How Fred Lawrence coupled with Brandeis Radio to fight Israel libel

If these headlines are some indication of the state of college campus sentiment toward Israel and Jews, I am grateful that I did not experience any of this firsthand.

By LEE NISSON
January 18, 2016 20:28
‘NOT ONCE did I feel threatened because of my Judaism and pro-Israel views on campus.

‘NOT ONCE did I feel threatened because of my Judaism and pro-Israel views on campus. Not once was I shouted down for my beliefs,’ writes the author about his experience at Brandeis. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Every day I feel like I read the same script played out by different actors. “Suchand- such organization votes to boycott Israel.” “Pro-Israel Jewish students assaulted on campus.” “Jewish leader’s credentials called into question by Israel stance.” Each and every headline reflects a grim reality taking hold on college campuses and beyond, and each channels a dark morass that feels more at home in the 1930s than in the 21st century.

If these headlines are some indication of the state of college campus sentiment toward Israel and Jews, I am grateful that I, only a few years removed from college life myself, did not experience any of this firsthand.

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The answer is quite simple: I was fortunate enough to attend Brandeis University. The Jewish roots of the school and the unique way in which it builds bridges of understanding with Israeli students and institutions – some of which I had the privilege of experiencing firsthand – temper the angry discourse that seems to surround Israel on many campuses and the identity crisis many Jewish students face today. The authenticity of self that I learned at Brandeis has become the bedrock upon which I and many other students are able to constructively confront the vicious and relentless hate that so many students are facing today.

I could cite many examples of the ways in which the Jewish roots of Brandeis expressed themselves and created a unique campus climate. Let me begin with one that was central to my college experience: the university radio station. Many students have a particular activity or organization to which they devote themselves during college and for me it was Brandeis’ radio station, WBRS 100.1 FM. Lovingly called bWBRS, the station always had the benefit of unique programming.

People could tune in to hear Orthodox students giving sex advice on the air – modesty and all – they could listen to a show done early in the morning to capitalize on listeners in mainland China, or they could listen to award-winning jazz shows from rotating DJs.

However the uniqueness of Brandeis is what allowed us to take WBRS to another level.

Our president during my years, Frederick Lawrence, was in the midst of establishing a wide range of relationships with Israeli institutions, students and communities. One of these was the justly celebrated Inter-Disciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). On President Lawrence’s initiative, WBRS partnered with IDC and its radio station to assist each other with programming. Together, the two stations held a joint program interviewing Lawrence and IDC president Uriel Reichman when Reichman was visiting our campus.

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With Lawrence’s blessing, WBRS had suddenly found itself with the need to syndicate programming, a capability we never really thought we would need. With my Israeli counterpart, Rona Zahavi, my colleagues and I ended up in an exchange that not only helped raise the quality of our own programming, but allowed students in each school to tap into the pulse of the other’s campus.

Students still talk about IDC shows like “The Israeli Vibe,” which they had never expected to hear and could not have heard on any other American college radio station.

A few college radio shows from Israel alone could not prevent the tide of campus hatred from sweeping across Brandeis, but it is illustrative of what was special about Brandeis and how it acts as a bulwark against the anti-Zionism, and even anti-Semitism, that other campuses have experienced. WBRS’ programming specifically and the mature level of discourse on campus on Israel more generally came from the profound impact, at both the student and faculty level, of Brandeis’ Jewish roots and the authenticity with which Jewish life was able to express itself during my years there. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have experienced all this firsthand.

Brandeis had a great many resources that were particularly beneficial for a student like me, a practicing Jew. In fact it was those very resources that had attracted me to apply to the school. Until I arrived in school, however, I had no idea the extent to which they were embedded within the university’s life. So many Jewish groups and organizations exist that are appropriate for each denomination’s comfort and level of observance, each of which received official sanction and support from the university.

I associated myself with the Brandeis Orthodox Organization (BOO) and the Brandeis Sephardic Initiative (BSI). I can say that I saw firsthand how the faculty fearlessly engaged with their students in making Jewish life something to be celebrated. I became the “speaking director” of BOO; if a speech needed to be made, I found the person to make it, and this is where the authenticity of Brandeis’ Jewish identity really shone through. I routinely found speakers among the many intelligent people at Brandeis; I encouraged young freshman to make a mark, seniors to convey advice based on their experiences and faculty members to impart wisdom from their years of educating. I am especially proud that president Lawrence was a frequent speaker, as well as leader in the services themselves. This egalitarian representation was not limited to the speakers by any means. The president and the students were unafraid to break barriers of rank or denomination – the same barriers that have unfortunately elsewhere led some to feel uncomfortable with their Jewish roots.

In this case, everyone was willing to work together to foster dialog and come together through the collective Jewish experience.

I am tempted to say that in a school established by Jews, and with a significant Jewish population, there is nothing remarkable about a campus with a fiercely pro-Israel message, but that would understate the point.

The mood that I have described was not limited to the Jewish organizations on campus but reached a whole host of authentic campus-wide experiences that allowed a culture of civility to flourish on campus when discussing questions of Israel and Judaism. I wish that this were the case on all campuses; I know that it is not.

This was all fostered by the Brandeis Model, which encouraged discussion but stressed respect. To engage in an enlightening and civil discourse, we need understanding. At Brandeis, understanding was gained through many community-wide programs, including a campus-wide break-fast after Yom Kippur that president Lawrence began my sophomore year, now attended by thousands of students, partnerships with Israeli institutions too numerous to list here, and many other similar experiences. These have allowed the truth about Israel to be disseminated to a campus beyond any biases tainting the debate at other institutions.

Not once did I feel threatened because of my Judaism and pro-Israel views on campus.

Not once was I shouted down for my beliefs.

Not once were my leadership credentials called into question because of what I know to be true. The culture of constructive dialog that I gained from my time at Brandeis and the interactions I had with its president, staff and the rest of the student body is an essential factor on which I have been able to move forward successfully with my life. If other schools, and the Jews at them, are one day unafraid to embrace their roots like my alma mater, then perhaps the horrible headlines that appear all too often will soon fade – as they should.

The author is a student at NYU Law School and an alumnus of Brandeis University.

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