The Oren-At-Brandeis Controversy: Two Views


Israeli Ambassador Wrong For Commencement.

Rebecca Blady And Hillel Buechler
Special to the Jewish Week

Coverage of the invitation of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to Brandeis University’s 2010 commencement ceremony, which takes place Sunday, has spun out of control. News outlets and commentators have misrepresented the reactions of Brandeis students, as well as the actual thrust of the debate. As students at Brandeis, we wish to clarify the nature of the controversy and separate fiction from fact.

It’s true that there are students who oppose Oren speaking at commencement on moral grounds stemming from their fierce opposition to the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. But they are a small, albeit loud, minority.

Most students who take issue with the choice of Oren do so for a different reason, one not related to their particular opinions of Israel. These students — including us — believe that a representative of the Israeli government is simply an inappropriate choice to speak in this setting.

Throughout the year, it is incumbent upon members of a university community to investigate and question the merits and legitimacy of opposing views, especially concerning Israel. And there are certainly students and faculty on this campus whose views are strongly opposed to those of the Israeli government. For them, opposition to Israel for its treatment of Palestinians is one of the moral imperatives of their generation. For them, Israel’s accomplishments are dwarfed by its moral deficiencies. They may be wrong about that — and we personally (and fiercely) believe they are wrong.

As a representative of the Israeli government, Oren represents a keynote speaker who will regrettably alienate a segment of the Brandeis community. And that is the core of problem. That is why hundreds of students are upset. That is why we are disappointed in our university’s choice.

Some have suggested that this position, reflected by the editorial board of The Justice, Brandeis’ independent student newspaper, represents a surreptitious double standard for Israel.

There may be a double standard here, but it’s not ours. Rather, it belongs to those who fail to condemn moral inadequacies in other places around the world while holding Israel to an extremely, and perhaps unreasonably, high moral standard. We do not legitimize this view; rather, we accept that it exists within our community, and we wish the university had properly accounted for it in planning commencement.

Yet none of this comes through in outside media coverage of the Oren controversy. In fact, many journalists have relied for coverage on Internet postings and second-hand quotations of students from the loud, small minority. Journalists have failed to recognize that Oren’s mere presence, rather than politics, has driven Brandeis students into competing groups.

If Oren were visiting campus under other circumstances, and students responded with the same type of opposition, then journalists and Jewish community leaders would be justified in calling Brandeis a center for “the new Jewish left.” That movement, writes Daniel Gordis in the Jerusalem Post, identifies Israel as nothing but a “country of roadblocks and genocide, of a relentless war waged against the Palestinians for no apparent reason.” If our reaction to Oren’s invitation actually represented a  move toward the new Jewish left, perhaps we would be at fault for not appreciating our homeland, its democratic government, its scientific progress and its rich, beautiful culture.

But our reaction is not to Oren; it is to his presence as commencement keynote speaker. This is not about the delegitimization of Israel. This is not about the threat of a new Jewish left.

However, the media have misconstrued the situation, using Brandeis student reaction to demonize left-wing perspectives on Israeli policy. Various publications have revealed their clear, pro-Israel agendas. People have misread The Justice’s content and unfairly portrayed Brandeis students’ reaction. The true essence of much of the Justice’s content – especially that of the editorial – concerned the impropriety of inviting a figure with this type of contentious image to speak at our commencement.

We embrace our university’s Jewish foundation and Zionist namesake. But the sitting Israeli ambassador to the United States is the wrong choice for keynote commencement speaker. The overblown discord that has arisen from those outside the Brandeis community is unfortunate. We empathize with the graduating seniors who have been forced into this upheaval. n

Rebecca Blady and Hillel Buechler are students at Brandeis University and editors at The Justice, the university’s independent student newspaper.


Don’t Squelch Speech You Don’t Like.

Jordana Luks Cutler
Special to the Jewish Week


In 2006, The Justice, the Brandeis University independent student newspaper, praised the university administration’s decision to grant an honorary degree at commencement to playwright Tony Kushner, who has spoken out against Israel’s creation. In light of the controversy, the paper claimed that what matters most is that the new alumni will leave “just a little more enlightened than when they entered. It is by encountering others with different experiences and opinions that people truly grow.”

But four years later, The Justice adopted a very different philosophy towards “others,” following the administration’s decision to ask Michael Oren to deliver the commencement address at Brandeis on Sunday, May 23. The paper called Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who is a leading historian of the Middle East and the author of two best-selling books, a “divisive and inappropriate” choice, and opposed “granting someone of his polarity on this campus that honor.”

Though today The Justice claims that “commencement is not a forum for academic or political debate,” when Brandeis students agree with a speaker’s controversial positions, they tend to be quite comfortable with controversy. In 2005, Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall was the commencement speaker. No doubt the primary reason she was invited was her very controversial decision in 2003 to make Massachusetts the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Though 57 percent of Americans, including President Obama, oppose same-sex marriage, no one protested or labeled Marshall as a politically “divisive and inappropriate” choice. 

That Brandeis students, about half of whom are Jewish, would decide to abandon supporting the free exchange of ideas when it comes to Israel is particularly ironic. The founders of Brandeis University named the institution in honor of Justice Louis Brandeis’ legacy, his commitment to education, individual liberties, social justice and Zionism. Before World War II, American Jewry had been either neutral towards, or opposed to, the creation of a Jewish state. As a leader of the American Zionist movement, Louis Brandeis shifted American Jewish opinion toward supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. 

Once Brandeis University was established, the nascent State of Israel quickly became part of the school’s identity — its colors are Israel’s blue and white. Past keynote commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients at Brandeis include: Abba Eban (’58), Yigael Yadin (’59), David Ben-Gurion (’60), Yitzchak Rabin (’68), Golda Meir (’73), Yigal Allon (’73), Ephraim Katzir (’75), Chaim Herzog (’87) and Shimon Peres (’97). 

Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban did not face student opposition in 1958, and it is doubtful that students called Israeli Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin a war criminal at his 1968 commencement address, one year after he commanded Israeli troops in the Six-Day War, in which Israel reunited Jerusalem and came into possession of Judea, Samaria, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

That was then. What about now? Many Brandeis students today are questioning 43 years of Israeli control over those territories, and protesting Israeli actions that they regard as unacceptable.  One Brandeis blogger summed up this pervasive sentiment when she asked “how Oren fits into Brandeis’ commitment to social justice.”

While this may be a prominent opinion at Brandeis, it is a decidedly minority opinion in the United States. A poll just last month demonstrated that two-thirds of Americans believe the United States should be a strong supporter of Israel.

But more importantly, the person best suited to answer this blogger and other critics is Ambassador Oren. Isn’t that what a college campus is supposed to be about?

Perhaps if this debate over Ambassador Oren’s address were occurring at Al-Azhar University, Oxford or even Berkeley, it might be understandable. But given their school’s unique history, for Brandeis students to try to silence the representative of the Jewish state is downright shameful.

Perhaps these Brandeis students can take a break from blogging about social justice from their dorm room long enough to look up what Justice Brandeis wrote in 1919, a time when it was actually a criminal offense to give an anti-war speech: “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe” (Abrams v. United States).

And if Ambassador Oren is still working on a commencement message for those Brandeis students protesting him, I suggest he incorporate these two words into his remarks: Grow up.

Jordana Luks Cutler is an alumnus of Brandeis University and now lives and works in Israel.



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