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.

A Preview of the Lawrence Presidency

I’m really impressed with the all the buzz surrounding future Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, both from his strong biography and academic record and from the glowing words of praise that everyone seems to have for him.  However, all the accolades in the world can’t predict what we’ll actually get once Lawrence takes office on January 1, 2011 (sidenote: I bet he’ll have an awesome New Year’s party.  Start angling for your invite now!).  While Lawrence seems to be as qualified as possible for the position, heading a top-tier university is a pretty singular job, and I don’t think we can be sure how he’ll fit in with the culture of the school until he actually gets here.

An article on Lawrence in the Jewish Week sheds light on what policies he’ll pursue when he finally takes the reigns before the spring semester starts.  Unfortunately, the story chooses to use the now-predictable “struggling Brandeis” framing (please, that’s SO 2009), but it gives us a chance to see how he’ll react to the most discussed (or at least most media-friendly) issues at the school.

Lawrence mentions that he’s planning a “listening tour” of the campus to introduce himself, a necessity to ensure a smooth transition.  He says that he’ll withhold announcing any cost-cutting or fund-raising measures until after the listening tour, which hopefully indicates a move away from the unilateral decision-making process that led to debacle after debacle after debacle in the past few years.  He adds that “one of his first priorities will be to increase the amount of financial aid available to undergraduates,” a great goal for offering a Brandeis education to as many as possible in tough financial times.

I also really like his commitment to the Four Pillars of Brandeis, of which he says “I look at the Four Pillars and I see my life”.  He indicates that he expects to be at Brandeis for a long time, and it’s cool that he intends to teach a class every semester.

His statements on the Oren controversy leave me a little disappointed.  Though he avoids tackling the question of how he would have handled the situation, he makes several comments framing it as a free speech issue, a position I think is disrespectful to those whose primary reason for protest was Oren’s presence at commencement rather than with Oren in general.  Has Lawrence actually looked into what students were saying?  Does he care?  Does this foreshadow more of the same administration-student disconnect that characterized the Reinharz years?

I definitely tend to give him the benefit of the doubt on these questions, and I realize that this is just one incident that, for better or worse, is now firmly behind us.  In fact, I’m excited at how strongly he comes out in favor of free speech in all instances, and I’m hopeful that he’ll pursue an open campus dialogue on all matters.  Realistically speaking, I can’t imagine anyone being selected by the Board of Trustees whom I’d rather see leading Brandeis, and I look forward to meeting Frederick Lawrence and welcoming him to our community.

Who Shall We Choose as NEXT Year’s Commencement Speaker?

So the class of 2010 has gone forth into the world, and the Michael Oren issue is now moot. But we should immediately begin discussing next year’s commencement. Supposedly the administration considers nominations for commencement speaker from the class. I suggest we take them up on this, and come up with a few speakers we’d like to see.

I’ve put together a list of living people I wouldn’t mind having give the address for my class. I think we should have a little chat about them. Submit your own suggestions!

Germaine Greer
Harold Koh
Barbara Smith
Eleanor Holmes Norton
Robert Coover
Dave Andrews
Uri Gordon
Ed Sanders
Anthony Romero
Gore Vidal
bell hooks
Cornel West
John Barth
Janet Biehl
Duncan Kennedy
Slavoj Žižek
Angela Davis
Nadine Strossen
Pete Seeger
Tariq Ali
Mark Green
George Galloway

Of course, if we think the selection of Michael Oren means that we should be as extremely politically controversial as possible, we could lobby for Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and Noam Chomsky.

But my personal absolute favorites from the list are Germaine Greer and Cornel West. I definitely want someone colorful and fiery. Anyway, we really need to get on this, or else the administration will give us someone insipid like George Stephanopoulos or Wolf Blitzer. Or maybe they’ll stick their finger in our eye again and bring Alan Dershowitz.

Anti-Oren Letter Slipped in with Graduation Programs

Commencement for the Class of 2010 occurred today at 10:30 at the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.  (Congrats!) We’ve received word that students protesting the choice of Oren as commencement speaker snuck copies of this letter in with the graduation programs, articulating their reasons against Oren speaking. However, a volunteer and Brandeis student says that students helping out with the ceremony were told to go through each program and remove the material.

For more information on the Oren controversy, browse our InnermostParts archives for posts with the tag “Michael Oren,” dating back to this first post. Read the letter, signed “Concerned Student” below:

“The selection of Michael Oren as Brandeis commencement speaker is both inappropriate and offensive. In spite of programming and literature that describes the University as a non-partisan forum, the invitation of Ambassador Oren to a ceremony that celebrates the values of the institution stands as a pointedly partisan act that alienates a minority of students. The Brandeis administration’s invitation for Ambassador Oren to bestow wisdom as a ceremonial figurehead represents a political endorsement contrary to the values of a secular, non-denominational liberal arts university.

