Oren Strategy

The competing claims on what Michael Oren represents, and over the appropriate way to handle his invitation to be Commencement speaker, fascinate me. How effective is the framing of different competing claims? Is their activism strategic and are their tactics well-thought-out?

I find this stuff fascinating. Here’s what I think is going on:

The competing claims

Regarding Oren, there are multiple groups struggling to define him and what his visit means, not just two.

On the general “pro-Oren” side:

–  enthusiastic self-identified Zionists / pro-Israel students
–  political conservatives and “anti-hippies”
–  the mostly apathetic annoyed by all this drama
–  the mostly apathetic that have a status-quo pro-administration bias

On the general “Pro-Unity” side:

–  those identifying as the pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel side
–  those identifying as the left on campus
–  those who don’t want to deal with the drama and want a unified commencement
– those who don’t have a deep personal stake in all this but respect their friends’  feelings and desire a unified commencement

And then there’s everyone else.

Now, these groups overlap and I’m not saying that they’re organized discrete units or anything, but they are separate.

What’s happened so far:

In response to the Oren decision, there was a lot of grumbling among students. I overheard people I’ve never spoken to before talking about how they were sad about how they felt forced to skip commencement. This was a real thing.

For a while, no one organized. On Sunday, Jon, a self-identified member of the left on campus decided to borrow some Innermost Parts online activism tools to create an “anti-Oren petition”. (Disclosure – I consulted on this) While it was conceptually initially conceived as such, the evolution of the framing and text of the open letter is interesting.

First off, it went from being a petition to an open letter. I think this was a valid and good strategic choice. Calling it an open letter makes sense – petitions demand change, letters express a viewpoint. The open letter didn’t make any demands, but instead was a venue for students to say “Hey, we’re thinking of skipping commencement because we feel so strongly about this.”

But the framing and the implied alliances are even more interesting. Instead of writing a fiery open letter talking about the “outrage” at the “unacceptable” choice of commencement speaker, (which would’ve appealed solely to the left and anti-Israel/pro-Palestine elements on campus), Jon chose a different frame. Instead, he made an implicit alliance with the third “those who don’t want to deal with the drama and want a unified commencement” group in order to make a more open coalition and vie for the support of the “are annoyed by controversy and division” masses.

This was a good move, I think. If you read the open letter (and allied facebook group) you’ll see language like this:

Commencement was supposed to be about us.
However, with the selection of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, commencement has been hijacked to serve as part of a debate about Middle Eastern politics. Whether this was the intention is not important: in our eyes and the eyes of the world, Brandeis commencement is a stage for partisan politics, not a celebration of graduating seniors.

We, students, faculty, staff, friends and family of Brandeis University, respectfully believe that the choice of Ambassador Michael Oren as commencement speaker is inappropriate. His far-right views are divisive and do not reflect the diversity of opinion on campus, and moreover politicize what should be an uncontroversial, inclusive role.

This language was clearly meant to both oppose the choice of Oren and appeal to the broadest possible audience. Activism always tends to annoy people – the gambit was to use that annoyance and, judo-style, turn it towards those disturbances to campus unity.

This challenge went up online, and then a few days later a competing facebook group went up: Those who are in favor/don’t have anything against Michael Oren. This, too, was a strong attempt to attract the “apathetic/easily annoyed”  masses.  Soon after that, a stronger “A Letter in Support of President Reinharz and Ambassador Oren” with accompanying petition started gathering support.

While this was happening, a separate anti-Oren group was coalescing. Instead of building off the list names of open letter cosigners and facebook-group members, this new group was starting from scratch. They decided to build off the energy of the Source/ReSource event and use it as an occasion to protest. Soon before the event, there were more sophisticated second thoughts: (reprinted from an email with permission):

  • Michael Dowling is an activist himself, and he realizes that Brandeis is a broken community, especially in the wake of the Rose Art scandal.
  • The Source/ReSource event, in the view of its creators, is not a tool of the administration to say that the Rose is fixed.  Instead it’s supposed to bring people from all aspects of the community to unite around this place of contention, and if anything it’s a message of dissent directed at the administration.
  • Instead of occupying this space and effectively claiming it before the event occurs, perhaps we should use the message of the event and relate it to ours after it’s finished.  People should be coming away from this ceremony with a sense of campus unity, and that’s the very thing we feel was disrupted by the choice of Oren as commencement speaker.
  • By taking over the space before this event, we could potentially alienate or make enemies of people who should be our allies.
  • In the messages we display and literature we hand out we should connect the Source/ReSource idea to the conflict.  We could say something like, (these are my words) “Brandeis students are a great Source and ReSource of peace, justice and coexistence in the world.  Commencement is the ultimate ceremony signifying our transition from Source to ReSource.  Bringing Oren to our campus to speak about this issue at this event is both unnecessary and inappropriate.”

Therefore at the hastily-planned Source/ReSource art event, the pro-unity group taped fliers stating their position on buckets and participated in the event. The symbolism was good, but what was the strategic impact? The action got written up in the Justice, but the Justice was sure to mention the low numbers of protesters.

Later,  similarly, the pro-unity side staged a protest outside Bernstein-Marcus on Friday. It was a more explicitly “anti-oren” sort of thing and they did go to Jehuda’s office hours. Again, I think it may have done more harm than good – highlighting their small numbers. A nice tactic is to have all 10 or 20 protesters go into office hours with Jehuda and speak to him at once. I don’t think they did that.

How did the small core of pro-unity activists spread their message? They fliered a bit about the protest on Wednesday, they sent a facebook mail to members of their group once announcing each of the two demonstrations, and they posted sometimes on Innermost Parts.

State of play right now

In this time, the pro-oren side had spread their petition to right-wing blogs and gained a lot of signatures. Now, many of these petition signers are generic right-wingers or random panicked Jews. So the “pro-oren” petition doesn’t have too many actual Brandeisians in it, and a  petition is easier to sign than an open letter that says “I am seriously considering not going to commencement”. Still, I worry that these fine distinctions will be lost.

Speaking of distinctions, the distinction between the “anti-Oren” and “pro-Union” groups that hasn’t really been fleshed out yet. That has been deliberate – the anti-Oren faction really doesn’t want to alienate campus and is therefore subsuming their very specific, yet polarizing critiques under the more vague “we believe in campus unity, Oren is a divisive figure” message. The problem comes up when people say “Well, why is Oren so divisive?” They cannot respond because they do not know what they can allow themselves to say.

The pro-Unity position is also hampered by the fact that it anticipated ugly attacks at the anti-Oren (or possibly from the anti-Oren) group and tried to preempt them by pointing at the attacks/division as a reason why the Oren selection for Commencement speaker was an unwise choice. The problem, of course, is that the anti-Oren group decided to subsume itself into the “pro-Unity” coalition, such that the pro-Unity folks were attacked on grounds of creating the division themselves. If they didn’t run around claiming that Oren was divisive, the “reasoning” went, then Oren wouldn’t be divisive.

Now, clearly this is bullshit. People would be hurt and upset by the Oren selection in the absence of any organized activity. Still, the pro-Unity coalition tried to strike a “sensible middle ground” but has been hampered by the fact that there’s no one out there (except Professor Mairson) making the case as to why exactly Oren is a bad choice on the merits, and why exactly he makes students feel alienated from their own commencement.

I’m not sure what the “pro-Oren” side has been up to. I’d be very intrigued indeed to hear what sort of decisions, planning, and actions they’ve taken behind-the scenes. I’m genuinely curious – once this is all over, if someone would like to give me that side of the story I’d be much obliged.

So this is the situation. If I could advise group of students meeting and planning the unified “pro-Unity” coalition, this is what I’d say:

Advice for future action on the pro-Unity front:

You have several advantages. Use them. Firstly, you have meetings and are making plans. That’s great. You have made the choice to spend your time trying to make a change, and that gives you power. You have access to 247 students opposed to Michael Oren as commencement speaker, and 135 students have signed a letter saying that they’re so upset they are considering skipping out of commencement.  Use them.

You have access to all these potential allies and volunteers and organizers. Email them, use them.

Your actions have some merit. Symbolically joining the Source/ReSource ceremony, going to Jehuda’s office hours, that was nice. It made sure that you got into the papers. Fine. Still, it shows your weakness. You held a protest and 15 people showed up. Don’t make that mistake again. If you hold a protest, you damn well better be sure that enough people will show up not to embarrass you.

It takes time and effort, and I’m sorry, but you have to organize. Knock on doors, talk to people in Usdan. Put a flier under every door with a link to your open letter. That’s how you grow your organization and get new supporters.

Remember that famous Alinsky quote:

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then do what Gideon did: conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

Ok, now strategy.

You need an anti-Oren foil. You need someone out there loudly making the case for why Oren is so offensive after all, and why they are hurt by him. Now, it has to be a separate organization from you guys. You might not even agree with what this new group will have to say – but as they grow in power and influence, you will too. You will be seen as the “reasonable middle” that you are.

You also need a demand. I know, I know. Up till now you’ve strategically not made any explicit demands on the administration. There was sound reasoning behind this – you know and I know that Jehuda isn’t going to un-invite Oren. Even if he magically agreed with us, he’d feel too embarrassed to back out now. You decided not to make a demand until you got a lay of the land and saw what was possible and thought up a think that could happen to “cancel out” the Oren invitation. Well, you’ve waited long enough. Time to start organizing around a specific change. You have options. Let me suggest a two:

1. More student speakers at commencement. One graduating senior every year gives a speech at commencement. Would-be speakers submit drafts online, seniors vote for the top few best drafts, and then a committee of “adults” picks the final speaker. Don’t settle for this. We want a united community, not a divided one, right? To cancel out Oren’s divisiveness, why not have 3 student speakers, not just one. I know that the finalists this year are all inspiring brilliant people with great speeches. Who better to unite around than our beloved fellow classmates?

2. A more open process for choosing commencement speakers. Michael Oren was a bad choice. We can prevent more bad choices in the future by creating a better decision-making process, one that empowers and respects students and recognizes our legitimate claim that we should have some power over choosing commencement speakers and honorary degree-holders. I know this lacks the emotional satisfaction that you might be looking for (and honestly won’t help you at all), but it would be a nicer senior gift than any money could buy.

This is the state of play on the Michael-Oren-at-Brandeis related front as best as I understand or can articulate it.  As for predictions for the future – the pro-Unity group really needs to step up its community organizing game, and it needs to also start activating all those potential leaders and volunteers found in its facebook group and petition-signers. However, we are entering finals – there’s not enough free time to make this happen. Therefore I’m pessimistic. The best hope is to adopt one of those two proposals (more student speakers or reformed commencement speaker selection process) and see if it can go viral.

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?