Oren denies describing bleak U.S.-Israel relations

Israel’s ambassador to the United States denied reports that he called the relationship between Israel and the U.S. a ‘tectonic rift.’

Michael Oren on a visit to Israel last week reportedly told Israeli diplomats during a briefing that Jerusalem and Washington are like “continents drifting apart,” Haaretz reported Sunday. The newspaper cited five unnamed Israeli diplomats as saying that Oren described relations between Israel and the U.S. as grim.

“I said shift, not rift, but that may be a subtlety that escaped the Israeli ear,” Oren told the Washington Post about the briefing, given in Hebrew at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Oren reportedly told the diplomats that he has good access to the administration, but that “Obama has very tight control over his immediate environment, and it is hard to influence him.”

“This is a one-man show,” Oren reportedly said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet July 6 with President Obama. The meeting was postponed by a month following Israel’s interception of a Gaza-flotilla that resulted in the death of nine passengers.

Students across U.S. invite Oren to speak

Dozens of presidents of university student bodies invited the Israeli ambassador to speak in the wake of his controversial appearances on two campuses.

“We, the undersigned, clearly recognize the shared values that bind the United States and Israel,” says the letter to Michael Oren released Thursday and signed by presidents of 43 student bodies in 28 states and the District of Columbia by midday Friday.  “We also understand the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.  Finally, we would be delighted – and honored – to welcome you to our campuses any time.”

The letter, initiated by Brandon Carroll at Virginia Tech and Wyatt Smith at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, notes disruptions Oren faced recently speaking at the University of California-Irvine and protests ahead of his commencement address this weekend at Brandeis University.

“Such behavior is absurd and offensive,” it says. “Please be assured that these individuals do not remotely represent American college students or mainstream campus leaders.”

Oren hosts dinner for top Dems

Israel’s ambassador to Washington hosted a dinner for top Democrats.

The dinner at Michael Oren’s home Tuesday evening was to honor Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who promoted ties with Israel when he served as Virginia governor from 2006 until this year.

Kaine is close to President Obama; the Obama administration has tried in recent weeks to end tensions with Israel sparked in early March when Israel’s government announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Among the leading congressional Democrats on hand were U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the party’s whip and deputy whip. Oren plans to host a similar dinner for top Republicans.

Selection of Israeli envoy sparks debate at Brandeis

Brandeis has sparked a controversy in the university community with its selection of Israel’s ambassador to Washington as its commencement speaker.

Last week’s announcement of Michael Oren as this year’s keynoter has evoked a spectrum of responses in campus publications and online forums ranging from enthusiastic support to wary apprehension to outrage.

Neither Oren nor the suburban Boston university are strangers to such controversies.

Oren was at the center of a debate over free speech after hecklers were arrested for repeatedly disrupting his address at the University of California, Irvine in February. And Brandeis, a secular university with a large Jewish student population and many Jewish donors, drew heat in some circles in 2006 for tapping Tony Kushner to receive an honorary degree, with critics citing the playwright’s statement that “it would have been better if Israel never happened” and his assertion that Israel was guilty of carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Oren, who became ambassador after a lengthy academic career, was announced as both the sole speaker at the May 23 graduation and one of seven honorary degree recipients. Among the other recipients, according to an April 20 news release, is veteran U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross.

Some of those criticizing Oren’s selection cite the policies of the Israeli government that he represents.

Others say the potential for controversy and unhappiness over the selection should have been enough to steer the university in a less divisive direction. Such critics argue that the selection of Oren was unsuitable for an ideologically diverse student body and inevitably would become a distraction, drawing the focus away from graduating seniors.

Critics of the choice include the student newspaper, The Justice, which published an editorial blasting the selection.

“Mr. Oren is a divisive and inappropriate choice for keynote speaker at commencement, and we disapprove of the University’s decision to grant someone of his polarity on this campus that honor,” the newspaper wrote, adding that the “invitation constitutes at best naivete and at worst disregard concerning the reality of the range of student political orientation on this campus.”

Writing in a separate opinion piece for the newspaper, Jeremy Sherer, the president of the campus chapter of J Street, noted that while he was personally “bothered” by Oren’s politics, “far more important to the Brandeis community” was the “possibility that Oren’s address will alienate portions of the senior class on their final day as Brandeis students.”

The column stood in stark contrast to the J Street national office, which expressed disappointment when Oren declined to attend its inaugural conference last year and has been working hard to convince the ambassador that the organization is a strong supporter of Israel even if it opposes his government’s policies in certain areas.

A J Street spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, told JTA that Sherer does not speak for the organization, insisting that the group “welcomes the ambassador speaking at the commencement.”

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the choice came from computer science professor Harry Mairson, who decried the school administration’s “political statement” in inviting an “apologist” for Israel’s actions in Gaza. Subtly likening the move to having former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara speak during the peak of the Vietnam War, Mairson said the decision to invite Oren would “compromise Brandeis’ commitment to social justice.”

The vice president of the university, Andrew Gully, defended the selection of Oren—made by school President Jehuda Reinharz —and downplayed the ensuing controversy.

“Ambassador Oren is a highly distinguished scholar and endlessly deserving of the honor he will receive,” Gully told JTA.

The Brandeis administration, he said, is not expecting disruptive protests during the speech.

