A celebrated Jewish playwright once declared the creation of the State of Israel “a mistake” and has since raged against the Jewish homeland, calling it a source of “terrible peril.” In 2006 that same playwright got an honorary degree from Brandeis University.
Was he being rewarded for his hateful rhetoric? Not according to then-president Yehuda Reinharz, who explained that Tony Kushner could address students at graduation in spite of his personal political views.
What a difference eight years makes. Today, a brave woman – Ayaan Hirsi Ali – whose mission of fighting for the rights of women and girls in the Muslim world stems from her own personal experiences, has been barred from speaking to students at graduation because her rhetoric critical of the culture in which she was raised and under which she suffered, cannot be tolerated.
Toby Young described the hypocrisy in a column for London’s The Telegraph: “To accuse Hirsi Ali of hate speech, which is defined as ‘any speech, gesture or conduct, writing or display which … may incite violence or prejudicial action against … a protected individual or group’ is almost comically ironic. … She was raised as a Muslim in Somalia, underwent circumcision at the age of 5 and was later forced into an arranged marriage with her cousin. She only escaped this fate by running away to Holland, where she subsequently became a member of the Dutch Parliament.”
The current president of Brandeis acknowledged Hirsi Ali’s stature, even as he was rescinding the university’s invitation for her to address students at graduation. Fred Lawrence’s statement said, in part, that Hirsi Ali is “a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world.”
And yet, eight days after issuing the invitation, and after an organized campaignled in the main by the Council on American-Islamic Relations against her right to speak, Brandeis collapsed in a heap of hypocrisy and cowardice. “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” an unsigned statement by the university read.
Hirsi Ali was justifiably shocked. “What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming,” she wrote. “Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The ‘spirit of free expression’ referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.”
Hirsi Ali is perfectly correct that Brandeis has betrayed its core values. More importantly, the school has betrayed the deeply-held American value of free expression. And students have been denied the wisdom that Hirsi Ali would have imparted.
She released the text of her prepared remarks; reading through it, one is struck by the grotesque inversion of the situation. A woman who speaks out against violence and hate is successfully denounced as someone who promotes violence against Islam. The woman who has endured death threats, vile slander and base hatred is silenced because of her imaginary hate crimes.
“I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage for the world of reason and emancipation,” Hirsi Ali wrote in her best-selling memoir, “Infidel.” “After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.”
Brandeis University was supposed to be a place where those fundamental values were being celebrated and taught. The opposite is the case. Brandeis has shamed Hirsi Ali and for that sin, a heavy price should be exacted. Alumni should cease to support the school financially; as a graduate, I am making this a personal commitment. And high-school students and their parents looking for a true liberal arts education should rethink putting Brandeis in that category.
Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh resident, is senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and writes regularly for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter.