Post-Carter Showdown At Brandeis Over Speakers
02/23/07

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A free speech dispute over campus speakers has continued to roil Brandeis University in the wake of controversy over its hosting of former president and Israel critic Jimmy Carter. Brandeis’ president waded personally into it this week, voicing hope that right-wing Middle East policy advocate Daniel Pipes would soon lecture there — but issuing no such statement for Norman Finkelstein, a left-wing academic students have also invited. In a personal letter to Pipes — after Pipes called publicly on Brandeis donors to consider cutting off the school — Jehuda Reinharz disavowed a report that he and an aide had criticized Pipes. Indeed, Reinharz wrote, he and his aide, John Hose, looked forward to personally attending Pipes’ lecture and meeting with him afterward in his presidential office. “I trust that the student groups who organize these events will manage your return visit in the spring with dispatch,” Reinharz wrote, “and you will be recognized by Brandeis as the scholar you are.” Reinharz’s undated letter, posted on Pipes’ Web site on Feb. 17, marked the latest development in a debate about free debate at Brandeis following controversy over former President Jimmy Carter’s appearance there last month. Carter’s appearance drew heated opposition in some quarters due to his criticism of Israel for practicing “apartheid” policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank. As a result of Carter’s visit, some donors threatened to stop contributing to the school, established in 1948 as a Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian school. At the same time, inspired by Carter’s visit, separate right-leaning and left-leaning student groups initiated invitations to Pipes and Finkelstein, respectively.But since Carter’s visit, the administration has set up a new vetting process for speakers invited to talk about the Middle East, and no firm date has been set for either man. Pipes, however, said Monday of his prospective visit, “I believe it’s got a green light, on a certain condition.” He did not elaborate. Finkelstein, meanwhile, reported his invitation was at an “impasse” with a student-staff committee set up to consider speaker invitations as part of the new vetting process. He said he had received no communication from Reinharz or any other university official. “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” Finkelstein charged, suggesting fear of donor reaction was playing a role in the would-be speakers’ seeming disparate treatment. “Pipes is powerful enough to hit back.” Reinharz did not respond to a request for an interview. But Robert Rifkind, a Brandeis trustee (and member of The Jewish Week board of directors), said that in a conversation with Reinharz on Tuesday, Reinharz said he “absolutely did not” mean to discriminate between the two. Consulting notes he took, Rifkind said the school president told him, “I have no control over who students invite. ... It’s the faculty and students who set the agenda.” “The campus should be the site for the widest discussion of issues,” Rifkind reported Reinharz saying. “It’s inevitable some speakers will upset someone. That’s simply a reality we will have to accept.” Both Pipes and Finkelstein – who have both spoken at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and University of Pennsylvania – are lightning rods for controversy. Pipes, who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978 in medieval Islamic history, has taught at Harvard, the University of Chicago and the Naval War College. He writes often of the security threat he sees to the United States and Europe from Muslim immigrants. Pipes has founded Campus Watch, a program that seeks to monitor what professors teach in class and publicize those it regards as extremists. Critics charge the project aims to stifle open discourse, a charge Pipes rejects. Finkelstein received his Ph.D. in political science from Princeton in 1980. His book, “The Holocaust Industry,” has sparked a furor due to its allegations that Jewish leaders have exploited the Holocaust to gain inflated reparations from countries such as Germany and Switzerland, in part by inflating the number of Holocaust survivors to receive them. He charges also that Jewish leaders use the Holocaust to fend off and silence criticism of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. In another book, Finkelstein sought to debunk Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel,” rebutting its claims regarding Israel’s human rights record page-by-page. In the post-Carter debate over such speakers, the university’s new vetting process has become a focus of controversy. “In 59 years, Brandeis has never had an oversight committee for speakers, nor has it ever needed one,” complained sociology professor Gordon Fellman, who chaired the faculty-student committee that invited Carter. “It doesn’t seem to me we need one now — unless some people want to keep speakers out whose views on the Middle East they find unacceptable.” In a presentation at a faculty meeting earlier this month, Fellman advocated following up Carter’s appearance by opening the school to a new range of speakers on the Middle East. “We also need to hear Avigdor Lieberman” — an Israeli Knesset member who advocates stripping Israeli Arab citizens of their citizenship — said Fellman. “We also need to hear a right-wing Orthodox settler convinced that God commands Jews to live in the West Bank. We need to hear more from Israelis who reject the occupation and reject the violence. ... We need to hear Palestinians who have lived under occupation tell their sides of the story. ... We need to hear from the rejectionists on both sides, and we need to hear from the accommodationists on both sides.” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history, adamantly rejected such an approach. “We don’t want to be in the position that every crackpot can be given a forum,” he said. “I think the faculty increasingly understands that just as we exercise a lot of quality control over faculty appointments, so, too, do we have an obligation to exercise quality control for speakers on campus,” explained Sarna. “Part of our job is to help students figure out what bad books are, and what good books are; what is a bad scholar, and what is a good scholar. ... How we exercise that responsibility without in any way limiting free discourse is what this committee will tackle.” Sarna strongly endorsed Pipes’ scholarly credentials and his qualifications to speak on campus but said he did not want to “prejudge” the case of Finkelstein. “There are members of the Brandeis community who truly want everyone to be able to speak, like Hyde Park,” he said, referring to the famous speakers’ platform in London. “I think a university with limited funds, limited resources, limited rooms, and with extremists who require security each time, must use its funds in a responsible way.” Reinharz’s letter to Pipes came in the wake of a call by Pipes himself for donors to “reconsider” their support of the university so long as Reinharz remains president. Pipes issued his call after Brandeis’ student newspaper, The Justice, quoted Reinharz referring to Pipes and Finkelstein as “weapons of mass destruction.” The paper framed the quote as part of criticism by Reinharz of the effort to bring the two to campus. Pipes condemned being compared to Finkelstein. In a response published in The Justice’s next issue, he also criticized Brandeis for hiring as faculty members one individual he said had ties to terrorists and another that he said was an apologist for them. “Looking at the larger picture, Brandeis has incurred a sorry record when it comes to Israel in recent years,” he wrote. The school issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Pipes’ charges against the faculty members. And in his letter to Pipes, Reinharz rejected the paper’s quotes of him and Hose. “I fear the newspaper has continued on a course of misquotation,” Reinharz said. His comment about “weapons of mass destruction” was “quoted completely out of context,” he wrote. “Further, I have never, nor would I ever think of linking your name to that of Norman Finkelstein.” In an interview with The Jewish Week, Nancy Winship, Brandeis’ development director, also said the school paper misquoted her when it reported she said, “We’re just trying to repair the damage” after complaints from donors “kept coming and coming” in the wake of the Carter event. “I did not say the e-mails kept coming and coming,” she said. “What I said, what I meant, was that every day we had a few e-mails. There was no barrage.” Winship estimated there were “maybe 40” such e-mails altogether. She said responses from school officials to those concerned had now restored their commitment to the school. “It’s just not an issue anymore,” she said. “It’s not affecting our fundraising.” But she cautioned she would only know for certain in the spring, when donations traditionally come in. Winship and Hose said they had not requested a correction from the paper. “I never do,” said Winship. “It’s a student newspaper. We just move on.” Repeated calls to editors of The Justice for comment went unanswered, due in part to a school break during which most students were off-campus.

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11/18/2009 - 11:49

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