Chronicle of Higher Ed looks at soul-searching at Brandeis, campus Israel-Palestine debates

In her piece about the excruciating Israel debates at Brandeis, Sierra Millman links reactions to Jimmy Carter’s visit to bitterness over an earlier controversy about the taking down of an Israeli student’s project featuring the artwork of children living in a Palestinian refugee camp.

“At the time,” Millman says, “a majority of faculty members condemned the removal as at best a blunder and at worst outright censorship.”

Millman also details some of the more recent incidents in which free speech and Israel-Palestine politics have clashed.

Interestingly, there is no follow-up on the story reported by Jewish Week in February that donors withheld at least $5 million from Brandeis “in retaliation for its decision last month to host former President Jimmy Carter, a strong critic of Israel.”

A Campus Divided Over Israel

The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 23, 2007

Professors at Brandeis worry about academic freedom, while the university’s president talks about academic responsibility

When former President Jimmy Carter said he wanted to talk about his new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, at a college with “high Jewish enrollment,” the obvious choice was Brandeis University.

On the afternoon of January 23, the Nobel Peace Prize winner took center stage in a packed gymnasium at the Jewish-sponsored university in Waltham, Mass., and a crowd of 1,700, mostly students, stood and applauded energetically. They welcomed the man and the reputation, although not necessarily what he’d come to say.

In a 15-minute speech, Mr. Carter summarized his own continuing efforts to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors, called the plight of the Palestinian people “almost intolerable,” and defended his use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Afterward he answered mostly critical questions and, after another prolonged standing ovation, left the campus. Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor, delivered a rebuttal in the same space about 30 minutes later, to a significantly diminished crowd.

Jehuda Reinharz, Brandeis’s president for more than a decade, didn’t attend the event. He was away on a long-planned fund-raising trip.

His absence seemed to confirm faculty members’ suspicions that the university administration was trying to distance itself from Mr. Carter’s visit in order to placate some wealthy, conservative Jewish donors who were outraged by Mr. Carter’s opinions and resented his presence on the Brandeis campus.

Faculty members, sensing an affront to academic freedom, wanted Mr. Reinharz to make it clear that their campus was devoted to “truth unto its innermost parts,” the university’s motto.

Instead Mr. Reinharz complained at a faculty meeting in early February about the $95,000 that the Carter event had cost the university.

That rankled professors still unsettled by the administration’s decision last May to abruptly take down “Voices of Palestine,” an exhibit of artworks by Palestinian youths, which some Jewish students had found offensive. At the time, a majority of faculty members condemned the removal as at best a blunder and at worst outright censorship. In a recent interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Reinharz said the exhibit’s removal was justified because its lack of context was academically irresponsible.

University officials across the country are struggling to protect free speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict while promoting academic responsibility. But Brandeis’s strong connection with American Jewry and, by extension, Israel, makes its efforts to do so especially fraught. Faculty members say they worry about what the Carter event and the art exhibit’s removal have to say about the university’s identity and its leadership. “The whole issue of what it means to be a Jewish-sponsored university has not been discussed with such intensity” in almost 20 years, says Irving R. Epstein, a professor of chemistry.

Is attachment to Israel influencing judgments about what constitutes acceptable speech on the campus? professors ask. How should Brandeis react when the campus’s prevailing sentiments clash with its deeply held academic values?

‘Unambiguous Identity’

In his inaugural address as president, in April 1995, Mr. Reinharz said Brandeis had a “clear and unambiguous identity.” Founded in 1948 as “a nonsectarian university under the sponsorship of the American Jewish community,” according to its mission statement, it was named for Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who championed judicial liberalism and Zionism. The past year’s events, however, have shown that not everyone sees the same Brandeis. Professors said they were not surprised when some donors reportedly complained about Mr. Carter’s visit.

Some Jews “feel that we are beholden to this mythical Jewish community” when it comes to Israel, says Steven L. Burg, a professor of politics. But among Jews, “their views are not even the only views,” he says. “Their views are, in fact, contentious.” In other words, when some Jews try to define Jewishness in terms of uncritical support for Israel, it creates bitter conflict.

Mr. Reinharz, who is a scholar of Jewish history, has been widely credited with returning Brandeis to its Jewish roots and renewing its financial support among wealthy Jewish donors. Critics had accused earlier Brandeis presidents of neglecting the university’s historic ties with American Jewry in favor of diversity — for example, serving pork and shellfish, two nonkosher foods, in one dining hall to improve the atmosphere for non-Jewish students.

