Brandeis University served as the center for my intellectual development and remains close to me. I have written letters of recommendation for prospective students, linked a Turkish community with Brandeis' summer Genesis program and encouraged my sister to apply. Today, however, there are elements of this community that make me think twice about these decisions.
I am sure that members of the administration have spoken with trustees and alumni who are incredulous over the controversy surrounding the invitation of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to be commencement speaker. I am writing to explain why I could have predicted this outburst 10 years ago.
Though masquerading as a statement against Israeli policy, this debate is the predictable (yet surreal) culmination of an intellectual atmosphere which scorns particularism, deconstructs all elements of identity and which is nauseated by the notion of Jewish power. We are all implicated in this as alumni, students, faculty and administrators.
I am not unfamiliar with the community behind these recriminations: I was once part of it. At the height of the Second Intifada, I was a regular attendant of teach-ins and peace rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. I attended vigils for Palestinians (they were never held for dead Israelis) killed during Israeli military operations and read Rashid Khalidi with Prof. Gordon Fellman (PAX). I was a consummate progressive Jewish Brandeisian. I thought Fran Fanon had a right to take up arms but Vladimir Jabotinsky did not and cited as often as I could that Brandeis, though built on Jewish values, "was not a Jewish school." When I found out my first-year roommate was Indian, I was relieved.
My familiarity with this community allows me to understand that the debate over the Oren selection is not out of spite but that it stems from the close relationship that exists between Brandeis, its students and Judaism. Brandeis is where a number of Jews are exposed to substantive critiques of Israeli policy for the first time. Armed only with mediocre day-school defenses of the Jewish state, this soon spirals out of control. The debate is no longer about Israeli policy. It is about identity.
How are students supposed to react when their intellectual development takes place in an environment in which professors insist that all identity is a social construct? Torah school memories of Herzl's "If you will it, it is no legend" fail in the face of Weber or Adorno. Many Jewish Brandesians lack the vocabulary to defend Jewish sovereignty. Add to this the global aversion to Zionism, and some of us don't stand a chance. Pretty soon, a school founded on Jewish values is protesting the invitation of an official from the only true democracy in the Middle East. No such debate took place when Jordan's Prince El Hassan bin Talal spoke in 2006.
Brandeis was founded on the basis of embracing the particularities of identity. Its premium on nonexclusion was a way for students to express their identities without having to deconstruct or apologize for them. The debate on campus might suggest that Brandeis is succumbing to a trend in which every perspective is legitimate, all national identities are a social construct (except if you are Tibetan, Iraqi, Afghani or Palestinian) and the Jewish state still requires a defense.
Israel is not a rogue state, and Ambassador Oren is no war criminal. These are facts, situated in reality, that require no deconstruction. What are in need of deconstruction, however, are the forces behind the Oren debate, which Brandeis has a responsibility to confront if it wants to fulfill the mission it inherited from its namesake.
Editor's note: The writer is a member of the Class of 2004 and is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies.