Today will go down in history, at least for Brandeis University. The liberal arts institution founded on giving opportunities to Jews will host President Carter, author of "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid." But the damage has already been done just by allowing Mr. Carter to speak at Brandeis.
Given Brandeis' founding mission of being Jewish yet not Jewish, it is hardly surprising that such a day would occur when a president who equates Israel with the racist South African apartheid regime and rails against the "Jewish lobby" receives a marquee opportunity to buff his legacy and promote his cause. Prominent Jews in America founded Brandeis in the year of Israel's creation as a "nonsectarian university under the sponsorship of the American Jewish community." Over time Brandeis has strayed from its Jewish foundation, which has caused the university to develop an identity crisis.
Brandeis' contradictory mission allowed the university to support some of its students who were in fact anti-Jewish and anti-American. In the 1960s, Brandeis fostered the early intellectual development of Angela Davis, who was a Black Panther, a federal fugitive, and is now a professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz and is part of the anti-Israel radical fringe. Convict Stanley Bond recruited Brandeis students, Katherine Power and Susan Saxe, to participate in a bank heist to fund the Black Panthers. More recently, Brandeis displayed, then removed, an art exhibition done by children in the West Bank and Gaza that created controversy because of its one-sided views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Nonetheless, the founders of Brandeis would be troubled by the way things have turned out. Perhaps it is coincidental that both Brandeis and Israel came into the world in 1948, but to the American generation that helped build both, the two were very much intertwined, as my personal experiences can attest.
A highlight of my childhood was one night three decades ago when my mother dressed me in a jacket and tie, put me in the back seat of her car, and drove me to Brandeis. There at a fancy dinner past my bedtime, the university named my grandfather, Dr. Maurice Fisher, a fellow.
My grandfather had attended Middlesex Medical School, an institution located on the current grounds of Brandeis that was a refuge for Jewish applicants shut out by the rigid quotas that dominated the Ivy League. People like my grandfather, who helped generate support for Brandeis among the Middlesex alumni, believed an excellent academic institution would give Jews educational opportunities commensurate with their abilities. Just as he was committed to Brandeis, my grandfather was devoted to the Jewish state, which would shelter Jews from state-sponsored hate he had fought against during World War II.
Mr. Carter will certainly benefit from speaking at such a venue. To the world at large it is a Jewish institution. But Brandeis also has reflected the unique American Jewish penchant for being do-gooders that borders upon being self-destructive.
The Brandeis administration would like to keep the event at arms length. It was an ad hoc committee of faculty and students that invited the former president. Nevertheless the university remains quite attached to the event by having to assume logistical and security responsibilities.
What is more important is whether the event will turn out to be a publicity stunt for Mr. Carter or whether it will actually be an opportunity to question his views. The event is open only to members of the press, students, faculty members, staff, and trustees. Already, though, rigorous critics are not permitted to be present at the speech. Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, who was supposed to debate Mr. Carter, will now speak at a separate event later today due to Mr. Carter's unwillingness to enter a debate with Mr. Dershowitz. Stephen Flatow, whose daughter, Alisa, was a Brandeis student killed in an Islamic Jihad bombing in 1995, says he was "privately discouraged" from attending.
Had he attended, Mr. Flatow, who endows a scholarship in his daughter's name, would have asked Mr. Carter whether he supports Palestinian violence directed against civilians. "I would have liked to stand up there and say ‘My daughter would have been a Brandeis graduate in the class of 1996 had she not been murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Is it ok for Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation with murderous force?'"
But instead of having people ask Mr. Carter hard questions, Brandeis will make Mr. Carter kosher. Brandeis will once again live up to its controversial history by giving Mr. Carter the opportunity of seeming to have faced his most ardent critics.
Today's circumstance is a far cry from what people like my grandfather envisioned for Brandeis. This is a tragedy that goes beyond Brandeis and American Jews to America at large.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.