Is Brandeis University Biased against Israel?

Brandeis University has violated its own academic principles by withdrawing the honorary degree that was to be conferred on Ayaan Hirsi Ali during its Commencement exercises in May 2014. The reason given by University President Frederick Lawrence, an honorable man, was that “we cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University core values.”

President Lawrence did not mention which particular “core values” were in danger, nor did he mention the pressure coming from various sources put on the University. The campaign was apparently initiated by a senior at the University named Sarah Fahmy, a member of the Muslim Students Association, who organized a petition that stated “It has come as a shock to our community due to her extreme Islamophobic beliefs that Ali would be receiving an Honorary Degree in Social Justice.” Apparently the petition was signed on line by “thousands.”

Protests against the award also came from 86 of the 350 Brandeis faculty, and particularly from Joseph Lumbard, an American convert to Islam who is chair of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University.  Mr. Lumbard, expressing unusual sensitivity, held that the award to Ali makes “Muslim students feel very uneasy.” Most important of all, the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) seemed very disturbed by the award. On April 9, 2014 it welcomed the decision to withdraw the invitation. CAIR thought this was a “victory over hate.” Its spokesperson, Ibrahim Hooper, has previously also welcomed the possibility of another victory, “the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future.”

The sad reality is that Brandeis has appeased that Islamic demand for intolerance because of Ali’s criticism of Islamic behavior. Let there be no mistake. The President and many of the faculty and students of Brandeis have dishonored the very motto of the university: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”  The President’s excuse that Ali’s statements are not consistent with the University’s “core values” need elucidation. Those core values are citizenship, integrity, respect, civility, lifelong learning, and embracing diversity. Surely, Ali has been a model in exemplifying them, not violating them.

All the intense animosity and fear of this 44 year-old Somali born, now American, individual seems to have stemmed from one paragraph in an interview that Ali gave to Reason Magazine in 2007 when she said “I think we are at war with Islam.” Perhaps she misspoke on that occasion when she might have used the words “fundamental or extremist Islamism,” to illustrate the actions of al-Qaeda or the perpetrators of 9/11.

The essential issue is that CAIR and the Muslim groups, and the other perhaps well-meaning but misguided individuals, who engaged in the angry, intolerant, bigoted diatribe against Ali and were responsible for the withdrawal of the award ignored, deliberately or otherwise, the contribution of Ali to the Social Justice for which she was being honored.

Perhaps the real reason for the diatribe was unstated. It was not the ostensible reason based on Ali’s one paragraph that may or may not have been objectionable. The hostility was more likely based on her frank, explicit views of Israel and the Palestinians. After her visit to Israel, Ali said, “My main impression was that Israel is a liberal democracy. …In the places I visited, including Jerusalem as well as Tel Aviv and the beaches, I saw that men and women are equal…When I speak about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the role of Arafat in the tragedy of Palestine, I do not get a large audience.”

Her own life story is well known, with her subjection to genital mutilation, beatings, and an arranged marriage, her flight to the Netherlands where she was a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003-2006, her participation in the film for which Theo Van Gogh was murdered by Islamists, and the simultaneous threat of her own death.  She has been an articulate defender of the rights of women against abuses that result from the religious concepts of Islam or the social mores of Islamic societies. Particularly important has been her campaign against “honor killings,” that have murdered thousands of Muslim women, and against the forced child marriages in Muslim societies. While it is understandable that CAIR are the Muslim Students Association would not appreciate her critiques of Muslim society on these controversial practices, it remains puzzling why Western feminists do not do so to a greater degree. They all might have gained more understanding of the issue from reading the National Geographic News of February 2002 and seeing the documentaries on its channels that deal with the problems that Ali has discussed.

It is useful to put the Ali case in the context of previous events in Brandeis history. An earlier incident concerned Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and a strong supporter of the State of Israel. In 1994 she had been invited to accept an honorary degree at the University but in view of the protest by 23 faculty members against her, on the alleged basis of her views on Latin America, she withdrew. Even then this should have been a warning to Brandeis. Kirkpatrick remarked, “I do not desire a relationship with a university whose faculty is apparently dominated by ideological zealots.”

A second incident was the honorary degree given to Tony Kushner, well known as a playwright but also a controversial figure in reference to his harsh critical remarks of Israel. In spite of public protests against the award, he was given the degree. The then President Jehuda Reinharz in May 2006 said that “Brandeis does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions…the University applies no litmus test requiring honorary degree recipients to hold particular views on Israel or topics of current political debate.”

It is fair to ask why President Lawrence today has not applied this Reinharz principle to the question of Ali. Are double standards being applied? Brandeis after all not only has Muslim faculty and students; it also has a Muslim chaplain. Is Brandeis succumbing to appeasement to avoid the impression that is in any way favorable to Israel? Is it afraid or ashamed of its Jewish origins? Its own proclaimed ideals and principles should make it avoid appeasing bigoted extremists.

It is bewildering that the national executive director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, refers to Ali as a “promoter of religious prejudice,” and that the Brandeis senior regards Ali’s criticism of painful practices as “Islamophobia.”  This absurd excuse, together with the Islamic Organizations emphasis on forbidding “defamation of religion,” is simply an attempt to prevent any criticism of the religion, or the call for jihad or the application of the punitive sharia law concerning women.

Mr. Awad, who made his accusations against Ali, should be reminded both of his own past, and also of the activity of his own organization.  CAIR was named as one of the co-sponsors in funding Hamas, the terrorist regime in Gaza, and has been regarded as the US arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Much of the evidence for this is documented in the 2008 case, the United States v. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The documents show, among other things, a check dated 10/5/1994 for $5,000 given by the HLF to CAIR. Among those convicted in the case was a member of the founding Board of Directors of the Texas branch of CAIR; he was sentenced to 65 years imprisonment. Two persons mentioned in the evidential proceedings concerning a meeting in 1993 in Philadelphia between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas were Nihad Awad, as well as Omar Ahmad, cofounder of CAIR.

In the light of these facts, different from the intolerant accusations of bigoted self-interested parties, perhaps President Lawrence might now reexamine which of the parties involved in the Ali case are guilty of violating the University “core principles.”  Someone who has fought all her life for the dignity of women, or those accused of laundering money for Hamas?

It may still be time for Mr. Lawrence to acknowledge his mistake and give an honorary degree to Ali. If he does not, other people might act. There are four individuals who will be given degrees at the Brandeis Commencement. One of them is Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times. She should recognize that the Brandeis decision on Ayaan Hirsi Ali was one that was not fit to print.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.