A deep connection: Interview with Fred Lawrence


Frederick Lawrence usually wears a tie, but is proud that he has shed it to conform with Israel’s casual standards. The erudite president of Brandeis University sits for coffee in front of giant glass windows overlooking the pool of the David Intercontinental Hotel along Tel Aviv’s beach promenade. He seems at rest in the Jewish state.

Lawrence is here as part of a Massachusetts-Israel trade and academic mission, accompanying the governor of his state, Deval Patrick. He is in his fourth year as president of one of America’s most unusual academic institutions, the non-sectarian university with strong Jewish roots that boasts an almost half-Jewish student body.

The president, who describes himself and his observance as grounded in “hip Modern Orthodoxy,” does not wear a kippa, but describes his life’s path as being directed by Jewish experience.

“When I was at Yale Law School, there was a hamburger place that hamburgers and cheeseburgers, which was a problem for someone keeping kosher.”

His innovation to cope with this could have been borrowed from the iconic Five Easy Pieces: Hold the meat, leave the cheese and the bread. Incidentally, Lawrence met his wife at Yale, at a Shabbat dinner at the campus Hillel.

Although he came on the Massachusetts mission, one of his first tasks in the country was inaugurating a new prize with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The Chami and Lazar Fruchter Prize, named for the parents of two current students, partners the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

“The prize is for an Israeli artist [working] in video art, which is big here in Israel. The very first American video art show was at the Rose Museum in 1975; and this prize will recognize the artist and provide a cash award. The second part of the prize is a catalog, and the third is an international show, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and at Rose. It connects us with one of the great institutions in Israel, and is part of the whole project of close connections between Brandeis and Israel.”

Lawerence, who was born in 1955, came to be president of Brandeis almost by accident. After law school, he worked in the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, under Rudolph Giuliani. “We belonged to two synagogues at that time, Ansche Chesed and Lincoln Square, when Shlomo Riskin [now chief rabbi of Efrat] was still in Manhattan.”

His expertise was in civil rights law, and from there he found himself gravitating towards academia; in 1988, he began lecturing at Boston University. Becoming a full professor and dean, he focused on teaching about free speech and hate crimes. He was working as dean at George Washington University when he got a call from Brandeis: The university was looking for a president.

“I wasn’t on the job market or looking for a job, but I thought, ‘This is a job that could tie together two streams of my life.’” He recalls being asked a lot, early on in his presidency, whether Brandeis was Jewish enough or too Jewish.

“My view was and always has been that we make it harder than it has to be; it is a unique institution founded by the American Jewish community that is non-sectarian but is grounded in Jewish values. I often say that Brandeis is the only place outside of Israel that without being 100 percent Jewish, it is normal to be Jewish; the calendar is Jewish, our roots are Jewish. But they don’t narrow us, they broaden us, and that explains how you reach out to a student body of the 130 countries represented, and every religious group.”

Taking over after the long reign of Jehuda Reinharz, who had run the academy for 16 years, the new president obviously had big shoes to fill. One of the things that he is most enthusiastic about is Israel; he describes a deep commitment to the Jewish state on his campus.

“I wanted to form connections with Israel in areas that would cut across the entire curriculum.”

One of the things that Brandeis has pioneered is the discipline of Israel studies, housed at the Schusterman Center.

Traditionally, the area of Middle East studies on many campuses has not only seemed to ignore Israel, but as Lawrence notes,“has had a tilt or bias against Israel.” He argues that the Brandeis Crown Center for Middle East Studies seeks to ground the academics back in serious study, “without bias. And that is premised in the notion that in a fair, open and honest discussion, Israel will come out just fine.”

But Lawrence thinks that work with Israel can span the disciplines. “For instance, in fine arts; one of my colleagues who is in the Schusterman Center teaches about Israeli art, and there are people in Schusterman teaching in political science and not just Judaic studies. One of the things that I have been able to enhance over the years through a grant from the Bronfman Foundation is supplying seed money to scholars, [through a framework] that it has to be in collaboration with an Israeli partner. Through that we have had faculty from fine arts, film, cognitive psychology and with a scholar in Israel, to build professional bridges.”

Brandeis has increased the number of Israel students by making scholarships available, and has also established a program called Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World (bVIEW), in which some 200 students from over 25 campuses gather to discuss Israel.

“It is premised on support for the State of Israel, that we are able to have a serious dialogue where people can agree and disagree,” says Lawrence. “This a model that other schools are looking to replicate. Last year’s speakers included [historian and Zionist activist] Gil Troy, for instance.”

Another program called Brandeis Bridges has brought Jewish and African-American students to Israel; they also come to the president’s house for Shabbat dinner.

With a student body of 3,600 undergraduates, and a record 10,000 applicants last year, the university is struggling with keeping tuition costs down and maintaining a diverse student body.

Lawrence describes outreach not only abroad, but also within the Jewish community. “We haven’t saturated the market,” he says, and there is more work to be done.

