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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Israeli Ambassador Oren to speak at commencement

Community angered by divisive choice, Oren’s far-right policies

Published: April 23, 2010
Section: Front Page

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael B. Oren will speak at commencement May 23, angering some members of the Brandeis community because of the polarizing nature of Oren’s politics.

A member of the Israeli right-wing, Oren will also receive an honorary degree along with Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer; the first woman to serve as chief judge of New York State, Judith Kaye; Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina; long time diplomat and National Security Council member Dennis B. Ross; and singer-songwriter Paul Simon.

The choice of commencement speaker is made in two parts. First, a committee of the board of trustees reviews names that have been submitted to them through the year to receive honorable degrees. Once the committee determines a list, it is then sent to University President Jehuda Reinharz, who chooses the commencement speaker from the list.

Reinharz did not respond to requests to comment on his choice of commencement speaker, however University Senior Vice President of Communications and External Affairs Andrew Gully said, “Ambassador Oren is a great historian and Brandeis is honored to have him speak under any circumstances.”

Some community members are angered by the choice of Oren, a member of the Israeli right-wing who wrote in The New Republic that the Goldstone Report on the Gaza War “goes further than Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers by stripping the Jews not only of the ability and the need but of the right to defend themselves.”

Prof. Harry Mairson (COSCI) wrote in an e-mail to the “concerned” listserv that he is “appalled” at the university’s choice in commencement speaker, writing that the university was “making what is a very clear political statement, emphasizing what the chairman of the Brandeis board of trustees told the Faculty Senate Council three years ago: ‘We support Israel.’”

Mairson continued to write in his e-mail that if the university was to bestow honorary degrees upon Israeli politicians they should do it in an objective manner.

“Even dual degrees to Judge Richard Goldstone and Dore Gold would have been better,” he wrote. “At least it would have underlined the proper role of a university.”

Indeed, many members of the Brandeis community are more upset that commencement is the venue for such a polarizing speech than that which Oren will be speaking.

While Brandeis is certainly no stranger to controversial speakers (Former President Jimmy Carter, former Weatherman William Ayers and Justice Richard Goldstone have all spoken on-campus within the past three years), Mariel Gruzko ’10 wrote on the Brandeis-based blog Innermost Parts that commencement is not the proper location for such controversy.

“Regardless of your feelings for Israel … Ambassador Oren is undeniably a controversial figure,” she wrote. “Commencement is meant to be an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the entire Brandeis community; for graduating seniors, it represents a final coming-together as one.”

“Abassador Oren’s presence as commencement’s keynote speaker does not bind our community together,” she continued. “It tears us apart.”

Phil LaCombe ’10 wrote that he agreed.

“As a fellow graduating senior with similar feelings, I don’t know what to do. Commencement is supposed to be the culminating ceremony of my Brandeis career, but with Oren speaking it won’t feel that way at all,” he wrote.

Gully disagreed with this point and said “his speech, rather than being divisive, will contribute to the dialogue that we encourage all of our graduates to be a part of.”

LaCombe continued to write that having Oren speak at graduation would perpetuate stereotypes of Brandeis as a Jewish university.

“This speaker won’t show [my family] the Brandeis I know,” he wrote. “All [my family] will see is the stereotypical Jewish institution that exists to support Israel no matter what.”

Not all are upset about the choice of Oren as graduation speaker. Brandeis Zionist Association member Shirel Guez ’12, who agrees with Oren’s politics, said she is not concerned with Reinharz’ choice of speaker.

“Graduation is an exciting day for a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t think it will put a damper on the day just because they don’t like the speaker.”

Jeremy Sherer ’10, president of Brandeis’ branch of J-Street, an organization of Americans who support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot that “while I may not agree with the Ambassador’s politics … I’ll be attending commencement as a graduating senior, not as the president of J Street U Brandeis.”

“I look forward to the Ambassador’s remarks, which I’m sure will offer great advice to my classmates and I as we complete the fantastic accomplishment of graduating from Brandeis University,” he wrote.

Member of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine Lisa Hanania ’10, however, wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot that she was “saddened and disappointed that the university chose such a controversial speaker to speak in an event that is supposed to be all-inclusive and family-oriented.”

“There are times when the Israeli-Palestinian politics should be left alone, and graduation is just one of them,” she wrote, adding that she encourages students from all sides of the political spectrum to speak up against Oren’s speech.

Prof. Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) wrote to the “concerned” listserv that she would have preferred if Reinharz had chosen Farmer, who is receiving an honorary degree, to speak at the ceremony.

“It’s a shame in the face of this year’s world-historical disaster in Haiti that we’ve passed up the opportunity to bring the catastrophe and our ethical obligation to act into focus at commencement,” she wrote. “That would have been the Brandeis so many of us were drawn to when we came here to teach and learn.”

Farmer is not the only honoree receiving attention from the Brandeis campus. More than 350 Brandeis students have joined a facebook group titled “Paul Simon Should Sing at Graduation 2010.”

According to the site’s “information” section, the groups creators hope that “If we show enough support, perhaps we can convince Paul Simon … to sing (serenade us) at graduation !!!! (Because it would be awesome to say it happened.).”

Amanda Hecker ’10 said she created the Facebook group when her mother asked if Simon would sing at commencement.

“We’re paying more than $150,000 for our degree and he’s getting his for free,” Hecker said. “It would be really kind of him if he would sing for the senior class.”

Upon being informed of the group, Gully said he thought Simon “would be very flattered” to hear the group’s request.

“But I presume he’s expecting an honorary degree, not a concert,” he said.

The version of this article posted at 9 a.m. April 23 incorrectly misspelled Shirel Guez’s name.