Brandeis’ Shame: Severs Academic Ties with Palestinian University
by Richard Silverstein on November 20, 2013 · 23 comments
In the past few days, two pieces of embarrassing news originated from Brandeis University. The first concerns its academic affiliation (or former affiliation) with Al Quds University in Abu Dis, Palestine. Al Quds is a remarkable Palestinian educational institution founded by its current president, Sari Nusseibeh in 1984. Nusseibeh has written several well-received books about his life and political commitments to the Palestinian struggle. His university stands as a beacon of tolerance and progress for its students and the nation.
Earlier this month, a group of students affiliated with a Palestinian militant group (Netanyahu’s office claims they were from Islamic Jihad) marched on campus. Since the school doesn’t allow guns on campus, these individuals used wooden cut-outs resembling guns. They dressed in black and held aloft the black flag of the Palestinian Islamist movement. Some of them allegedly also raised a straight-armed salute that, to the eyes of ‘Nazi-hunters’ like Breitbart and Washington Free Beacon, resembled a Nazi salute.
AP published a story which placed the incident into some context:
Al-Quds in a statement Wednesday urged Brandeis to reconsider. The university said it launched an investigation immediately after the Nov. 5 rally and informed all political factions on campus not to hold such activities. The university said the campus political wing of Islamic Jihad responsible for the rally has a small number of students who violated their agreements with the university.
The faction’s activities are unacceptable and contrary to the university’s “liberal policy and the human values we are trying to promote,” the statement said.
…A spokesman for Islamic Jihad’s military wing in the Gaza Strip told The Associated Press that although similar, there is no connection between Islamic Jihad’s salute and that of the Nazis. The raised arm pointing toward the sky symbolizes a desire to reach holy Jerusalem…he said.
While I neither admire nor support Islamist militancy, we must put this incident into context by noting that IDF has repeatedly invaded campus in the past and deliberately provoked full-on melees. This Haaretz report goes all the way back to 2003. This raid, in which 40 Al Quds students were shot with steel coated rubber bullets happened only a week ago. Imagine if you were a student watching as your unarmed fellow students were shot and maimed by a hostile government that invaded your campus periodically just for the hell of it. You might feel pretty militant yourself. Nor do I recall Brandeis’ administration offering any public statements of support or solidarity for its beleaguered academic partner.
The Israeli Likudist press followed Bibi’s lead and began reporting this story earlier this month and it was picked up by the right-wing Jewish press as well. It noted Brandeis University’s academic affiliation with Al Quds and began pressuring both the president and board of trustees to sever its ties. The first response was to organize a faculty committee to travel to Palestine to investigate the incident. But unfortunately, Brandeis’ president, Frederick Lawrence, in office little more than a year, grew skittish under pressure from the wealthy pro-Israel advocate-donors on his board and laid down an ultimatum: Al Quds had to release a statement denouncing the rally and it had to do so in English and Arabic. These were demands that virtually mirrored those of the right-wing pro-Israel media. It was an ultimatum, and a demeaning one that no self-respecting academic institution would issue to a peer.
Al Quds did release a statement that criticized the rally. But it was far too muted and balanced for the pro-Israel critics. The Palestinian university also refused to publish the statement in Arabic. That settled the matter for Lawrence and he immediately suspended academic ties with Al Quds.
There are several remarkable aspects of this case: first, both Brandeis and Al Quds are academic institutions. The focus ought to be on academic content and not on extra-curricular student activities. Are there courses offered or academic papers published that violate whatever code Lawrence wishes to enforce? If not, why focus on non-academic issues?
For example, if Brandeis students rampage through campus in a drunken riot (as happens in many U.S. colleges) would this be grounds for Al Quds to suspend its relations with Brandeis? If Brandeis Hillel screened Third Jihad, Obsession or any of the Clarion Films, which depict Islamist militants as Nazis seeking to rule the world, would that be legitimate grounds for Al Quds severing its relationship? Or, just as some U.S. campuses have ROTC, if Brandeis hosted an IDF officer speaking proudly about his tour of duty in the West Bank in which he participated in raids on Al Quds, would that be sufficient grounds?
And as long as we’re discussing severing ties with academic institutions, might we consider whether Brandeis wants its example used to justify other universities who might sever their ties with Israeli universities whose faculty and research support Occupation and the national security state? What’s good for the goose…right?
What I’m getting at regarding the Al Quds rally, is that there is context to everything in the Israel-Palestine conflict. If you refuse to understand this you may feel righteous in denouncing the sins of the enemy, but you will be little more than a fulminating ideologue. That’s in effect what Brandeis’ president has become.
Second, is there any written code of conduct governing the affiliation agreement between Brandeis and Al Quds? If so, what was the basis for Lawrence’s decision other than abject fear of losing donations (which is not an academic criteria)?
Third, there is a great danger in making academic decisions using non-academic criteria. In this case, the decision to sever ties is purely a political and financial consideration. Schools that make major decisions on this basis risk losing or tarnishing their academic reputation. Further, Brandeis has allowed itself to become a cog in the pro-Israel hasbara apparatus run out of the Israeli prime ministers office. What does that say about Brandeis and its decision-making process?
Brandeis’ public statement announcing the cut off of ties notes, in its defense, that it maintains noted academic programs in conflict resolution and peace studies. But the fact is that those faculty from those departments delegated to travel to Al Quds and investigate the incident were pre-empted before they could even return with their recommendations. I’m told by a source with knowledge of these matters that no campus faculty from any of these programs were consulted before the decision to terminate was made. So what good is it to have such programs if you ignore them? And isn’t it the height of hypocrisy to defend a decision made based on political considerations by saying you couldn’t possibly be accused of political bias because of the existence of these programs?