“We have a special, self-imposed obligation to be of service to the Jewish people within an academic environment and only within an academic environment,” says Mr. Reinharz, explaining the university’s commitment to Jewish sponsorship and pointing to the Judaism-related centers and programs that Brandeis has established during his presidency.

At the same time, the president has promoted Arab-Jewish dialogue through a partnership with Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution in the West Bank, and scholarships for Israelis — Arab as well as Jewish — to study at Brandeis.

Politically conservative Jews and Jewish organizations have repeatedly attacked the university for those programs, but Mr. Reinharz hasn’t yielded. That’s why, professors said, they were so surprised by his ambivalence toward Mr. Carter’s visit and the role he played in removing the Palestinian youths’ art exhibit.

‘The Guts of the Conflict’

The “Voices of Palestine” exhibit had been hanging on the third floor of Brandeis’s Goldfarb Library for less than a week last spring when, after a handful of students complained, it was abruptly removed. In 17 paintings, 11- to 16-year-old Palestinians from the West Bank’s Aida refugee camp, near Bethlehem, presented scenes and symbols from their lives under occupation. Among the works were depictions of a tank advancing on an Arab village, the massive new wall dividing Israel from the West Bank, a Palestinian flag in the shape of the State of Israel, and two figures cowering against a wall next to a snake coiled into a Star of David.

Each painting was accompanied by a brief biography of the artist, a dream (for example, “to return to my village and become a TV news journalist”) and a word to the world (“I want to thank you for your help in the paintings, and hope you like them”). The exhibit also included a description of the project and its purposes and a brief introduction by Lior Halperin, the exhibit’s creator and, at the time, a Brandeis student.

Ms. Halperin, who describes Brandeis as a “Zionist, pro-Israel university,” said she wanted to bring Palestinian voices to a campus where she felt their viewpoint had been marginalized. “I’m Israeli — people forget that — I’m 100-percent Israeli,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m an Israeli looking from the inside, from the guts of the conflict. So this is a voice that shouldn’t be silenced in the U.S. Jewish Americans should know there’s someone coming from Israel that thinks there are two sides to the story.”

At the time of the paintings’ removal, The Boston Globe reported that the administration had taken them down because the exhibit lacked “balance.” Brandeis professors overwhelmingly condemned the decision.

“It wasn’t really in our tradition, the extent to which we claim the heritage of Justice Brandeis, to make such demands,” says Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics. She and two colleagues circulated a letter, signed by more than 100 faculty members, protesting the exhibit’s removal. An internal committee later called the removal a “serious error,” in part because the exhibit had followed university rules, representing a “legitimate student exercise of the right to free speech on campus.”

In responding to the panel’s report, Mr. Reinharz repeatedly emphasized the values of scholarship, context, and civility, but did not explain why the exhibit had been removed. More recently, he told The Chronicle that it would have been more appropriate “to have the student give an explanation, a context to these very disturbing images that were placed on the wall, and that context could be anything she wanted. … And the student refused to do that. Whatever her agenda is, I don’t know — but this is exactly how it happened.”

Ms. Halperin, the student organizer of the exhibit, calls that account “absolutely false.” She was never asked to add context, she says, and besides, it was already there — visitors could read about the provenance of the art and even write messages to the artists using paper and envelopes set out next to the paintings. Ms. Halperin, who decided to leave Brandeis after the exhibit’s removal, now attends Tel Aviv University.

The incident makes Brandeis faculty members wonder whether administrators will block speakers or remove any controversial exhibits to come. Paul F. Jankowski, a history professor who led the review committee, isn’t sure. “I would like to say no,” he says.

‘Cause Celebre’

Many Brandeis faculty members say Mr. Carter’s visit was directly connected to the debate surrounding the “Voices of Palestine” exhibit, but they disagree on how.

“I was interested in having Carter,” says Harry G. Mairson, a computer-science professor, “because he had the same uncomfortable political content as the ‘Voices of Palestine’ exhibit that was taken down by the administration, and no one could question President Carter’s civility.” Mr. Mairson had initially written to the former president to request that he speak at Brandeis. Mr. Carter eventually accepted the formal invitation of a faculty-student committee. He has since spoken on other campuses as well.

Other professors suggested that the Carter event offered Brandeis the opportunity to redeem itself. Jacob Cohen, a professor of American studies, suggested that the invitation was part of “the university getting right with itself.” Jeffrey B. Abramson, a politics professor, says Brandeis’s reception of Mr. Carter shows that the university has “matured.”

