After the controversy over granting an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner, despite his vocal criticisms of Israel, Brandeis University may well change its policy on the selection process for such awards.
Jehuda Reinharz, president of the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in the United States, told The Jewish Week that Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was chosen “strictly on the basis of his accomplishments as a playwright” and that political views have never been explored by the university committee considering people for honorary degrees.
But “going forward, we clearly need to look at it,” Reinharz said, in the face of a public campaign by the Zionist Organization of America, and others, to have the university rescind the honor.
“Would Justice Louis Brandeis be anything but revolted by your honoring Tony Kushner?” ZOA President Morton Klein wrote in a letter to the university, noting that Brandeis was a founder of American Zionism and that Kushner has charged that Israel was founded through “ethnic cleansing” and that its creation was a mistake.
Reinharz said that the Brandeis honorary degree committee and board did not know about Kushner’s Mideast views when he was chosen a year ago to receive a degree at the May 21 graduation.
While a number of Brandeis faculty and supporters were embarrassed by the choice, most agreed that once Kushner had been chosen, the honor should not be rescinded, and it was not.
The Kushner incident was one of several controversies to hit Brandeis in the last few months, and Reinharz noted that, not surprisingly, they were all Mideast-related.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, he explained his nuanced views on the line between academic freedom and responsibility, and he highlighted some of the areas where Brandeis plays a unique role because of its Jewish association.
Reinharz, 62, and a native of Haifa, said he knew years ago that Brandeis “had to be part of the conversation” about the Mideast, and that “eventually something will erupt” on campus because it is “such a passionate and volatile issue.”
He said he made “a few clear rules” at the outset, most notably placing primary importance on “seeking the truth,” and insisting that “whatever we do will be within a scholarly framework” rather than taking an advocacy role.
As a key example, he noted that the school recently opened the Crown Center for Mideast Studies, which brings together scholars from all of the countries of the Middle East. It includes among its faculty Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster, who has been accused by some pro-Israel advocates of having ties with Islamic Jihad. He is the brother of the assassinated founder of the terror group.
But Reinharz defends Khalil Shikaki as “one of the finest Mideast demographers” and said that he, like every other faculty member, was hired on the basis of his scholarly achievements.
The center was created to make a difference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reinharz said, and has “a much wider perspective” than military and political battles. He said the center explores “the W’s that no one else talks about, like water, wealth and the treatment of women.”
Because of Amman’s human rights record, there was some criticism of the Brandeis choice for featured speaker at graduation this year, Jordan’s Prince El Hassan bin Talan, but Reinharz described him as “a remarkable man of peace.”
Brandeis was also criticized this semester for removing artwork done by Palestinian children, showing bloodied Palestinian children. Officials said the exhibit, organized by an Israeli Jewish student, was too one-sided.
Universities are no longer “ivory towers,” Reinharz noted, but are now “the center of action, whether we like it or not.”
He referred to several recent incidents on campus in which he made “a personal judgment call” based on “not permitting anything close to hate speech” on campus. One incident involved a student putting a sign in his dorm window asserting that Arabs kill women and children. Another occurred when a student, during a Reinharz address, unfurled a banner that was “crude to women.”
Reinharz had the student removed from the event. And he said he convinced the student with the dorm sign to turn it around to face away from the window. But he acknowledged he was fortunate the incidents ended peacefully without the matter of censorship being raised.
“These are judgment calls and they are not always clear cut,” he said.
Noting that college campuses have become politically correct environments, he observed that some Jewish students from liberal backgrounds have a “natural tendency to support or defend what is considered the underdog,” and that is how they view the Palestinians. These students sometimes take “a strong anti-Israel stance,” he said, “due to a lack of context and historical knowledge.”
To counter this trend, Reinharz has been raising $800,000 a year to help support a summer program at Brandeis that trains Mideast teachers in modern Zionist history. “It’s not an advocacy course,” he pointed out, “but puts the situation in larger context and at least provides balance.”
Thirty-seven of the 38 teachers who went through the program teach courses about Israel, he said, and 23 teachers will be taking the course this summer. Reinharz said he hopes to expand the program to Europe, though he admits it will be difficult to find universities there open to the concept, given the negative attitudes there toward Israel.
For all the controversies surrounding Brandeis of late, Reinharz emphasized that the university remains committed to service to the Jewish community and said that its record in that area is proud and unparalleled.