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Clash at Brandeis U. over Israeli speaker

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

Despite attending a historically Jewish university named after one of America's earliest Zionists, students at Brandeis University are protesting having Israel's U.S. ambassador as their commencement speaker, arguing that the school is biased against Palestinians.

The selection of Michael Oren to give the graduation speech has prompted the founding of competing Facebook groups, charges of the politicization of graduation, vows of protests, and claims that Mr. Oren does not represent Brandeis' values and is a "rogue-state apologist."

Brandeis student Jonathan Sussman created the Facebook group Commencement Was Supposed to Be About Us: Against Michael Oren as Speaker, which had 234 members as of Thursday afternoon. Brandeis' full-time undergraduate enrollment this year was 3,185.

"What this selection indicates is that Brandeis University, an institution which takes 'social justice' as one of its founding credos, is willing to send its new graduates into the world with the words of a rogue-state apologist, a defender of (among other things) the war crimes and human rights abuses of the war on Gaza," he said in a post on the Middle East blog Mondoweiss.

While acknowledging that the Waltham, Mass., school is "a historically Jewish university with deep, abiding ties to the Jewish community" and "overwhelmingly of a Zionist bent," he accused the university of marginalizing debate among U.S. Jews about Israeli actions in Gaza and elsewhere by inviting Mr. Oren.

"Michael Oren's selection as commencement speaker is clearly designed to send a message ... our university administration wants everyone to know that it has no qualms about marginalizing dissenting opinions by bringing a partisan, divisive speaker to commencement," he wrote.

Noa Albaum wrote on the Facebook group page that she fears Mr. Oren's invite "has created such divisiveness within the Brandeis community."

"The decision to bring any speaker to the Brandeis commencement that would tear apart the community in such a way that otherwise civilized political debates turn into nasty and petty arguments was obviously a poor one," the Brandeis student wrote.

Mariel Gruszko, a Brandeis student and one of the Facebook site's administrators, agreed, writing at the blog innermostparts.org that "commencement should be a time to celebrate as we move onto the next phase of our lives, not a time for recriminations and ostracizations."

"Commencement speakers traditionally give graduating students boring but sage advice on how to conduct oneself in the world."

However, "many of us would rather not take advice from Oren. Many more of us are confused about how Oren fits into Brandeis' commitment to social justice."

Mr. Sussman, who also is active in Students for a Democratic Society, warned: "Don't imagine that Brandeis students will take this lying down. We are organizing to protest this decision."

Mr. Oren is an American-born Jew who held citizenship in both the U.S. and Israel until he renounced the U.S. to accept his ambassadorship last May. As Israel's official representative in the U.S., he also has become the focus of pro-Palestinian campus activism and charges of war crimes against Israel in the 2008 Gaza invasion.

Mr. Oren declined an invitation to speak at last year's J Street conference, calling the left-leaning Israel-advocacy group "out of the mainstream" and an enemy of the Jewish state that "opposes all policies of all Israeli governments." He and J Street later reconciled.

He also denounced the U.N. Goldstone Report on the Gaza war, which said Israel likely committed war crimes, saying the report "goes further than [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers by stripping the Jews not only of the ability and the need, but of the right, to defend themselves."

In March, his speech at the University of California at Irvine was interrupted repeatedly by Muslim hecklers saying, among other things, "How many Palestinians did you kill?" Eleven students were arrested.

However, figures from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference in March showed that of 1,270 student delegates in attendance from more than 370 campuses across the country, 213 were elected student government presidents. That also shows a breadth of pro-Israel support on college campuses.

Brandeis University was named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. He became a Zionist in the 1910s, advocating a Jewish return to their historic homeland in Palestine. Though Zionism inspired Israel's 1948 founding, it was not a widely held Jewish view in the 1910s.

The Israeli Embassy's press office told The Washington Times that it could not release any statement on the furor at Brandeis.

But a backlash has emerged. Brandeis student Nathan Mizrachi founded a Facebook group called Those who are in favor/don't have anything against Michael Oren. As of Thursday afternoon, this group was gaining ground, with 155 members.

In the group's description, Mr. Mizrachi said protesting Mr. Oren was a "waste of time" and acknowledged that although he is a controversial figure, "anyone who is consistently contributing to our worldview in a dignified, widely respected manner - instead of idiots like Michael Moore or Fox News - is someone who merits our attention."

He went on to ask students not to protest vocally during Mr. Oren's commencement speech as the Muslim students did in California.

"That would truly be a disgrace to our university," Mr. Mizrachi wrote.

Mr. Sussman, Ms. Gruszko and another administrator of the anti-Oren Facebook site did not reply to e-mails from The Times seeking interviews. Administrator Philip Lacombe-Bouck also did not return a message left on his telephone.

Mr. Mizrachi declined via e-mail to comment.

Andrew Gully, senior vice president for communications at Brandeis, said commencement speakers are selected by the university's president, Jehuda Reinharz, but the topics of the addresses are chosen by the speaker.

"We can assume, given his background and accomplishments, that, at least in part, Ambassador Oren will make some remarks about the Middle East, since that is a topic of almost universal appeal," Mr. Gully said.

He went on to say that many noteworthy speakers are controversial but still deserve respect for their accomplishments.

"If the honorees at commencement are all expected to be noncontroversial, we would be forced to remove from the list of potential honorees a great many individuals with outstanding records of achievement. We believe all Brandeis graduates support free speech, and that especially includes speech by those with whom they most strongly disagree. All speakers at Brandeis are entitled to a respectful hearing, regardless of any of our personal feelings about their views," he said.