A Quiet Start to the Academic Year

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We are now two weeks into the academic year at Al-Quds University, but things start slowly.  By tradition, very little happens during the first week of classes.  Students are still in the process of registering and deciding on their academic programs, and faculty members are still getting organized.  Few classes meet, and the general atmosphere is relaxed.  This year, the second week at AQU was fairly relaxed as well, because it was the week before a vacation!  The Eid-al-Adha holiday, a multi-day celebration, shuts things down for a week, so the semester is still struggling to find its momentum.

I have taken advantage of this slow start to continue my work of recruiting students for the M.A. Program in American Studies.  I paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to an American organization that offers English language instruction, and to the offices of a couple of NGOs in Ramallah, as well as spreading the word through AQU faculty, alumni, and the U.S. Consulate.   In the end, the program received several dozen serious inquiries/expressions of interest, and we have accepted a solid class . . .but I won’t really know final numbers for another week or so.  Everyone says that after the Eid ends, the University community will get serious about the academic year.

A quiet start to the academic year at Al-Quds University is a decidedly good thing.  The University had a tumultuous year in 2015-16.  The spate of violence in Jerusalem (and elsewhere in both Israel and the West Bank) took its toll on AQU.  Because the university is so close to Jerusalem (part of the city from the Palestinian point-of-view), reverberations in the broader community are felt very quickly there.  Israeli soldiers were patrolling regularly on the outside of the campus last year, which often led to clashes between students throwing stones and soldiers lobbing tear gas cannisters into the middle of the main courtyard.  Occasionally, Israeli troops forcibly entered the campus itself, leaving broken glass, debris, and minor injuries in their wake.  So far this year, Israeli forces have kept their distance from the campus – at least during school hours – and political activity has been muted.

And at least Al-Quds University is open for business.  The same can’t be said of Bir Zeit University.  Students there succeeded in shutting down the university in an extended protect over a sharp rise in tuition.  For a time a group of students was occupying the campus and had padlocked the gates.  I haven’t heard the latest, but I’m guessing that they have gone home now for the Eid.  But there is still no word on when the school year will start there.

I did attend my first formal academic exercise last week.  Students in the American Studies program are encouraged to undertake an M.A. thesis, which they defend before three faculty members.  I sat in on one student’s defense.  He wrote his thesis on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the U.S. and Palestine, offering comparisons along the way to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the earlier anti-colonial movement in India.  One of the questions that the student wanted most to explore was why BDS has not, in fact, become a “pillar of struggle” within the Palestinian community.  This surprised me a bit.  In the U.S., the BDS movement is getting a lot of attention from the press, and also from Jewish groups which see it as a growing threat to Israeli political, economic, and military security.  Yet according to this student, there is within the Palestinian community relatively little awareness about BDS, and little depth of popular support for its approach.  The student’s presentation was focused more on changing this dynamic than on analyzing it, so I am not completely enlightened about why this is so (presumably there are more answers in the text itself).  But his presentation raised intriguing questions about connections and disconnections between internal and international dimensions of Palestinian resistance.

Today is actually the first day of the Eid.  I spent several hours last night in Ramallah, where the city was still hopping well after 1:00 a.m., as people shopped, got their hair cut (I did too!), and did their last-minute shopping before things shut down for the holiday.  The Eid-al-Adha marks the test of loyalty that God put to Ibrahim in ordering him to sacrifice his son Ismail.  (In the Jewish version of the story, of course, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac.)   Because God provides a sheep at the last moment in place of the boy, it is a Muslim tradition to eat lamb on the Eid, and for several days many trucks packed with ovine youngsters have been on the roads toward the main Palestinian cities.  Today starts traditionally with a visit to the cemetery to honor the departed among one’s family, and then the visits begin, with much consumption of meet and also with extensive obligations of charity both within and outside of the family.   I will pay my respects to friends later in the day.

