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Brandeis University and Jimmy Carter: What's in a name?

Reader comment on item: [Brandeis University President Jehuda] Reinharz, Israel and Me

Submitted by Aaron Eitan Meyer (United States), Feb 14, 2007 at 22:56

While it should be noted that Brandeis University refrained from officially inviting Carter to speak, the essential message of this article remains my view.

Earlier this week, Brandeis University, named after the esteemed late Justice of the Supreme Court, provided a forum for former President Jimmy Carter with which to propound his ideology, which has been recently published as Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The many pervasive flaws, inaccuracies, misrepresentations and otherwise questionable statements that populate the work itself have been met with a range of rebuttals, and are not being reiterated here. The fact that Brandeis University, of all institutions, provided a free forum for Carter is very troubling in and of itself.

As many know, Justice Brandeis was a passionate Zionist and the leader of American Zionists at one time, doing much to raise awareness of the cause in America during the early part of the Twentieth Century. Alpheus Thomas Mason's definitive biography 1 makes explicit mention of the fact that Jacob de Haas and others at one time even promoted Brandeis as 'President of Palestine,' to which William Jennings Bryan famously replied that he would vote for Brandeis as President of the United States. 2

The Zionism that Brandeis so passionately believed in was neither the result of his upbringing nor indoctrination. He developed it by the very same means that made him a towering figure of American jurisprudence. As he himself stated, "Knowledge has its source in interest, but it can be attained only through persistent pursuit. It is not something which may be had easily."3

Much as Brandeis' remarkable accumulation of knowledge was of importance to his legal work, so too did his belief in Zionism continue to be based on comprehensive knowledge – precisely the commodity that Carter has always lacked, most noticeably in regards to the Middle East, and which has been glaringly shown in his recent book. In this failing, even more than his baseless accusations against the Zionist state of Israel, Carter's viewpoint becomes not only repugnant to Brandeis' memory, but in fact antithetical to the late Justice's entire life.
As stated by Brandeis University's homepage, it was founded in 1948, and named after the late Justice with the goal of reflecting "…the ideals of academic excellence and social justice he personified."4

This leads to the heart of the problem. The means by which Justice Brandeis achieved all that he did in the realms of academia and social justice were the same as the means he employed in his Zionism. His achievements were reached by simply knowing more about a situation than anyone else. Indeed, his method of introducing evidentiary material in the form of statistics and other factual information revolutionized our legal system.

While space constraints preclude a complete exposition of Brandeis' Zionism and legal achievements as much as it does a full analysis of Carter's book, it may be easily grasped that giving a free platform for Carter to proclaim thoroughly uninformed views on a subject dear to the late Justice's heart represents a highly troubling issue. The combination of kneejerk anti-Israeli sentiment and emphasis on innacuracies and opinion make the work thoroughly discrespectful to Brandeis' memory.

This leads to the final, and ultimate question in this matter. Does Brandeis University have an ethical duty to its namesake? It seems obvious that nobody would seriouisly demand that an institute named after Charles Darwin give a free platform to an espouser of Creationism. So too here, where an institution has benefited from its usage of the name and ideals espoused by one of America's greatest jurists. Granting Carter a podium from which to assail his audience virtually unchallenged, and permitting only a clearly demarcated rebuttal by a man who was not even allowed to be seated in the audience when Carter spoke is a complete betrayal of the late Justice, and a lukewarm half-measure at best.

And so what ethical duty is in fact owed? That question can only be truly answered by the administration and board of trustees of Brandeis University, and it is incumbent upon them to consider their school's ethical duties in this regard. However, it is abundantly clear that there is, in fact, such an ethical duty.

As a final note, it is interesting to theorize how Justice Brandeis would have responded to former President Carter's book and speech. In fact, Alpheus Thomas Mason recounts a situation in which one of Brandeis' law clerks, who happened to be Jewish himself, used a similar epithet with which to disparage the Zionists, calling Brandeis' own Zionism a form of 'Jewish Hitlerism,' much as Carter has attempted to smear Zionism with the tainted brush of apartheid. "Brandeis coldly inquired: "Have you read so and so?" reeling off a long list of authoritative books. The young man confessed that he hadn't. "Well," the Justice rejoined, "until you have done so, it will not be profitable to discuss the subject with you."5

Unfortunately in this instance, the school that claims to uphold the late Justice's principles has wilted in the face of negative publicity and other pressures. It is to be hoped that the university consider its ethical duties to its namesake, so that a recurrence of this disheartening event not take place. It is the very least that the University can do.

1 Brandeis: A Free Man's Life, Viking Press, N.Y. 1946
2 Brandeis at p. 456
3 "The Pilgrims Had Faith" in Brandeis on Zionism: A Collection of Addresses and Statements by Louis D. Brandeis. Zionist Organization of America, Washington D.C. 1942 at p. 128
4 http://www.brandeis.edu/overview/historical.html
5 Brandeis: A Free Man's Life at p. 464

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