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

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.

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!

‘DEIS Impact: A New Brandeis Tradition

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How can we advance the campus conversation about social justice?   At Brandeis, the phrase is ubiquitous, and its very ubiquity makes it problematic.

I have put this challenge to a group of students who are helping organize ‘DEIS Impact, the Brandeis University festival of social justice.  ‘DEIS Impact goes live for its second year February 1-13, 2013.  This month we have just selected a dynamic group of Brandeis undergraduates to be the “’DEIS Impacters,” the organizing team for the festival.

In my letter below, I encourage the students to think of themselves not only as event organizers, but as thought leaders on an important topic that begs for clarification and ongoing discussion.  The point is NOT to “define” social justice in some narrow and rigid way . .. but to open up conversation and initiate a  dynamic process that will lead to clearer thinking about the nature of social justice, and how it can and should be enacted on the Brandeis campus and beyond.

The 2013 ‘DEIS Impacters

Dear Members of the DEIS ‘Impact Committee,

I congratulate you and salute you for your commitment to social justice, and for engaging to work together to create and build Brandeis University’s greatest new tradition.  DEIS Impact began to make its mark last year . . and now you have the opportunity to help this festival of social justice flourish – not just to be a success in and of itself, but to make its mark across the Brandeis campus and beyond.

I am writing now to make a suggestion.  I want to encourage you to use this opportunity not only to organize a great series of events – but also to help our whole community think through in much clearer and profound terms what the Brandeis commitment to social justice really means and entails.

Over the years, a lot of members of our community have remarked (in so many words) that the Brandeis commitment to social justice is palpable but fuzzy.  They worry that the term has become such a catch-all that after a while it begins to lose its punch.  When that happens, it is easy for people to get cynical about something that just looks like a broad rhetorical commitment to feeling good about doing good.

The good news is . . . you are in a great position to do something about this.  As members of the group that is organizing DEIS Impact, you can help start a community conversation that brings greater clarity to the idea of social justice and its place at Brandeis.

My suggestion is that you start this process by working on a tried-and-true format: the FAQ page.  The good thing about the FAQ format is that it’s informal, and it suggests that thinking these issues is a work-in-progress, as opposed to concocting some grand “platform” or “statement.”    Here are some of the questions that you might pose, and might begin to construct answers to:

What’s the difference between social justice and just plain justice?

What are the defining features of the Brandeis commitment to social justice?

Should we all have a common definition of social justice, or can we agree to disagree about its meaning?

Which thinkers’ ideas about social justice are most important to us at Brandeis?

How does social justice at Brandeis draw specifically on the Jewish tradition? 

What should I do if I think that someone is using the rhetoric of social justice to advance a position that I think is counterproductive or even harmful?

Does the idea of social justice apply to the behavior of Brandeis University as an institution?  If so, what processes should be used to define and implement this standard?

Of course, there are lots more questions that you could ask.  And I am sure that you will have some healthy debates about the answers.

And debates are part of the point.  A challenge would be to see whether you can answer some questions with enough clarity and good thinking that you provide some coherence and meaning, while at the same time leaving open the door for further debate, discussion, clarification, and reflection.  I would hope that you would use your collective energy and wisdom to get beyond a simple brainstorming session, while at the same time advertising this as a work-in-progress.

This wouldn’t just be a rhetorical exercise.  I think it would (and should) influence how you structure and think about DEIS Impact itself.  It would help you clarify goals for this year and beyond, and might help create new events or activities to help you reach those goals.

Ok, that’s my suggestion and my challenge to you.  I would be happy to talk with you individually or collectively about this further.  I think that the process of open conversation will advance your work and the greater cause considerably.




Dan Terris

Desert Roots: Empathy and Judgment

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My colleague Mitra Shavarini’s new book, Desert Roots, is a moving and honest memoir.  It traces the history of her family in Iran from the early part of the 20th century, through their immigration to the United States in the wake of the 1979 revolution, to her parents’ anguished decision to return to their homeland in 2005.

Last night, we celebrated the book’s publication at the Laurie Theater at Brandeis, in an unusual format.  Mitra talked about the difficult process of writing the book – of laying bare a family’s painful secrets – and read a series of passages.   The reading was followed by two powerful but very different responses.  Brandeis undergraduate Leila May Pascual performed a song that she wrote in response to Desert Roots about her own experience of coming to the United States (in her case, from the Phillippines); and Brandeis sociologist Kristen Lucken  gave a short talk placing the book in the context of immigrant experiences more generally.

Then, Brandeis alumni Will Chalmus ’07 (Ethics Center Student Fellow, 2006) and Sheila Donio (who worked with our Peacebuilding and the Arts program)  and their colleagues in the Boston area Playback Theater troupe presented a series of improvised performances based on audience members’ responses to Mitra’s reading and book, and based on audience members’ own immigration experiences.

There are a dozen good reasons to read Desert Roots, among which is Mitra’s graceful writing, informed by her study of the technique of social science portraiture which she teaches to the Sorensen Fellows each year.    The story of her great-grandparents and grandparents in Iran is a vivid tale of larger-than-life patriots wrestling with the complexities of British colonialism, colored by violent deaths and tragic family separations.  The 1979 Iranian revolution looms large, as it spurred both her father and her husband-to-be, on separate trajectories, to make their way alone to the United States.  And Mitra’s extraordinary candor about the painful family rifts in the new world makes for a searing account of the immigrant experience in the late 20th century.

Mitra Shavarini

I was particularly struck by how deftly Mitra manages to balance empathy and judgment.  Her account is devoid of false sentimentality.  She portrays unsparingly the ways in which her father Reza took out his frustrations on his wife and his daughter, treating them at times with what can only be called cruelty.   Yet she manages also, by showing Reza’s own sufferings as a young man (and as an older man in his dislocation in the United States) to draw out a reader’s compassion.   Mitra does not hide her bitterness over the harm that her father did to others – and her reader shares this judgment – but the whole force of her account shows that empathy does not mean that judgment must be suspended.  We need to understand the sources of anger, but this does not mean that we let cruelty off the hook.

Mitra is also bravely honest about her own failings.  In writing about her own experience with anorexia as a teenager in Rhode Island, she helps us understand the roots of her suffering in her uncertain state between two cultures.  But Mitra also makes her reader confront the harm that she herself visited on those around us – particularly her mother.  She doesn’t let herself off the hook simply because she was suffering, or because she was not yet an adult.    Desert Roots takes us deep into the life of two nations, and an extended family, and it refuses to let anyone – family member or reader—escape unscathed.

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