Introductory remarks by President Jehuda Reinharz

Following are introductory remarks delivered by Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz prior to the Nov. 5, 2009, forum on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza, held at Brandeis University.

Good afternoon, and welcome to Brandeis University.

“Truth, Even unto Its Innermost Parts” is not just the Brandeis motto, it is a core value of the university, and has been since its inception. It is a challenge that often is not easily met. Issues of war and peace, ethics and social justice frequently touch nerves made raw by personal suffering, or by empathy for those who are suffering.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the long, painful, continuing strife between Israelis and Palestinians.

Whether by listening to the experience of victims of violence on both sides, standing up for the presence on the Brandeis faculty of an outstanding Palestinian professor, building a partnership with a Palestinian University or hosting appearances by senior Israeli leaders or a former controversial president, Brandeis has always been up to the challenge, even when some — both within and outside its walls — have not.

The Gaza conflict of early this year and its aftermath pose the latest test to intelligent inquiry, thoughtful analysis and civilized discourse — emotions run high and feelings of injustice are rampant.

In the aftermath of this conflict, the United Nations Human Rights Council president appointed Justice Richard Goldstone — our first speaker today — who examined both Israeli and Palestinian actions. His commission’s report has been embraced by some and rejected by others, including by our second speaker, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold. The directors of the two sponsoring centers, Daniel Terris and Ilan Troen, will more formally introduce these two gentlemen.

This report charges both Palestinian and Israeli authorities with war crimes, but its deeper implications explore the complex legal and moral issues surrounding the conduct of warfare in an era when the rules of engagement are rapidly changing.

While the arguments over the Gaza report have been heated, there is actually substantial agreement on the underlying principles involved. Two weeks ago, Dan Meridor, deputy prime minister of Israel, spoke here at Brandeis and delivered a stirring account of Israeli commitment to the principles of preserving civilian lives in the context of conflict.

Yet the specifics of the conflict in Gaza have led to dramatically different conclusions about the legal and moral basis of Israeli actions. The mission led by Justice Goldstone concluded on the basis of its investigations that Israel engaged in a deliberate policy of collective punishment of the people of Gaza, and as such committed deeds that should be classified as war crimes.

Israeli leaders have reacted with outrage, arguing that they were responding to months of shelling of Israeli civilians, and that their forces made every effort to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, arguing that the Hamas military wing cynically embedded its military operations within civilian neighborhoods.

Which brings me to this event. I wish to note that we were able to have the General Assembly of the United Nations hold a debate on the Goldstone report just yesterday to serve as background for our event. Our timing is absolutely perfect.

But unlike the U.N., we will not have a long procession of speakers in numerous languages. We will also hold no vote and make no resolutions. While we are very glad for the presence of the press, both local and from abroad — and I am pleased to note that we are now streaming this event across campus and, through the Web, to an audience of many viewers across the world — this event is first and foremost intended for this campus community and to you as individuals in this hall.

We hope that what is discussed here today will help you to make up your own mind on important and highly contested issues that too often are argued with more heat than light.

While we assume there will be many points of dispute, we hope and expect that what will take place here will become the basis for further reflection and probing.

We are examining, yet again, another difficult issue in the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not a distant historical event to be debated by historians and scholars. We are probing an event, which nearly everyone here has witnessed on the television screen and has read about in news reports, blogs and countless communications that are flashing across the Web.

I would suggest that the issues that arise from the specifics of the violence in Gaza and Israel’s Negev are of more than parochial interest. America, like other modern nations, is bedeviled by fighting distant wars against non-state militants who are often hard to distinguish as they mix and melt into civilian populations. We have entered a new age of warfare. How one deals in such situations effectively and morally, with minimal injury to an opponent’s innocents while protecting one’s own, is one of the salient and complex issues of our times. Brandeis students who are engrossed in the study of philosophy, ethics, Middle East studies, Israel studies, international relations and a host of fields that engage our minds and concerns across this campus will find much to engage them in this evening’s deliberations.

Whatever our differences within this room, we share, I hope, common goals: the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of justice and a commitment to preserving human lives and human dignity — in the Middle East, and around the world.

I welcome the members of the communities outside the Brandeis campus who are here today, but I am sure you understand that priority in the questioning that will follow the presentations will be given to Brandeis University students and faculty.

Please join me now in listening to these gentlemen with the respect and civility that are essential to pursuing “truth, even unto its innermost parts.” Giving people the chance to speak freely — and carefully considering and responding to what they have to say — is what we here at Brandeis try to do every day.

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