When I recently returned from the hospital after having my pacemaker implanted (it went well), I found in my email a note from Professor Louis Greenspan asking whether Brandeis had overreacted in its response to the events at Al Quds University on 5 November 2013, more particularly, to the response of Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University for the last twenty years, to the request of President Fred Lawrence of Brandeis that Sari denounce the events on his campus on 5 November 2013. Though a very minor incident in the scheme of things, the question deserves a considered and perhaps too long reply in order to provide some perspective.
Before I respond, let me state on the record that I consider Sari Nusseibeh a friend, and that we got to know each other when he was a professor of Philosophy and then chair of the philosophy department at Bir Zeit University where I have spoken at his invitation. I met Sari most recently at Al Quds University at a conference a few years back. I got to know Sari best when we were both involved in the eighties in Track II diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, I do not know and have never met Fred Lawrence who is President of Brandeis University, though I have read some of his writings.
Further, though I have many intellectual and political disagreements with Sari, I consider him to be sincerely devoted to peace between Israel and Palestine. My differences with Sari are similar to those levelled by Shlomo Avineri, the well-known Israeli political scientist and former Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Sari Nusseibeh, though a thorough peacenik, is NOT a Zionist. He is a Palestinian nationalist, but one who accepts Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority and a Palestinian minority (see his 2008 biography, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life). He is made in the mould of Arabs who once supported the positions of that tiny minority of Zionists in favour of a bi-national state led by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. He published a long article two years ago (“Why Israel Can’t Be A Jewish State”) in Al Jazeera. While recognizing Sari as a moderate and acknowledging his opposition to terrorism for which Sari was beaten badly, Avineri took Sari to task for opposing any official designation of Israel as a Jewish state. (“We are a people: a response to Sari Nusseibeh,” 12 October 2011)
Avineri criticized Nusseibeh for failing to recognize the original historical version of a Jewish state or the Jews as a people and not just a religion, and that the UN 1947 partition resolution called for a Jewish and Arab state. Sari’s denial complements his cosmopolitan rejection of ethnicity or religion as the basis of a state, which also denies the reality of most states in the world. Defining Israel as a Jewish state does not make it a theocracy, deny equal political and civil rights for secular Jews or non-Jews, or privilege the Jewish religion any more than Christianity or Islam is privileged in the way the work-week is organized where Christianity or Islam is the predominant religion of a country. Most basically, Avineri criticizes Sari for his failure to recognize Jews as a nation. Holding my or Avineri’s position does not mean that either of us would make recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a condition of peace with Palestine. For readers who have not followed the controversy, let me recapitulate the incident that set off the firestorm.
On 5 November 2013, Al Quds or Jerusalem Day for Palestinians, a demonstration took place on the main Jerusalem campus of Al Quds University, the leading university in Palestine, in which demonstrators purportedly marched in black military-style uniforms, offered the traditional stiff-armed Nazi salute, carried banners glorifying suicide bombers and portrayed dead Israeli soldiers. Al Quds Day is a creation of the anti-Israel Iran regime in 1979 on the last day of Ramadan to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in opposition to both Israel and Zionism. This style of demonstration is fairly typical around the world. For example, in the demonstration in Toronto, largely ignored, demonstrators carried fake coffins, cried out “Death to America and Israel”, called for the end of the Jewish state, and called Israelis Nazis while imitating Nazi behaviour. Elias Hazineh, a former head of Palestine House, according to Honest Reporting, said the following from the podium of the rally: “We have to give them an ultimatum. You have to leave Jerusalem. You have to leave Palestine… When somebody tries to rob a bank the police get in, they don’t negotiate and we have been negotiating with them for 65 years. We say get out or you are dead. We give them two minutes and then we start shooting and that’s the only way they’ll understand.” The demonstrations, wherever they are held, are equally repugnant.
Al Quds University is not a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism; Bir Zeit is closer to that characterization. Nevertheless, many offensive demonstrations, incidents and faculty actions have been consistent with supporting extremism, such as a poster I saw when I was there that honoured Sami Salim Hammad, a former Al-Quds student, who killed eleven people in Tel Aviv when he blew himself up. As Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote:
Al-Quds offered a ‘human rights and democracy’ course named in honor of Wafa Idriss, the first Arab Palestinian female homicide bomber. And Al-Quds is home to the Abu Jihad Museum. The museum is named for Khalil Al-Wazir, whose ‘nom de guerre’, Abu Jihad, means ‘father of the holy war’. Abu Jihad is linked to several of the most horrific incidents of Jewish terror in modern memory, including the Munich Olympics (11 murdered) and the Coastal Road Massacre (38 dead, including 13 children).
At the same time, at the conference I attended, the head of the Al Fatah student group and a third-year law student, argued for allowing any Jewish settlers to remain in a Palestinian state if that settler chose to continue living in peace. This is a position not generally advocated even by Israeli peaceniks.
However, the issue was not the rally itself at Al Quds University, but Sari Nusseibeh’s response to Fred Lawrence’s request for a clear and unequivocal condemnation in both English and Arabic. Lawrence considered Nusseibeh’s response to be inadequate and suspended the academic links between Brandeis and Al Quds (as did Syracuse University but not Bard College). President Botstein of Bard wrote: “Suggestions that the university administration condoned the actions of a very small group of students within a university of 12,000 are simply inaccurate,” noting that, “the incident and the ensuing controversy demonstrate that it is more important than ever to maintain our educational partnership with Al-Quds.”
Lawrence subsequently dismissed Sari Nusseibeh from his official role at Brandeis as a member of the International Advisory Board of The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. Sari had been the first distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center. What was Sari’s response to the original request for a condemnation, why did Lawrence consider it not only inadequate but that it added insult to injury, and was Lawrence’s suspension of the relationship between the two universities and Sari’s role at Brandeis “over the top” and disproportionate to the stimulus? After all, contrast Sari’s response with that of Professor Mohammed Dajan Daoudi who wrote that the demonstration was a sign of “disappointment, frustration, despair, anger, all combined together in a militaristic march protesting the dire present Palestinian political and economic conditions” and that, “I did not see anything Nazi about that salute.”
First, for context, some background on the Center at Brandeis and then on Fred Lawrence is necessary. I got to know the Center at Brandeis when I was a research professor for three years at the Centre for Ethics, Justice, Law and Governance at Griffith University in Australia. The two centres had similar mandates to foster, through scholarship, intellectual exchanges and activities, projects focused on ethics and justice. Brandeis focused more on coexistence between ethnic groups in conflict, most significantly, Israelis and Palestinians, that is, community-based efforts at coexistence, while the Griffith Centre was more focused on governance issues. Both were interested in the role of the International Court of Justice. We overlapped but very much differed because the chair of the Brandeis Center was Justice Richard J. Goldstone whose 2009 report on the Gaza invasion of Israel (The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, known as the Goldstone Report) I severely criticized in my writings on just war theory.
On 1 January 2011, Fred Lawrence succeeded Jehuda Reinharz as President of Brandeis where Reinharz had presided for 17 years. Reinharz, who was born in Israel, was renowned, and acknowledged by Lawrence, for his tremendous work in raising US$1.2 billion over the years, endowing chairs and establishing new research centres, one of which was the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, which Reinharz personally helped establish in 1998. It was that Center that, in the 2008-09 academic year, sponsored a joint project of Brandeis and Al Quds students in Istanbul as part of the Brandeis-Al-Quds Summer Institute to discuss the presuppositions and practices of a ‘good society’ as expressed through written works, both in literature proper and in popular utility documents such as travel guides. It was that Center that sponsored the infamous debate in 2009 between Dore Gold, a former Israeli diplomat and head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Richard Goldstone. The debate on the Goldstone Report was held on the very day that the UN General Assembly voted 114-18 calling on Israel and the Palestinians both to conduct credible investigations of the allegations in the Goldstone Report. Reinharz was a much closer friend of Sari’s than I am, and that friendship may have been part of the problem as Lawrence seeks to stamp Brandeis with his own personal brand distinct from the long shadow of Reiharz.
While Reinharz had been a noted historian specializing in Jewish history, Lawrence is a legal scholar who writes on civil rights, free expression and bias crimes. He had been Dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School prior to moving to Brandeis where his wife is a professor of English literature. One of his famous distinctions was between hate conduct and hate speech and his analysis of the difficulty of distinguishing between the two. In his speech earlier this year to the Anti-Defamation League, Lawrence defended allowing a broad swath for free speech in the belief that the only real answer to hate speech is more and better speech. Thus, while personally critical of President Carter on Israel, he criticized the decision of Yeshiva University cancelling the invitation to Carter to speak on campus. While condemning Stephen Hawking for joining the academic boycott of Israel, an action he called not only immoral but shrouded in antisemitism, it is clear that Lawrence would defend Hawking’s right to speak on campus. However, when it comes to actions that instill fear, Lawrence drew a red line. Such actions must be prevented from happening and strongly condemned if they do happen.
The demonstration at Al Quds University on 5 November crossed that red line for Fred Lawrence. The intellectual attitude of Lawrence as well as past and current difficulties with the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, may go some way to explaining why Lawrence greeted Sari Nusseibeh’s response to the demonstration on the Al Quds campus as “unacceptable and inflammatory.” Further, according to Fred Lawrence, Sari refused to take responsibility for the offensive demonstration but he certainly did distance both himself and Al-Quds University from it, contrary to Lawrence’s interpretation. What had Sari written in response to Lawrence’s request to unequivocally condemn the 5 November demonstration in both Arabic and English?