Were Ambassador Oren speaking at any other venue on campus, his visit would present the opportunity for a discussion in the spirit of academic integrity that the Brandeis community expects. When in 2007 President Carter spoke regarding his views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Brandeis students invited Professor Alan Dershowitz to rebut his points. Last year, Justice Richard Goldstone was only allowed to speak at Brandeis on the condition that he share the stage with former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold. Unfortunately, in our time at Brandeis, this standard of necessary dialogue regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict is only upheld for speakers critical of the state of Israel.

Regardless of Brandeis’ traditional relationship with the Jewish community, our university remains a non-sectarian institution built on academic excellence, inquiry, and dialogue. As a sitting ambassador, Michael Oren holds the political role of spokesperson and supporter of the Israeli government. Inviting Ambassador Oren to a venue which allows no formal discussion implicitly binds the Brandeis community in unqualified support of Oren’s political position and the government he represents. Brandeis’ traditional association with the Jewish community does not require a wholesale endorsement of either the current Israeli government or its policies.”

Why does the “pro-Oren” petition have so many signatures?

So people have been excitedly pointing to the pro-Jehuda pro-Oren petition circulating around. The number of petition signers is huge – over 3000. In fact, it’s over the entire student population at Brandeis. What’s going on?

Well, it turns out that Adam Ross’s petition got the attention of one of the largest right-wing blogs in the country, with traffic in the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of hits per day. These are the sorts of people who signed a letter “supporting” Brandeis.  Brandeis students: do you feel supported?

Don’t let the criminals at your institution disturb a friend of American from speaking.

in the 30’s the goons(a/k/a brown shirts) were able to shout down opposing views. don’t let it happen here.

Do not tolerate Anticemitism!

guess these days Brandeis (btw, who was the school named for?) is the school of self-hating Sonderkommando helpful idiot jews….like Jackie Saffir.

As the Leftists and jihadists march hand in hand China and Riussia chuckle while they annihilate Muslims at will.

The pro-terrorist crowd becomes more and more dangerous every day.

Radical politics inherently is anti-Semitic—and will require Jewish adherents to be self-hating. This really should not shock anyone in the least.”

Those kids belong in reform school … not the University.

When will you people stop with this Politcally Correct Nazism and remember that this is America.

I am shoocked by the close minded, anti-semitic reaction of the students at Brandeis.

The Arabs lost multiple wars trying to exterminate the Jews. They lost some land, too. Get over it.


to protest this statemen’s speech is simply nothing more than good old fashioned anti Semitism.

don’t give in to neo-antisemites!

Please do not allow antisemitism to grow in our institutions of higher education.

Brandeis is a Jewish university, as witnessed by the fact that it does not hold classes on major Jewish holidays. If some students dislike that aspect of the school’s philosophy then let them transfer to another school, preferably in an Arab country.

america is surely on the decline and we can look forward to jidhadists and leftists and rightist all vying for a slice of our totalitarian government and institutions.

The hateful propaganda espoused by the Palestinian student body is regretable and truly threatens our Democracy

So the petition is stuffed with right-wing outsiders and shouldn’t be taken seriously, fine. But a lot of those signers were clearly Jews. They claim to be embarrassed by my friends – I am embarrassed by these outsiders. I’m a patriotic Israeli citizen, practicing Jew, keep shabbat, keep kosher, etc. These people are calling me a nazi, anti-semite, “pro-terrorist”. My cousin was almost killed by terrorists. That’s hurtful.

So the “anti-Oren” group here at Brandeis worked very hard to articulate their position as not “anti-Oren” but instead “pro-Unity”. Read the open letter, read the facebook group. No matter what they say, no matter how carefully they make the case that the decision to bring Oren as Commencement speaker is troubling due to the special nature of commencement, these panicked defenders of gung-ho right-wing Jewry think of them as anti-semitic Palestinian radicals running amok and “violating free speech”.

The real frustration throughout all this is how the “pro-Oren” side seems to be willfully both vilifying and ignoring the actual stance of the “pro-Unity” side. I knew this would happen. That’s part of why inviting Oren to be a commencement speaker was a unwise move in the first place.

It’s not Michael Oren’s fault

So this whole Michael Oren thing – the line is that Oren divides Brandeis. People don’t seem to understand how that is true. But Oren divides me! Please understand, I’m a patriotic Israeli citizen. I love my country. I’m also a proud “left-ish,” and people on the left tend to be pretty harsh on Israel. This contradiction has torn my heart for years already.

