomington, who told us how the administration collaborated with police to suppress the growing movement:

The night before we put our encampment up, the administration changed the rules of the space we were using and used that rule change to launch a military-level police assault on peaceful demonstrators. The university sanctioned armored vehicles, riot troops, assault weapons, shotguns, grenade launchers, a chopper circling overhead, a surveillance drone, and even a sniper on the roof.”

“On day one, militarized police swept into the camp and arrested dozens of people,” Greene said. Undaunted, protestors returned two days later and were met with similar levels of force. Greene was arrested and received a five-year ban from campus, something he attributes to his longtime student organizing.

The story at Indiana is far from unique. At MIT, more than 200 armed riot police stormed the protest camp at 4 am on May 11, destroying the encampment and arresting peaceful protestors. Harvard suspended the university’s Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and has taken action against individual students. Many are now facing eviction from student housing and even deportation. Meanwhile, UPenn has blocked protest leaders from campus. Seniors believe this will affect their ability to graduate or receive their degrees. As of May 22, there have been well over 3,000 arrests nationwide.


Shredding the First Amendment

After a surprise attack by Hamas, Israel began its campaign on violence in Gaza on October 7. Relentless bombing of the tightly-packed strip has caused tens of thousands of deaths and led to nearly 2 million people being displaced in what is the worst episode of genocidal violence in Palestine since the 1948 Nakba when three-quarters of a million Palestinians were forced from their homes at gunpoint to prepare the ground for a Jewish state. Multiple international bodies, including the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and Amnesty International, have used the word “genocide” in discussing Israeli actions in Gaza. President Biden, however, rejected that interpretation and gave Israel his full support.

This unconditional backing is seriously harming Biden’s polling numbers. A majority of Democrat voters consider Israel’s actions to constitute genocide, and young Americans are abandoning support for him in droves.

Those groups, in particular, draw on alternative sources of news for Israel and Palestine. Polls show that young people who receive their news from TikTok and other social media (and not through the filter of corporate news) are most likely to hold a negative view of Israel’s actions. The Biden administration’s response has been to simply threaten the complete closure of TikTok in the United States. But it is far from clear whether this authoritarian measure will succeed in stemming the growing tide of Palestinian solidarity that has been building for years, partially down to the tireless work of activists on campuses across the nation.

Despite the campus demonstrations being overwhelmingly peaceful, authorities have chosen to crack down harshly upon them, shredding the First Amendment in the process. Why have both universities and the government shown virtually zero tolerance towards those protesting against genocide? Firstly, because so many big-money university benefactors are themselves committed Zionists and have deep ties to the Israeli state.

This raises the question of whether these so-called charitable donations are so charitable in the first place. For one, America’s super-wealthy often receive tax write-offs for their contributions. Secondly, it gives them excessive power to control the directions of the institutions they are funding. Should wealthy individuals be able to dictate university policy for tens of thousands of people? Many would suggest that this is profoundly anti-democratic.

As we have seen, universities themselves also have deep academic and even financial connections to the state of Israel, making the students’ divestment demands particularly sensitive. This is all happening in a context where the government continues to pledge its full support to Israel and its war aims and has moved to crack down on anti-Israel speech, attempting to make it functionally illegal to openly oppose Israel’s expansionist policies. Israel has long been a political third rail in America. The thousands of students being arrested are learning that in real-time.

Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News

Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.