Religion and the Presidency

In The Hoot’s recent article about the selection of Frederick Lawrence as the new University President, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Malcolm Sherman was asked about the impact of Lawrence’s religion on his confirmation:

Malcolm Sherman, Chairman of the Brandeis Board of Trustees said Lawrence’s Judaism was “a consideration” at a school that self-identifies as a sectarian university with Jewish roots but “it was not an absolute necessity.

“Certainly [Lawrence’s religion] made him attractive to the Committee and we are happy that he is Jewish, but that was not the only factor,” Sherman said.

These statements make me a bit skeptical.  Regardless of the fact that we’re a completely non-sectarian school, we are also one in which the majority population is Jewish, as were the first seven Presidents.  It makes sense that the eighth should be as well.  I understand some of the political reasons for why the board felt the need to make this statement – political correctness, desire to diversify/not scare non-Jews away from Brandeis, keep donors who might pull their money if a non-Jew became the President – but at the same time, the idea that religion is “not a necessity” could seem synonymous with “not necessary” or “irrelevant.”  It comes off like a non-denial denial, a sub-conscious shielding of the truth.  Lawrence is extremely qualified to take this position, and his religion certainly could not have been the only factor, but it was most likely a contributing factor nonetheless.

I’ve been wondering why there seems to be a need to shove this fact under the table, because I see it less in terms of religion and more in terms of the school’s culture.  Brandeis is both a secular school and a school with a large Jewish population, and both are usually primary reasons why students come to school here.  As someone who straddles the line between agnosticism and Reform Judaism, I don’t see these two facts as conflicting with one another, but as complementary aspects of our identity.  I don’t care about how the President’s faith, or how he worships, as much as how the cultural lessons and values derived from his religious beliefs, likely similar to those of a University started by Jews, might factor positively into his decisions.  I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that we can’t have any President except a Jewish one, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone who holds similar values gained from an upbringing in a cultural community, and in this case, a religious community.

As a parallel example, my parents encourage me to marry someone who is Jewish, and I’m sure that I’m not the only person within or outside of the Jewish community whose family wants them to marry someone similar to them.  For my parents, it has very little to do with religion, however, and has much more to do with having a few more things in common with your spouse, such as a cultural history and a similar set of values, life experiences, and ideals.

The beginning of a new Presidential term at Brandeis is like a marriage as well, and the Board of Trustees spent close to a year trying to find the perfect “suitor” to take the University forward.  If faced with a pool of equally matched candidates, wouldn’t a similar set of values, experiences, and beliefs be a selling point even if they come from within a religious community? It’s just one more reason that the pairing should work, and one more way in which Lawrence is uniquely suited for the task at hand.  It should not be the foundation of the hiring, the “absolute necessity,” but it’s an extra bonus to have someone whose background will help in making decisions which are in line with the Brandeis community’s ideals.  It might stem from a taboo subject like Religion, but that doesn’t mean that the reality of the situation should be shielded in order for the University to save face.

The New Media Meme: “Brandeis Hates Israel!!!”

Last Wednesday, Jonathan Mark of The Jewish Week published an article striking back at the perception that Israel is, even among Jews, losing the respect of the American people that it has enjoyed for so long.  While I try to avoid injecting myself into Israeli political debates as much as possible, I do find it interesting who Mark chooses as one of his bad guys — Brandeis University itself:

[New York Times columnist Nicholas] Kristof also brings up Peter Beinart’s recent article in The New York Review of Books “exploring the way young Jews in America feel much less identification with Israel than their elders did. Mr. Beinart noted that even the student senate at Brandeis University, which has strong Jewish ties, rejected a resolution commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel.” Brandeis, of course, was also where a student group unsuccessfully tried to get the university to rescind a speaking invitation to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren.

As Bogart said in “Casablanca,” “I wouldn’t bring up Paris, if I were you. It’s bad salesmanship.” But since Kristof brings up Brandeis, let it be said — as Kristof did not — that while many young Jews at Brandeis did want to distance themselves from Israel, at 51 other universities in 30 different states, reported JTA (May 21), one student president after another was inviting Israel’s ambassador to speak at their campus.

The letter to Oren, said JTA, was initiated by Brandon Carroll at Virginia Tech and Wyatt Smith at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, in response to disruptions Oren faced at the University of California-Irvine and the protests at Brandeis.

Such anti-Israel behavior “is absurd and offensive,” said the letter.  “Please be assured that these individuals do not remotely represent American college students or mainstream campus leaders.”

Basically, Mark says that although Jews at Brandeis might be moving away from support of Israel, pro-Israel sentiment is still prevalent elsewhere.

