(JTA) – In a private meeting with faculty, Tel Aviv University President Ariel Porat criticized Western sanctions on Russian oligarchs and defended signing a letter urging the United States to avoid sanctioning Russian Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich, who had donated millions to the university, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
According to a recording of the meeting obtained by the newspaper, Porat told a group of professors that signing such a letter was a courtesy owed to a major donor.
“When someone donates $50 million to an institution and asks you, along with others, to sign a letter — I don’t see a decent person declining,” Porat reportedly said, referring to his support for the construction of a new nanoscience building on the university’s campus.
Porat was among the heads of several institutions in Israel, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, and Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, who wrote to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides in defense of Abramovich as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine and the talk of sanctions against Kremlin-linked billionaires cropped up.
Porat also said that the letter’s warning that sanctions on Abramovich would harm these institutions has come true, according to Haaretz.
“Ninety-five percent of the letter, if not more, notes the simple fact that the institutions we head benefit from Abramovich’s donations and imposing sanctions on him will hurt us. That’s exactly what’s happening now,” Porat was quoted as saying.
The campaign on behalf of Abramovich began to prove a failure a week into the war, when he announced he was putting the Chelsea Football Club in London up for sale. Soon, authorities in the United Kingdom froze his assets. A week ago, the United States moved to seize jets owned by Abramovich.
In the meeting, Porat also called the sanctions a populist move.
“It’s amazing how low populism can go in all kinds of places, including the campus,” Porat said, according to Haaretz. “An administrative body in Britain [decides] without any legal process, de facto, almost to expropriate a person’s assets…who thinks that [a decision like this] in another country has to obligate a university in Israel? So my opinion differs.”
At least one professor who was present pushed back against Porat.
“Signing the letter for oligarch immunity stains our institution,” Jonathan Goshen-Gottstein was quoted as saying.
In a comment to Haaretz, Porat appeared to confirm the veracity of the recording.