Michael Oren brings this anguished internal monologue to the fore. He’s my ambassador. Much of the criticism leveled at him focused on his stint in the Israeli military. I feel pride in the Israeli military; right now I have leave from being drafted (seeing as how I’ve lived in the United States for so long) but I intend to go back to Israel and serve.  Still, just as I could love America during the Bush years but still be staunchly opposed to torture, invading Iraq, and everything else, I can love Israel and still support rule of law, human rights, and democratic pluralism.

I disagree with the Israeli government – but I love my country. Do you understand how hard this is on me? People in the states seem to be divided into two camps – “Israel is awesome and any criticism of their policies is motivated by either ignorance or hatred” or “Israel is evil and they are an oppressor and gleefully cackle as they pursue war crimes”. Sure that’s a caricature but that’s the state of our discourse, more or less. Is there room for me?

Is there room for people who think: “Israel is a great country and my family is from there. I was born there and my family left Israel because Saddam Hussein kept sending missiles during the Gulf War. My mom was freaking out because I was playing around in biohazard tents because no one knew if those missiles had biological or chemical weapons or not. If my cousin had gone to a disco 10 minutes earlier this one time he would’ve been dead due to suicide bomber in line. So I get the Israeli mentality, I think. I get how they have a legitimate case that the deck is stacked against them, and how the UN unfairly focuses on them. But I also keep reading reports on how the Israeli government has a file of all this Arab land that was illegally stolen but doesn’t do anything about it and I totally believe in the idea that “occupation corrupts”.  It does. And no matter how we got to this shitty situation and no matter how unfair it is that Israel gets saddled with this horrible image and “refugees” that by all rights should be Jordanian or Egyptian citizens, the clear problem is that Israel can’t be both a  democracy and a Jewish state and have all the territory it has now. And like, human rights abuses are wrong but they don’t define a whole country. ”

Is there room for people who sometimes criticize, sometimes defend Israel? Is there room for people who come from a position of love and anguish?

Oren divides. You know how I know? Because we’ve seen in the last week or so some ugly comments coming from members of the Brandeis community addressed to other members of the Brandeis community:

Shame on you. Don’t you liberal lemmings always cry “FREEDOM OF SPEECH”? Aha, only when it serves your self-hating, anti-Jewish purpose.

This group is an embarrassment

Do yourselves a favor and don’t embarrass Brandeis anymore than you already are.

Shutup, and deal with it.

You believe yourselves to be open minded citizens, but you are merely bigoted. Get your facts straight before you make your biased remarks. You obviously have done zero research into the UN or what Michael Oren stands for..and probably know nothing about Israel’s position in general for that matter.

I just hope that none of my money went to providing you with an education.

Wow lets all listen to ms radical mariel, shes really got a point. or not. get over it, hes coming just stop being dramatic about every little aspect of life when its in regards to israeli politics.

stop whining about people who bring on their own problems and think of gilad shalit: a far more worthy subject of social justice than the half baked a…holes for whom you attempt to seek justice. when you grow up and stop your self loathing jews will be better off.

It’s not Ambassador Oren’s fault, but there are assholes on campus. I appreciate Brandeis because we seem to have a lot less than other places, but they do exist. It is sad that his visit has exposed them.

There are people on campus who are legitimately hurt by this selection. There are people on campus who are legitimately outraged. There are also people who don’t want to relive these interminable battles of Israel, who want to enjoy a commencement in peace, who don’t want to worry about Brandeis’ foreign policy. Then there are people who aren’t even Jewish. What about them?

What about the people who aren’t Jewish, but now have to hear over and over again that  Brandeis is a Jewish school, that their presence here for the last 4 years is now somehow less legitimate?

Bringing Oren was a bad decision – a divisive decision. Theoretically, the selection process works like this: students (and others) nominate honorary degree-holders, the Board of Trustees narrows these nominations down and decides who gets a degree each year, and Jehuda chooses which of these becomes commencement speaker.

In practice, the process works like this: only one student nominated anyone for an honorary degree this last year. Students don’t know how and don’t know when to submit nominations.

We need a better process. We need more aggressive publicity for our power to nominate, and we need a more open process of choosing honorary degree holders. More students should have a say on who gets honorary degrees; perhaps there could be a more open/democratic process even for choosing commencement speakers.

To a real extent, this whole Oren thing reflects two ongoing stories at Brandeis. One is of course our tensions regarding Middle East politics. The other : students feel disrespected by the administration, and the administration doesn’t have a culture yet of valuing student input. Over and over again we see instances where more democracy, more respect and openness to students would have led to better policy. If the administration had spent time talking to students about the Rose, about Oren, about Budget cuts, then student energy would be spent working with and defending the administration, not opposing it’s autocratic decisions. I bet if we had a real campus conversation over the Oren decision, if students felt respected and included in the decision, we wouldn’t see nearly as much anger and betrayal as we see today.

