Oren the lightning rod
We’re not surprised by the controversy being generated by a major university’s announcement that Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, will be its commencement speaker.
We are surprised that the school happens to be Brandeis University, perhaps the leading Jewish-supported institution of higher learning in the country.
Brandeis’s announcement last week that Oren would give the keynote address “has evoked a spectrum of responses in campus publications and online forums,” JTA reported, “ranging from enthusiastic support to wary apprehension to outrage.”
Some of those responses were over the top, such as computer science professor Harry Mairson’s. He called Oren an “apologist” for Israeli war crimes.
Time out, please!
Oren is something of lightning rod these days. Witness the reception he received in February at the University of California, Irvine, where hecklers repeatedly disrupted his address.
But let’s keep in mind that Oren is not a hot potato because of who he is, but because of his day job. As ambassador, he is Israel’s designated point man who trips diplomatic landmines, takes flak from all quarters and responds to it. That gives him a unique perspective on the Israel debate, which makes him even more valuable as a commencement speaker.
Oren the man is an author, historian and scholar who writes extensively on Israel and the Middle East. Educated at Columbia and Princeton, and a veteran of the Israeli army (a paratrooper, his unit was caught in a Syrian ambush during the 1982 Lebanon war). He brings a wealth of experience to the speaker’s podium.
And mark this well: He is not an extremist.
We know Brandeis is an eclectic place with a diversity of opinion, but that’s all the more reason to welcome Oren and to listen to him — and yes, respond, critically, if appropriate. But to reject him altogether is to reject the openness that makes Brandeis a great school. We’re happy that Brandeis President Yehuda Reinharz is defending Oren’s selection; he deserves to be heard.