A brouhaha at Brandeis
If alma mater indeed means “nourishing mother,” Martin Peretz has had a hungry week.
Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic and a 1959 Brandeis alumnus, has come under fire from the university’s current students for a column he wrote recently questioning whether American Muslims deserve First Amendment rights. Several campus activist groups have joined in cosponsoring a petition, which has garnered almost 500 signatures, demanding that Peretz apologize for what they call his “appalling” words.
Peretz wrote the column for The New Republic on Sept. 4, wherein he criticized the lack of American Muslim outcry regarding sectarian conflict in the Middle East. He ended the column by casting doubt on the intentions and value of the Muslim community in the United States.
“Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” Peretz wrote. “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”
Brandeis students offered little response to Peretz until Sahar Massachi, a senior and the lead writer of campus progressive blog Innermost Parts, read about Peretz’s column on another blog. Massachi recognized Peretz speaking in a Brandeis venue in the picture that accompanied that blog.
“That was a punch in the gut,” Massachi said of the photo. “That image haunted me. A day or two later I came to the decision that we have the obligation and the opportunity to stand up for our values and say, ‘Hey Marty Peretz, this is not OK.’”
Massachi believes that Peretz’s column betrays Brandeis’s values, as the school was founded in 1948 to accept minorities that had been barred from going to other colleges. He mobilized another progressive group he leads, the Justice League, to start the petition, which the group posted on Sept. 10. The petition is titled “From Brandeis to Marty: A Letter.”
“You claimed that Muslims don’t value human life… and that you wish to strip them of their First Amendment Rights,” the petition states. “That was unacceptable, irresponsible, and wrong. Mr. Peretz, your name and likeness is used in our admissions materials… Attacking people’s First Amendment rights is un-American, un-Brandeisian, and unethical.”
Peretz did not respond to several New Voices phone calls and emails for comment.
Senior Jon Sussman, the first signer of the petition, said that this issue is particularly pressing now because of Islamophobic acts that have occurred across the country recently and because of fallout from the heated debate over Park 51, the planned Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero.
“This wave of Islamophobia is sweeping the United States and Peretz’s comments are coming out at this time as part of this wave,” Sussman said. “As a Brandeis alum [sic] we have something of a responsibility to say [to Peretz] that we strongly denounce these Islamophobic comments.”
Peretz’s apology came on Sept. 13. He began by writing that his questioning of Muslims’ First Amendment rights “genuinely embarrasses me, and I deeply regret it… I do not think that any group or class of persons in the United States should be denied the protections of the First Amendment, not now, not ever.”
He continued to write, however, that his remark that “Muslim life is cheap” was “a statement of fact, not value” and that he was not calling for the cheapening of Muslim lives. For the Brandeis petition’s supporters, however, this was not enough.
“I don’t know how to handle this quasi-apology,” Massachi said. “I would want him to revisit his original article and explain why everything he said was wrong and offensive. I would just want him to change his writing from now on, to take a more enlightened view of the whole situation.”
Massachi, furthermore, feels that the original column is illustrative of the larger body of Peretz’s writing, particularly his statements on Israel. Massachi added that because Peretz is Jewish, the column reflects badly on the Jewish community.
“Marty Peretz was making all Jews look bad,” said Massachi, who is Jewish. “He was one of those two or three people, like [Anti-Defmation League Director] Abraham Foxman, that defines being pro-Israel in a way that most people our age recoil from.”
Although Peretz did not mention Israel in the column, Massachi is not alone in drawing a connection between Peretz’s words and events in the Jewish state. The Brandeis chapter of J Street U—a self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel group—is cosponsoring the petition and considers the fight against American Islamophobia to be a direct outgrowth of its mission to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“There are repercussions on our national security from this growing Islamophobia,” said senior Brian Reeves, J Street U’s Brandeis chapter president. “It does translate into anti-American values in the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Both Massachi and Reeves plan for their groups to take part in a wider range of activities to combat Islamophobia and promote tolerance. The Justice League helped organize a discussion about Islamophobia and religious freedom on Sept. 14, and J Street U will be garnering signatures for a national letter promoting religious freedom, which the group will send to the organizers of Park 51.
One group that the Justice League did not contact as it was writing the petition was Brandeis’s Muslim Students’ Association, the umbrella body for the approximately 150 Muslims on campus. While the MSA has joined the petition as a cosponsor, Massachi said that the group is “no more involved in all this than the Ecology Club is.” He added that in the rush to respond to Peretz, he did not reach out to the MSA before posting the petition.
The MSA’s leaders, however, say they have no desire to enter the political fray, and thank the petition’s organizers for standing up for their rights. The MSA is a cultural and religious group in nature, and its leaders say that they have found a welcome atmosphere at Brandeis.
“The MSA exists to serve Muslims on campus, to raise awareness about Muslim issues, but at Brandeis there’s a lot of political dialogue going on without the MSA jumping in,” said junior Hyder Kazmi, one of the group’s spokespeople. “The MSA was not looking to score political points.”
This is not the first time that the Brandeis student body has come to the defense of its Muslim community. Last spring, after the MSA’s members found their campus space vandalized, students held a vigil and circulated a petition.
Massachi said that he would expect such a response from Brandeis students.
“Brandeis graduates don’t just graduate with a diploma,” Massachi said. “They have a responsibility to go out and change the world.”