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Israeli ambassador stirs controversy at Brandeis graduation

By Amanda Sands
Published: June 2010

“This commencement is about you, announced Brandeis commencement speaker Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, to thousands of graduates and their families on May 23. While many welcomed the esteemed author and historian, some undergraduates spoke out against Oren’s political positions, and openly protested his arrival on campus.

Brandeis Student Jon Sussman created the largest group on Facebook that objected to Oren speaking at Commencement, called “Commencement Was Supposed to Be About Us: Against Michael Oren as Speaker. In the description, Sussman argued that “with the selection of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, commencement has been hijacked to serve as part of a debate about Middle Eastern politics.

Since the group’s inception on April 25, Sussman’s sentiments were reflected in the group’s numerous wall posts by fellow angry Brandeis students.

Among other things, they posted petitions, Youtube videos, crudely-worded complaints, and relevant news articles.

The morning of Commencement, a small gathering of students and adults carried anti-Oren signs and marched around outside Brandeis’ field house, where the ceremony was held.

Several levels of security were ready and waiting for Oren’s arrival. Humid and cramped, the field house was crowded with parents, graduates, and members of the press waiting for something to happen.

Finally, they blasted Israeli pop and a wide range other lively ethnic music (including “O, Canada!) and the ceremony began.

Negativity toward Oren as speaker was impossible to detect during Commencement; the ambassador spoke, the student speaker addressed the class, and Paul Simon sang’€all without any obvious discord.

Later that day, a post appeared on Sussman’s Facebook group (from which Sussman ultimately resigned as administrator): “So, anyone [find] it funny how much Oren sucked as a speaker?

Possibly in an attempt to avoid taking decisive positions on the Middle East debate, a hot topic at Brandeis, students argued that they were only against Oren because “he is a divisive choice that politicizes what should be a day of celebration for graduates.

This division that Oren’s presence would allegedly create in the Brandeis community was arguably reinforced through the founding of such Facebook groups and public protests. As one student wrote to the members of the group, “You guys are the ones causing the divide.

Two hundred and forty seven students joined the Facebook group’€out of 3,185 total undergraduates. Not all students firmly disapproved of Michael Oren on campus. “The protestors are creating the divisiveness within the Brandeis community, expressed student Katie Waizer.

Parents and some professors were appreciative of the speaker and critical of the protest. “Do yourselves a favor and don’t embarrass Brandeis anymore than you already [have].

Another student wrote a couple hours later, “I just wonder if Brandeis is about anything besides Israel. Even the group’s founder backed off: “This group/petition is made of members of the Brandeis community who see Oren’s selection as a political gesture, and would rather not have that at graduation.

Still, dissatisfied students did not want to take advice from the ambassador if his views strayed so much from theirs. Ultimately this controversy came down to a free-speech argument. Students from schools other than Brandeis wrote wall posts complaining that Brandeis was ruining free speech.

Spencer Burger, a Canadian student, was especially outspoken on the issue: “Develop some thicker skin, get beyond your demonization of Israel, and recognize this man’s right to free speech. If you disagree with him, good for you, but that is no reason to be against his very right to give you a commencement address.

Oren himself candidly addrssed the tenion, “As an ambassador, he said, “I must grapple with issues that affect millions of lives¦and frequently face criticism in the media and on campuses.

Filled to the brim with warm personal anecdotes, life lessons, and biblical allusion, Oren’s eloquent speech was mainly centered around Jewish lore, but also touched upon Middle East conflicts.

Oren used his former experience as a paratrooper to thread together an allegory about having to leap from airplanes, and sometimes needing a push in order to fulfill a duty.

Not surprisingly everyone present was served a large dose of anticipated future achievement as seen through a Biblical/Israeli/.Jewish lens. The theme from “The Lion King sounded over the speakers, Paul Simon sang “The Boxer, and Brandeis’ senior class of 2010 finally graduated.

Freedom of speech was honored, and Oren fed the graduates what he felt would benefit them in life.

“It is my duty’€it is my privilege’€to leave you with a few modest words of advice, concluded Oren.

“Seek your transformative moments, and seize them. Dream. Take responsibility. Take pride. Serve. Be strong. Be courageous. And though you may occasionally need a push, jump.

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