He argues that the diverse student body provides important opportunities for all involved. “If you asked the Orthodox students, they would say Orthodox life is incredible; we rotate around on Shabbat, and the Orthodox service is all student-led. And yet, they are part of this broader world. That not only means they are exposed to students from around the world; it also means that students from all over the world are exposed to them, and they have not met Jews before and are changed.

“So, for instance, they had some 30 students in an international business program. Many were from the US and China, but the third most common country of origin was Saudi Arabia. It included a young woman on a King Abdullah scholarship… students like that young woman are my force multiplier, they will go back and will be in rooms that I can’t get into or discussions I am not likely to hear, and they will be in a place to talk about the American Jewish community and Israel in a powerful way.”

One of the issues US campuses face today in relation to Israel is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.

This year, struggles have been fought on the University of California – Los Angeles and DePaul University campuses, as well as within the American Studies Association.

Hillel has also split over whether to have anti-Israel speakers, sparking an “Open Hillel” movement. And there is J Street on campus, which is broadening the debate over what it means to be pro-Israel.

Lawrence is passionate about this debate. “We have an unusual opportunity to act strongly in this area.

There is a reason we were the first to pull out of the American Studies Association after the shameful vote; the chair of American studies is Tom Doherty, and he had the same view on this as I did. He said this is not just a Jewish issue, it is anathema to what we are as an institution, and other schools followed.

“What we are able to do is have strong content from people like [Schusterman Center director] Prof. Ilan Troen, and have a free and open discussion. We believe in free discussion, but I do believe that there is a center of gravity on campus – and the center of gravity is supportive of the notion of Israel.”

He notes that some other campuses have a problem of disproportionate criticism of Israel. “What we can do is, besides being a light unto the nations, not of suggesting there is a right or wrong position, there is a right way to discuss these issues. What we have done is had a serious civil discussion premised on Israel’s right to exist, and we can model that. Through the Summer Institute for Israel Studies, we can send academics out to teach Israel studies.

“Some but not all of this discussion is based on ignorance. The answer to ignorance, as [university namesake, US Supreme Court associate justice Louis D.] Brandeis said, the answer to bad speech is more speech.”

But it isn’t all without controversy. Last November, a demonstration by Islamic Jihad on the east Jerusalem campus of Al-Quds University led to Brandeis suspending academic ties with the institution. Lawrence held a conversation with Al-Quds President Sari Nusseibeh, but a public letter by Nusseibeh was deemed “inflammatory.”

The partnership was part of a unique intercultural relationship dating from 2003, which had facilitated faculty exchanges and was seen as an innovative attempt to build a bridge with a Palestinian institution. Lawrence is confident that something good may come out of it.

“I chose to suspend, and not break [ties]. The lines of communication remain open. We have sent faculty there [to examine the situation]. There is potential to rebuild that relationship, but there are some ways to go on that… I received pressure both ways, I was asked to do nothing and asked to sever [ties]; but suspending [ties] was to make a strong statement about how we reacted.”

He argues: “I think we do need to find a vocabulary, each of us, and be prepared to critique and distance from extremes… I think all of the kinds of outreach we do are important. Those are Israeli scholars, and Arab and Palestinian scholars. One thing that came out was a book by an Israeli, an Egyptian and a Palestinian, which said they can agree on facts, followed by three narratives; because the three are social scientists, they analyze the facts. I think we are enriched by those kinds [of works].”

Another issue Lawrence had to confront this year was a controversy over an honorary degree that was to be awarded to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Allegations that she was anti-Islamic led to protests demanding that the university cancel the invitation, which it did – leading to acrimony and discussion in the media.

“There is no question in my mind that the vetting process has been addressed and fixed. I regret [the incident]; it created a difficult situation and caused embarrassment to Hirsi Ali. [We should have] known prior to issuing [the invitation],” the president responds.

He maintains that commencement should be about the students, and distracting from them would have harmed the event. “We have a full debate all year. Honor Diaries [a documentary featuring female Muslim activists advocating for increased rights] was screened on campus; 364 days a year [we are at] full throttle. Commencement is celebration, it is about the graduates – and anything that takes the focus off them is a mistake.”

Some have pointed to a contradictory policy, which allowed playwright Tony Kushner to received a degree from Brandeis despite his controversial anti-Israel statements, before Lawrence was president. Lawrence pauses, as if pondering whether the Kushner degree was a good idea, and concludes: “His work as a playwright is distinct from his statements [about Israel], which I would disagree with strongly; that isn’t his work and field.”

As he gets up to return to activity related to the Massachusetts- Israel mission, he ponders his unique position as a relatively observant Jew heading a university that has such deep roots in American Judaism.

“I guess I’m one of the few presidents of an American university where people will ask what stream of Judaism I belong to. When I think about who the title ‘My rabbi’ has gone to over the years, there are two Reform rabbis, a conservative rabbi and two Orthodox rabbis.”

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