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Brandeis students at odds over Israel

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hinda Mandell
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2008

A student-sponsored effort to recognize the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel has raised questions of identity and association at Brandeis University in Waltham, and appears to be at the heart of a dispute over recent student elections.

Five students cosponsored the resolution to congratulate the Jewish state on its 60th birthday, which Israel will celebrate today. The sponsors say the resolution, brought before the student senate, was intended as nothing more than simple birthday greetings. That it would cause controversy at the nation's only nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored university caught them by surprise, they said.

"I can see it being controversial in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but at Brandeis I was shocked," said Andrew Brooks, 21, of New Canaan, Conn., an at-large senator for the class of 2009 and one of the resolution's sponsors.

About half of the Brandeis student body identifies itself as Jewish. Brandeis, which has 3,400 undergraduates, was founded by members of the American-Jewish community in 1948, when there were quotas limiting the number of Jewish students at prestigious universities.

The resolution sparked more than two hours of debate on the senate floor on March 9, leaving some students in tears, according to a senator who was there. Critics questioned whether it was appropriate to have student leadership delve into Middle Eastern politics on a campus that hosts students from 100 countries, some of which oppose Israel's policies.

Such a resolution "shuts people like me up," said Lisa Hanania, 20, a Christian Palestinian-Israeli student from Jaffa, a mixed Arab-Jewish city outside Tel Aviv. "For me it's 60 years of Nakbah - Catastrophe - of the Palestinian people."

"The senate is not the place for a discussion about the State of Israel," said Senator at Large Jessica Blumberg, 21, a junior from New York's Westchester County. "There are people going to Brandeis who are Palestinian refugees."

Following the discussion, student senators voted, 13 to 6, with one abstention, to "postpone indefinitely" a vote on the resolution, effectively killing it.

The resolution commotion heightens an ongoing debate on a campus with diverse views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In January 2007, Brandeis was at the center of international attention when Jimmy Carter spoke there about his book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid." The former president was sharply criticized, and his book largely shunned, by Israel supporters. And in May 2006, the university pulled an exhibition of artwork by Palestinian teenagers depicting the Israeli military after complaints that the display was one-sided.

News of the senate vote spread quickly across campus and online, with student reaction varied and heated. The discussion might have faded away but for the effort to establish a new student club. On March 23, the senate approved the charter of Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine, the first campus club to offer a Palestinian perspective. Hanania and Jewish-Israeli student Noam Shuster, 21, started the organization to bring "a new voice to the campus," said Hanania.

Three senators voted against the club's charter - all were sponsors of the resolution to celebrate Israel's 60th birthday. "The fact that the word 'Israel' is controversial but 'Palestine' is not controversial is mind-boggling to me," said Brooks.

Leonard Sax, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis, said it would be a mistake to say recent developments at the student senate are indicative of a trend among Jewish students away from support of Israel.

"In general, there's more support for Israel and more knowledge of Israel than ever before," said Saxe.

The dispute over views regarding Israel may have played a role in student elections on April 17, in which Brooks lost his student senate seat to Shuster.

On April 27, the new class of senators was sworn in - with the exception of Shuster. Before the ceremony, the Union Judiciary, the arm of the Brandeis University Student Union that presides over such disputes, granted Brooks an injunction preventing Shuster from taking office while he appeals the election's results. Brooks is contending that Shuster should have been disqualified because her campaign violated election rules, and that Brooks was a victim of libelous information posted on a student blog, Innermost Parts.

Shuster dismissed the accusations by Brooks. "I don't believe in times of election the right thing to do is to say bad things about other candidates," the freshman said. "I just hope it will be solved this semester so I can start serving my community."

On Saturday, the Union Judiciary held a six-hour hearing on Brooks's complaint. The verdict by the student justices - with their options potentially including ordering a new election, upholding Shuster's victory or reinstating Brooks as senator - is expected by the end of this week.

According to Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon, the university's administration does not intervene in contested student elections, resolutions, or club chartering.

"Most of the controversy in the senate is pretty mild, and well designed for the process of learning negotiation, collaboration, and compromise," wrote Nealon in an e-mailed response to the Globe. The university also does not offer a position on Israeli-Palestinian relations, he said.

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