Tony Kushner to be Honored at Brandeis:

Playwright Tony Kushner is to be receive an honorary degree at Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university (and my alma mater). Various groups, led by the Zionist Organization of America, are criticizing Brandeis for honoring Kushner, because of his harsh anti-Israel views. The interesting thing, though, is Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz's response to the controversy:

Brandeis bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. 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.

Over the years, Brandeis has honored hundreds of men and women of distinction whose personal views, I am sure, span the full spectrum of political discourse, and the University applies no litmus test requiring honorary degree recipients to hold particular views on Israel or topics of current political debate.

Mr. Kushner is not being honored because he is a Jew, and he is not being honored for his political opinions. Brandeis is honoring him for his extraordinary achievements as one of this generation's foremost playwrights, whose work is recognized in the arts and also addresses Brandeis's commitment to social justice.

There is an obvious contradiction between Brandeis President Reinharz stating that "the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions" and his stating that the school is honoring Kushner in part because his work "addresses Brandeis's commitment to social justice."

Moreover, given that Brandeis has officially (and not just in this context) stated that it has a "commitment to social justice," any decision Brandeis makes can be judged in that light. So it's entirely fair, based on Reinharz's own premises, to ask whether Kushner's views on Israel advance "social justice."

Two other points: I've been appalled for some time that Brandeis, allegedly which perceives itself one of the nation's top universities, now includes a "commitment to social justice" in its mission statement. When I was a student there, its much more appropriate motto was (and probably still officially is) "truth even unto its innermost parts." But a precommitment to some particular notion of "social justice" [update: itself an ideologically charged term; why not just "justice"?] can obviously interfere with the pursuit of truth, and a university's mission should be the pursuit of truth, not furtherance of ideology.

Second, while Reinharz claims that "the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions," Brandeis almost never honors Republicans, and has never, to my knowledge (and I've had correspondence with President Reinharz about this, and he didn't give me any counter-examples), given an honorary degree to anyone more conservative than a moderate Republican.

In sum, it's entirely fair to conclude that Brandeis University does consider the political views of its honorees, but that being harshly anti-Israel (which is apparently consistent with a "commitment to social justice") isn't disqualifying, unlike, say, being a conservative Republican (which apparently is not).

UPDATE: Reader (and fellow Brandeis alum) Mike Feinberg points out that Brandeis offered Jeane Kirkpatrict an honorary degree in 1994, just before Reinharz became president of the university. Prof. Gordon Fellman, in an article in the Boston Jewish Advocate, recounts what happened next:

The movement in question began at a faculty meeting I missed. I was out of town Four Latin Americanists at Brandeis, familiar with Kirkpatrick's influence south of the border, spoke in favor of a motion by one of them, to ask the Trustee to rescind the offer of a degree.

Two days later, I joined colleagues in soliciting signatures to a letter one of them wrote to the Brandeis student newspaper explaining our reasons for protesting a degree for Kirkpatrick. Of about 50 professors canvassed over a weekend, 45 signed the letter, scores more would have had there been time to ask them.

As opposition built, Kirkpatrick, assumedly sensing a lack of support from the university, withdrew. I don't suppose we will see any similar outrage over Kushner, who wrote: "The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community." Quite something for Brandeis, a university named after the most important American Zionist, and whose largest financial supporters, are, according to Kushner, "the most repulsive members of the Jewish community." Anyway, given that there is precedent for an honoree withdrawing under public pressure, I don't see how anyone can ask the Zionist Organization of America and its supporters to restrain themselves from putting the same kinds of pressure on Brandeis the anti-Kirkpatrick folks did.

Brandeis Censors an Exhibit of Palestinian Art:

Boston Globe:

"University officials said the paintings depicted only one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lior Halperin, the student who organized the exhibit, said the university censored an alternative view.... Brandeis officials said they wanted to make sure the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is presented in a balanced manner.

''It was completely from one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we can only go based on the complaints we received," said Dennis Nealon, a Brandeis spokesman. ''People were saying: (a) what is this; (b) what is it trying to say; and (c) should there be some sort of balancing perspective here?" Nealon said that the university would consider displaying the artwork again in the fall, alongside pieces showing the Israeli point of view."

The article suggests that some students were upset, because the exhibit came without any explanatory information, and thus appeared to be officially endorsed by university staff. A simple disclaimer, explaining the origins of the art (a project organized by a Brandeis student) would have solved that problem.

Brandeis is a private university and, thus, unlike, e.g., Penn State, is not bound by the First Amendment, so there is no constitutional violation here, but the administration's reactions don't reflect well on Brandeis.

Indeed, putting this post together with one from yesterday, we have the Brandeis Administration adopting the following posture: (1) We will officially honor Tony Kushner, a virulently anti-Israel playwright who says that "[t]he biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community." and (2) We will censor (Israeli!) students who exhibit "one-sided" art that is deemed anti-Israel. In other words, we will do the wrong thing in each case, in a particularly ham-headedhanded [typo; insert kosher joke here] and illogical way. Not for the first time, my alma mater is embarassing me.

Thanks to reader David Orlinoff for the tip.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Brandeis and the Art Exhibit:
  2. Brandeis Censors an Exhibit of Palestinian Art:
  3. Tony Kushner to be Honored at Brandeis:
Brandeis and the Art Exhibit:

An official explanation from a Brandeis spokesman:

The decision to take down the Palestinian picture exhibit has been seriously misunderstood and mistakenly characterized as censorship. Brandeis encourages serious discussion of all issues, including many that are sensitive, controversial or even painful. For that very reason, the University pays careful attention to the time, place and manner in which exhibits, debates, talks, etc. occur. The concern is heightened when public space at the University is being used.

In this case, a grouping of Palestinian drawings was hung recently in the Goldfarb library. The drawings were part of a Brandeis student's class project. The student described the installation as a way to "bring into the Brandeis community a different narrative about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

The timing (in this case, immediately before final examinations) and physical location of an exhibit often require as much dialogue and discussion before being undertaken as the exhibit itself. In the absence of any larger educational context, various administrators received reports that some students found the exhibit confusing and upsetting.

Out of concern for the community, the University elected to take down the pictures at this time. In this case, as in any other, it would be our hope that interested faculty and students would come together to create an exhibit or event that would allow for thoughtful discussion around the points that the student had hoped to communicate.

The first three paragraphs quoted above actually make a certain amount of sense: whoever decided to allow an obviously extremely controversial art exhibit to be displayed in the library during finals time was guilty of poor judgment. During finals, especially at Brandeis, (which, at least when I went there, was reputed to have the third-hardest-working students in the country, after Cornell and Hopkins) students are focusing on their studies, and it's just dumb to choose that particular time and place to display a provocative, political, display of art.

However, the final paragraph more or less ruins this point, because it reiterates the position Brandeis previously took, which is that this was not simply a "time, place, and manner" restriction (to borrow phraseology from constitutional law), but also a content-based restriction, and that the display would have been fine if it had been "balanced" or on some other controversial topic perhaps less likely to raise hackles at Brandeis.

In short, it makes sense for the library director, or whoever is in charge, to have a policy, "the library is off-limits to controversial political displays around finals time," and for that individual to be overruled if he doesn't enforce such a policy. However, the Brandeis administration is waffling between that relatively cogent rationale, and one that focuses on "lack of balance" and the facts that some students were "upset," neither of which is a justifiable reason to take down a previously approved exhibit. Brandeis would have been on much more solid ground if it had simply announced that the exhibitor was welcome to display the art at any time and in any place on campus, except during finals to a captive audience in the library.