$160,000,000 Later (The Tikvah Fund & Academic Austerity)

roger hertog

I’ve been wanting to post this for a while and figure now is about the time because what’s done is done, and I want to get in a last word. It been a while since I’ve had occasion to think about the Tikvah Fund, but now that it’s more or less over, it’s as good a time as any to post a postscript. Of course, everything I’m going to say below could be said equally about the Posen Foundation, whose orientation was secular and more leftwing. The only difference I see now is that the Posen Foundation did less than the Tikvah Fund. They made their mark on Jewish Studies in the mid to late 00’s. They’re all gone now, mostly, and so is the money. About the Tikvah Fund, what I complained about the most was the lack of transparency. What I care about is the financial wastefulness, about Jewish Studies in the age of austerity.

The Princeton University website of the Tikvah Fund is now presenting the project as having had a 2014 terminus date. This would have been news indeed, that there was a terminus date, had this been posted when the program first took off, making waves. Ostensibly dedicated to broadening the discussion of Jewish thought and culture, the Tikvah Fund as a whole was funded by neo-conservative Wall Street donors with the intent purpose of projecting conservative Jewish thought and culture into the academic mainstream. I have no animus to any of my colleagues who participated in this thing. Who can say no to the offer of free money? I’d have done nothing different. But we should all be clear that what drove the ideas was a large but finite sum of cash.

I’d have left it at that. None of it hardly matters now except for this one outstanding question. Give or take, the original amount put into the fund was a whopping $160,000,000. As I showed a couple years ago in a piece that was published online at Zeek Magazine, which you can read here, it was always the explicit intent of the donors to spend down the money without committing to self-standing, autonomous academic programs. Naïve, did anyone think the gravy train was going to run forever? I am not surprised that I turned out to be right because that’s what from the very start the people funding it said was going to happen. The Tikvah Fund was designed to tap out its fund and close up shop. Its primary organizer, Roger Hertog acknowledged the fact that long standing programs tend to become autonomous over time, and that’s not what they wanted to support. That’s what they said, not me.

Now that the money’s tapped out, a year after its terminus date, we can say now with almost complete certainty. The financial backers behind the Tivkah Fund never really cared about Jewish thought or Jewish Studies scholarship. They professed to care about big ideas and Jewish ideas, but that was a lie. Think about what they could have done with $160,000,000 had they really wanted to invest. Chump change on Wall Street, that’s a lot of money in academe. How many centers could they have established on a firm foundation, how many programs, how many chaired positions, how many tenure-track lines and post-docs for struggling young academics. It’s all gone now, all that money.

The Tikvah Fund was not an institution building operation. All talk, the quick and private buck was always about the 1%. If you look at the Tikvah Fund main website, you can see that what’s left, in addition to the Jewish Review of Books and their online platform Mosaic, is some limited programming out of an office somewhere in midtown Manhattan. Without the same academic veneer, the latter looks more like the conservative think tank that the Tikvah Fund was intended to be all along. In the end, $160,000,000 wasn’t really that much money. At least it didn’t go very far.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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