Yet at least one professor saw Mr. Carter’s visit as revenge. Shulamit T. Reinharz, a sociology professor who is married to the university’s president, says some people chose to make the “Voices of Palestine” exhibit a “cause célèbre, and I think that’s behind the desire to bring Jimmy Carter to campus.” She questions both the contents of Mr. Carter’s book and his reputation. Nobel laureate or not, she says, Mr. Carter did not broker peace between Israel and Egypt, he “hosted” it.

Ms. Reinharz has drawn criticism recently for a column she writes in The Jewish Advocate, a weekly newspaper in Boston. In one issue she mocked Mr. Carter, who in 1976 told Playboy magazine that he had “committed adultery in my heart many times” by looking on women with lust, but that Jesus had forgiven him. Ms. Reinharz suggested that Mr. Carter’s certainty of forgiveness had exposed an arrogance and sense of impunity that were apparent again in his book. “Jimmy, please keep your opinions about the Middle East — as you did your lust — in your heart,” she wrote.

In an earlier issue of the newspaper, Ms. Reinharz had endorsed a controversial article that accused certain Jewish critics of Israel of contributing to anti-Semitism. Jews who threaten the existence of Israel, whether with words or deeds, she wrote, are anti-Semites.

While those comments riled faculty members, most agree that Ms. Reinharz has the right to make them. “When there’s speech you don’t like, you respond with speech, not by repressing it,” says Mr. Jankowski, the history professor.

Many faculty members and administrators, even Mr. Reinharz, ultimately praised the Carter event.

“I think that on the whole, most people will think that this was a good event, not only for Brandeis but for American higher education,” Mr. Reinharz told The Chronicle. With the exception of the annual commencement speaker, he adds, he makes it a principle not to invite speakers himself, because “people would perceive this as my setting an agenda.”

Mr. Jankowski says Mr. Reinharz acted responsibly when it came to the Carter event: “It is very fitting that a president should, in general, stay above, keep a distance from events on campus, especially events of a political nature,” the professor says.

He says Mr. Carter was “impressive,” and calls his visit a triumph for free speech. “Views that are deeply unpopular with one part of the community can indeed be expressed here,” says Mr. Jankowski. “And, after all, the chairman of the Board of Trustees came to the event.”

But for Stephen B. Kay, the chairman, Mr. Carter’s appearance was a triumph only for student civility. “I don’t think he really understands the complexities of the Middle East, and it created a lot of feelings on campus, people being more adversarial,” he says. In the long run, says Mr. Kay, the event “can only be neutral or bad — it can’t be good.”

‘Test of Civility’

Both Jimmy Carter and the “Voices of Palestine” exhibit are gone, but Brandeis is still experiencing the aftermath. This winter rumors arose that two combative personalities from opposite sides of the political spectrum would be barred from speaking on the campus: Daniel Pipes, an author and commentator who supports a hawkish stance by Israel and who has spoken at Brandeis before, and Norman G. Finkelstein, a professor of political science at DePaul University who has suggested that Israel uses the Holocaust to justify oppressing the Palestinians. But student groups who have invited the two speakers say it is likely that both will visit Brandeis this spring.

While Mr. Reinharz’s actions over the past year distressed many professors, few say they doubt his motives, or those of other administrators. “I think he believes deeply in the idea of academic freedom,” says David Hackett Fischer, a history professor, “but he often speaks of an idea of civility and respect for the rights of others, and some in this community are very uncomfortable about a test of civility.”

If Mr. Carter’s visit was a test of civility, faculty members agree, Brandeis’s students passed. Fears of an angry outburst came to naught.

Students listened to the former president respectfully and intently. The event, professors agreed, was also a model of free speech.

“What I saw on this campus was what I would hope to see on campuses all over the country,” says Robin Feuer Miller, a professor of Russian and comparative literature. “So I regard this sort of as a moment of going forward, and an instance where our faculty and administration should take its cues from the students, which is kind of an interesting reversal, to my mind.”