In the meantime, I am also getting out and about in the West Bank beyond the Abu Dis campus and the city of Ramallah.  This weekend, I went with my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly on a guided 14k hike through the beautiful stony hills north of Ramallah.  We started in the village of Nabi Saleh, which has become famous for its weekly demonstrations (the villagers have been trying for years to re-claim access to a spring that was taken over by residents of the Israeli settlement of Halamish, which lies on the next hillside).  From there we went down and up through small villages and down valleys, ending up in the town of Aboud, where we climbed through old Roman tombs and the site of a Byzantine church.  We passed through some of the oldest olive groves in Palestine, two or three surprising springs, and magnificent views across the rocky landscape.  Tough country to work, no doubt, but it was easy to see why people cling to it with such passion.

This Year in Jerusalem/Al-Quds

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I am now ten days or so into my stay in Israel and the West Bank as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar for 2016-17.  I am in residence at Al-Quds University (AQU) , a Palestinian institution, with which I have been associated for many years.  My main job for the year: to teach in and to help develop the university’s M.A. Program in American Studies.  The program was founded in 2003; it has been in transition since its founding director left AQU in 2014.

Over the past year or so, I have been working with the faculty of the Regional Studies Institute at AQU to re-design the program.  Two colleagues from Brandeis University – Sue Lanser and Dan Kryder – have also been participating in a significant way in this effort, along with AQU faculty colleagues Drs. Amneh Badran, Mohammad Abu Koash, and Awad Mansour.  The new curriculum builds on the program’s traditional attention to U.S. history, culture, and politics, but is also intended better to meet the needs of Palestinian professionals through an emphasis on conceptions of leadership and entrepreneurship and a focus on the study of American institutions.  The Regional Studies Institute will also, thanks to our work together, become the Global Studies Institute (if the University’s governing authority approves the change this week!).

I will be teaching American Politics this fall, as well as working faculty and administration closely on building resources and relationships that will be of long-term benefit to the program.  Among other things, the program design calls for many courses to be taught by U.S. faculty in an intensive format.   Identifying those faculty and helping to generate the resources and environment to make their stay at AQU as productive as possible is a big part of my job for this year.  Of course, it will also be quite interesting to be in a classroom this semester with young Palestinians trying to make sense of American democracy and the election of 2016!

In my first ten days, I have been settling in, as well as helping to recruit students for the incoming class. Because the program has been less active in recent years, we are undertaking a process to spread the word among the Palestinian community that the program has a new emphasis, and will also potentially offer students the opportunity to study in the U.S. as part of a customized summer program.  We will be conducting interviews of applicants in the coming days, and the semester will start in earnest for this program during September.

It also seems that I will be involved in a variety of university-wide initiatives.  I have worked closely for many years with Dr. Imad Abu Kishek, AQU’s talented and very active president.  Dr. Imad, as he is known, has a lot of plans for expanding AQU’s research capacity, its English language curriculum, and its international profile, and I expect to be involved as part of a team in some of these areas.

I am living in Jerusalem, in a small house on a dead-end street owned by an Israeli-born physicist who grew up there and now uses it only in the summers. I am composing this post on a balcony overlooking a verdant and pleasantly overgrown garden that shields me from the small apartment buildings that hover around me.  (My house is, as far as I can tell, the only remaining single-family dwelling for blocks in every direction.)  My own neighborhood is very quiet, but it’s only a fifteen minute walk to the busy center of town, or, in another direction, 15 minutes to the café life of the German Colony, and only a ten minute walk up the slopes of a valley to the front gate of the Israel Museum.

Commuting to the AQU campus is a bit of a schlep.  Al-Quds (“The Holy”) is the Arab name for Jerusalem — so to the Palestinians, AQU is Jerusalem University.  And AQU does have some operations in East Jerusalem proper.  But the main campus is in the village of Abu Dis, in the West Bank.   I have a car for the year, but it’s still a bit of a trek.  Because the security barrier (a concrete wall in Jerusalem) blocks the direct route, I drive north across the heart of downtown (passing Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate of the Old City), through the tunnel under Mount Scopus, down towards the Dead Sea, and then loop around by the huge settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.  There I pass out of the Israeli security zone and into the Palestinian villages of Al-Azaria and Abu Dis.  (Those villages are not exactly Palestinian-controlled either – a subject for another post.)  The roads in the villages are crowded and chaotic – but in the mornings, I arrive at the Abu Dis campus in about 30 minutes door-to-door . . traffic isn’t too bad.  The afternoons have been a different story.  The Israeli army has been setting up temporary checkpoints in Al-Azaria and Abu Dis recently, which can clog up traffic, so it’s sometimes taken more than an hour to return.

