Carter and Reality-Starved Campus Politics
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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?”
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.
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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