The last time I saw Frederick Lawrence, the president of Brandeis, was memorable. In late November of 2012, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Brandeis graduate, Dan Shapiro, was set to host Fred and his wife, Dr. Kathy Lawrence, at an Alumni Club of Israel event at the ambassador’s residence in Hertzliya
As a proud Brandeis graduate (1999) who made Aliyah nearly 14 years ago, I was looking forward to listening to Fred and Dan, and mingling with my fellow Brandeis alumni. But a little more than a week before the event was scheduled to take place, Hamas began sending rocket barrages into Israel and Israel responded by launching Operation Pillar of Defense, a fierce eight-day military operation in Gaza.
There were doubts as to whether the Brandeis event would even take place – Dan had cancelled all other meetings at his residence that week. Over 200 Brandeis alumni members, spouses and friends optimistically showed up (including me and my wife), but we had to wait several hours after the scheduled start time because Dan was involved in successfully brokering a cease fire between the Palestinians and Israel.
That was not an easy time for Israelis, let alone overseas visitors – Palestinian terrorists fired nearly 1,500 rockets and missiles at Israel. And yet Fred not only came, he also delivered an important message. As noted in BrandeisNOW Weekly, a publication from the university’s of the Office of Communications, “Lawrence spoke (at the event) of the historic ties between Israel and Brandeis, both birthed by visionary leaders in 1948, and told the crowd about the burgeoning partnerships between Brandeis and Israel’s leading universities.”
I thought about that unforgettable Brandeis alumni event in Israel upon hearing the somewhat recent news that Fred will be stepping down as Brandeis president. Some people are asking if Fred was pushed out at Brandeis, possibly because of subpar fundraising or due to some of the scandals that have plagued Brandeis – such as the exposure of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic emails written by Brandeis professors that were originally circulated via a closed email listserv.
It doesn’t seem that Fred’s departure from Brandeis has anything to do with popularity. According to The Times of Israel, “Lawrence generally was well liked by students, frequently showing up at student events and programs. He often would attend Brandeis’ large Shabbat dinners, sometimes delivering the dvar Torah, and he even led KolNidre services on Yom Kippur.”
Maintaining Brandeis’ reputation as a top-notch academic institution was certainly a main priority for Fred, but he also understood and respected the university’s special relationship to both Israel and the Jewish people.
Personally, I believe that the next president – who hasn’t been selected yet – should follow Fred’s footsteps by continuing to strengthen the relationship with Israel and emphasizing the distinctive characteristics of Brandeis (a university where 50-60 percent of the student population is estimated to be Jewish). Brandeis is a place of open dialogue and diverse opinions, as it should be. But without its unique relationships to the Jewish people and Israel, Brandeis would lose an integral part of its identity and risk becoming just another quality liberal arts institution.
Anti-Israel sentiment is unfortunately prevalent at many college campuses across America. And even Brandeis, sadly, has professors who single out the Jewish state for unfair criticism and use slurs to refer to pro-Israel supporters.
In the face of these kinds of attacks, it’s important to maintain and strengthen institutions that have traditionally been supportive of the Jewish state. The next president of Brandeis must ensure that the university lives up to the lofty Zionist ideals set forth by Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and a staunch American Zionist.
In 1913, Brandeis said the following to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Chelsea, Massachusetts.
To my mind, in order that the world may gain from what is best in us, we should aid in the effort of the Jews in Palestine. We should all support the Zionist movement…With our assistance, the Jew there will develop to fullest manhood and manfully perform his fullest duty to his people and to his country.
I really hope the next president of Brandeis agrees with that sentiment. I’ll be happy to discuss it with him or her at an alumni event here in Israel.