Imagine this, if you can. A prestigious university in the United States, with deep roots in the American Jewish community, invites Israel’s ambassador to deliver its annual commencement address. But instead of expressing pride in the choice of speaker and in the country that he represents, the university’s students, many of them Jewish, protest. They don’t want to hear from the ambassador. He’s a “divisive” figure, the student newspaper argues, and the students deserved better.
Tragically, of course, there’s nothing hypothetical about the scenario. Brandeis University recently decided to award honorary degrees to Michael Oren, Dennis Ross and Paul Simon, among others, at its May 23 commencement, and Ambassador Oren, an extraordinary orator among his many other qualities, was invited to deliver the commencement address.
But the days in which Jewish students on an American campus would have been thrilled to have the Israeli ambassador honored by their school are apparently long since gone. Brandeis’s student newspaper, The Justice (how’s that for irony?), deplored the choice, writing that “Mr. Oren is a divisive and inappropriate choice for keynote speaker at commencement, and we disapprove of the university’s decision to grant someone of his polarity on this campus that honor.”
The ambassador is a polarizing figure? Why is that? Because, the editorial continues, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a hotly contested political issue, one that inspires students with serious positions on the topic to fervently defend and promote their views.”
This is where we are today. For many young American Jews, the only association they have with Israel is the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is the country that oppresses Palestinians, and nothing more.
No longer is Israel the country that managed to forge a future for the Jewish people when it was left in tatters after the Holocaust. Israel is not, in their minds, the country that gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from North Africa when they had nowhere else to go, granting them all citizenship, in a policy dramatically different from the cynical decisions of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to turn their Palestinian refugees into pawns in what they (correctly) assumed would be a lengthy battle with Israel.
Israel is not proof that one can create an impressively functioning democracy even when an enormous portion of its citizens hail from countries in which they had no experience with democratic institutions. Israel is not the country in which, despite all its imperfections, Beduin women train to become physicians, and Arab citizens are routinely awarded PhDs from the country’s top universities. Israel is not the country in which the classic and long-neglected language of the Jews has been revived, and which produces world class literature and authors routinely nominated for Nobel Prizes.
Nor is Israel the place where Jewish cultural creativity is exploding with newfound energy, as the search for new conceptions of what Jewishness might mean in the 21st century are explored with unparalleled intensity, particularly among some of the country’s most thoughtful young people. No longer is Israel understood to be the very country that created the sense of security and belonging that American Jews – and these very students – now take completely for granted.
No, Israel is none of those things. For many young American Jews, it is only the country of roadblocks and genocide, of a relentless war waged against the Palestinians for no apparent reason. For everyone knows that Palestinians are anxious to recognize Israel and to live side-by-side with a Jewish democracy. That, of course, is why Hamas still openly declares its commitment to Israel’s annihilation, and that is why Hizbullah has, according to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, accumulated “more missiles than most governments in the world.”
None of this is to suggest that Israel is blameless in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, or that the present government has a plan for ending it. Those are entirely different matters. The point is that even if these students hold Israel partially (or even largely) accountable for the intractable conflict with the Palestinians, even if one believes that it should have conducted Operation Cast Lead differently, or even if one disapproves of its policies in the West Bank, for example, it is a devastatingly sad day for world Jewry when those issues are the only ones that one associates with Israel, when mere mention of the Jewish state evokes not the least bit of pride from students graduating from a prestigious institution long associated with the very best of American Jewish life.
WHAT WOULD have happened had Brandeis invited President Barack Obama to deliver the commencement address? Obama is, after all, not exactly a non-divisive figure. He is president of a country at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, places in which (a small number of) American troops have committed their share of atrocities, a country in which civil rights issues are still far from resolved, in which the bounty of America is still far beyond the reach of millions of its citizens.
One suspects that the students would have been thrilled to hear Obama, despite the fact that many do not agree with his policies. They would have been honored to host him despite the fact that some must be disappointed that he has not lived up to his campaign promise to call the Turkish treatment of the Armenians a “genocide,” despite the fact that he is intent on pursuing the war in Afghanistan, to which many of the students must certainly be opposed. They would have been delighted by Obama’s presence because even if they disagree with some of his views or some of America’s actions, they understand that the US is more than Obama, and more than this war or that policy. And they are, quite rightly, enormously proud of what America stands for and what it has accomplished.