We’ve seen a lot of ugliness lately, and I don’t like that at all. The decision to bring Oren does intensify fault lines at Brandeis, instead of uniting us in celebration. You can’t argue with that.

Another articulation of the division Oren causes our community

Many people unfamiliar with the Brandeis community view us as a strictly Jewish institution, when in fact we are a very diverse community.  We have members from a wide spectrum of Jewish backgrounds, from the many faiths of the world, and from no faith.  For a great number of our students, faculty, and staff, the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bring out very passionate, and sometimes personal, opinions and experiences.  Michael Oren, as a spokesperson for just one view of the many on this extremely contentious issue, causes the members of our community to divide themselves in relation to their deep-seeded feelings on the views he espouses.  Instead of uniting our community around the principles of peace, justice, and coexistence we seek to uphold during our time here and after we graduate, the selection of Oren divides us emotionally and ideologically.  The selection of Oren brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most sensitive topic at Brandeis University, into our most sacred ceremony–commencement.  We believe that commencement should be a time of culminating unity, when the members of our graduating class prepare to set off into the world in solidarity.  The selection of Michael Oren as commencement speaker instead tears our graduating class and campus community apart.

In peace,
Phil LaCombe (’10)

Bernstein Festival, Day One

Today is the first day of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, Brandeis’ premier celebration of all that is creative and artistic.  We have access to a incredibly wide range of talent over the next five days, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of it by looking over the festival schedule and checking out anything that seems interesting.  I myself will be attending Mixed Blessings: Beatitudes and Benedictions from Another Age, put on by the Brandeis Early Music Ensemble, and it’d be awesome to see some of you there.  Today’s full Bernstein Festival schedule, including event times, locations, and descriptions, is below the fold.

Also, let me quickly mention two unrelated events occurring today as well.  The now-infamous Right-Wing Radicalism: A Transatlantic Perspective conference is from 2:30 to 5:30 in the International Lounge in Usdan.  If you plan to attend, e-mail to reserve a seat.  If you can’t make it, I’ll try to do a liveblog here on Innermost Parts.  Also, for those opposed to Michael Oren’s selection as commencement speaker, there will be a demonstration at 4:45 in the space between Spingold and the Rose; Phil has more info about it here.

Continue reading “Bernstein Festival, Day One”


To the Brandeis Community:

The Brandeis administration’s choice of Michael Oren as this year’s commencement speaker has brought division to what should be a unifying event.  If you are upset about this choice and would like an opportunity to voice your opinion, come to a demonstration against campus division tomorrow beginning at 4:45 p.m between Spingold and the Rose near Pollack.  The demonstration will coincide with the opening ceremony of the Festival of the Arts, but is not intended to disrupt the event.

The Source/ReSource project was created by artist in residence Michael Dowling in order to speak to “the continuing cycle of generations who come to Brandeis– the source– and return to the world as a resource for vision, justice, creativity, and social change.”  Dowling realizes the unity of the Brandeis community and its beauty.  Unfortunately, our administration has chosen to divide our community through its selection of Michael Oren as the speaker for our most sacred ceremony–commencement.

This demonstration is not against Michael Oren as a speaker or individual; it is against the administration’s choice to bring him to commencement and fuel the deep political divisions of the community.

In the event of rain, we will be meeting at the same time in the atrium of Shapiro Campus Center.

Another petition

As you already know, there’s an open letter of students and other Brandeis-affiliated people who are thinking about skipping commencement circling around. To quote one signer:

With as rich a selection of potential candidates as we have right now, it is a shame that the school has chosen such a politically loaded commencement speaker. There is a time and place for (much welcome) debate, but by choosing this speaker the school gives the impression that it officially supports a singular position on what is a very emotionally charged topic for both sides of the discussion.

It’s a day later, and the “other side” has their response: “a letter of support for President Reinharz and Ambassador Michael Oren” An excerpt:

We look forward to hearing Ambassador Oren address the Brandeis community at commencement based on his achievements and contributions to academia as a former professor at several prestigious universities in America and his work in Israel to promote the creation of the country’s first liberal arts college. Your selection of Ambassador Oren to address this year’s Commencement reflects Brandeis University’s historic ties to the American Jewish community and timeless dedication to academic excellence as well as Justice Louis Brandeis’ own commitment to Zionism and Social Justice, a legacy on which this university was founded.

Editorial note: and here we see the inevitable fracturing of campus. Battle lines are being drawn, divisiveness is increasing, etc. This is why I think choosing Michael Oren as commencement speaker was a bad choice. Especially when we’re this close to getting Paul Farmer! Paul Farmer! Why couldn’t it have been him?