Did Brandeis Get It Right?

There has been a lot of controversy recently about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the decisions by Brandeis University to honor her, and then the retraction of that decision. There has also been much controversy about the screening of the documentary she took part in, ‘Honor Diaries’, which documents abuses to women and girls in the Muslim world. Various Muslim groups, specifically the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR),  have fought furiously against the movie screenings and the honorary degree.

The question that is raised when dealing with this situation is an important one that is very applicable in a wide variety of situations- where do we draw the line? On one side is the consideration of human rights violations. It is a moral obligation to fight against human rights violations wherever they may occur. By hosting and promoting someone who raises awareness about a certain human rights issues, there is a better chance of that abuse of  human rights being stopped. Therefore it is a moral necessity to host people like this and spread their message.

On the other side is the consideration of Islamophobia and anti-semitism. Many of the voices that speak out against Muslim countries or against Israel are zealots that spread hate, are guilty of libel, and cause a lot of damage to Jews and Muslims around the globe. Sometimes these are Jewish or Muslim renegades, who can be especially damaging. Hosting or honoring a person like this is morally wrong, as it promotes his or her message of bigotry.

The million dollar question is, where is the line? A decision has to be made, because being a bystander to human rights abuses is reprehensible as well.

There are many important applications of this problem. Hirsi is one important one. Various advocates of Palestinian human rights are also part of this debate. We need to be able to define a line in order to assure the proper moral decision regarding human rights advocates like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Where should the line be drawn?

In my opinion, there is a difference between screening a movie and granting an honorary degree.The former is an issue of free speech, which should only be stifled in extreme cases of bigotry and hate. The movie Honor Diaries is far from crossing that line, and I think that a university which refuses to allow a screening is making a big mistake. 

The latter,an honorary degree, is a promotion of that person and his or her message. On this issue, there needs to be a distinction between zealot’s who use human rights issues, and human rights advocates who speak out (sometimes improperly) against those human rights abusers. If we start worrying too much about side effects, our hands will be tied in far too many situations.

Ayaan Ali Hirsi is most definitely a human rights activist. Those who campaign against her have selected a few quotes which were said over a number of years, and claim that those sentences represent her personal ethos. This is an unfair representation, which prevents her from trying to prevent horrors that are happening daily in certain Muslim societies. As Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Dean of the Simon Weisenthal Center, told me

The Brandeis symbol has the Hebrew letters  aleph, mem, taf (spelling emet, truth). What they did was sheker (a lie).

About the Author
Yaakov Wolff is a soldier in the IDF. He made Aliyah from Boston to Beit Shemesh in 2007. Before joining the army he studied in Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh. He holds a degree in Middle East Studies from Bar-Ilan University.