From the tone and content of Sari’s response, it would appear that Sari regarded the Brandeis request as condescending and insulting, though nowhere in the response does Sari say this. But, if another university in another country with whom your university enjoyed joint projects wrote and demanded a public condemnation for a demonstration on one’s campus, such a request would be deemed unusual at the very least. Sari wrote back and insisted not only that the university had not endorsed the demonstration but also that the demonstration – in particular, trampling on the Israeli flag – was “inconsistent with the human values we try to teach” at the university and “misrepresented who we are and what we stand for”. Sari personally and unequivocally condemned the Nazi-style demonstration by students (or outsiders) affiliated with Islamic Jihad. The demonstration was “led from people outside the university and this was an unauthorized demonstration”.
Why did Lawrence not consider this sufficient? Was it because the condemnation itself was only made in an interview with David Horovitz of the Times of Israel and not publicly in both English and Arabic? Was it because Sari implicitly did not accept responsibility for allowing the demonstration to take place? “Needless to say, the event on the campus by this small group — trampling on Israeli flags and behaving as though sympathizing with Nazi or fascist ideology — in no way represents our university values, and we are constantly trying to prevent this kind of thing from happening.” Possibly. But Sari went on to write something which seemed to really offend Fred Lawrence. First, Sari blamed “extremist Jews” and “Jewish opportunists”, presumably The Jewish Press who had written to Lawrence requesting a response to the Al Quds demonstration and then, to Sari’s “inadequate” response. Sari accused those extremists and opportunists of using the demonstration to start a vilification campaign against Al Quds University.
More significantly, in Sari’s account, the real evil of the Nazis, even more than the horrific genocide of six million Jews, appeared to be transporting the “Jewish problem” in Europe to the Middle East, which logically led to Al Nakba, the disaster that befell Palestinians with the creation of Israel – an historically and ethically unjustified position, but one characterizing many peaceniks. Without Nazism “there would not have been the massacre of the Jewish people in Europe; without the massacre, there would not have been the enduring Palestinian catastrophe.” This logical and causal sequencing was understandably repugnant to Lawrence as well as being historically inaccurate. But many more Jewish historians and Jewish organizations make the mistake of viewing the creation of Israel as a consequence of the Holocaust, though there is little evidence to back such an interpretation. Finally, Sari seemed to remonstrate Lawrence not for requesting in the first place an open denunciation, though that is implied, but in surrendering to the pressures of Jewish extremists who push confrontation rather than reconciliation. Nusseibeh told David Horovitz that, “Hopes for peace rest on people from both sides who try to hold the reins and steer the whole situation toward ultimate reconciliation, and not allow extremist actions on both sides to blow up the whole thing.”
Further, Sari suggested that Lawrence’s response only fed those on the Palestinian side who denigrated dialogue and called for boycotts of Israeli universities. Lawrence’s position “only strengthens those on the other side who call for boycotts of Israeli universities. It will be picked up by the people who say there is no future in these cooperations. We have been trying to say it is possible. Yes, there are obstacles but we try to overcome them. We can only overcome them by working together.” Further, “these opportunists are quick to describe the Palestinians as a people undeserving of freedom and independence, and as a people who must be kept under coercive control and occupation. They cite these events as evidence justifying their efforts to muster broad Jewish and western opinion to support their position. This public opinion, in turn, sustains the occupation, the extension of settlements and the confiscation of land, and prevents Palestinians from achieving our freedom.” In other words, in giving in to the pressures of zealots, Lawrence was undermining the whole prospect of reconciliation and reinforcing the settler movement and those in Israel and abroad who would deny Palestinians an independent state.
So, what do I think?
- President Fred Lawrence was wrong writing Sari requesting he publicly denounce the demonstration in both English and Arabic. It was insulting, failed to recognize Sari’s strenuous efforts against militarism and terrorism and was hypocritical since Fred Lawrence never wrote the heads of universities with which Brandeis enjoys partnerships to request they condemn Al Quds demonstrations on their campuses;
- Quite aside from my own view that Sari is incorrect on his political and historical interpretations and may be wrong or insightful about why Fred Lawrence wrote to him making the request in the first place, Sari was impolitic in bringing into play his own political views and virtually asserting that Lawrence had given into the pressures of Zionist expansionists;
- Lawrence might have recommended an academic reconsideration of the relationship between Al Quds and Brandeis, but I would consider that he set aside academic procedures and prerogatives in suspending the relationship without academic due process even though he wrote that the decision “was taken deliberatively and with broad input.” Dan Terris, the Director of the Center, was on the spot at Al Quds as it happens, and fed back information to Lawrence on the demonstration, but he neither requested nor endorsed and implicitly criticized both Lawrence’s process and decision — “nothing that we have learned during this period has changed our conviction – built over many years of experience – that Sari Nusseibeh and the Al-Quds University leadership are genuinely committed to peace and mutual respect”;
- This is even truer of Lawrence’s cancellation of Sari’s membership on the advisory board of the Centre.
Though this dust-up is a puddle in the whole sea of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, it is an indicator that even institutions dedicated to learning and objective analysis, and, more particularly, to enhancing dialogue between Jews and Palestinians, should so fumble a simple occasion such as the response to extremist Al Quds demonstrations.