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Oren speaks about the Middle East, dreams at commencement, Simon plays “The Boxer”

Published: May 23, 2010
Section: Front Page


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Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren focused on the graduates’ futures during his speech at Brandeis’ 59th commencement ceremony Sunday morning inside the Gosman Athletic Center.

The choice of Oren as commencement speaker by university President Jehuda Reinharz was met with criticism by opponents to Oren’s right-leaning politics and those who did not want Israeli politics to overshadow the graduates on their day of celebration.

This opposition manifested itself in the form of facebook groups and chalk writing on campus walkways in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, and finally resulted in a protest of a few dozen demonstrators Sunday walked up and down South Street, holding signs criticizing Oren for the IDF’s treatment of Palestinian civilians and his unwillingness to acknowledge and accept responsibility for alleged war crimes committed by Israel.

In his speech, Oren stressed that the commencement ceremony was about the graduates, saying “This commencement is about you. It is about the challenges you face in graduating into an uncertain world during turbulent times and still finding the courage to dream.”

Oren did not avoid politics and instead used his policy choices as teaching mechanisms to instruct graduates to “accept the responsibilities you will almost certainly have to shoulder once you’ve realized your dreams.”

Oren explained that since he was a child, he has dreamed of being the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.

“As ambassador, I must grapple with issues that affect millions of lives, including the lives of my wife and our three children, and [an ambassador must] frequently face criticism in the media and on campuses,” Oren said.

Despite the protesters’ allegations, Oren said he supported collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians toward helping build a Palestinian state.

“We have the responsibility of seeking peace, in spite of the painful setbacks and the potentially excruciating sacrifices.”

Oren also referenced the legacy of the university’s namesake, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and said that Brandeis’ dreams forced him to accept many of the responsibilities that come with serving on the Supreme Court.

Despite this message, the protesters outside were angered by the mere choice of Oren to speak.

Kade Crockford, who was part of the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, said before the ceremony that she was angered by the fact that Oren was chosen to speak instead of humanitarian and founding director of Partners in Health (PIH) Paul Farmer, who received an honorary degree.

“[Farmer] is a person that has brought so much good to the world and [Oren] is a person that has defended so much evil,” she said, referring to the September 2009 report written by South African Justice Richard Goldstone which accused both the IDF and Palestinian militants of committing war crimes during the 22-day long Gaza War.

Oren wrote a New Republic article in October of last year that “The Goldstone Report goes further than Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers by stripping the Jews not only of the ability and the need but of the right to defend themselves.”

Rabbi Jack Nusan Porter, Director of the Spencer Institute, and a scholar on genocide studies, told The Hoot that the message University President Jehuda Reinharz sent by selecting Oren to speak from the list of honorary degree recipients is that “Israel is under attack and we need to defend Israel.”

“It’s just an example that most Jews are afraid of peace. They’re afraid to have a two state solution,” Porter said.

Reinharz acknowledged the sensitivity of issues surrounding the Middle East in his remarks at commencement.

“I have been proud of the civility and thoughtfulness you have displayed in dealing with these issues,” he said to graduates.

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Malcolm Sherman commented in a similar vein, saying “this university has never shied away from controversy.”

“Your Brandeis education has taught you to question everything,” Sherman said.

In Reinharz’s remarks, he told graduates that in a fast-paced world, even with so many instant modes of communication, they must slow down and take their time.

“We basically have lost tolerance for anything that takes time,” he said. “What you say and how you say it can make all the difference in the world.”

In addition to speeches from Reinharz, Sherman, and Oren, senior class speaker Justin Pierre Louis ’10 told students that they must fulfill the legacy of Louis Brandeis and that “as long as we live fighting for what we believe in, we remain champions.”

At the end of the ceremony, after Oren received an honorary degree along with Farmer; Judith S. Kaye, the first female chief judge of New York; Spanish Author Antonio Muñoz Molina; Dennis B. Ross, a member of the National Security Council, and scholar on the Middle East and Grammy award winning musician Paul Simon.

Simon concluded the ceremony by performing “The Boxer” for the graduates (see video here). The song, originally recorded with Art Garfunkel in 1968, touches on the importance of perseverance despite hard times.

Simon’s singing at the ceremony was, for the most part, due to the perseverance of Amanda Hecker ’10 and Michael Weil ’10 who organized a facebook group to convince the singer to perform.

Simon also agreed to speak at a mini-commencement ceremony for the School of Creative Arts, according to a university press release.

Simon’s closing message echoed Oren’s earlier comments.

“Do not let any obstacles, personal, political, or economic, impede you,” Oren said. “And once you’ve fulfilled your dreams, know that that is when you’re liable to confront the greatest challenges.”