For Justice at Brandeis

Jewish Light Editorial

Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, has been invited to serve as commencement speaker at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. later this month. This decision by the school (whose undergraduate student population is about half Jewish) has been objected to by a vocal bloc of students, including the editors of the university newspaper. We find their opposition to Oren’s appearance troubling, and some of the reasons they’ve given downright disturbing.

In an April 27 editorial, the student editors of the Brandeis Justice stated the Oren speech could spark a disruption and spoil the dignity of the commencement ceremony. The editorial described Oren as a “divisive” figure and indicated the students “deserved better.”

The editors’ objection was not tied specifically to Oren himself (in fact, the paper indicated it had no issue with Oren receiving an honorary degree), but rather with the potential for ruining an otherwise idyllic graduation ceremony.

At first blush, keeping the peace might seem a reasonable basis for objection. But when one drills down further, this rather superficial explanation for opposing Oren’s presence doesn’t wash. Quashing Oren’s speech is nothing more than an anticipatory reaction to what protestors might do if Oren speaks (as in February when Oren appeared and was shouted down at the University of California at Irvine). It falls under the category of self-censorship, imposed out of fear and trembling at the radical voices who want to recast Israel as an evil empire.

One could hardly with a straight face suggest Oren to be anything other than a temperate voice of reason.

Prior to accepting appointment as Israel’s envoy to its closest ally, he was recognized as a widely respected historian and author. His most recent opus, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” a history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East from the 1700s through the present, was critically acclaimed.

Moreover, Oren is not associated with either the far right or far left. He has served a very constructive diplomatic role in smoothing over the recent dust-up in U.S.-Israel relations that resulted during Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit. And Oren in recent days has gone out of his way to dispel inaccurate rumors that President Barack Obama had “snubbed” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s recent visit to Washington.

The suggestion that Oren be denied a speaking voice at Brandeis feeds right into the heinous intentions of those in the so-called “BDS” movement, geared toward promoting boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions toward Israel. If voices from the Jewish State, particularly those of such a civil and reasonable nature as Oren, can be drowned out by fear of campus reprisal, then we have as an American society already been cowed into sheepish submission.

We of course do not question the right of students on any campus to peacefully express and demonstrate their views on any and all subjects. Indeed, Brandeis’ namesake, the esteemed Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis, who practiced law in St. Louis at the start of his distinguished career, was himself a fierce champion of civil rights and civil liberties.

But Brandeis also was a co-founder of the American Jewish Congress and among the first prominent Jewish intellectuals to openly and strongly support the Zionist goal of a Jewish State in Palestine. While Brandeis would in all likelihood have defended the free speech rights of the student editors and others opposing Oren’s speech, he would have also questioned the judgment of those who would attempt to demonize Israel and marginalize a moderate and decent figure such as Michael Oren.

Those on campus who contemplate conciliation by sacrificing Oren might be very well intentioned. Trouble is, they may not see the logical extension of their suggestions and how they play into the hands of those for whom Israel is a blot on the Middle East map.

The BDS movement on college campuses today stands as the epitome of mob “justice.” It deliberately distorts facts about Israel and its leaders, equates the nation with some of the most criminal regimes in history (despite Israel’s stature as a strong and vibrant democracy that fosters freethinking, innovation and entrepreneurship), and seeks to shout down those who might disagree with megaphones and threats.

The best way to combat BDS and other voices of hate toward Israel and Jews is for us all to emphatically encourage institutions such as Brandeis to invite and welcome Israelis with the gravitas of a Michael Oren to speak before their students. This is true whether or not we happen to agree with every policy or action of the Israeli government at a given time. The future of Israel requires no less of us.