I have also been spending some time in Ramallah, visiting NGOs and other individuals whom I know there, trying to spread the word in person about the American Studies program.  I will doubtless be traveling to other areas of the West Bank in the weeks and months to come, as time and security considerations permit.

So far I’m on my own here.  My wife Maggie is back in Concord, Massachusetts preparing for the opening of a show of her work at the Arsenal Arts Center in Watertown, MA early in September.  She will spend the rest of September here, after the show’s public opening on September 10.  But I have the pleasure of being close at hand to my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly, who live in Tel Aviv . . .and it’s been a pleasure to share the last two Friday evenings with them (one at my place, and one at theirs).

As time goes on, I’ll try to be less general and give more textured portraits of the university what I see and do.

The “soft vengeance” of Albie Sachs

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Abby Ginzberg has made a terrific new film, “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.” It brings to life one of the great human rights heroes of our time, a Jewish South African who joined the African National Congress, became one of the principal crafters of the South African constitution, and then a member of democratic South Africa’s constitutional court. Sachs spent two long stints in solitary confinement in apartheid-era prisons, and he later lost his right arm and the sight in one eye as the result of a bomb blast in Mozambique in 1988, but his commitment to justice and his zest for life emerged intact from those searing experiences.

For Albie Sachs, the “soft vengeance” for the bomb blast was the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa. Ginzberg’s film works splendidly on three levels. It is first a story of an special, vital individual whose open personality, sense of humor, and burning passion are contagious. Secondly, it’s a national story, reminding its viewers of the tremendous odds that South Africans working for democracy faced, and of the great triumph of their collective struggle.

Finally, “Soft Vengeance” is a story about what Sachs called in our discussion the “emancipatory” potential of the law. Sachs had grown up thinking of the law as an instrument to protect property and the interests of the powerful. As a lawyer in an activist movement, he came to understand how law can be used creatively in the service of freedom. Not only did he go on to play a part in the new constitution for South Africa, but as a member of the Constitutional Court he penned some ringing human rights judgments, including the decision that legalized gay marriage, the first African nation to do so. Abby Ginzberg was also trained as a lawyer before she started directing films 30 years ago, so she brings a special passion for the subject of “emancipatory” justice to each of her projects.

We were fortunate to have Albie Sachs and Abby Ginzberg with us at Brandeis University last week for a special advance screening of “Soft Vengeance,” the first on a college campus.  We at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life were pleased to be joined by the National Center for Jewish Film and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice in presenting the event.

After the screening, Sachs and Ginzberg talked together about the making of the film, and the tug-of-war between them about how certain aspects of his life would be portrayed. “It may be your life,” Ginzberg had to remind Sachs from time to time, “but it’s my film.”

The screening took place on September 11, and perhaps there was something appropriate in this. Albie Sachs has had a special ability to transform personal suffering into a force for social good. He spoke eloquently about how, in the aftermath of the bombing, he had an ebullient feeling: “They came for me . . but I am still here!”  Human rights activists around the world are his comrades, Sachs told the audience, but they can be so dour. Why not, he suggested, seek both joy and the struggle? Hearing from Albie Sachs on September 11 was an opportunity for all Americans in the audience to think about the extent that we have or have not used the events of 13 years ago as a motivation for positive, productive change.


L to R: Lisa Rivo, Sharon Rivo, Jules Bernstein, Abby Ginzberg, Albie Sachs, Dan Terris

New Minor Links the Arts and Social Change

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As the fall semester begins, I’m excited about a new program for undergraduate students that’s going to bring new energy to a developing global field.

For more than 15 year my colleague Cindy Cohen has been building an extraordinary program in “Peacebuilding and the Arts” within the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis. Along the way, she has been extending the reach in this expanding field through her courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

This fall, her program takes another step forward, as we introduce a new minor for Brandeis undergraduates: “Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation.”  Partly in tribute to the program’s strengths in theater and peacebuilding, the minor will go by the acronym CAST.

Students in this minor will take an introductory course, Introduction to Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation, that Cindy will develop and teach in the early years of the program. They will then be able to choose four electives from a strong array of courses in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.   A capstone will complete their CAST experience; this might consist of an internship, a directed study, or another form of immersion in the CAST approach.

Students in CAST will have access to the extraordinary network of artists and peacebuilders from around the world that Cindy has built, particularly through the extraordinary Acting Together project and her terrific collaboration with singer/activist Jane Sapp, A Way Out of No Way.  They will also have a chance to think about how they can combine their own creative impulses and practice with the knowledge and the skills necessary to work with communities to create meaningful social change.

I’ll be looking forward how Cindy and her students shake things up in the months and years to come.

Social Justice in Thought and Action

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In the depths of a cold winter on the Brandeis campus, there’s a lot of heat and light being generated by the undergraduates engaged in social justice projects through the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Tomorrow is the official launch of ‘DEIS Impact, the University’s “festival of social justice,” sponsored jointly by the Center and by the Brandeis Student Union. It’s the third iteration of this new Brandeis tradition, and it’s bigger and better than ever. Featured events include a keynote address by two of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons, a return visit to Brandeis by Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame, a program on “spirituality and the quest for justice” with dynamic musician and community organizer Jane Wilburn Sapp, and “Portraits of Purpose,” an exhibition of social justice giants with photos by Don West. And of course there are dozens of events organized by student clubs and organizations on the full range of social justice issues.

What’s great about ‘DEIS Impact is that it brings the full range of Brandeis resources to the university’s commitment to social justice: rigorous intellectual exploration, the creative power of the arts, the energy of community engagement, and the determination to be practical as well as visionary. Come join us.


This is also the season for the announcement of the new group of Sorensen Fellows, six undergraduate students who will venture forth in the summer of 2014 to work in NGOs around the world. They will return in the fall to reflect on and write about their experiences in an intensive course together.SF2014 Congratulations to the 2014 Sorensen Fellows: Ibrahima Diaboula ’16, Shimon Mazor ’16, Elad Mehl ’16, Ngobitak Ndiwane ’16, Sneha Walia ’15, and Shane Weitzman ’16. You can read about them and their summer projects here.


Also available now: the terrific publication by the 2013 Sorensen Fellows: Parallel Paths: Journeys, Explorations, and Reflections. It’s a moving set of accounts that are both personal and analytical, exploring the complexities of identity and purpose among young people pursuing social change. Check them out:

Parallel_Paths_2013_Sorensen_Fellowship_Cover• Through the Lens of Birth and Illness: Rediscovering My Native Country – Damiana Andonova ’15
• Deconstructing One’s Paper Identity – Cynthia Wangui Charchi ’14
• Fighting for Choice: Navigating the Streets and Politics of New York City – Hailey Magee ’15• Impressions of Talibés and Islamic Education in Senegal – Nelly Schläfereit ’15
• An Informal Image in Different Voices – Abie Troen ’14
• Reversal of Roles: Lessons Learned as a Teacher in Uganda – Hannah Young ’15


These passionate, thoughtful undergraduates do honor to the memory of Theodore C. (Ted) Sorensen, who inspired generations with his eloquent words, and who helped guide the Center through its formative years.

Report on the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership

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Today, my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser, Dan Kryder, and I released our detailed report on the suspension of the partnership between Brandeis University and Al-Quds University.  The report covers the background of the partnership, background information on  Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, what we learned about the rally of November 5, 2013 and its aftermath, and our conclusions, which include a recommendation to resume the partnership.   We hope that our work will lead to a greater understanding and more thoughtful consideration of the complexities of the situation and the nature of the partnership.

On the Brandeis/Al-Quds University Partnership

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, Higher Education 6 Comments »

I have recently returned from a five-day trip to Al-Quds University, continuing work on a decade-long partnership between Brandeis University and this prominent Palestinian educational institution. I was accompanied by my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser (English, and Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dan Kryder (Politics).

Our trip, scheduled months ago, was focused on projects for the next phase of the successful partnership with which we three and many others have been involved. Projects in progress at the time of our departure included faculty research exchanges, a women’s leadership institute, and curriculum development in the politics and English departments.

Because of the controversy surrounding a rally on the Al-Quds University campus on November 5, President Fred Lawrence asked the three of us while there to gather as much information as we could about the rally, its context, and the response of the Al-Quds University administration, and requested that we report back to him after we returned home.

As it turned out, Brandeis University suspended the Brandeis/Al-Quds partnership towards the end of our visit. Nevertheless, we were able during our visit to have a number of in-depth conversations with many key individuals, including Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, Executive Vice President Imad Abu Kishek, and members of the committee whom they appointed to investigate the November 5 rally.

Once all of us return from our travels and have a chance to confer, we will put together a report on what we have learned. The issues on the ground at Al-Quds University are much more complex than has been reported on blogs and in the press. These issues deserve careful consideration and conversation.

What we can say at this point is that nothing that we have learned during this period has changed our conviction – built over many years of experience – that Sari Nusseibeh and the Al-Quds University leadership are genuinely committed to peace and mutual respect. President Nusseibeh’s comments following the suspension of the partnership, published in the Times of Israel, show that he is continuing his commitment to those values and to sustained dialogue even when circumstances are challenging.

In addition, I have just been informed that the University has suspended Sari Nusseibeh’s membership on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, saying that this action is consistent with the suspension of the partnership.   While I have strong opinions about this, this decision is not in my hands, since all board members serve by appointment by the president of the university.  Sari has been a member of this board since 2000.  Among other things, his membership pre-dates the partnership.   This is a good time to recall Nusseibeh’s forty-year record of courage, innovation, and willingness to engage in challenging dialogue, the marks of a man whom I know personally to be a stalwart opponent of hatred and intolerance wherever they are found.   Brandeis need not agree with everything that Sari Nusseibeh says to value him as an important member of the Center’s extended community.

Over the past decade, hundreds of Brandeis University students, faculty, and staff members have participated in a variety of activities with Al-Quds University counterparts with the goal of enhancing mutual understanding through work together on shared scholarly and educational interests. At the time of this post, Brandeis has taken down the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership website, so the detailed record of our many years of work together is not available. [Note: as of November 22 Brandeis has restored the web site with a note on the home page about the suspension.]. However, a short video and a brochure describing some aspects of the partnership are available, and I encourage you to take a look to get a flavor of what we have done together.

At the Heart of Brandeis: Remembering Larry Fuchs

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Professor Lawrence H. Fuchs, who taught at Brandeis for 50 years, from 1952 until 2002, died on March 17, 2013.  For me . . .and for so many others at Brandeis and well beyond . . Larry was a mentor and a friend.  A full catalogue of Larry’s accomplishments as a scholar, as a player in national politics, and as an activist can be found in the BrandeisNOW tribute published soon after his death and in his New York Times obituary.  These are my more personal reflections about the man and his part in the University that he loved.

Larry Fuchs was a skilled and inveterate arranger of human affairs, but I didn’t know this when I first met him in 1992, when I was a candidate for a position at Brandeis.  The word that came to mind when he first squeezed my hand was “avuncular.”  He treated me with such genuine warmth, humor, and goodwill that I scarcely knew that I was being subtly but distinctly manipulated.  There was a position open in mid-level academic administration, and Larry in his wisdom had decided that this was a good match for me and for Brandeis.  But it was going to require some heavy lifting . . .which in characteristic fashion Larry managed without betraying any effort at all.   First, he had to persuade this not-quite-newly-minted Ph.D. that a position in academic administration would be bracing and rewarding.    And on a separate track, he had to persuade the provost, future president Jehuda Reinharz, that he should hire to run a university division a young guy whose previous experience with budgets was a ledger in pencil kept in a desk drawer in a grimy closet in a Boston public high school.   I had no idea until years later how much shuttle diplomacy was involved.

