The Brandeis University near Boston, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the United States, was founded in 1948 to enable Jews, who until then were rejected by the prestigious higher learning establishments, to study and teach at a major league institution. It is named after Louis Brandeis, a High Court justice and an avid proponent of freedom of speech in the US.
In recent months Brandeis has been under unprecedented attack by Zionist right wing activists. The series of attacks began after the university decided last year to found a new center for Middle East studies, and invited Professor Shai Feldman from the Tel Aviv University to head the department.
Feldman, who aimed to found a center based on pluralistic thought, invited acclaimed researchers to join his team; among them was Khalil Shkaki of the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, and Abdel Monem Said Aly from Cairo. For the sake of full disclosure, I admit that I too was invited to join the team as a guest researcher last year.
Collaborating with the enemy
A short while after the center commenced its activities in January 2005, the first article criticizing the university was published in the New York Sun. The article accused Brandies of collaborating with the enemy, as Professor Shkaki is none other than the brother of Fathi Shkaki, the former leader of Islamic Jihad, and perhaps even fundraised for the organization 10 years ago.
Since then the attacks have been continuing at full force, including in the national media; the university was attacked for awarding an honorary doctorate to Tony Kushner, the producer of the "White House" who is known for his leftist stance; for an art exhibition by Palestinian children, for inviting Jordanian King Abdullah to deliver a speech to university graduates, and for inviting President Carter to speak about his new controversial book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."
The most recent attack stemmed from a paper in which Shkaki proposed that jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti be released as part of a political settlement. Following the paper's publication, university donors announced that they would reconsider further donations.
Declarations of this type prompted Brandeis' President, Professor Jehuda Reinharz to refrain from inviting controversial persons from both Left and Right wing camps to the university campus, and to try and "lower their profile" until the storm blows over.
What is actually happening here? Professor Shkaki is a welcome guest here after all, Prince Hassan is an old friend of Israel, and art exhibitions by Palestinian children come and go. Why have events that normally spark minor interest in Israel turned into uncompromising wars in the US?
It appears that Brandeis University is involved in a greater battle; it’s a battle over the image of the community. Despite the fact that American politics are primarily democratic, throughout the years it has aligned itself with the hawkish parties in Israel. In time, this stance was adopted by organizations such as AIPAC, the United Jewish Appeal, the Presidents' Conference and Zionists of America. Anyone questioning this stance found himself ousted.
Yet just as American concepts reach Israel rather belatedly, our world views are also slowly penetrating US consciousness. The majority of Israeli citizens believe that a Palestinian state should be set up alongside Israel, and that peace is also made with bitter enemies. This type of thinking is increasingly penetrating the consciousness of the Jewish American public.
The traditional Jewish leadership has began to notice that it is in danger, and is conducting a rearguard battle in order to prevent erosion of one of the community's supporting pillars. Brandeis is not just a showcase for American Jewry. Brandeis University is a leading academic institution, and silencing the voices from within will also put an end to its academic excellence.
Professor Dror Ze'evi is a lecturer of Middle Eastern studies at the Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva