“This should’ve happened earlier”: Liebowitz on decision to decharter SJP
An emergency faculty meeting was held on Nov. 10 to discuss faculty response to the dechartering of SJP.
On Friday Nov. 10, Brandeis held a special Faculty Meeting and Listening Session with President Ron Liebowitz and Provost Carol Fierke to address the dechartering of the Students for Justice in Palestine organization, the meaning of free speech, and the best approach to support students during this time. The meeting was moderated by Prof. Jody Gittell (Heller), the faculty chair of the Senate. Motions were not able to be made during this meeting, as none were submitted in advance.
This meeting began with opening remarks from President Liebowitz. He acknowledged that many people are hurt and distressed over recent global and campus events alike. Liebowitz stated, “Not to be defensive, but I went back and read all of my statements just to see how callous or cold I was, as I was told by some, and in any case going forward [I] might have to be a little bit more expressive in how these things come out, but I didn’t see anything that was as callous as perhaps some thought.”
He said that he does not feel that this situation is about free speech. Liebowitz explained that his concern was instead having the University name associated with an organization that “spews hate and has done some heinous things.” He also stated that he felt that the celebration of the death of a Brandeis professor’s family was hideous.
“I asked the faculty that I met with yesterday whether we would ban a [Ku Klux Klan] chapter here, and I think the answer was unanimously yes. In my view and in many people’s view, this is not much different. This is a hateful organization that has called for genocide and called for the elimination of a whole people and a state.”
He disagreed with claims that derecognizing SJP suppresses free speech: “No one is disciplining these students, and no one is saying they can’t speak. We are just saying that a chapter of an organization cannot bear the name of Brandeis, it can’t receive funds from Brandeis, and it shouldn’t operate on this campus, and to me, that’s very different from stifling free speech.”
Liebowitz also shared his goal to start the conversation about “the level of Jewishness” at Brandeis: “People have spoken that since I became president, the direction of the University to recognize our founding values and our roots in the American Jewish community might be a little heavy handed. I have to question that. I want to remind folks that we are more than just here on campus; we are more than just Waltham, Massachusetts. We represent something to the Jewish world; we represent something to the American Jewish community. There are 197 Catholic affiliated colleges and universities in this country, there are 107 HBCUs in this country, there is one Jewish-founded institution in this country, and that’s Brandeis University. All I’ll say is when I think about where Brandeis sits in the world of higher education, we’re not just like Tufts, we’re not just like Boston University, and if we wanted to go in that direction, I think we’d become pretty irrelevant quickly. I hate to say that but the fact of the matter is there are a lot of BUs, a lot of Tufts, [but] there aren’t a lot of Brandeises.”
Hillel International ranks Brandeis’ Jewish population as the 17th highest out of the top 60 private universities. Boston University has the highest ranking, followed by New York University and Tulane University. However, Hillel has ranked the University at five out of the top 60 universities that “Jews choose.”
Contrary to Liebowtiz’s statement, Brandeis is not the only university founded on Jewish principles. In his remarks in 1928, Dr. Bernard Revel consecrated Yeshiva College in New York City “to the pursuit, interpretation and advancement of universal knowledge in harmony with the great affirmations of Judaism.”
In his opening remarks, Liebowitz also emphasized his commitment to safety on campus as a senior administrator. “I don’t expect every faculty member or staff member to think about the safety of the whole campus, and I don’t expect all faculty to also get briefings every single week from [the Federal Bureau of Investigation] and from other organizations that really chart threats to a campus like Brandeis. Even before Oct. 7, we got weekly reports on what the threat level is to Brandeis. Since the mapping project — as some of you remember from two summers ago in here Massachusetts — we are on higher alert than before in terms of threats because we were named in the mapping project as a friend of Israel and therefore a target.”
The first speaker in the meeting was Prof. John Plotz (ENGL). He read out a statement that had been previously emailed to President Ron Liebowitz. Upon further correspondence with the Justice, he sent a version of these comments.
In his statement, Plotz recognized the fears that community members are feeling linked to antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism. “All those fears are real — but our job as a community is to face them together. Right now, Brandeis is failing to do that and people are suffering as a result of recent failure to do so.”
Plotz acknowledged that undergraduate and graduate students as well as nontenured faculty feel afraid to speak up. Recognizing the difficulty of the president’s job, he added constructive criticism aimed at Liebowitz:
“The banning of the SJP signals, Ron, but it is not the only signal, that you are choosing a narrow particularist conception of Brandeis instead of the ‘host at last’ cosmopolitanism that has for so long defined Brandeis.” Plotz labeled the administration's decision as an ethical and tactical blunder for the future of Brandeis. “There is a present community of students — the ‘all students’ not just the ‘Jewish students’ you have often spoken of in your letters — and they need right now a president acting for them rather than on them,” he stated, calling on Liebowitz to rescind the ban and steer the campus back to normalcy. Plotz also encouraged Liebowitz to open a campus climate conversation with the student body.
Prof. Michael Rosbash (BIOL) explained that he read Prof. Sarah Lamb’s (ANTH) letter — signed by a large number of faculty members — and did not agree with the statements presented. He spoke about creating an alternative letter to send to President Liebowitz that was distributed through the science faculty’s Listserv. As of Friday morning, this letter had 33 signatures.
Roshbash’s letter explains that he and the letter’s signees feel that SJP’s Oct. 9 post that states the organization rejects “the characterization of Palestinian resistance as terrorism” invalidates it from receiving funding from the University as well as the right to use its name. The letter acknowledges the right to free speech and expression but states that SJP’s rights have not been infringed because the organization is not banned on campus. “We therefore support President Liebowitz and the decision to decertify/derecognize the Brandeis chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine,” the letter reads.
Prof. Leonard Saxe (Heller), the director of the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies, outlined his position as someone who studies antisemitism, American Jews, Israel, and considers himself a free speech advocate, but also a “hater of hate speech. He said that he was an “equal opportunity hater of hate speech. If there was a KKK group, I would say that. If there was a Jewish group, a Kahanis group, that called for the death and murder of, that celebrated death and murder of Muslims, I would say the same exact thing.”
Saxe then spoke about the fear that he believes is being felt by Jewish young adults, both psychologically and physically. “We are a target because we are Brandeis. I want to make it clear that I support the rights of Palestinians, and I grieve over the deaths of Palestinians, but that’s not what we're talking about. This is not a political debate.”
The next person to speak was Prof. Jonathan Sarna (NEJS), who spoke on his experience this past Thursday speaking to the U.S. Senate regarding antisemitism on campuses. He highlighted the student speakers who talked about the marches by masked SJP students through campuses, threatening students around them.
Sarna does not think that the heart of the issue is free speech. “This is about the weaponizing of free speech by people who want to not only undermine this University … this is really about giving no place for hate at Brandeis and for recognizing SJP as the latest in a group that goes back to the Communist party, which we now know is funded by Moscow. It goes back to Father Coughlin, we now know [is] funded by the Nazis, and this too has outside secretive funding,” Professor Sarna said.
Furthermore, he feels that SJP’s goal is to “terrorize the students, to undermine our University, and to undermine actual freedom in the United States, and to my mind that puts you outside the discussion we’ve had on free speech.”
When the Justice reached out for further comment on Nov. 10, Sarna elaborated: “As a historian, I also know how the pro-Nazi Bund and Coughlin groups, and the Communist Party, likewise weaponized free speech in a bid to undermine American institutions.”
Professor Sarna said that SJP associated itself with Hamas, a terror group, in his opinion. “[SJP] has made specific threats against Americans including members of the Brandeis community. I am grateful to President Liebowitz for putting the safety of the campus first and for having the courage to keep Hamas terrorism supporters from marching through our campus,” he concluded.
Prof. James Haber (BIOL) agreed that Brandeis is a unique university but understands a different moral obligation: “I think the rhetoric is there. You can read it — it’s just unbalanced, and we need to take a far, far deeper look at how we are talking about what is happening to tens of thousands of Gazans in the name of self-defense.”
Prof. Emerita Sue Lasner (ENGL) added, “The [American Civil Liberties Union] has been very clear that the actions of a national organization are not the same as the actions of students on our campus. I do not hear the students on our campus saying the things that you have accused them of saying.” She also emphasized that while Brandeis is Jewish-rooted, the University is nonsectarian. “We are defined that way publicly and I think we need to adhere to that. When [Liebowitz] sent letters that sympathized with those who have relatives in the [Israel Defense Forces] and not a word about the suffering of Palestinian students, some of whom have lost relatives in Gaza, and when [Liebowitz identified] this university as a quote ‘haven for our Jewish students’ without saying that we should be a haven for all our students, then I think we are going in a very disturbing direction.”
Prof. Lynne Kaye (NEJS) highlighted the lack and importance of curating spaces to listen compassionately and quietly to the grief of all people. She outlined that free speech and careful listening go hand-in-hand, and that the University should work on that.
Professor Kaye also went into detail regarding the possibility that the derecognizinig of SJP may have unintended consequences, as it has taken away a forum for people to be heard and to discuss many things outside of this conflict specifically, including Palestinian suffering.
Prof. Emerita Marya Levenson ’64 (ED) spoke about Brandeis’ value as a space that has previously modeled how to listen to unpopular opinions. Levenson stated that all students on this campus are scared — not just students of specific groups. She thinks these actions are sending messages to people outside of this University, and suspects that it will negatively affect prospective students and more.
When contacted by the Justice on Nov. 10 for further comment, Levenson stated: “Whether as a student ('64) or Education program faculty, I have always viewed Brandeis as a special place where students are encouraged to express controversial ideas. Of course, it's very challenging to speak up and listen to such ideas during polarizing times such as the one we are experiencing right now. It's hard to be empathetic to others during a time when friends and relatives have been killed or are in danger — as some of my family is in Israel. That's why I'm so proud that some faculty colleagues, Justice editors, and students are standing up for this Brandeis tradition of supporting the exchange of ideas, including those we may not want to hear. I believe that learning how to listen [to] and exchange such ideas will continue to attract questioning, thoughtful students, the kind we want at our university and need in our country.”
Prof. Bernadette Brooten (NEJS/WGS) then spoke about a letter sent to President Liebowitz that gained 112 faculty and retired faculty signatures as of Friday night. She mentioned that they discouraged junior faculty from signing this letter for fear of retaliation. This letter raised points of procedure not followed. She also spoke about examples of antisemitism as defined by the Department of Education, and the Department of Education’s wishes for schools to follow procedures.
Brooten also mentioned that Brandeis was held liable for discrimination on the bases of race, gender, and retaliation. She added that President Liebowitz was held personally liable for retaliation against Robin Nelson-Bailey, the former vice president of Human Resources.
When the Justice requested further comment, she stated that the letter “calls upon President Liebowitz to follow the procedures for derecognizing a student group on the basis of ‘genuine threats and harassment.’”
According to the student handbook, proper procedure dictates that a disciplinary panel hears evidence on both sides before determining the innocence or guilt of a club.
“Rising antisemitism is a major problem on college campuses, one which Brandeis must try to prevent, but always by following procedures fair to each side,” Brooten said.
Prof. Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST), director of research at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, shared how isolating it feels as an Iranian woman to hear people “casually talk about bombing Iran.” However, she added, “I stay in the room because it’s literally my job to educate. I have to talk to people who I may think have crossed a line, but I am in a university. I am not on the front lines of a war.”
Sohrabi said, “These are kids in our care … If we don’t educate people that we absolutely disagree with, we’re doing the easiest version of our job. I stayed at Brandeis because I do not like easy things, and this has been a marvelous experience until Monday.”
The next professor to speak was Prof. Chad Williams (Heller/AAAS). He explained that in his background as a historian, he is familiar with the way war tests both countries and academic institutions.
“I fear that Brandeis is heading down a very slippery slope. I am deeply concerned that when we look back on the history of Brandeis and this moment, it will not be remembered fondly.”
When contacted by the Justice for further comment, Williams stated: “Universities do not exist in a vacuum and, as such, are not immune from local, national and global politics. This is especially true of Brandeis at this explosive time, considering the University's unique history and identity. President Liebowitz's public statements cannot be divorced from the political context in which he has issued them. We must then also expect that his comments will have political ramifications, certainly here on campus, but also for Brandeis's national and international reputation. I have no doubt that President Liebowitz has thought about this. However, it is important that we have transparency and open dialogue about the pros and cons of what this means for Brandeis, certainly now but also in the future.”
Prof. Darlene Brooks Hedstrom (NEJS) explained that it feels damaging that President Liebowitz published something in a national newspaper without informing the community first, demonstrating that the concern is not for the whole community’s perspectives.
She later told the Justice: “It is true that the faculty was not informed of the President's op-ed piece or the decision regarding SJP. We learned about a decision on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 10:05 a.m., when he emailed the entire community, then parents of current students — of which I am one. You received this at the same time that the faculty did.
Many of us learned about the Globe piece and the decision through other channels late Monday or Tuesday. A communication from the President did not appear until Wednesday morning.”
The faculty meeting ended with concluding remarks from President Liebowitz.
“I heard you. I’ve taken notes. I’m sure I’ll listen to the recording too to think about [the] best way forward.”
Liebowitz concluded: “The reality is the timing of this was unfortunate, the vigil was not canceled, per se. The SJP sponsorship, however, was, but I had intended to do this prior to that vigil, several days earlier, and the only reason that was delayed was because of concerns about the mental health issues related to those who were involved in setting up the vigil. I was told that there were some concerns that had to be checked out by our CARE teams. We held up on that announcement, and so therefore unfortunately the announcement came right at the wrong time. It was really a perfect storm of timing. In any case, that was an accident that could not have been avoided. This should’ve happened earlier.”
— An earlier version of this article neglected to add NEJS to Prof. Brooten's faculty designation, and a clarification to her thoughts was added.