Countering BDS On Campus: A Success Story

Countering BDS On Campus: A Success Story

The case for Israel is strongest when it's based on authenticity, inclusion and engagement.

When he arrived in Boston, the new Israeli consul general told me that among his primary assignments was to curtail the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel) that had become prominent on so many campuses. His mission was as important as it was urgent. Colleges and universities train future leaders and opinion makers.

But how best to address this situation? After decades on university campuses, I realized that the case for Israel is best made not by attacking those who disagree but rather in a positive manner, based on authenticity, inclusion and engagement. This is what we built together on our Brandeis campus — I call it the “Brandeis Model.”

With the help of our diverse student body, we were able to grow this model that authentically embraced our Jewish roots on a nonsectarian campus. It turned out to be the most effective tool for limiting the impact of the BDS movement on our campus. Not only that, but this Jewish authenticity also attracted non-Jewish students from across the country and around the globe who sought to belong to a place of deep values, intellectualism and authenticity, where questions of identity were real, positive, and shared widely.

It all started with a campus-wide Yom Kippur break-fast initiated my first year. Some warned it would make many on campus feel excluded. But authenticity never excludes anyone — it embraces everyone.

Now it is a huge annual event. The more than 2,000 students who gather at the end of Yom Kippur on the Great Lawn include students from every part of campus — students from every stream of Judaism, and students from across campus and around the world, many of whom had never been to a break-fast before. A graduate student from Ghana, watching the flow of students coming to the break-fast observed that this was an example of “communities within communities; the essence of community.” He came to Brandeis to study international development; he learned much more, and his views about and understanding of Jews and Israel changed forever.

There were many components, such as inclusive Shabbat dinners that my wife and I hosted, to what became a strategy of Jewish authenticity, allowing students from around the world to feel their own identity more deeply and keenly because the Jewish roots of the school were clearly articulated and, yes, celebrated.

The Brandeis Model was based on everything I believed from my legal career studying tolerance, my professional life as an educator, and my personal life as a practicing Jew. And it worked.

Since 2011, applications to Brandeis are up more than 35 percent. International applications in particular increased, allowing the campus to become increasingly global, with students from well over 100 countries.

An Indian parent in Delhi, considering sending his daughter to Brandeis, told me “we know how ‘your people’ care about education and how you care about children, and that’s why we trust you with our daughter.”

But perhaps the most significant event that evolved was what came to be called “b-VIEW” — Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World. This program, a campus-wide, broad-based Israel discussion group with a yearly multi-university conference, was

started by three IDF vets whom we had recruited to Brandeis, and two American students. They created a forum for sharing a wide range of views on Israel in the context of love and determination for Israel’s survival and future. I was privileged to support it and help make it happen.

Speakers at b-VIEW conferences have included Mideast expert Aaron David Miller, Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Most important were the breakout sessions where students from colleges up and down the East Coast wrestled together with the situation confronting Israel.

Whereas many campuses find themselves hosting a confrontational and adversarial discussion of Israel, Brandeis’ b-VIEW revolutionized the process because it goes beyond simplistic rhetoric and polarized debates. It invites participation by anyone who cares about Israel and the region, regardless of political views, and encourages engagement in constructive and mutually respectful conversation.

The b-VIEW model is one to be emulated on other university campuses. To be sure, if even a small number of students distribute leaflets describing Israel as an apartheid state at Brandeis, it becomes big news in the larger Jewish community. The community should pay the same attention to triumphs of inclusivity and respectful discussion, involving hundreds and even thousands of students.

During my tenure as president I worked to increase the number of Israeli students, as they present the human face of Israel to the campus. Misperceptions formed from media are best clarified by human engagement. Better than a lecture about Israel is the Israeli student who lives across the hall or plays on the same intramural soccer team.

These efforts to build human engagement were also directed at graduate students and faculty.

The Bronfman Brandeis-Israel Collaborative Research Initiative provided research grants to faculty for projects done together with Israeli academics. Such collaborative research programs are a significant counterbalance to the increased efforts in the academic world to support BDS — just recently, both the American Anthropology Association and National Women’s Studies Association have supported BDS resolutions.

Those who feared that an authentic articulation of the university’s Jewish roots and a strong engagement with Israel would narrow the university’s appeal were wrong. As noted, applications are up dramatically. Campus is the site of broad-based discussions of Israel from all sides. At the first b-VIEW conference, I was inspired by the presence of students who covered the spectrum, left, right and center, united by a sense of engagement with Israel, all under the banner of Brandeis University.

Under my leadership and thanks to this strategy, there was virtually no BDS presence on campus. Embracing the breadth of our community and the range of ways of engaging with Israel is the surest way to defeat BDS — negative efforts to stamp it out are the surest way to see it grow. The Brandeis Model was tried, and it works.

Frederick Lawrence, former president of Brandeis University, is senior research scholar at Yale Law School.

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