Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren, though no longer in the Israel Defense Forces, might feel like he deserves combat pay for all the fury he’s generating on American campuses.
Most dramatically, 11 Muslim students were arrested in February for disrupting the ambassador’s talk at the University of California-Irvine, and now hundreds of students at Brandeis University, many of whom are Jewish, are campaigning to have Brandeis rescind its invitation for Oren to speak at graduation ceremonies May 23.
Jonathan Sussman, a junior at Brandeis who started a Facebook group (with 247 Facebook friends) objecting to Oren’s presence, posted on the Mondoweiss blog that Oren is a “rogue state apologist, a defender of (among other things) the war crimes and human rights abuses of the war on Gaza.”
He quotes Mariel Gruszko, a graduating senior, who said that for some, Oren “represents a paranoid style in Israeli politics ... For Palestinians, he is the apologist and gatekeeper for a government that has denied them basic rights and humanitarian assistance and made them vulnerable to deportation.”
Harry Mairson, a Brandeis professor of computer science, wrote a column in The Justice, the university paper, calling Oren, an IDF spokesman during the Gaza war, an “apologist” for the “white phosphorus [dropped] on Gaza civilians,” an attack the professor compared to dropping napalm in Vietnam.
The Jewish Week was unable to get a response from the Israeli embassy.
Named for Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and a prominent Zionist, the nonsectarian university was founded in 1948, the same year as the State of Israel, under Jewish auspices. In addition to hosting a graduate program in Jewish communal service, Brandeis is also home to two major Jewish research centers: the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who has compared the Brandeis protest to Irvine’s, described the anti-Oren campaign as “nothing less than evil” because it furthers the impression “that Israel is some kind of rogue state whose representative has no right to speak on an American campus, the impression that the State of Israel itself is somehow evil.”
The rabbi, principal of the Upper East Side day school Ramaz, was recruited into the fight by a Ramaz alumnus, now at Brandeis, who asked for help circulating a pro-Oren petition that as of May 4 had nearly 3,000 signatures, many from outside the Brandeis community.
Lookstein, 78, an activist in Zionist organizations even before the founding of the state, told The Jewish Week that he “absolutely did not” ever recall such vitriolic criticism of an Israel ambassador, “and it’s very frightening.”
Among the students in the anti-Oren group is Jeremy Sherer, president of J Street Brandeis. It was only recently that Oren agreed to meet with J Street’s national leaders after saying the J Street positions “endangered Israel,” but Sherer writes in The Justice that Oren and J Street are now on “fine terms.”
However, adds Sherer, “I’m not exactly thrilled that a representative of the current right-wing Israeli government will be delivering the keynote address at my commencement.”
A Justice editorial said that while Oren is deserving of an honorary degree, the ambassador is “a divisive and inappropriate choice” for commencement. “Already, many students are expressing anger” at the university’s “insensitivity.”
University President Jehuda Reinharz told The Justice that in Oren students “can see somebody whose job it is to represent an important country in the Middle East and who also is a great historian, and I mean a great historian. I’m surprised that people who are so intent on promoting free speech would be reluctant to allow a point of view that may or may not be different from theirs.”
In recent years, high-profile speakers at Brandeis, sometimes at commencement, have included Jimmy Carter, defending his assertion that Israel was an “apartheid” state; Justice Richard Goldstone, whose report on the Gaza war singled Israel out, for war crimes; playwright Tony Kushner, who has criticized Israel; and Jordanian Prince Hassan bin Talal.
Nevertheless, the selection of Oren, writes Sussman, “is clearly designed to send a message [that Brandeis] has no qualms about marginalizing dissenting opinions by bringing a partisan, divisive speaker to commencement.”
He warned, Brandeis students “will [not] take this lying down. We are organizing to protest this decision.”
Ben Sales, in New Voices, the National Jewish Student Magazine, reports that there has been considerable Zionist support on campus for the Oren invitation. But he quotes Lisa Hanania, president of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine, who says that an Oren appearance would be “disrespectful” to families of Palestinian graduates.
“There are Palestinian families coming from Palestine to listen to this,” said Hanania.
These families will undoubtedly be outnumbered by Israelis.
On April 30, Rabbi Lookstein e-mailed a letter to Kehilath Jeshurun, his congregation, along with the electronic petition on behalf of Oren that has been widely circulated over the Internet.
“Lovers of Israel and believers in fairness and free speech,” wrote Rabbi Lookstein, “should join in opposing this assault on the State of Israel through embarrassing its ambassador to the United States. Evil will triumph if good people do nothing to stop it.” n
Please visit Jonathan Mark’s blog, “Route 17,” at www.thejewishweek.com.
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