Right of Reply: The truth about Brandeis

Reports campus was hostile to Oren sensationalized students' attitudes.

Michael Oren pose 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Michael Oren pose 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I have been surprised by recent reports alleging that the Brandeis University campus, where I teach Israel studies, is in an uproar over the upcoming commencement address to be delivered by Ambassador Michael Oren, upon whom we also are conferring an honorary degree.
Imagine someone telling you it’s pouring rain outside and you stick your head out the window and see there are just a couple of clouds in the sky. That is how out-of-synch with reality these reports are.
Of course there are some self-appointed would-be arbiters of what is “pure” enough for the academy – people who blithely disregard Oren’s extraordinary accomplishments as a scholar in their efforts to use him as a focus for their criticism of Israel. Brandeis is not exceptional in the diversity of opinion among its faculty and students. One can imagine similar discontent voiced at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University or my former institution of some 30 years, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
But these days, exaggerated reports of discontent circulate around the world at unprecedented speed, distorting and misrepresenting reality in ways that endanger our vital capacities for civility and thoughtful consideration of issues.
The truth surrounding Oren’s appearance at Brandeis specifically and the campus environment on Israel generally is very different. One campus newspaper published an editorial asserting that a representative of the Israeli government makes a “divisive” commencement speaker. The other student paper came out in support. Students have voiced strong support for Oren’s appearance in both newspapers and on blogs and Facebook pages. Perhaps most significantly, when 15 students came to president Jehuda Reinharz’s office to protest the selection of Oren as commencement speaker, Reinharz could show them a petition initiated by one of their classmates that now has more than 4,000 signatures supporting the selection.
A suggestion was floated in the university Senate to register public displeasure at Oren’s invitation. It got nowhere.
UNQUESTIONABLY, DISTURBING and widespread actions aimed at delegitimizing Israel are taking place on campuses across the world. However, there is need for a sense of proportion over the significance of these attacks. Over the past few weeks spontaneous campus activity and organized efforts by student groups have successfully defeated well-organized divestment campaigns at Berkeley and San Diego. Countermoves against the apartheid week and conferences on the “one-state” solution are gathering force.
Even those who are critical of some of Israel’s policies find the simpleminded and malicious slander unacceptable. Vigilance and actions are warranted, but paranoia serves no good purpose.
Here are some additional facts about our campus that are useful for understanding the environment here: Brandeis has established the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, which has created a successful paradigm for how an academic institution can combat ignorance and malice by exposing complexity of information and diversity of views. Today, Brandeis is a world leader in Israel studies programs with a significant number of graduate students writing dissertations on the country. They include Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Interest in Israel goes far beyond the Jewish community. More non-Jews study Israel than Jews. Demography as well as widespread interest account for this. Since its inception, with the cooperation of the American Jewish Committee six years ago, the Brandeis Summer Institute for Israel Studies has attracted both senior and junior faculty, Christians, Muslims and Jews, from more than 140 universities, largely from the US but also from Australia, Latin America, Europe and Asia. Modeled on the seminars of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the intensive seminar brings together leading experts from Israel and the US to present the latest in scholarship in the diverse disciplines that constitute Israel studies.
We offer no template on what to think and what to teach. On the contrary, scholars are exposed to the ongoing debates in a range of fields from film studies and gender studies to sociology, history and politics. The seminar enables them to enhance existing courses on Israel or introduce new ones. As a direct result of this program, Brandeis-trained scholars now teach hundreds of courses on Israel from Azerbaijan and India to Turkey, Ukraine and England. And China has recently been added to the list. This last summer, at their request, Brandeis inaugurated a seminar for 125 Chinese academics and advanced graduate students in Beijing and Shandong universities.
The reports – including the one in The Jerusalem Post (“If this is ourfuture,” May 7 by Daniel Gordis) – that the Brandeis community washostile to Oren as commencement speaker distorted, exaggerated andsensationalized the attitudes of students at Brandeis and beyond.
Yes, there are disagreements at our university over issues related toIsrael and its policies. This is true on and off campus, in Israel andaround the world. This is an ongoing engagement and is far fromresolved. The Brandeis approach is surely one of the most productiveand effective ways for ensuring sane and informed discourse.
It is plain silly to talk about Brandeis being unwelcoming and disinterested in Israel and all things Israeli.
The writer is Stoll Family Professor of Israel Studies and director ofthe Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Hewas previously dean of humanities and social sciences at Ben-GurionUniversity of the Negev.