Grumbling about a commencement speaker is almost a rite of passage on many a college campus, the choice so inevitably drawing complaints from one aggrieved group or another that it is best not to make too much of it. But the criticism directed at Brandeis University for selecting Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, for this year’s graduation cannot be so easily dismissed.
Brandeis is not Berkeley, where a student divestment resolution targeting Israel was recently debated. It is not the University of California, Irvine, where Oren’s address in February was repeatedly disrupted. It is not a hotbed of anti-Israel radicalism. It is Brandeis, for goodness sake, named for the first Jewish Supreme Court justice (an ardent Zionist), a secular university with such a strong Jewish personality that it shuts down for all of Passover.
It is not clear how many of its 3,000 undergraduates object to Oren’s keynote role, nor whether the editorial in the college newspaper reflected a general sentiment when it called the ambassador “a divisive and inappropriate choice.” The university seems in no mood to back down, nor should it. As a noted historian, Oren deserves to be respected for both his academic contributions and his diplomatic position, and not shunned in advance with the expectation that his appearance will be polarizing. Let him speak. Then decide.
But the fact that this outcry is occurring at a university with proud Jewish credentials ought to give us pause. The rabid critics of Israel can be dismissed, but not the more worrying undertone that also carries this protest — the worry of students who believe that placing a representative of the current, controversial Israeli government in so prominent a seat on the commencement stage will alienate and divide a campus that should, by all rights, be effortlessly in Israel’s corner.
Jewish communal leaders wring their hands at the studies showing a diminishing interest in and affection toward Israel among younger American Jews, and then respond by calling for more free trips to Israel, more identity programs, more and better advocacy. But they should also listen. It’s possible that the policies of the Netanyahu government, which Oren represents, also contribute to this alienation.
“Hear my words that I might teach you,” sings Paul Simon, the singer-songwriter who will, along with Oren, receive an honorary degree from Brandeis on May 23. Maybe the students are teaching us something.