WAR OF WORDSOn college campuses, little peace in discussing Israel and PalestiniansProfessors and students talking about the Middle East at colleges across the nation are discovering a thin line between spurring discussion and inviting attack — especially when an impassioned e-mail message can reach millions of in boxes in seconds, be picked apart and paraphrased on blogs in minutes, and reprinted (in context or not) in the pages of leading newspapers within days, triggering yet another round of emotional exchanges. Brandeis University is far from the only academic battleground on this topic, and clashes such as those described below are increasingly common. All of the following events took place within the past year:In advance of a speech that Jimmy Carter gave at Emory University on February 22, a group of professors there wrote an essay that was published in the university’s student newspaper, The Emory Wheel. They demanded that Mr. Carter, a longtime distinguished professor at the university, debate his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, with Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy in the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, who said Mr. Carter had undermined efforts toward Middle East peace by mislabeling two maps in the book and distorting proposals made by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Before a crowd of 600 at Emory, he said, “I believe what I advocate in this book — whether you agree or disagree — is the best chance for the future.” Mr. Ross is scheduled to speak at Emory in May.In October, after telephone calls from two Jewish groups contributed to the cancellation of a speech on the “Israel lobby” at the Polish consulate in New York, more than 100 international historians signed an open letter denouncing the “climate of intimidation” to which they said critics of Israel were increasingly subjected. The leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee said they had not tried to silence Tony Judt, a history professor at New York University, but said they approved of the Polish consul general’s decision to cancel his talk. Mr. Judt had defended a paper by the professors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt on the “Israel lobby” that drew a firestorm of criticism when the London Review of Books published a version of it. The debate may flare up again in September when a book by Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt on the “Israel lobby” is scheduled to be published.

The possibility that Juan R.I. Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, might win an appointment in Middle Eastern history at Yale University caused a stir last spring, but it is unclear the extent to which external pressure contributed to a committee’s rejecting his candidacy in June. While critics called him a blog-obsessed pundit, admirers, upset that he didn’t get the job, pointed to Mr. Cole’s extensive scholarly work and the roster of Middle East experts who regularly read his blog, Informed Comment.

Last April, Joshua H. Stulman, at the time a senior at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, learned by e-mail that he would not be allowed to show his 10-piece art exhibit, “Portraits of Terror.” Charles R. Garoian, director of the School of Visual Arts, where the exhibit was supposed to be displayed, wrote Mr. Stulman that the exhibit “did not promote cultural diversity” or “opportunities for democratic dialogue” and ran afoul of the university’s Zero Tolerance Policy for Hate. Among other scenes, Mr. Stulman’s paintings showed members of Hamas giving what appears to be a Nazi salute, the desecration of synagogues, and a baby dressed as a suicide bomber. Within days Graham B. Spanier, the university’s president, overruled Mr. Garoian and said Mr. Stulman’s paintings would be shown. Penn State does not endorse censorship, he said.

After a series of public clashes between Jewish and Muslim students at the University of California at Irvine, the Muslim Students Association sponsored a weeklong lecture series called “Holocaust in the Holy Land” in May, featuring a speech titled “Israel: The Fourth Reich.” The event and its keynote speaker, Norman G. Finkelstein, drew strong criticism from Jewish groups on the Irvine campus. Mr. Finkelstein is a professor of political science at DePaul University and a critic of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The Irvine administration defended its students’ right to speak freely and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Jewish and Muslim activist students to talk with one another.

‘STUDENTS NEED TO HAVE THEIR VOICES HEARD’Brandeis students have played major roles in the past year’s controversy. They complained about the “Voices of Palestine” exhibit, protested its removal, and invited former President Jimmy Carter to visit.Kevin E. Conway, sophomore member of the Radical Student AllianceOn free speech: “I think the community can handle it. There’s been kind of a made-up fear from the administration that if you even try to talk about these things, the campus will explode into a kind of mass hysteria.”Jason B. Lustig, junior co-founder of Chalav U’Dvash, Brandeis’s journal of Zionist thought

On respect: “I think that students on both sides need to have their voices heard, but it needs to be in a respectful manner. Some people say the pro-Israel voice on campus is too strong, and therefore we should have a blanket immunity to do whatever we want. And the other side saying, you guys are anti-Semites, you guys should shut up — they’re also wrong. There needs to be a truthful and honest discourse based on facts.”

Alison H. Schwartzbaum, junior president of the Student Union

On dialogue: “Many people don’t feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions on the topic. They feel that they’ll be labeled something that they’re not. … The people who disagree with each other aren’t necessarily talking to each other.”

Tamer M. Qarmout, graduate student Heller School for Social Policy and Management

On tolerance: “I believe it’s a tolerant environment, except for a few incidents like [Voices of Palestine], and I think it was a stupid decision by the administration. … You can do whatever you want, you can talk about whatever you want, you have people who don’t respect what you say, you have people who respect what you say. You find everything.”


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