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At Brandeis, a dialogue

It is a delicate balance for the academy, trying to promote civility without stifling speech. Until President Jimmy Carter's actual appearance at Brandeis yesterday, I had been prepared to write that for the second time in a year, the university had leaned too far in the wrong direction.

But something happened on the way to that column: Events proved me wrong.

The university's decision to screen the questions posed to Carter and to bar a documentary filmmaker from his speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gave every appearance of an institution trying to control a potentially volatile debate. It is true, as administrators argued, that some questions are unfocused and that all venues have space limitations. But, I was prepared to write, isn't an unbridled discussion in the finest tradition of academic freedom?

I still think room could have been found for Jonathan Demme to set up his camera in the Shapiro Gymnasium, but there was nothing repressive about the selection of questions posed to Carter, whose recent book, "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid," has caused such rancor. The 15 questions, selected by a committee of faculty and students, challenged the former president on everything from his use of the word apartheid to a sentence on page 213 that some have construed as an endorsement of suicide bombing as a tool of political change, an interpretation Carter vehemently denied. (The wording will be changed in future editions, he said.)

Carter came to Brandeis -- where, in the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I teach a journalism class -- after a challenging year for the nonsectarian university that was founded by the American Jewish community in 1948, the same year that Israel declared its independence. Last spring, administrators took down a student-organized exhibit of paintings by Palestinian teenagers from a refugee camp in Gaza in a misguided critique of its lack of balance. At commencement, several students unfurled Israeli flags to protest the award of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner, who has criticized Israel.

Speech and its limits, in short, have been a hot topic on campus.

Carter's appearance turned out to be everything that the controversy roiling around his book is not: thoughtful and respectful. The hundreds of students and faculty who filled the folding chairs in the gym might have disagreed with Carter, but they listened to him and he to them when they challenged his assertion that Israel's security would be enhanced, not threatened, by withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.

No such civility would have prevailed if Carter had shared the stage with Alan Dershowitz, whose low opinion of Carter is matched only by his high opinion of himself. The Harvard Law professor wrote an op-ed piece in this newspaper last month calling the former president a hypocrite and a coward and a bully. Carter's sin was not so much writing a book that Dershowitz didn't like. It was Carter's refusal to debate him about the merits of that book that rankled the smartest man in Cambridge. Dershowitz delivered a rebuttal after Carter left the building last night.

"You can always tell when a public figure has written an indefensible book: when he refuses to debate it in the court of public opinion," Dershowitz wrote. "And you can always tell when he's a hypocrite to boot: when he says he wrote a book in order to stimulate a debate and then he refuses to participate in any such debate."

Carter's refusal looked more like common sense than cowardice to anyone who remembers Dershowitz's debate with Noam Chomsky of MIT about Israel at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, an exchange that degenerated into personal attacks that Chomsky later characterized as infantile.

The Brandeis audience was spared that exercise in egotism. They read Carter's book. Some came equipped to challenge it. They listened. They will make up their own minds. Delicate balance achieved.

Eileen McNamara is Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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 EILEEN MCNAMARA: At Brandeis, a dialogue