It will be an unusual commencement for a Jewish-sponsored university: a speech by a Jordanian prince, and an honorary degree for a playwright who has bluntly criticized Israel.
Sunday’s ceremony will also be a fitting end to yet another contentious year at Brandeis University. The school has faced criticism for hiring a Palestinian scholar who some contend has ties to terrorists. It also took flak for removing student artwork depicting Palestinian suffering, saying the piece lacked context.
Some have also objected to Sunday’s commencement lineup, less for the speaker, Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan (a longtime peace proponent), than for an honorary degree being awarded to playwright Tony Kushner.
“I will have great pride in what we’re doing” on graduation day, Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz said in an interview this week in his campus office. The honorees, he said, exemplify Brandeis’ four pillars: excellence, social justice, nonsectarianism and Jewish sponsorship.
Sharp political debate is nothing new at Brandeis. The school has only about 3,200 undergraduates, and about half are non-Jews, yet it is highly visible in the American Jewish community. U.S. Jews founded the university in 1948, have supported it generously and watch it closely, not hesitating to criticize when they believe the school has lost its way.
Some believe Reinharz has done just that.
“I never felt as a student and certainly after graduating that Brandeis ever engaged in any sort of indoctrination about Israel or Judaism, nor should it,” says Susan Tuchman, a 1979 graduate and an attorney with the group Zionist Organization of America. “But I do feel Brandeis has to be true to its supporters and the people who created it and the reasons it was created.”
From its start, Brandeis opened its doors not only to Jews but to Blacks and to women who — like Jews — were excluded from other colleges at the time. As other colleges began admitting those groups, Brandeis had to adjust its role, and by many marks has succeeded. It boasts a $600 million endowment and a rising academic reputation. Last month, an alumnus and a faculty member were each awarded Pulitzer prizes in history and music, respectively.
The constant debate here is over how to honor the school’s religious tradition and be a multicultural university. It’s not unlike the debate at academically ambitious Roman Catholic universities like Notre Dame or Boston College. But at Brandeis, it is complicated by the intensity of current disagreements over Middle East politics, and by the growing diversity of the student body.
Reinharz ruffled some feathers by partnering with a Palestinian university and a new center for Middle East studies that opened last year. The center pledged to provide unpoliticized research, but some say Reinharz went overboard trying to demonstrate it would not be pro-Israel by hiring Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian demographer who some contended had ties to terrorists. Reinharz defended Shikaki and accused some critics of practicing a form of McCarthyism.
Reinharz has demonstrated a “remarkable willingness to take the heat,” says Shai Feldman, the center’s director. Counters Tuchman: “It’s like they’re going overboard to deny their roots.”
Reinharz says Brandeis is well served by vigorous debate and the growing diversity of its students. The number of Muslim students on campus has reached nearly 300, including Israeli Arabs who have come through a special scholarship program.
“I did encounter some uncomfortable conversations or arguments where I felt I was personally attacked and sensed there was some anger devoted against me simply because I’m a Muslim or an Arab Israeli,” says senior Manar Fawakhry, one of the scholarship recipients. But she says those discussions were ultimately rewarding, and she thinks her presence helped other students move beyond stereotypes.
She credits Brandeis for bringing a range of voices to campus, though she criticized the decision to remove the artwork. Reinharz says he wants debate, but insists on civility and context. The artwork failed that test, he said, though it can be returned if the student provides some context.
“The context can be anything she wants,” says Reinharz, noting an anti-Arab sign was also recently taken down on campus. “But when you place pictures that potentially disturb the kind of communal and scholarly atmosphere on the campus, then we have a problem.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com