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.