By the time I arrived at Brandeis, Larry’s imprint was everywhere.  It is no exaggeration to say that no single faculty member had done more to create the institutional culture of the university.

The qualities of Brandeis that so many people labor to define today . . .Larry simply lived and breathed naturally.

The integration of excellence in scholarship with engagement in public life.  Who did this better than Larry, moving seamlessly between Waltham and the Philippines and Washington . . . bringing his penetrating analyses of American politics and diversity to his work in the Peace Corps and immigration . . . and then enriching his scholarship and his teaching with his experiences in politics and overseas.

The  Brandeis commitment to the Jewish people, on the one hand,  and a commitment to diversity in all of its forms, on the other.  Other people have found in these twin commitments a source of tension and angst.  For Larry embracing the University’s Jewish identity in the glorious context of American multiculturalism was not merely natural but a source of pleasure and inspiration.

Intellectual explorations across the boundaries of geography and disciplines.  Larry wrote and taught that way – and founded American Studies on along these lines – long before the rest of the University codfied this approach in thousands of pages of statements and grant proposals.

And then there were the stories . . . For every moment in Brandeis history Larry had a tale.  Larry’s stories were succinct nuggets of human ego and error — but never with the intention of cutting his subjects down to size.   Abe Sachar,  Eleanor Roosevelt, Max Lerner – the humor in Larry’s stories somehow enlarged and ennobled them, even as he painted them as flesh-and-blood individuals with understandable human weaknesses.

The Brandeis that Larry loved was a glorious idea, a monument to Jewish tradition, the intellectual life, and the American kaleidoscope that he so ably described.  But the Brandeis that Larry loved was also a comically flawed place, rife with insecurities and outsized egos and politics played as a bloodsport.

Well, who here would be surprised?  Everyone who knew Larry knew the sheer joy that he took in politics .  . at every level.  He made a mark in national politics, of course, through his association and important work with people like Stephen Solarz and Barbara Jordan and several Kennedys.  But he also had a keen appreciation of politics at a more local level as well.

Politics for Larry wasn’t something inherently smarmy or petty.  People, of course, could be smarmy and petty . . . but politics itself was both an essential contest of ideas AND the essential cultivation of personal relationships.  It’s natural that aside from politics Larry’s other great passion – and scholarly subject — was family.  In both the public sphere and the private, he understood that working intensively on the  quality of conversations and relationships was what mattered.

Larry’s legacy is everywhere at Brandeis today – not just in American Studies, but across the university in the qualities I have described already.  Thousands of students today benefit from his lasting influence, even if they do not know his name.  But for a few 21st century Brandeis students, the influence has been personal and direct, a passing of the torch to the next generation.  It was a day of immense pleasure for me when I was able to tell Larry that my oldest son Ben had declared American Studies as his Brandeis major.  And when my second son Eli was accepted into the Peace Corps, Larry managed in a shaky hand to sign a copy of his 1968 book, Those Peculiar Americans: The Peace Corps and American National Character, for Eli’s advance reading.

At the last visit that my wife Maggie and I paid to Larry in Orchard cove – just last month – Larry was very weak.  He couldn’t sit up.  He spoke in a barely audible whisper.  His attention span was short.  He dearly missed his wife Betty, who passed away late last year.  But his mind and heart were firm.  I held his hand and showed him photos of Eli in the remote village in Senegal where the Peace Corps had placed him.  Larry was not able to talk much, but as I showed him the photos on my iPhone, he pulled me towards him, squeezed my hand,  and whispered, close to my ear  “Be proud of him.”   That was Larry.  Not for him the more conventional formulation,  “You must be proud of him.”  No, Larry’s message was a command, an injunction, delivered gently but with urgency . . .BE proud of him . . . as if in reminder to take absolutely nothing for granted, not even something so conventional as parental pride.  It was Larry’s reminder that when it comes to human relationships, everything matters, and that everything good requires not just sentiment and ritual but effort and practice and thought and dedication and love . . . in public life, in private life, in every squeeze of the hand.

