New York's Yeshiva University Engulfed in Controversy Over Jimmy Carter Peace Award

America’s preeminent Modern Orthodox academic institution distances itself from 'student-initiated' award as critics call for financial pressure to cancel ceremony.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Former US President Jimmy Carter, right, stands at the ruins of the American International School, which was destroyed during Israel's offensive, Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, June 16, 2009.
Former US President Jimmy Carter, right, stands at the ruins of the American International School, which was destroyed during Israel's offensive, Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, June 16, 2009.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Tensions are flaring at New York’s prestigious Yeshiva University and its Cardozo School of Law in the wake of growing protests against a decision to bestow an “International Advocate for Peace Award” on former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

The award, handed out by Cardozo’s student-run Journal of Conflict Resolution, is to be given to Carter on Wednesday at a ceremony at Cardozo’s Greenwich Village campus in Manhattan. Some Cardozo alumni have threatened to physically block Carter’s way when he arrives, while others have launched a public campaign to have both the ceremony and the award cancelled altogether.

Although the decision to salute Carter was announced only a few days ago, it still has the potential to develop into a major confrontation in light of Yeshiva University’s preeminent position in American Modern Orthodoxy, in which right-wing views on Israel, the Palestinians – and Jimmy Carter – are prevalent.

A so-called “Coalition of Concerned Cardozo Alumni” has set up a website calling on Cardozo graduates to “condition any continued support of Cardozo, be it financial or otherwise, on the cancellation of this event.” Protests against the decision to honor Carter have also spread in the right wing and pro-settler blogosphere, and these have now been reinforced by Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, a long time critic of Carter and his attitude toward Israel.

Dershowitz, author of “The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace” told Haaretz on Monday that Carter is “unworthy” of the award. He cited a long list of Carter’s offenses, saying that the former U.S. President “stood idly by” during the Pol Pot massacre in Cambodia, “never met a terrorist he didn’t like”, was beholden to Saudi Arabia and bore “partial responsibility” for the carnage of the second intifada because he “encouraged” Yasser Arafat at Camp David not to reach a peace deal.

And Carter does not deserve as much credit as he claims, Dershowitz asserted, for the original Camp David Accords between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. “In fact, he almost ruined it,” he said.

Nonetheless, Dershowitz denied claims that he was calling for a cancellation of the event, saying that it should be turned instead into “an educational experience” by students handing out leaflets challenging Carter’s record or by having the University invite “someone like myself” to debate Carter.
“He should be made to regret that he ever agreed to accept the award,” Dershowitz said.

The gathering storm comes at an especially inopportune time for Yeshiva University, which is still reeling from recent revelations that it hushed up cases of sexual abuse by staff members in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At the same time, threats by alumni to cut off contributions are especially sensitive for a university that lost over $110 million in the infamous Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal.

Seeking to stem the rising tide of disapproval, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel issued a statement on Monday distancing the institute from the award, saying that it “represents solely the initiative of this student journal.”

“At the core of Yeshiva University's expressed mission and sacred mandate stands an unwavering and unapologetic commitment to the legitimacy, safety, and security of the State of Israel,” Joel wrote. “President Carter's presence at Cardozo in no way represents a university position on his views, nor does it indicate the slightest change in our steadfastly pro-Israel stance.”

Nonetheless, in an echo of the recent brouhaha surrounding the student-sponsored BDS forum in Brooklyn College – which ultimately yielded unprecedented media attention for the BDS movement - Joel appeared to be rebuffing calls to cancel the event, saying that “Yeshiva University both celebrates and takes seriously its obligation as a university to thrive as a free marketplace of ideas, while remaining committed to its unique mission as a proud Jewish university.”

In its original statement on the award ceremony, the Journal of Conflict Resolution lauded Carter’s presidential achievements as well as his post-presidential activities in mediating conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Uganda and the like.

Responding to the first wave or criticism, a university spokesman said, “The students have made this decision based on President Carter’s achievements, and we support their right to do so.” He cited past recipients of the award, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Senator George Mitchell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross.

The creators of the web site, on the other hand, claim, “Jimmy Carter has an ignominious history of anti-Israel bigotry. It is simply unconscionable for a Jewish affiliated school to honor someone who has played such a high profile role in demonizing the Jewish state,” the web site said.

Recognized as one of America’s top academic institutions, the 127-year-old Yeshiva University has about 10,000 students in undergraduate, graduate and high school students in various campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx. The university also operates branches in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

The Benjamin Cardozo School of Law was set up in 1976 but has quickly climbed to the top ranks of U.S. law school rankings. It has about 12,000 alumni, including many of the graduates who are now enraged by the decision to honor Carter.

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