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Cardozo Event Tests Academic Freedom

When the Cardozo University Journal of Conflict Resolution, an independent, student-run, secular legal journal within Yeshiva University’s law school decided to bestow its annual International Advocate for Peace prize on former President Jimmy Carter, grievances began to trickle and then eventually stream into the office of the president. “I’ve had more letters and emails about this event than during the Madoff scandal,” President Richard Joel admitted during a town hall meeting a month before the event.

Carter, who received the Nobel Peace prize for his role in brokering major peace talks in Ireland, North Korea, Bosnia, and Haiti as well as between Uganda and Sudan and between Israel and Egypt, was nevertheless vehemently condemned by a group called the Coalition of Concerned Cardozo Alumni. The group cited Carter’s “ignominious history of anti-Israel bigotry” and accused Carter of “providing moral cover for those who would eradicate Israel and who despise America for her democratic values.”

The student journal cited Carter's brokering of the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt and the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty with the then-Soviet Union as the reason behind their decision. Past recipients of the award include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Bill Clinton.

Carter, who published the highly controversial New York Times bestselling book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid in 2006, advocates for an end to the Israeli colonization of the West Bank, the establishment of a Palestinian State, and an end to the cycle of terrorism. He is an outspoken and harsh critic of the Israeli government, has met with Hamas officials in Syria, and laid a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 2008.

In response to the journal’s announcement, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz challenged Carter to debate his human rights record, a challenge he has expressed more than once before. “He's never met a terrorist he didn't love, and never met an Israeli whom he did,” Dershowitz told The Jewish Press. “Carter has prevented peace, encouraged terrorism and done more than anyone else to isolate and demonize the Middle East’s only democracy, Israel,” he claimed.

In the days leading up to the event, major Jewish papers reported the brewing controversy. Daniel Rubin, a Cardozo alumnus and outspoken opponent of the journal’s decision, threatened to physically prevent Carter from entering Cardozo’s Greenwich Village campus. Rubin told the Jewish Daily Forward that alumni would “use their knowledge of the building layout to outmaneuver any attempts to stop them.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Young Israel, and the Zionist Organization of America all criticized the decision as wel. The ADL’s Abe Foxman claimed, “The students were wrong—they are entitled to be wrong and inappropriate and we are entitled to say that honoring former President Carter is wrong, especially for a Jewish institution…and indeed for any institution.” The ZOA issued a statement describing Carter as having a “repellant, decades-long record as an Israel-basher and promoter of Israel’s most vicious enemies, including Hamas,” and urged YU to rescind the invitation.

Defending student liberty at Yeshiva University, President Joel released a statement insisting that President Carter’s invitation to Cardozo “represents solely the initiative of this student journal, not of Yeshiva University or the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School.” He added that he recognizes the “breadth of impassioned feelings engendered by this appearance, and is mindful of the diversity of expressed opinions on the matter.” The President also reinforced the university’s support for the state of Israel and condemned President Carter’s historical “mischaracterization” of the conflict.

Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, a Yeshiva University graduate, dayan in the Beth Din of America, and Emory University law professor, wrote on the popular Hirhurim blog, “President Joel’s response—that not everything our faculty or students say or do is part of the YU mission but we are not going to censor them—is the right reply to a student group honoring a President of the United States whose policies we do not agree with.” Broyde—who was recently the source of his own media controversy—insisted, “If we want a Yeshiva which is a University, it is because we accept that there will be academic freedom and civil discourse within the Yeshiva which is a University.”  He maintained that YU would be “less perfect an institution, and not a more perfect one, if the administration of Yeshiva University interfered with the academic freedom of a Cardozo Law student group functioning in its own name.”

In the hours leading up to the event, held on April 10, The New York Times, USA Today, The Huffington Post, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva, and virtually every New York Jewish publication reported the controversy. Despite the hype and threats of intervention, the event took place without incident. A few protesters showed up in front of the school in fervent support of Carter.

Meanwhile, the event itself was “totally peaceful, totally nonviolent, totally friendly,” Brian Farkas, the journal's editor, told The New York Times. “People were laughing, people were smiling, we engaged in an extremely respectful dialogue.”