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January 29, 2007

Jimmy Carter and Reality-Starved Campus Politics


On Tuesday, January 23, a president of the United States with plummeting popularity gave a major speech, one shrouded in controversy, which was greeted with surprising acclaim by the majority of those hearing it. George W. Bush’s State of the Union address? No, I’m referring to Jimmy Carter’s speech at Brandeis University, that same afternoon.


As a graduate of Brandeis, I’ve followed the controversy over Carter with great interest from the start, primarily because it tells us quite a lot not only about my old school, but about how campus politics often differs greatly from that of the “real world.”


The Carter controversy began when the former president published a new book, called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which was probably the most pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel polemic ever put forward by a U.S. president.


Now, arguments that are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel are certainly nothing new in the United States, whether from the hard left or from the Buchananite right. There is no “prohibition” on such views and there never has been. But what is different about Carter’s book, aside from the fact that it came from a former president, is that it considerably overreaches in comparing Israel, an established, pluralistic democracy, to South Africa’s apartheid regime.


Following the book’s publication, after Carter and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz traded hostile op-eds in the Boston Globe, the two men were invited by university President Jehuda Reinharz to debate on the Brandeis campus. Carter refused, however, and was instead invited to speak, alone, by a group comprised of students and professors. One student made the Orwellian statement that since pro-Palestinian voices are often excluded from the national debate, Carter should not have to debate.


So Carter spoke solo, and Dershowitz was denied permission to ask a question during the audience question-and-answer session. He was, however, allowed to conduct a separate rebuttal later that night, in which he said, according to the AP, that he agreed with Carter’s Brandeis speech, but that Carter sounded quite different when appearing on al-Jazeera. The noted film director Jonathan Demme also asked to film the speech for a documentary, but was denied permission by university officials.


The speech drew so much nationwide attention that a webcast crashed Brandeis’ web site. In the speech, according to the Washington Post, Carter bashed Israel’s continued security fence, and those who attended the speech were primarily on the former president’s side. The former president also clarified and apologized for a sentence in the book that appeared to condone suicide bombings. There were no outbursts or interruptions, although several students asked pointed questions.


This controversy exposes a fault line between two main pillars of Brandeis’ identity: Its status as a Jewish-sponsored university and its penchant for “social justice,” usually defined purely as left-wing political activism. For much of the school’s history, the two have gone hand in hand, but as support for Israel has continued, somewhat wrongly, to be associated with conservatism, the pillars have clashed. The same dynamic surfaced last year, when the Jewish playwright and frequent Israel-basher Tony Kushner was given an honorary degree by the school, and a Palestinian art exhibit was brought to campus (and later yanked early by Reinharz.)


Brandeis counts such radical luminaries as Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis as alumni, part of its reputation as a center of civil rights and anti-war activism in the 1960s. This reputation, more recently, has led to a flood of students who fetishize the ‘60s above all, and the constant refrain: “We’re so apathetic - our parents’ generation ended a war - what did we ever do?”


But rather than taking over buildings and ending a war, this mindset has manifested itself instead as a seemingly endless series of controversies over visiting speakers on campus. In the last 10 years alone, Waltham has seen campus firestorms over visits by Helmut Kohl, John Glenn, Fidelity honcho Peter Lynch, Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, Charlton Heston and now the 39th president.


After giving his speech Tuesday, Carter merely left campus. Nothing Earth-shattering had taken place, and nobody’s life had changed appreciably as a result of his arriving. In fact, the same goes for all of the speeches listed above. It just goes to show that campus politics isn’t real politics, and the controversies of the university tend to dissipate into thin air once enough time and distance has passed.


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