THE MORNING OF EMORY UNIVERSITYS ONE HUNDRED FIFTY-SIXTH
the air seemed filled with almost tangible pride, hope, and
promise. If the ceremony itself gave any clue as to the future
of this years crop of graduates, the thirty-three hundred
answers to Susannas guileless inquiry will prove themselves
many ways, Emorys 2001 Commencement ceremony could have
taken place at any top-tier university in the country. Parents,
families, faculty, administrators, and visitors filled the sunny
Quad, beaming at the robed graduates. The stage microphone faltered
and was fixed. Honored speakers advised graduates to do
good work, put roots down, find a community,
pursue justice. Cameras clicked and video recorders
hummed. Graduates threw confetti, laughed, grew teary, and hugged
the same time, this specific celebration could only have taken
place at a particular sort of university. One that boasts a
faculty member who made international headlines with her victory
in a legal, academic, and ethical battle over denial of the
Holocaust. One that deliberately draws a high percentage of
ethnic and racial minority students, and strives, in very focused
ways, to touch parts of the world oceans away from its Southern
campus. A University whose highest student award recipient wrote
her thesis on the oppression of Islamic women under modern law.
An institution of learning that values the pursuit of academic
truth and justice above money, politics, and image. One unafraid
to put a Jewish scholar on the stage alongside a Palestinian
Christian spiritual leader; one that could conceive of a Year
speaker Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish
and Holocaust Studies, used the story of her exhaustive legal
fight with British historian David Irving to impress upon graduates
those things that have stood her in good stead. Five years ago,
Irving, whose work has minimized and distorted the facts of
the Holocaust and its effects, sued Lipstadt for libel because
she called him a Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, and neo-Nazi
in her own published work. Last year, Lipstadt won a resounding
victory, with profound effects both far-reaching and, for Lipstadt,
each of you begins writing the next chapter in the book of your
life, she told graduates. The barometer of a storys
significance is not how broadly it is disseminated but how it
touches the lives of others.
summer, Irving begins his appeal of the British courts
ruling in favor of Lipstadt. But she said she draws strength
from the knowledge that she is fighting a good fighta
moral fight, one from which I could not shrinkand
from the University community, which stood resolutely by Lipstadt
and her claim to unfettered scholarly pursuit. She pressed graduates
to establish similar standards for themselves: While you
cannot fight every injustice you encounter, there will be wrongs
you simply cannot ignore.
forth to write your story, she urged. Find a community
which shares your values, which will be steadfast in its support
of you. Pursue justice. Repair the small piece of the world
you will inhabit. We hope you will do well, but we pray you
will do good.
later, Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian and renowned advocate
of peace through nonviolence in the Middle East, took the stage
to accept an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Chacour, who
was once a refugee in his own country, is an ordained Melkite
Catholic priest and is developing the first college where Christians,
Moslems, and Jews can live and study together. He was selected
for an honorary degree in keeping with Emorys Year of
a fiery, impassioned speech, Chacour declared his pride in the
contradictions he embodies: he is a Palestinian, Christian,
Arab, and a citizen of Israel.
I dont know about any of you, but I was not born
[any of these things], he told the crowd. I was
born a baby.
spoke heatedly of the urgent need for reconciliation among Palestinians
and Israelis, who he feels have equally just claims to their
bitter and destructive conflict, and called on graduates to
have compassion for both sides.
you who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on
behalf of Palestinian children, I call on you to give friendship
to Israel; they need your friendship, he said. But
stop interpreting that friendship as automatic antipathy against
me, the Palestinian who is paying for what others have done
against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters . . . . But if
taking [the Palestinian] side would mean becoming one-sided
against my Jewish brothers and sisters, we do not need such
friendship. We need one more common friend, we do not need one
more enemy, for Gods sake.
his talk, Chacour exchanged an emotional embrace with Lipstadt,
who is Jewish. His highly charged words created a stir in the
audience and even caused some to question whether the Commencement
stage was an appropriate platform for such a message. But David
Blumenthal, the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies,
declared afterward there was no better place for fervent convictions
to be expressed than a university commencement setting.
good for students, parents, and faculty to hear from people
who have strong opinions, he said. Commencement
is a time to learn to take life seriously. This man has serious
convictions and gave us the opportunity to hear them, even if
one disagrees with them.
to what he actually said, people have a tendency to think of
it as political, but its not really; its more prophetic,
in the sense of being able to provide a moral critique of a
society. He didnt say one side is right and the other
is wrong, he said both are wrong, and both have a kind of vulnerability
that needs to be respected by the other.
has a history of such speakers, Blumenthal pointed out, among
them Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Senator Sam Nunn, the Dalai Lama,
and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Commencement speaker is not supposed to be homogenized milk,
he said. People will remember what these speakers said.
herself was a late addition to a program that featured four
honorary degree recipients, including Chacour; originally these
four were to share equally in giving the formal Commencement
address, but students objected, requesting one keynote speaker.
Bradley Currey Jr., former chair of Emorys Board of Trustees,
offered graduates some warm, homespun advice his own father
had given him as a young man: Find some good work to do,
work that you can be proud of and enjoy, he said. Go
find people you can admire and look up to as your boss and colleagues.
Put your roots down, work hard at whatever is put on your plate,
and be somebody.
Goldstone, a liberal justice in the South African courts who
played a role in ending apartheid, returned to Emory after participating
in the Universitys Reconciliation Symposium earlier this
year. A longtime human rights advocate, Goldstone headed a tribunal
to investigate human rights abuses under the apartheid regime.
honor given to me today is both a recognition of the reconciliation
achieved in South Africa and of the contributions post-apartheid
South Africans are now able to make in the international community,
he said. It should inspire all of you who are graduating
today to do what you can to bring about greater reconciliation
between different groups in your own great nation and to play
a similar role in bringing an end to racial and ethnic intolerance
wherever in the world its ugly head is raised.
Hunter-Gault was one of the first two African American students
to attend the University of Georgia, an avid student of journalism.
Since then she has won numerous awards for her reporting on
racial and social justice issues, serving as New York Times
Harlem bureau chief, National Public Radios chief correspondent
in South Africa, and now with CNN in South Africa. Stepping
away from safety occasionally, she told graduates, can lend
richness to ones life and work.
as you move out from this place to make your space in a century
that is new, you have a unique opportunity to help shape it
and its legacy, she said. My wish for you as you
confront that challenge is that you will do so by traveling
from time to time . . . outside your comfort zone, creating
new maps in your mind that hold out the possibility of traveling
and navigating the roads not traveled. New ways to approach
old problems, like, how do we all get along: in Israel, in Palestine,
in South Africa, in Atlanta.
safely, do well, do good, have fun, and learn how to fly.