“I think people are reacting without even knowing what he’ll be speaking about,” Gully said, noting that Brandeis does not request the speaker to divulge the topic or content beforehand.

Other Oren supporters emphasize his scholarly credentials and larger relevance as a historian and policymaker.

Heddy Ben-Atar, the student representative on the school’s board of trustees, wrote in the student newspaper that Oren’s “academic excellence, rigorous research practices and fearlessly honest writing” merit the invitation to speak.

Ben-Atar lamented what she described as critics unfairly speculating about the content of Oren’s speech.

Adam Ross, a senior, has launched an online petition in support of Oren, touting his accomplishments in academia and urging members of the Brandeis community to “fully embody the rich academic quality and sophistication of our university and receive Ambassador Oren’s speech respectfully, regardless of personal opinions regarding the country that Ambassador Oren represents.”

Some critics of Oren’s selection have said they would have preferred to hear from another of the honorary degree recipients: Paul Farmer, the founder of the nonprofit medical organization Partners in Health, which has been doing work in Haiti.

The school shows no sign of bowing to the calls to dump Oren as commencement speaker. But Reinharz has voiced support for a separate, growing student campaign to have singer-songwriter Paul Simon, another of the honorary degree recipients, perform while he’s on campus.

Oren, J Street meet

Israel’s U.S. ambassador formally met with the director of J Street.

“The conversation, which took place at the Israeli Embassy, lasted approximately one hour and covered a wide range of topics, including the peace process, the U.S.-Israel relationship and Iran,” said a statement from the group describing the Thursday afternoon meeting between Ambassador Michael Oren and Jeremy Ben-Ami.

“The meeting builds on months of discussions between the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby and the Embassy aimed at clarifying the Israeli government’s understanding of J Street’s views and included a forthright discussion of points of agreement and disagreement.”

A spokesman for Oren confirmed the meeting, saying it was part of the embassy’s “widening contacts with Jewish groups.” 

J Street backs an assertive U.S. posture in brokering peace and forcefully opposes Israel’s settlements policy. It strongly criticized Israel’s actions in the 2009 Gaza war.

Oren refused to attend the group’s first major conference last fall and later said the group’s views “endangered” Israel.

Oren says Israel wants peace deal

From UPI.com:

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said Sunday Israel’s desire to negotiate peace with the Palestinians hasn’t weakened.

In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” news program, Oren discounted those who contend Israel has become too satisfied with the years-long stalemate that has left the peace talks in dry dock.

Read the full article at UPI.com.

UC Riverside Faculty Voice Support for Protesters Against Oren

Faculty at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), joined voices at UC campuses statewide in support of 11 students arrested for heckling Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during his Feb. 8 speech at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Thirty-one professors and graduate students from several UCR departments signed a “Statement on Free Speech, Palestine and the ‘UC Irvine 11,’ ” drafted by Dylan Rodriguez, chair of the university’s Ethnic Studies department.  The March 11 pronouncement calls on the UC administration and the Orange County district attorney’s office to drop disciplinary and punitive action against eight UCI and three UCR students, which it calls “discriminatory, cynical, and politically and intellectually repressive.”

The UCI students have been charged with violations of the student codes of conduct.  Officials at UCR could not confirm whether action would be taken against their students.

“We believe that this is a cynical and opportunistic attempt at political repression that reflects the racial criminalization of young Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim men and women as actual or potential ‘terrorists.’  By way of contrast, Ethnic Studies faculty have taught courses in Ethnic Studies in which classroom proceedings were disrupted by students with opposing views, and the university administration did not pursue any disciplinary or punitive measures against them.  In fact, we have sometimes been told that such disruptions are an expression of academic free speech,” the statement said.

Rodriguez said the statement was intended to take issue with the tendency, since at least 2001, to affiliate Muslim men with terrorism within popular discourse, as well as to challenge what he sees as selective enforcement of codes of conduct by university administrators.

“People protesting is something to be expected,” he said, noting that UCR administrators did not take disciplinary action against what he called “conservative” student protesters following a similar incident last fall.  “When people get selectively subjugated to enforcement of codes of conduct, it has a chilling affect on political discussion and freedom.”

Muslim students and their supporters say they were exercising their free speech rights when they interrupted and jeered Oren 10 times before leaving the hall to stage a demonstration outside, a claim that has been rejected by legal scholars, including Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UCI law school.  Student governments at four UC campuses —  Irvine, San Diego, Los Angeles and Berkeley — have issued statements opposing sanctions against the 11 students.  In contrast, a March 2 statement by UCI’s Council on Faculty Welfare, Diversity and Academic Freedom expressed the council’s commitment “to creating an atmosphere in which the examination of competing ideas can occur without disruption or intimidation.”

Also on March 15, a group calling itself “Stand With the Eleven” issued a response to a March 8 letter to UCI students by Oren, in which he stated his willingness to return to campus for a respectful dialogue with students of opposing viewpoints on Middle East issues.  The response, which claims to accept Oren’s offer, accuses Israel of being a modern-day colonialist state and implicitly equates Israeli policy with apartheid.

“We willingly take you up on that offer.  But to clarify, our willingness does not stem from any delusional notion that your words can right the decades of wrong and injustice.  As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.  Your military past with the Israeli ‘Defense’ Force and your current position as the official representative of a state before the U.N.
General Assembly on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity speak louder than any ‘remarks’ you can make.”