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January 12, 2015 6:03 pm

Brandeis University: Both Pro-Israel and Pro Free Speech

avatar by Alan Dershowitz


Brandeis University remains "deeply committed to the Jewish and Zionist principles of its founders and namesake," Dershowitz argues. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Brandeis University, like many other academic institutions, is experiencing a wave of vicious, irrational and extremist hatred of Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, and Zionism, which is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. On many campuses, anti-Israel zealots among the faculty often misuse the classroom to promote bigotry, hate speech and extremism. Much of their venom is directed not only against Israel, but also against Western democratic values, and especially the United States. These hateful attitudes often influence young students who identify with popular radical professors. Sometimes the students come to the university with these views already formed.

Based on my experience, I believe that the number of faculty and students who express such views are relatively small, but their influence exceeds their numbers because they often speak more openly and loudly than those who support Western values, the United States and Israel.  On some university campuses student groups, such as Justice for Palestine, are well funded by questionable sources and have the resources to magnify their views.

None of this is surprising, since universities have often been the focal points of radical groups, both left and right.  What surprises many is that Brandeis University has joined the ranks of academic institutions with a small but significant number of faculty and students who hate Israel, America and Western values. Brandeis was the first university in America to be established under Jewish auspices. Though it is not a religious school or a school with institutional affiliations to Jewish organizations, it has always proudly reflected its Jewish heritage. Its motto is the Hebrew word “emet”, which means truth.  Its founding generation consisted largely of American Zionists, some of whom played active roles in the establishment of Israel. The university is named after the most prominent Zionist in American history, Justice Louis Brandeis.

So when the name Brandeis is in the news, associated with vocal faculty or students who express anti-Israel bigotry, it comes as a shock to many. Some mistake the individual views of some faculty and students with the institutional views of the university. Moreover, in addition to Brandeis’ commitment to specifically Jewish and Zionist values, it is also long been committed to universal principles of academic freedom, open inquiry and the marketplace of ideas.

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Enter Fred Lawrence, Brandeis’ current president, who is both a deeply committed Jewish Zionist, and a constitutional scholar deeply committed to free expression, academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. His unwillingness to censor rabidly anti-Zionist speech—speech which he fundamentally disagrees with—has sometimes been misunderstood as placing Brandeis’ imprimatur, or brand, on such expression. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hateful speech against Israel, America and Western values, must be responded to in the marketplace of ideas. It cannot be defeated by the censor.  It must win the battle for the minds and hearts of open-minded students and faculty.

President Lawrence has a difficult job but in my view he is doing it well.  Reasonable people can disagree with specific decisions, such as the withdrawal of an honorary doctorate from Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I do. But that was not so much a matter of free speech—she was not prevented from expressing her views on the campus. It was a question of who the university should honor. With regard to other issues, President Lawrence has expressed strong personal support for Israel and Zionism while defending the rights of those who disagree with him to express contrary views.

There are few more difficult jobs today than being a university president. They must balance so many conflicting principles and values. President Lawrence has tried hard to strike the appropriate balance under challenging circumstances. In my view, both he and the university have done a commendable job.

Brandeis, as an institution, remains deeply committed to the Jewish and Zionist principles of its founders and namesake. It has close connections to Israel. It presents a safe environment for supporters, detractors and critics of both Israel and its enemies.

As an institution, and through the words and deeds of its president, Brandeis University is supportive of the nation state of the Jewish people. I would be both proud and comfortable sending my own children and grandchildren to Brandeis University, knowing that they will have a safe and intellectually challenging experience in an environment supportive of Jewish, Zionist and free speech values.

Alan Dershowitz is a Professor Law at Harvard Law School (emeritus) and the author of Terror Tunnels:  The Case for Israel’s Just War Against Hamas (Rosetta Books 2014)

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