Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi presented BGU’s Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony in Beersheba on Tuesday to South African Jewish businessman and philanthropist Bertie Lubner.

The event, attended by a few hundred people, was held outdoors on a balmy evening in the spectacular setting of the Kreitman Plaza at the BGU Marcus Family Campus, in the framework of the 43rd board of governors meeting.

Calling Lubner “a most remarkable and beloved friend of Ben-Gurion University and indeed of humanity,” Carmi noted that he had been a major figure in the university and its board of governors since 1975.

“Brought up in a home where the values of caring and giving were taught and treasured, Bertie has over the years supported our students and encouraged them with projects and prizes to give to the less fortunate and to take responsible roles in society,” Carmi said. “He is a role model par excellence, dedicated and devoted to us as well as to the underprivileged communities in South Africa, and most worthy of the honor bestowed upon him this evening.”

In accepting the award, the gracious and charming Lubner said he had been inspired by three people: his late father, Morrie Lubner, a prominent entrepreneur in Johannesburg; Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion; and former South African president Nelson Mandela.

“Each of them in their own way had to pursue a life of hard work and sacrifice for them to succeed in their goals so that they, in turn, could add value to the lives of many people around the world,” he said. “What a great privilege I’ve had to have been associated with Nelson Mandela since his release [from jail] in 1990. Through his friendship, Ben- Gurion University was able to offer him a doctorate, which he accepted with delight.”

Lubner was asked to become the president of the South African Associates of BGU in 1975 by the second president of BGU, Joseph Tekoa.

“Even though I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for, I agreed, because you know, everyone wants to be a president,” he quipped.

Lubner said that two factors had motivated his involvement with the university.

“The first was meeting the quality of people who made up the university in those days. They represented to me true Zionists who were prepared to devote their lives to education at a desert institute, whereas they could have secured wonderful posts elsewhere.

“The second and almost as important was when I was shown the newly established faculties which were working on how to perform the university’s mandate – not only survival, but succeeding in the desert.”

He praised BGU’s success in helping to realize Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom.

“Like everything in life, it needs a vision like Ben-Gurion himself to create what became this miracle. This university was created with very little, and its success is undoubtedly all about the triumph of the human spirit. In fact, its triumph is a microcosm of Israel and Zionism itself,” Lubner said. “How could I have imagined that 38 years later we would be enrolling nearly 20,000 students, who I can say have become, quite beautifully, the water in the desert in their own way.”

He also issued an appeal for Jews around the world to forge close relationships with other communities in their home countries, and to speak out against injustice and poverty.

“Unless we as a people around the world are united with others who make up the fabric of any country, we can never win any war on human rights, on identity, on overcoming poverty; unless we stop working in silence. Let’s unite together!” Lubner, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by BGU in 1987, has made philanthropy a key part of his life and inculcated the importance of giving in his four children.

Both in South Africa and Israel, he and his family have supported many worthy causes – especially children and adults with special needs.

As a businessman, he was awarded South Africa’s highest honor, The Order of Meritorious Special Service, for his contribution to the country’s economy. As a philanthropist, he and the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris founded Afrika Tikkun, which looks after 18,000 beneficiaries in six townships. He and his brother Ronnie founded The Field Band Foundation, which supports 42 bands incorporating some 6,000 children. The Lubner family also set up the Lubner Kibbutz for mentally challenged adults.

He sponsors The Lubner Family Annual Prize for Excellence in Innovation and Research Endowment Fund at BGU, and has also endowed the Lubner Family Chair in Child Health and Development at Soroka University Medical Center.

The Jerusalem Post included Lubner on its list of the 50 most influential Jews in the world in 2011.

Among the six outstanding individuals bestowed honorary doctorates from BGU at the ceremony emceed by the IBA’s Leah Zinder on Tuesday night was – most notably – Cherie Blair (UK), who dedicated her award to Bangladeshi women fighting for their right to education.

“This is a big moment for a girl from Liverpool,” Blair beamed. “As the first in my family to go to university, I never thought I would have a collection of honorary doctorates.”

Turning to the plight of Bangladeshi women, she said: “Too many women don’t have access to the education we take for granted. I dedicate this honorary degree to the women of Chittagong who want to prove that education is their right.”

Blair, the wife of Quartet envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair, is the chancellor of a new Bangladeshi women’s university, The Asian University for Women, which will graduate its first class later this month.

Honorary doctorates were also awarded to:
• Prof. Patrick Aebischer (Switzerland), the president of Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne, professor of neurosciences and head of the Neurodegenerative Disease Laboratory at the EPL;
• Prof. Joshua Blau (Israel), the Max Schloessinger Professor emeritus of Arabic Language at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the world’s top scholars on medieval Judeo-Arabic;
• Prof. Mario Capecchi (US), the 2007 Nobel laureate in physiology and medicine, and distinguished professor of human genetics and biology at the University of Utah, known for his pioneering work on the development of gene targeting in mouse embryo-derived stem cells;
• Ruth Flinkman-Marandy (US), a national vice president on the board of the American Associates who was elected to BGU’s board of governors in May 2012 and is president of Flinkman Management, Inc., a family-owned real estate management company in Santa Monica, California; and
• Prof. Robert Langer (US), the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, a biomedical engineer who has developed novel drug delivery systems including time-delayed ones, and polymers that help prevent tumors from recruiting blood vessels, among many other systems.

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