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.


10 thoughts on “The New Media Meme: “Brandeis Hates Israel!!!””

  1. Lev, it may be the same to you, but I am disappointed that a cause I supported has now been misconstrued as an attack against Israeli policy. In fact, bringing politics into the matter at all feels hypocritical considering (what I believe to be) the nature of the Oren argument. It seems sufficient to leave the issue with Oren as one of inappropriate placement of politics–your own personal beliefs about Israel only serve to reinforce this core argument, not to elaborate on it.

    To be clear, the core argument is that there is no place for politics at commencement. You and Matt hold an opinion that represents one offshoot of this assertion, and my opinion represent another separate offshoot. Thus, they are far from the “same thing.” I respectfully request that you refrain from suggesting our issues are linked beyond the core reason we already agree upon.

  2. Its a pretty fine distinction. People at Brandeis who are opposed to injecting Israel politics into inappropriate places usually do so (I imagine) because they don’t march lock-step with AIPAC (BIPAC).

    Similarly, those of us who are critics of Israel are annoyed that Brandeis continues to try and express itself as a “pro-Israel” voice – when that doesn’t accurately represent us.

    Naturally these two groups have common cause. Some people protested Oren because they didn’t want politics at commencement, some people protested Oren because they wanted the world to know that not all of Brandeis is behind this.

    Same thing to me.

  3. There certainly are critics of Israeli policy on campus, and I agree that they have a right to use the megaphone that is Brandeis to make their political case. However, that wasn’t the purpose of the Oren protest, and I know several people who wouldn’t have participated if it were.

    If the university’s administration truly wants to remain neutral or even supportive of Israel, then it should know better than to create situations that can be so easily misinterpreted. A true Israel-related protest would find it much harder to gain supporters and attention; it would lack the benefits of an open battle with the administration and the support of those who just didn’t want commencement politicized. That certainly shouldn’t stop people (of any political stripe) from trying to organize on campus. My point is merely that the Oren speech and the birthday resolution ceded that free publicity and support while simultaneously forcing those who protested for other reasons to appear to be supporting a cause they weren’t. Whether you think the speech and resolution were wrong or not, they certainly wound up being tactical failures.

  4. Yea, I recognize that. But the only frame that matters is the one presented publicly. That’s the frame that has an effect.

  5. @Matt. The stated frame/goal isn’t always the one used internally or intended to be achieved. y’know in- and out-group dialog, shibboleths, and all of that.

  6. Jay, you misunderstand me. I am not at all agreeing with Adam. I would have supported such protests if they were based on bringing attention to changing Israeli policies.

    Liat, I understood the purpose of the protests, and that is why I didn’t participate. I couldn’t care less weather political issues are discussed at commencement nor weather people feel left out for the commencement speaker not connecting to their values or lives. I wish that the protest was about the political issues myself and lev raised, in which case it could have been very valuable at pressing for an end to US support for israeli aggression (our responsibility). I was unaware of the special place that brandeis has within the american jewish community and now think that such protests could have been very valuable and important, and would likely have garnered a fair amount of media attention.

  7. “They were protesting the intrusion of Israeli politics in inappropriate venues, namely the Union Senate and the commencement ceremony.”

    Matt, I think what Adam means here is that these venues are meant to represent the entire population of Brandeis. Thus, the inclusion of Israeli politics in these areas is inappropriate in that it suggests a connection by all Brandeis students to Israel, which is just not the case. Brandeis has a very diverse student body that is not entirely comprised of Jews affiliated strongly with the Israeli state.

    I would HOPE that the protest has nothing to do with the political issues both you and Lev cite–these are personal opinions that should be left out of the discussion.

  8. I love the irony here- a whole post by Adam explaining why the anti-Oren and anti-birthday resolution sentiments shouldn’t be taken as attacks on Israel or its policies, only to be followed by two people agreeing…based on attacks towards Israel and its policies.

  9. Lev, I agree with you entirely. I was unaware of the national media attention the Oren protests recieved, and if I had understood the special significance of brandeis within the american jewish community I would probably have participated in the protests.

    The reason I didn’t was as Adam describes “people weren’t actually protesting Israel or its policies” but “the intrusion of Israeli politics in inappropriate venues.” I could not care less about politics being discussed at commencement (maybe then it wouldn’t be full of vacuous self-adulation), but I was seriously distubed that the administration gave its most prominant speaking position to an official mouthpiece of the israeli state, just as I would be if any other mouthpiece of a state committing aggression were given this position. Though in this case there is a greater responsibility to act, as israeli aggression directly funded and backed by the US, and would not be permitted to occur without US support.

  10. “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?”

    It is for this reason that peace activists at Brandeis should try to make as much noise as possible. Its quite surprising how much attention we get. I’ve already had at least two people in this country (this country being Israel) ask me about the Michael Oren controversy when I mentioned that I was a student at Brandeis University. (Usually in the context of “I can’t believe such a controversy would happen at Brandeis University of all places! What is this world coming to?!”)

    Brandeis holds a very prominent place in the American Jewish community discourse over Israel… and the American Jewish community holds a lot of sway in the national discourse over Israel (alongside American weapons manufacturers and the extraordinarily creepy Christian Zionists).

    We should be making noise to make it clear that even within the mainstream Jewish community (i.e. Brandeis), people don’t support the nationalist, racist, and oppressive policies of the State of Israel.

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