What do the scientist Howard Cedar, the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, the industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the sociologist Robert Putnam, the Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman and the singer Yehoram Gaon have in common? These are among the luminaries reminding us that it is honorary doctorate season again at Israeli universities. The newspapers are filled with lists of super-duper high achievers being celebrated for jobs well done and lives well lived.
Honorary doctorates are often distributed at commencement ceremonies to salute particular heroes, emphasize certain defining values, and introduce graduating students to inspiring role models. The juxtaposition of young graduates embarking on their careers with impressive individuals who have already made their mark reminds us of the alchemy of education. We remember that watching others frequently stretches us and that success is not preordained – each of these honorees sweated, suffered and improvised, surviving and thriving in challenging environments.
The seven mentioned – of dozens being honored this spring – offer a broad celebration of modern Israel’s values. Professor Cedar, a top geneticist, represent Israeli science’s extraordinary achievements while Shechtman, the iconoclastic chemist, shows that Israeli greatness is finally being recognized. Wertheimer, of Iscar, now owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway, represents Israel’s invigorating entrepreneurial climate. Justice Joubran represents Israel’s muscular legal culture and great strides towards equality in welcoming Israeli Arabs into leadership positions. Gaon represents Israel’s delicious creativity and the commitment of some celebrities to use their fame for public service. Professor Lipstadt, the historian who confronted the Holocaust denier David Irving, represents Israel’s great partnership with the United States and the happy consonance of Jewish, Zionist and academic values, while Putnam, the Harvardian who taught us that this generation likes to Bowl Alone, unlike our more communitarian parents, represents the sweep of achievements in the humanities worldwide. These worthy superstars honor the institutions that honor them
Missing from the lists I examined for this year were leading politicians – reflecting the current state of political despair. For all its strengths epitomized by its impressive universities, Israel is enduring a leadership vacuum and a crisis of popular confidence in politics. As in the US, many Israeli voters doubt their leaders or their institutions can solve the serious problems afoot. Universities are sometimes happy alternatives, and, frankly, sometimes ugly mirrors reflecting what goes on – as my Jerusalem Post writing colleague Seth J. Frantzman reported last week. The phenomenon of what he calls “Incitement U” is a serious problem demanding frank discussion and creative reform. Frantzman was called a “collaborator” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last week for daring to think politically incorrect thoughts – backed up by research -- about Beduin land claims. Still, during honorary degree season, even Israeli universities usually are on their best behavior.
In a more ambiguous category are the many honorary degree recipients who earned their honors by donating generously to the university. On the one hand, philanthropy is a fancy name for Tsedakah, righteous charity, and should be rewarded. Universities need the help; generous benefactors deserve the thanks. Giving generously in a contemporary culture of self-indulgence which makes few people ever feel like they have accumulated enough is an act of heroism and selfless commitment to the next generation. The usual honorary degree mix of genius academics, general high achievers, and generous donors itself represents the tripod on which the academy stands – pure knowledge, pragmatic action, and community spirit.
At the same time, the “look Mom, I bought a doctorate” game fools no one. As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his illuminating new book What Money Can''t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the game is a form of corruption: “Money can buy things, but only in somewhat degraded form,” he writes. He then imagines what would happen if universities were honest, saying at the degree-granting ceremonies to a wealthy donor: “We confer honorary degrees upon distinguished scientists and artists for their achievements. But we award you this degree in thanks for the $10 million you gave us to build a new library.” Of course, “the transparency would dissolve the good.” Instead, Sandel notes, universities “speak of public service, philanthropic commitment and dedication to the university’s mission – an honorific vocabulary that blurs the distinction between an honorary degree and a bought one.”
Blessedly absent from the Israeli honoree community are those absurd salutes to the famous – simply for being famous. In recent years, American universities have devalued their honorary degrees by granting doctorates to Shaquille O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and Dolly Parton. Such awards often thrill parents, students, alumni and donors, giving them opportunities for celebrity namedropping back home – but they demean the process.
Six years ago, Knox College granted the television comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary degree. His best career advice for students, he said, was: “get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”
Fortunately, Israeli universities, especially these days, are not honoring the jack squatters but the thinkers, doers, and builders of today and tomorrow. Even without any rah-rah blue and white speeches, even without quoting Herzl, these ceremonies are profoundly moving Zionist acts. They tell the story of a society that is growing, that is contributing to the world – and recognizing the world-class achievements of others. When we pull back the historical lens and consider that these universities were not established in 1249 like Oxford or 1636 like Harvard, but mere decades ago, when we remember all the traumas and travails, we should not only salute the honorees, not only praise the universities, but hail the Jewish people and the entire Zionist enterprise.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall. Follow Gil on Twitter, @Gil_Troy