For decades, most American Jews have thought of Brandeis University as the historically Jewish university outside of Boston, the place to which the Jewish teens who were regional USY Presidents or destined to be Jewish educators applied. But times have changed. The Ivies accepted more Jews, there were greater opportunities and less prejudice, and the school and its students changed. The proverbial nail in the coffin, or mayo on white bread with pastrami, is the campus reaction to Brandeis’ choice of Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren to be this year’s commencement speaker.
After the student newspaper, The Justice, announced that Harvard Med School professor, Paul Farmer, a founder of Partners in Health; Judith S. Kaye, the first female chief judge in New York State; author Antonio MuÃ±oz Molina; Dennis B. Ross, author and member of the National Security Council; and Paul Simon, Grammy-award winning musician, as well as Oren would receive honorary degrees, and that Michael Oren would be the speaker, the protests and criticisms began. A New Jersey born author, academic, and Israeli spokesperson and Ambassador, Oren is not the person most American Jews would consider a persona non grata at Brandeis. Some Americans think that Brandeis has a Jewish studies course requirement (they don’t).
The student newspaper called Oren a “poor choice.” It also published essays that called the choice of Oren “divisive.” In an opinion essay by Jeremy Sherer, the president of J Street U at Brandeis, Sherer wrote that J Street and Oren are on fine speaking terms, but that he personally disagrees with Oren’s politics. He wrote, “…I’m not exactly thrilled that a representative of the current right-wing Israeli government will be delivering the keynote address at my commencement. Far more important to the Brandeis community than my political views, however, is the possibility that Oren’s address will alienate portions of the senior class on their final day as Brandeis students. Despite its strong Jewish foundation, Brandeis has evolved into a university that prides itself on diversity, and its current student body reflects that pursuit. Even as a secular Jew of Israeli heritage….”
In another Op-Ed, a Brandeis Computer Science professor, Harry Mairson, wrote that he was “really taken aback at the honorary degrees being awarded this spring by Brandeis to Michael Oren and Dennis Ross.” He wrote that Oren was an apologist for the IDF’s attack on Gazan civilians and that Ross bollixed Mideast negotiations. Mairson wrote that “a university is not a political action committee like AIPAC or J Street.”
And such is one of the many tempests on an American campus this May. (I am more surprised that no one is protesting the selection of singer Paul Simon and his usurping of South African musical themes.)