NEW YORK (JTA) – Brandeis has sparked a controversy in the university community with its selection of Israel’s ambassador to Washington as its commencement speaker.
Last week’s announcement of Michael Oren as this year’s keynoter has evoked a spectrum of responses in campus publications and online forums ranging from enthusiastic support to wary apprehension to outrage.
Neither Oren nor the suburban Boston university are strangers to such controversies.
Oren was at the center of a debate over free speech after hecklers were arrested for repeatedly disrupting his address at the University of California, Irvine in February. And Brandeis, a secular university with a large Jewish student population and many Jewish donors, drew heat in some circles in 2006 for tapping Tony Kushner to receive an honorary degree, with critics citing the playwright’s statement that “it would have been better if Israel never happened” and his assertion that Israel was guilty of carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Oren, who became ambassador after a lengthy academic career, was announced as both the sole speaker at the May 23 graduation and one of seven honorary degree recipients. Among the other recipients, according to an April 20 news release, is veteran U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross.
Some of those criticizing Oren’s selection cite the policies of the Israeli government that he represents.
Others say the potential for controversy and unhappiness over the selection should have been enough to steer the university in a less divisive direction. Such critics argue that the selection of Oren was unsuitable for an ideologically diverse student body and inevitably would become a distraction, drawing the focus away from graduating seniors.
Critics of the choice include the student newspaper, The Justice, which published an editorial blasting the selection.
“Mr. Oren is a divisive and inappropriate choice for keynote speaker at commencement, and we disapprove of the University’s decision to grant someone of his polarity on this campus that honor,” the newspaper wrote, adding that the “invitation constitutes at best naivete and at worst disregard concerning the reality of the range of student political orientation on this campus.”
Writing in a separate opinion piece for the newspaper, Jeremy Sherer, the president of the campus chapter of J Street, noted that while he was personally “bothered” by Oren’s politics, “far more important to the Brandeis community” was the “possibility that Oren’s address will alienate portions of the senior class on their final day as Brandeis students.”
The column stood in stark contrast to the J Street national office, which expressed disappointment when Oren declined to attend its inaugural conference last year and has been working hard to convince the ambassador that the organization is a strong supporter of Israel even if it opposes his government’s policies in certain areas.
A J Street spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, told JTA that Sherer does not speak for the organization, insisting that the group “welcomes the ambassador speaking at the commencement.”
Perhaps the strongest criticism of the choice came from computer science professor Harry Mairson, who decried the school administration’s “political statement” in inviting an “apologist” for Israel’s actions in Gaza. Subtly likening the move to having former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara speak during the peak of the Vietnam War, Mairson said the decision to invite Oren would “compromise Brandeis’ commitment to social justice.”
The vice president of the university, Andrew Gully, defended the selection of Oren — made by school President Jehuda Reinharz — and downplayed the ensuing controversy.
“Ambassador Oren is a highly distinguished scholar and endlessly deserving of the honor he will receive,” Gully told JTA.
The Brandeis administration, he said, is not expecting disruptive protests during the speech.
“I think people are reacting without even knowing what he’ll be speaking about,” Gully said, noting that Brandeis does not request the speaker to divulge the topic or content beforehand.
Other Oren supporters emphasize his scholarly credentials and larger relevance as a historian and policymaker.
Heddy Ben-Atar, the student representative on the school’s board of trustees, wrote in the student newspaper that Oren’s “academic excellence, rigorous research practices and fearlessly honest writing” merit the invitation to speak.
Ben-Atar lamented what she described as critics unfairly speculating about the content of Oren’s speech.
Adam Ross, a senior, has launched an online petition in support of Oren, touting his accomplishments in academia and urging members of the Brandeis community to “fully embody the rich academic quality and sophistication of our university and receive Ambassador Oren’s speech respectfully, regardless of personal opinions regarding the country that Ambassador Oren represents.”
Some critics of Oren’s selection have said they would have preferred to hear from another of the honorary degree recipients: Paul Farmer, the founder of the nonprofit medical organization Partners in Health, which has been doing work in Haiti.
The school shows no sign of bowing to the calls to dump Oren as commencement speaker. But Reinharz has voiced support for a separate, growing student campaign to have singer-songwriter Paul Simon, another of the honorary degree recipients, perform while he’s on campus.