Taking On The Boycotters, With Jewish Authenticity
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Taking On The Boycotters, With Jewish Authenticity

When the Israeli consul general in Boston was about to take up his new post, he was told that among his primary assignments was reaching out to college campuses and providing a strong and positive vision of Israel for the Boston area’s many college students. The importance of this mission is clear and compelling. Our colleges and universities train our future leaders and opinion-leaders. Influences there have a significant multiplier effect. My view formed over decades on university campuses is that the case for Israel is best made in a positive manner, based on authenticity, inclusion and engagement, not a negative manner, based on attacking those who disagree.

The former is what I witnessed in my years at Brandeis and it’s what we built together on our campus — a spirit of authenticity that infused every corner of the campus, and began to transform it. I call it the “Brandeis Model.” With the help of the students, Jews and non-Jews, Americans and Israelis, we were able to grow this model that authentically embraced our Jewish roots on a non-sectarian campus. It turned out to be the most effective tool for limiting the impact of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on our campus. This Jewish authenticity as it turned out not only repelled BDS — it attracted non-Jewish students from across the country and around the globe who sought to belong to a place of deep values, intellectualism, authenticity and family, where questions of identity were real and positive.

In many ways, it all started with a campus-wide Yom Kippur break-fast. The fall before becoming president, I was on the Brandeis campus for Yom Kippur, among other things to lead the Kol Nidre service in the large campus theater, something that became a tradition during my tenure. After the end of the holiday, as my wife and I exited to go to a break-fast at the home of a trustee, we saw students lined up outside the kosher dining hall, waiting to swipe their meal card to get in. I then and there resolved to create a campus-wide breakfast. I was warned by some — who should have known better — that it would make many on campus feel excluded. In my experience, 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 — from the Brandeis Orthodox Organization who have just spent a day in prayer and fasting, to Jewish students from a range of other streams of Judaism, to students from across campus and around the world, many of whom had never been to a break-fast before.

I remember well a graduate student from Ghana who observed the flow of students coming to the break-fast — it seems that some services end a little later than others — and observing that this was an example of “communities within communities; the essence of community, Mr. President.” Though this young man came to Brandeis to study sustainability and international development, he learned much more and his views about and understanding of Jews and Israel changed forever.

Next my wife and I began hosting Shabbat dinners at the president’s home, which we had moved so that, for the first time in the history of the university, the president’s home was within walking distance of campus. Those in attendance for these dinners were by design a mixed group, many attending a Shabbat dinner for the first time, but I always made sure there were enough students who knew their way around a Shabbat table — they were my anchors. So many stories I could share, but in light of the recent tragic events in Paris I choose this one: a young woman from France, with a cross around her neck, who told me with moist eyes after dinner that her father had grown up in a French Jewish family during the Shoah and thereafter hid his background and faith. “He never spoke much about his childhood,” she said, “but after tonight I feel that I understand him so much better.”

Now we went out even further on the limb. My senior vice presi-dent for students and enrollment, in an exit interview with an African-American student leader, asked her what she wished she had known when she came to Brandeis. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Boy, I sure wish I’d known what the heck ‘Shabbat’ is!” (She didn’t actually say ‘heck,’ but for this re-telling it will do.) So our next marker was a campus-wide Friday night dinner on the first Friday of the year. We held it also on the Great Lawn and celebrated the universal value of a dinner with family. Huge tables with mounds of challah were shared by thousands of students and everyone ended that night having had a Shabbat dinner.

There were many other components 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 professional life as an educator and my personal life as a practicing Jew. I could cite the great scholars and rabbis who inspired me in this regard, but instead I will share the wisdom of my grandmother with her third-grade education who said that “you will always be more impressive and attractive to people as an authentic version of yourself, than some false version of what you think they want you to be.”

She was right. Since 2011, applications were up over 35 percent. International applications in particular increased, allowing campus to become increasingly global, with students from well over 100 countries. One story makes the point well. I met with an Indian parent in Delhi who was considering sending his daughter to Brandeis — no small thing for him to send his daughter halfway around the world. “We know about you people,” he said. “We know how you 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. Their experiences immediately garnered the respect of their peers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. What they wanted was to create 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 the first b-VIEW conference included Aaron David Miller, and in subsequent years included Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and many others.

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 discussions about Israel. The program goes beyond simplistic rhetoric and polarized debates. It invites participation by anyone who cares about Israel and the region, regardless of their political views, and encourages them to engage in constructive and mutually respectful conversation. It is a critically important way in which Brandeis has played a leadership role in how Israel is addressed and discussed. The b-VIEW approach is a model to be emulated on other university campuses.

By knowing who we were as an institution with deep roots in the American Jewish community, it became possible to base our discussions of Israel in a context that allows for a wide-ranging ex-change of views, not confrontation between adversaries.

I was often asked what Brandeis’ “position” was with respect to Israel. Universities, of course, are not political parties or political action committees or NGOs with a particular political mission. Our mission is the creation and discovery of knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge through our teaching and our scholarship. So the question is actually a little tricky, and here is the answer I always gave: “We are inextricably connected with the State of Israel.” This inextricable connection is in fact a core piece of the Brandeis Model.

Among my areas of focus in our admissions strategy was an increase in the number of students from Israel. The impact that these students have on campus cannot be overstated. Israel Defense Forces veterans bring a great level of maturity and leadership to the student body. As I said, it was my Israeli students who were instrumental in creating b-VIEW. For so many members of the cam-pus community, these students presented the human face of what it means to be Israeli. Misperceptions formed from television or the like are best clarified by human engagement. Better than a lecture about Israel is the Israeli student who lives across the hall, or works across the lab bench, or plays on the same intramural soccer team.

These efforts to build human engagement included graduate students and faculty as well. I worked with the Henry Leir Foundation to support postdoctoral fellows from Israel in neuroscience. For faculty, Charles Bronfman and his foundation supported the highly successful Brandeis-Israel Collaborative Research Initiative, under which grants were made available to scholars in any field so long as the project was done in collaboration with an Israeli academic. Research projects in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences were all supported, connecting our faculty with new Israeli academic partners. These types of collaborative research programs are especially significant now and will be a significant counterbalance to the increased efforts in the academic world to support BDS — within the past weeks, both the American Anthropology Association and National Women’s Studies Association have supported BDS resolutions.

The Brandeis Model worked. 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 I said earlier, applications were up dramatically. Campus was the site of broad-based discussions of Israel from all sides. I will never forget speaking at the very first b-VIEW conference. I had prepared remarks that I never got to say. Instead, I was inspired as I looked out at the faces of so many students, who I knew to cover the spectrum, left, right and center, united by a sense of engage-ment with Israel, all under the banner of Brandeis University. “This,” I said, “could not take place at any other university campus. Our goal should be to see that someday it can.”

And there is virtually no BDS presence on campus. Needless to say, if a small number of students hand out leaflets describing Israel as an apartheid state at Brandeis, it becomes big news in the Jewish community. Sadly, that same community sometimes is less interested in a b-VIEW conference attended by hundreds of students from dozens of colleges and universities, or the largest end of the Yom Kippur break-fast in the world. They should indeed be interested because those accomplishments should be a source of enormous pride and an emblem of what is possible. 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 is the surest way to see it grow. The Brandeis Model was tried, and it works.

Frederick M. Lawrence, former president of Brandeis University, is senior research scholar at Yale Law School. A condensed version of this article appeared in the Jan. 1 issue.

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