But that kind of instinctive pride in the Jewish state is, sadly, a vestige of days gone by, even for many American Jews.
Reading some of the reactions to Oren’s invitation, one is struck by an astounding simplicity, and frankly, an utter lack of courage to stand firm against the tidal wave of unbridled hostility toward Israel.
Jeremy Sherer, president of the Brandeis J Street U Chapter, wrote to The Justice, “I am... bothered [by the invitation to Oren] because I disagree with his politics.” That’s what education is now producing – people who want to hear only those with whom they agree? “I’m not exactly thrilled,” Sherer wrote, “that a representative of the current right-wing Israeli government will be delivering the keynote address at my commencement.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, of course, is now busy fending off members of his coalition who are far to the right of him, like Moshe Feiglin and Avigdor Lieberman, and whether or not one takes him at his word, he is the first head of the Likud to endorse a two-state solution, no small matter for those who know the history of the Likud. But Sherer makes no mention of that complicating data, for it doesn’t fit his overarching conception of the intrinsic evil of Israel’s “right-wing” government (of which the Labor Party is also – inconveniently for Sherer – a member).
The president of the Brandeis J Street U Chapter, who writes that he’s of “Israeli heritage” (whatever that means), did not see fit to say a single positive word about Israel. Not one. One wonders what the “pro-Israel” part of J-Street’s “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” tag line means to Sherer.
Ironically, though, some of the attempts to defend the invitation to Oren were no less distressing. A student representative to the Board of Trustees writes in a disappointingly anemic piece to the The Justice that Oren “is being invited for his academic achievements, not his political ones,” and then launches into a recitation of Oren’s many academic accomplishments.
Here, too, however, not a single positive word about Israel, or of the honor that having not only a world-class historian, but also its representative to the US, might be for the university. That sort of pride appears nowhere in The Justice’s editorial, the J-Street representative’s piece or the op-ed defending the invitation. For too many American Jewish undergraduates, it’s simply no longer part of their vocabulary.
Imagine that Sherer had written something like this: “I disagree passionately with Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians, and welcome President Obama’s new pressure on Israel to bring the conflict to a close. But as a Jew who understands that despite my disagreement with Israel’s policies, the Jewish state is key to the Jewish revival of which my entire generation is a beneficiary, I honor Ambassador Oren for his service to a country of which I am deeply proud in many ways, and I look forward to welcoming him to campus.”
Or if the pro-Oren op-ed had said, “There is a radical disconnect between our generation and today’s Israeli government. Many members of my generation believe that Mr. Netanyahu and his government either do not know how to speak to us, or are uninterested in doing so. Ambassador Oren’s appearance on campus is a perfect opportunity for the Israeli government to address us and our concerns; I urge our campus to listen carefully to what may well be a watershed address at this critical period in Israel’s history and in the relationship between Israel and the future leadership of American Jewry.”
Imagine. But nothing of that sort got said.
Indeed, the seeming refusal of any of the student articles to say even one positive thing about the Jewish state was all the more galling given other events that took place across the globe on the very same week that the Oren controversy was unfolding. At the University of Manchester, pro-Palestinian protesters tried to attack Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UK, some holding Palestinian flags up to the windows of her car and others climbing on the hood and trying to smash the windshield. In Berlin, a Danish street art duo known as “Surrend” blanketed several neighborhoods with maps of the Middle East in which the State of Israel had been removed, with the term “Final Solution” at the top. The Scottish Labor Federation reaffirmed its support for a boycott of Israel, and the student government at the University of California, Berkeley fell just one single vote short in a bid to override a veto against a divestment bill; a similar bill was also debated at UC San Diego.
None of the writers to The Justice felt that they had to distance themselves from those views, even as they critiqued or supported the invitation to Ambassador Oren.
The student-thugs at UC Irvine, who disrupted Oren’s speech on campus in February, have won. They have set the standard for how one treats any mention of Israel on any campus. Israel is nothing but a legitimate whipping post even at institutions of higher learning, and sane discussion of its rights and wrongs need not be defended, even in communities ostensibly committed to civil and intelligent discourse.
Tragically, even these students at Brandeis, one of the great institutions of American Jewish life, had nothing terribly different to say to the world. Theirs are only more tepid versions of the delegitimization now spreading across the international community like wildfire.
One shudders to imagine a future in which they might be our leaders.
The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End recently received a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.