Jewish Journal

Listen, Learn, Then Challenge

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

May 4, 2010 | 12:30 pm

The controversy over Brandeis University’s invitation to Michael Oren Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, to be the commencement speaker is another sad indication of the unwillingness of Jews to speak with one another. Coming but weeks after threats by the South African Zionist Federation to disrupt the Bar Mitzvah of Richard Goldstone’s grandson with protests, it should give use pause over the erosion of civility in Jewish discourse, perhaps even of the erosion of the possibility of Jewish discourse.

Ambassador Oren, whose appearance at the University of California Irvine was rudely interrupted by protests from the students affiliated with the Muslim Students Association is now being greeted with protests from leftist Jews who are calling him “a rogue state apologist, a defender of (among other things) the war crimes and human rights abuses of the war on Gaza. Moreover, regardless of one’s political beliefs one can easily see that having such a polarizing speaker for commencement is divisive, exclusionary, and just plain stupid.”

Petitions are being circulated for and against the Israeli Ambassador appearance and once again people are talking at each other and past each other instead with one another.

Oren himself should be non-controversial. An American born oleh to Israel, he established himself as a fine scholar whose most distinguished work was a compelling history of the Six Day War, in which he reviewed documents from all sides to the conflict and spoke with most of the still living figures who shaped the war politically and militarily. His book is read in Arab countries and regarded quite seriously. Oren pierced some of the myths associated with Israel speedy triumph. As a scholar at the Shalem Institute, he was part of the neo-conservative think tank that features many of Israel’s most interesting moderate right thinkers. The Six Day War is of abiding interest because we are still dealing with its unsettled aftermath, perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are still fighting the Six Day War.

Oren was recruited for his role as a diplomat by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who anticipated that the right wing government he had formed would trigger a crisis in Israeli-American relations, most especially under a Democratic President, and wanted someone who could do intellectual battle in the areas where Israel’s political support in the United States was weakest, the media, college campuses and the American Jewish community. If the Brandeis students had read Oren’s work, they would have discovered someone whose personal positions on such issues as settlements and territorial compromise are subtle and nuanced and. a scholar far to the left of the government he represents or even those of the think tank which had been his intellectual home.

It is an old cliché that diplomats are paid to lie on behalf of their country and students are often so convinced of the wisdom of their own positions that they see no reason bother reading or listening to someone who may have fascinating things to say. Itis mroe fun to hurl insults.

As a diplomat Oren had stumbled a bit as he learned his new task, most especially within the Jewish community. Good scholars are truth tellers; diplomats cannot be. His decision not to speak at the J Street Conference, reportedly for it might confer legitimacy on the new organization was a misjudgment. It indicated an unwillingness to enter into dialogue with those within the Jewish community who disagreed with the current government’s policies. He was forced to retreat from a statement he made to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism convention as he misrepresented what happened at the Western Wall when a woman was attacked while praying. He pleaded that he had been misinformed by his government. I suspect he had not learned well enough the craft of lying on behalf of your nation. What happened in Israel was indefensible and he knew it.

The choice of Oren as a speaker was made by Brandeis departing President Jehuda Reinharz who at the beginning of this academic year announced his resignation after 16 years of distinguished service. One of the major achievements of Reinharz’ reign has been to embrace again Brandeis’ Jewish roots and celebrate that unique aspect of its heritage. By all accounts the University has become more impressive academically and more secure financially even in these difficult times. Reinharz too has stumbled, most especially during the economic crisis when he proposed closing the Rose Gallery of Art and selling its important collection, but he will have left a large imprint on Brandeis and left it in far better condition than he had inherited it from his immediate predecessors. So it is sad to see his presidency end in controversy, sadder still that the controversy be one of Jews attacking Jews.

Reinharz will not bow to student pressure, especially the pressure so “brilliantly” articulated above. One hopes that the ZOA will spare us the accusation that Brandeis is inhospitable to Jews and that Jewish students would be well advised to apply elsewhere. Oren will speak and speak well; there will be modest student protests and student counter-protests.

Still, American Jews as well as Israelis must be mindful of the diminished support for Israel among some of the younger Jews. The Israel of my parents’ generation was the Israel of promise and of hope – Hatikvah was the anthem in their soul. They had dreamed of a Jewish state and were thrilled to see its realization.  My own generation was shaped by the Six Day War and its seemingly heroic triumph, by the Yom Kippur War and a realization of Israel’s vulnerability. Some of us were disillusioned by the first War in Lebanon and by the seemingly endless occupation.

The generation born in 1988 – the year of most current graduates—was conceived during Intifada I. They entered kindergarten when Israel and the PLO signed their accords at the White House, they were in second grade when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. As they were about to celebrate their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, when the Clinton Peace Process disintegrated and Intifada II began. During their high school years, Israel withdrew from Gaza, bombs fell on Shederot, and Lebanon II was fought. While they were in college, the War in Gaza was conducted, and the former President was indicted for sexual misconduct and the Prime Minister resigned to face charges of corruption.

If my parents experienced the leadership of the founding generation, whose contributions were truly historical and mine of the heroic generation of Generals and Warriors, their experience of Israeli leadership [and their American counterparts] has been anything but historical or heroic and their own relationship with Israel may reflect it.

For some younger Jews Israel is at the core of their Jewish identity; for many others, even for those whose Jewish identity is strong, Israel is marginal to their Jewish identity, peripheral to their Jewish journey.

But the controversy itself is sad. Michael Oren has much to say and the students of Brandeis should be honored to hear it. If they listen, they may be surprised. So perhaps the most important lesson of the Brandeis commencement may be that there much to learn by listening. Listen first and challenge later.


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A blog by Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

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