Jehuda Reinharz’ Big Payday
On a related matter, the Boston Globe published a shocking report that former Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz has been receiving his full presidential salary for years after he left office (in 2010). He’s been paid $600,000 each year (salary and benefits) since then and those payments will continue for some unspecified period. This is on top of the $800,000 annual salary he’s being paid as a ‘consultant’ to the Mandel Family Foundation.
But the intrigue goes farther: the Foundation has contributed $50-million to Brandeis over the past twenty years. The family name is plastered all over campus. A family member sits on the Brandeis board of trustees. So you have to ask the question: what’s going on? What’s going on, as I read it, is that Brandeis wanted to get rid of Reinharz after his disastrous decision to eliminate the Rose Art Museum and sell its art holdings in order to fund other academic programs. The uproar from museums, artists and trustees was so intense that the University sustained a black eye and backed off the ill-conceived plan.
Reinharz had been president since 1994, an eternity for college presidents. The trustees and faculty had had enough. They negotiated a golden parachute that offered him a good-will bribe of years worth of salary. The Mandel family offered him a plum, do-nothing job at the Foundation. And just like that, a problem was solved for everyone involved. It was, as a friend told me, the ‘quietest and most elegant regicide’ he’d ever seen.”
But appearances! Oh my how appearances betray them! Reinharz gets that University salary and does nothing for it. He teaches no classes, advises no students, attends no faculty or departmental meetings. Though he claims he ‘advises’ the current president and smooths relations with the major donors with whom he’s enjoyed especially benficial relationships, Reinharz was on sabbatical and off campus the entire first year of Lawrence’s presidency.
Reinharz also does little or nothing for the Mandel Foundation. As he says: he never punched a time clock at any academic job. Which is another way of saying, I don’t show up. Mandel, according to the Globe article, didn’t even report Reinharz’s consulting fee on its IRS 990, which is a serious breach of the tax code.
If you look at the portrait accompanying the Globe report you’ll see a man who thinks exceedingly highly of himself. He reminds me of a Roman emperor with that slightly wincing, imperious gaze.
The entire affair is an exceedingly ugly portrait of expediency, venality and board room self-dealing. It’s extraordinary that a school which must have a course of two in ethics and/or non-profit governance, should engage in such borderline chicanery.
It reminds me of an incident back in the late 1980s, when I was a fundraiser for Brandeis and it hired a fresh, young go-getter VP for development whom it snatched up from Cornell. He’d been placed in the job by a job recruiter whose company founder sat on the Brandeis board. No sooner did he say hello than he fired 15% of the fundraising staff including all the regional development staff (including yours truly). A few months later, the VP himself was gone. Everyone realized they’d made a big mistake. His departure was greased by the job recruiter, who promised to find him yet another job. And everyone was happy! What a nice, cozy set of relationships!
Returning to Reinharz, not everyone was happy. There are a few faculty hold-outs who yearn for the days when Brandeis’ commitment to its namesake’s social justice vision was far firmer:
“You can imagine how the faculty feels about this,” said Carol L. Osler, a business professor at Brandeis, noting that Brandeis was named after a leader in social justice. “One has to wonder if it is consistent with the values of Justice Louis Brandeis.”
The importune questions of the Globe reporter who interviewed Reinharz must’ve been exceedingly annoying, because when asked what research he might be pursuing, instead of answering truthfully, he told him he was writing a book about “donkeys” in literature:
The one area where Reinharz was specific about how he spends his time was his own research, including a book he is co-writing on the history of the donkey in literature, arguing that the animal is often used as a substitute for people.
“There are smart donkeys, stupid donkeys, evil donkeys, etc., and no one has ever contemplated this on a large scale,” said Reinharz, who commissioned an artist to make a wood carving of a donkey that stands proudly on his desk. “It’s probably the most ambitious topic I have ever contemplated.”
I presume this was his perverse way of trying to make the reporter look like a jerk. But the only jerk it exposed was Reinharz himself: donkey indeed. But on rereading the passage, it occurs to me that Reinharz might just have been sincere. If he was, I’m afraid it’s him who’s wearing the donkey’s ears.
A bit of background is helpful here: a few years ago Norman Finkelstein and Daniel Pipes had been scheduled to speak at Brandeis. Both talks were cancelled and Pipes raised a ruckus, threatening to disrupt the University’s donor relations by calling for trustees to boycott the school and take an alleged $5-million off the fundraising table. Instead of telling Pipes to take a hike, Reinharz ushered him into his office for a cozy chat, thus giving an academic seal of approval to one of the more noxious Islamphobes on the circuit. In some senses, it was Reinharz’ “cave” on this matter that showed where the school’s real priorities lay. It was more about doing everything possible not to rile donors, more than it was standing up for academic principle.
Reinharz’s wife, Shulamit, is also on the University faculty, where she teaches sociology. At some point in her career, she turned to the dark side politically. She joined the board of the David Project (the local Islamophobic group spearheading the attack on the Roxbury mosque). She even denounced Prof. Nadia Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian-American anthropologist, whom Barnard College was considering for a tenure appointment.
The final word goes to that friend who knows something about these events, and told me that Brandeis motto is no longer: Emet (“Truth unto its innermost parts”), but rather “Truth, until it gets too uncomfortable.”