Last month, a friend of mine at Yale shocked me by saying out of the blue, “I hear your Student Union rejected a birthday resolution for Israel”.  Apparently, this relatively minor campus controversy somehow made a New York Times article three years later.  It’s very weird to hear something I was peripherally involved in used to prove a point on such a national scale, and it’s particularly disheartening to find it stripped of its context to say something that it shouldn’t.

Then again, I can’t blame Beinart, Kristof, or Mark for failing to grasp the nuances of Brandeis Union politics.  Their topics are far broader than our petty struggles; how can they be bothered to research the actual questions that were raised during the birthday resolution debate?  If I were in their place, I’d think that the resolution’s failure said much more about Brandeis’s waning support for Israel than it actually does.

It’s pretty obvious that anything related to Israel that happens at Brandeis will be viewed under a harsh microscope and analyzed as a metric of what young American Jews think about the Middle East conflict.  Therefore, should people on campus stop protesting events like the Oren speech for fear of sending the wrong message?

Of course not.  In both of the aforementioned cases, people weren’t actually protesting Israel or its policies.  They were protesting the intrusion of Israeli politics in inappropriate venues, namely the Union Senate and the commencement ceremony.  The real fault lies with those who injected Israel into these venues in the first place.  My friend Sahar is one of the most passionate Israeli citizens and supporters that I know, but he still drew the very real distinction between his patriotic sentiments and his opposition to Oren’s commencement appearance.  Unfortunately, his advocacy can now be misinterpreted as another blow against Israel from the very school that should be supporting it most fervently.  Shame on those who would force him into the false duality of choosing between his homeland and his principles.

The worst part is that those who try to make support for Israel a part of everyday campus are only hurting their own cause.  Jehuda Reinharz should be smart enough to know that appointing a divisive figure like Oren as a commencement speaker was bound to draw some level of controversy.  And he should be smart enough to know that Israel’s critics would wield that opposition as a cudgel to prove that Jews were abandoning Israel even at America’s foremost Jewish university.

There’s enough room at Brandeis for everyone to advocate and work for their own political causes, whatever they may be.  But when the line separating appropriate advocacy and invasion of campus life is crossed, everyone loses.  The media can’t be expected to get every detail of our campus life correct.  Let’s not make it easy for them to caricature us.

An Interfaith Success Story

If you could sum up successful interfaith dialogue in three words, what would they be?

How about “Homies in Harmony”?

If those aren’t quite the words you had in mind, then you clearly weren’t one of the organizers of last week’s Jews and Muslims Session: Homies in Harmony III.  I wish that I had been able to make the event, because it seems like it was just as successful and entertaining as its name.  Check out this story in the Justice for a full overview of the event, but the basic premise was to create an interfaith conversation that would both allow for discussion of personal, controversial feelings and maintain a level of respect that would encourage participants to form friendships with people from unfamiliar faith tradition.  My good friend Neda Eid helped to organize the event, and she told me after the fact that she was very excited by how well it turned out.  Judging by the quotes from the article, it seems most of the participants felt the same way.

Last year marked a low point for interfaith dialogue at Brandeis.  It seemed that every few weeks introduced another controversy that played itself out in the papers and left a lot of hurt feelings.  The charter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the Israel 60th birthday resolution, aspects of the Mamoon Darwish saga and of the Senator-at-Large election and Judiciary case — I’m sure most of you still have sour memories of all of these events.  Even the Boston Globe took note of the firestorm the campus had become.  It’s counterproductive to go back and assign blame for everything that happened (I certainly don’t claim to be innocent myself), but I think it was clear to everyone that something had to change.

And something did change.  To the credit of the entire Brandeis community, this year has been almost completely free of the public battles that marred ’07-’08.  It’s hard to say exactly what did it; perhaps everyone just got tired of seeing so much bad blood.  Regardless, everyone at Brandeis should be proud that the interfaith dialogue on campus has improved so substantially over last year.

However, this clearly doesn’t mean that anger and bitterness don’t still exist.  Tension among religious groups has existed as long as humans have; should we really expect it to disappear overnight from our campus?  And just because it isn’t spilled out over the front pages of the Hoot and the Justice doesn’t mean that it has no effect and that we are best off ignoring it.  JAM Session should serve as a model for how to deal with these tensions productively and turn them into tools for strengthening our community.  It seems that plans are already in place to develop a more frequent series of conversations, and I encourage everyone to get involved with this in some way.  The elephant in the room is the Israeli-Palestinian tension, the biggest source of interfaith conflict on campus.  JAM Session wisely kept the focus on more general interfaith issues (though Israel/Palestine wasn’t explicitly excluded), but eventually that discussion needs to be had.  We should look at JAM Session as a model for approaching these issues in a way that allows respectful disagreement and productive action.  Brandeis has come a long way since last year, and though we may not be there yet, I have great confidence that we’ll eventually be able to engage even the thorniest of issues and remain homies in harmony.