The last clarion call of Anthony Lewis

Brandeis Events, Law and Justice 1 Comment »

Anthony Lewis, who passed away this week, has been rightly lionized for his fierce commitment to justice and freedom, and for his passion for the United States Constitution as a vital and living document.

Anthony Lewis and Bill Leahy at the Brandeis University, March 18 2013

Anthony Lewis and Bill Leahy at Brandeis University, March 18, 2013

Yet what made him such a great writer and observer of law and politics was his keen understanding of the contingencies of the human condition.  Law for Tony Lewis was neither a distant abstraction nor an impersonal scripture carved in granite.  It was always embodied in individual men and women, where passion and reason and circumstance are inevitably intertwined.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the last words of the last public appearance of this extraordinary man reflect his wry sense of the human.

As it happens, that appearance came at an event that we hosted at Brandeis University on March 18 2013, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Before Gideon, if you were charged with a felony in many states in the U.S. and you could not afford a lawyer, you were out of luck.  You represented yourself, cross-examined witnesses, and matched wits with a professional prosecutor as best you could.   In the Gideon judgment, the Supreme Court reversed its own previous jurisprudence and ordered states to provide an attorney in those situations.

Tony Lewis’s account of that case, Gideon’s Trumpet, has become one of the classics of American non-fiction.  At the Brandeis event, Lewis spoke about his passion for the case, which originated with a handwritten petition sent to the United States Supreme Court by an inmate in a Florida prison.    And he dwelled on the characters of the key protagonists:  Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the unanimous opinion,  Abe Fortas, who argued for the plaintiff at the Supreme Court, and Clarence Earl Gideon himself.

The Gideon case enshrined a legal right, but its implementation 50 years later has been far from perfect.  This was the conclusion of the discussion between Lewis and the other panelists: Bill Leahy, who has led statewide public defender offices in Massachusetts and New York; Margot Botsford, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and Fred Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University and himself a former federal prosecutor.   Underfunded public defenders offices and mandatory sentencing laws, among other factors, have undermined the right to counsel for poor defendants, many of them African American.

Nevertheless, in his closing comments, Tony Lewis reverted to what he called the “romantic nature” of Gideon.  His thoughts on the fortuitous aspects of the case, his continuing call for action, and a humorous anecdote, perfectly capture his wise, idealistic, and authentic spirit.

A festival of social justice

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Kudos to the ‘DEIS Impacter team and to everyone who helped make the second annual DEIS Impact, the Brandeis University festival of social justice, such a rousing success.  More than 1000 students and other members of the Brandeis community participated in more than 40 events from February 1-11, 2013.   The keynote event, with Hollywood star Eliza Dushku and her mother Judy (who teaches at Suffolk University), inspired hundreds with the story of ThriveGULU, a start-up NGO in Uganda that addresses issues of child soldiers, sex slavery and other post-conflict concerns in Uganda.  A great partnership between the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life and the Student Union; special thanks to Marci McPhee and Todd Kirkland for their leadership.

One of the heartening things about the event was the opportunity it affords to talk in depth about meanings of social justice.  My own thoughts on this subject, published in this blog a few months ago, sparked some discussion and pointed critiques.  Others proposed alternate ideas and definitions.

Many people in the DEIS Impact events made the point that social justice has different meanings for different people  in different contexts.  Maybe so, but it struck me that there were three important features of social justice that seemed to appear consistently amidst this diversity of ideas:

First, social justice is concerned with the basic needs and the human dignity of people in need and those suffering from oppression.

Second, social justice has an equal concern with improving the lives of individuals, and fostering broad-based social change that will have a positive impact on the lives of many.

Third, social justice is not a solitary activity; it operates in the spirit of collective action.

Finally, I would add that one of the most important elements of undertaking social justice in a university context is the conscious effort to marry deep reflection and analysis with positive and concrete action.  Social justice should draw on our passions – empathy and principles and outrage.  But it should also be undertaken with the attitude of rigorous self-examination and humility, conscious always that good intentions are no guarantee of doing good.

It’s my hope that DEIS Impact will be nurturing and challenging the spirit of social justice on the Brandeis campus for many years to come!

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