Last Wednesday it was fundraising. Let me try a change of pace to university politics. I lived in that world a long time and usually I see the issues clearly but this one is stumping me a bit.
You may be following the story too. It’s not a simple one, so read this in installments if necessary. Brandeis University has withdrawn its offer to give an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, eight days after announcing the honor. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s story is a heroic one. She was born in Somalia to a strict Muslim family and raised in Kenya, survived civil war, female genital mutilation, abuse, and an arranged marriage. She fled to the Netherlands in the early 1990s. After renouncing her Muslim faith, Hirsi Ali became an outspoken proponent of women’s rights, especially in the Muslim world, and a staunch critic of Islam. She served as a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006.
The problems arise because of how she has couched her criticism of Islam. Ms. Ali has referred to Islam as “the new fascism” and “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and has said that “violence is inherent in Islam.” “We are at war with Islam,” she has proclaimed, asserting that it must be defeated. The president of Brandeis, Fred Lawrence, said in his announcement of the change that “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”
Supporters of the Brandeis decision, made after seven days of pressure from within and outside Waltham, include Rabbi Eric Yoffe (former head of the Union for Reform Judaism and himself a Brandeis grad.) He knows that radical and extremist elements exist in the Muslim world. When they kill and torture in the name of God, they hijack Islam in the process, subverting its image by professing to speak in its name. But (says Yoffe) “in this instance, none of that is relevant. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s sweeping statements of condemnation do not make vital distinctions that civilized people must always make. I am referring to the distinctions between radical and fanatic versions of Islam and moderate and centrist versions of Islam. As we Jews know very well, there are real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements.”
Of course there is an opposing viewpoint, mostly from more conservative voices such as William Kristol. In the recent past, they point out, Brandeis has honored American playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, who have both made most unfortunate anti-Israel remarks. As recently as this March, Tutu opened Israel Apartheid Week in South Africa by comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid and reiterated his endorsement of BDS. Kushner, in an infamous 2004 interview with Haaretz, called the creation of Israel a “mistake.” Yet in 2006, former Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz (my former running buddy from Ann Arbor days) defended Kushner’s honorary degree, saying, “Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the university does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.” That remark was made in response to a campaign to pull Kushner’s honor. “That Brandeis withstood Zionist unhappiness in 2006, and went ahead to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner, points to who today really has power in the United States—and even in the Jewish community,” are the strong words of Middle East Forum President Dr. Daniel Pipes, whose daughter attended Brandeis.
To complicate matters, one of my favorite thinkers and staunch defenders of Israel, Yossi Klein-Halevi, writing with a Muslim colleague, Abdullah Antepli, rushed to print endorsing the Brandeis decision. These two writers argued that both Muslims and Jews often promoted “each other’s renegades.” They put it this way: “Some Muslim groups enthusiastically embrace born Jews who spew a form of self-hatred that borders on anti-Semitism, while some Jewish groups sponsor born Muslims who have repudiated Islam and have made a career of exposing their former faith.” As they saw it, Hirsi Ali had “crossed the line from critic of Islamist extremism to demonizer of Islam itself.” No university, they argue, that promises to abide by “inclusivist values” could honor this. Note that Hirsi Ali is not banned from speaking at Brandeis, she just will not be receiving the honorary degree.
What do you think? Is Brandeis applying a double standard? I waver on this. Demonizing a whole religion is clearly unacceptable, and we all know or should know Muslims who wish us only well. But Brandeis has honored people who don’t hesitate to say hateful things about the largest Jewish community on the map. Are we fine honoring people as long as they only dump on us? I do see something of a double standard there. But I mostly think Brandeis did what it had to do. I also think its leadership should be embarrassed that it came down like this, that a “Jewish” university acted in such an amateurish way.
Ponder this and stay dry on this last Wednesday of April showers. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Yom Haatzmaut begins Monday evening. Our Religious School has numerous activities to celebrate Israel’s 66th birthday. We also are joining up with B’nai Israel on Tuesday evening for food and entertainment (see listserv – www.bethelmc.org ) and having our annual Shabbat service and dinner on May 2nd with our choirs and Israeli food coordinated by Empty Nesters I (see listserv for that too.)