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Despite Flap over Scholar’s Ties, Brandeis Stands Behind Shikaki

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A Palestinian academic affiliated with Brandeis University dismissed allegations that he is linked to Islamic Jihad, and says he’s not worried about attempts to persuade Jewish groups to cut him off. Khalil Shikaki’s employment at the Boston-area, Jewish-sponsored university came under fire from the Zionist Organization of America, which called on donors to reconsider their relationship with Brandeis. ZOA alleged that Shikaki distributed funds on behalf of figures associated with Islamic Jihad.

Shikaki flatly denied this.

“There was no transfer of funds,” he told JTA on Jan. 19.

Shikaki, who heads the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah in the West Bank, co-teaches a course at Brandeis on peacemaking with an Israeli and an Egyptian academic.

He told JTA that the FBI interviewed him in 2003, showing him transcripts of 1995 conversations with Sameeh Hammoudeh, who was acquitted Dec. 6 in a Florida court of charges that he helped fund the Palestinian terrorist group.

Shikaki said the conversations, secretly recorded by the FBI, concerned funds for an orphanage in the West Bank city of Nablus run by his in-laws. The FBI never contacted him again, he said.

His efforts to fund the orphanage came from “a personal desire to help people,” Shikaki said.

The government argued in its case against Hammoudeh and three others that “orphanages” was a codeword for Islamic Jihad, an organization led by Shikaki’s brother Fatih until he was slain by Israeli agents in Malta in 1995.

An FBI spokesman refused to comment on the matter.

The revelation of the tapped conversations in the New York Sun this week led the ZOA and some individuals to call on Brandeis, a university with a strong Jewish donor base, to cut off Shikaki.

The ZOA “urged donors to reconsider their support for Brandeis unless the university responds appropriately,” it said in a statement.

Brandeis says it is standing by Shikaki, noting that U.S. law enforcement never pursued any action against him.

“We believe that we still live in a country where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz said in a statement. “If anyone has any real evidence against this individual, then they should bring it forward. The university has complete faith in the United States’ law enforcement agencies, and no charges have ever been brought against Professor Shikaki. Should something arise in the future, the university will take that into account and act accordingly.”

Morton Klein, ZOA’s president, said the university’s standard was too low.

“The standard shouldn’t be ‘innocent until proven guilty;’ that’s woefully inadequate,” Klein told JTA. “There should be no taint at all.”

Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa, a Brandeis alumnus, was killed in a 1995 Islamic Jihad terrorist attack in the Gaza Strip, also criticized the university, the Forward reported, though he stopped short of endorsing a boycott.

Shikaki, whose polls have uncovered strains of moderation among Palestinian voters, say he often has been the target of such campaigns by supporters of Israel who oppose compromise with the Palestinians.

Another such campaign did not prevent him from addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in 2004, he said.

“I’m aware of people who have tried to prevent American Jewish groups from associating with me,” he said. “In all cases, they have failed.”

He suggested that such groups fear Palestinian moderation will hasten Israeli withdrawals from land the Palestinians claim.

Klein rejected the depiction of Shikaki as a moderate.

“We’re upset about his being at Brandeis because the evidence is too strong he is involved with terrorist groups, and I’ve never heard him unequivocally condemning the Palestinian Authority for not dismantling terrorists,” Klein said.

Shikaki tries to avoid opinion in his presentations, focusing on analysis. In a Jan. 19 presentation at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a government-run think tank in Washington, he predicted that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ failure to disarm Hamas would harm relations with the United States if Hamas joins the P.A. government after Jan. 25 legislative elections.

“Washington will have a hard time dealing with Hamas being in government at a time when Hamas does not recognize Israel” and keeps its weapons, Shikaki said.

The transcripts reported in the New York Sun suggest that the contact with Hammoudeh and his colleagues made Shikaki uncomfortable. Hammoudeh asks Shikaki on Jan. 15, 1995, “If you please, do us a favor. There is an amount of money for orphans in Nablus.”

Shikaki replies: “Um Eah. (pause, sighs.) Okay, when do you want to give it to them.”

Shikaki cut off Hammoudeh a few weeks later, five days after President Clinton signed an order in late January 1995 designating Islamic Jihad as a terrorist group.

“If you have another way to give them money, any way but my way,” the transcript records Shikaki as telling Hammoudeh on Jan. 28, 1995.

A February 1995 wiretap records Mazen al-Najjar, who was deported in 2001 because of his alleged Islamic Jihad ties, complaining to a colleague that “Khalil refused to receive” funds for orphans. Al-Najjar also suggests that the “Orphan Sponsorship Project” had used a Florida bank account in Shikaki’s name.

Al-Najjar is a brother-in-law of Sami al-Arian, a professor who was the principal defendant in the Florida case. The jury acquitted al-Arian on some charges and deadlocked on others.

Shikaki said his decision not to work with Hammoudeh had nothing to do with Clinton’s order.

“At the time, I wasn’t aware of Clinton’s decree,” he said.

Shikaki often works with Jewish groups. He has been a frequent guest of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with a pro-Israel emphasis.

In 2003, a mob ransacked Shikaki’s Ramallah offices and injured him after he published a poll showing that very few Palestinian refugees would actualize a “right of return” to Israel even if it were granted. Palestinian leaders have portrayed such a right as sacrosanct.

Shikaki also has a relationship with USIP, where he spoke Thursday about the seeming contrast between moderation among mainstream Palestinians, which he said was increasing, and growing support for Hamas, a rejectionist terrorist group.

Shikaki predicted that Hamas would not win outright in the Palestinian elections, but would make a strong enough showing to join a coalition government.

Palestinian voters “turned to Hamas because they were angry, they turned to Hamas because they wanted clean government,” he said.

He also projected that Abbas, a relative moderate, would use a Hamas alliance to crush Islamic Jihad after the elections. He said Islamic Jihad has little support among Palestinians, and mostly follows Iran’s agenda.

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