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May 29, 2001

Lipstadt leads wide-ranging speakers

By Eric Rangus


The Class of 2001’s five commencement speakers touched on most every emotion possible. They ranged from folksy (Bradley Currey) to fiery (Elias Chacour), from understated (Richard Goldstone) to uplifting (Charlayne Hunter-Gault).

And Deborah Lipstadt, the noted Emory professor who delivered the Class of 2001 address, managed to combine all of those feelings in her roughly 10-minute speech.

Lipstadt first outlined the court case that garnered her worldwide headlines last year: British historian David Irving’s libel suit against her for calling him a “Holocaust denier,” and the trial from which she eventually emerged victorious.

“Why tell you, the graduates, my story on this, your day of days?” posited the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies to the approximately 3,267 graduates and thousands more of their families and friends.

She gave four reasons, and those reasons—as well as their application to the Class of 2001—served as the centerpiece of her address.

• It illustrates the importance of storytelling: “The barometer of a story’s significance is not how broadly it is disseminated, but how it touches the lives of others. Our ultimate legacy is not our material possessions, but our stories,” she said.

• It stressed the importance of community: “Find a community that shares your values—one that is more than just a lot of fun to be with, but one that will stand with you both in good times and in bad.”

• It served as a thank-you note to the Emory students, faculty and administrators who supported her: “You made it clear in so many ways that what was happening to me mattered to you. When I returned to campus, you welcomed me back with a joy that I found unfathomable”

• And it taught her the importance of standing up for a just cause: “While you cannot fight every injustice you encounter, there will be wrongs you simply cannot ignore.”

In her conclusion, Lipstadt returned to her theme of the importance of stories. “You have spent your years here engaged in the enterprise of scholarship,” she said. “Today, our hearts are filled with the hope that you will use the education we have implanted in you to prevent the triumph of evil and to enhance the possibilities of peace. Let that be a major motif of the story you write.”

While rarely changing the cadence or tone of her voice, Lipstadt touched on many emotions. Interestingly, each of the four honorary degree recipients related to some part of Lipstadt’s address.
Businessman Bradley Currey, former chair of Emory’s Board of Trustees, was the first to step to the podium. Speaking casually from notes, he repeated advice his father had given him when he was in his 20s.

“He said, ‘Find some good work to do, work that you can be proud of and enjoy doing,’” Currey related. “‘Go find people you can admire and look up to as your boss and your colleagues. Put your roots down, work hard at whatever is put on your plate, and be somebody.’”

The second speaker, Elias Chacour, was anything but casual. A Palestinian Christian, Chacour is an Israeli citizen—a contradictory web he addressed early in his speech. With his voice booming across the Quad, Chacour pleaded for understanding in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and passionately called on the graduates to see both sides of the issue.

“So, you who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of Palestinian children, I call unto you [to] give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship,” he said. “But stop interpreting that friendship as automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

“But if taking [the Palestinian] side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend; we do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.”

Richard Goldstone, a justice in the Constitutional Court of South Africa who played a significant role in the ending of apartheid, spoke in measured tones about reconciliation.

“The honor given 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.”

Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the final honorary degree recipient to speak. One of the first two black students who integrated the Uni-versity of Georgia, she knows about taking chances, and that was something she urged the Class of 2001 to do.

“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 is that you will do so by traveling time to time—if not all the time—outside your comfort zone.”

Hunter-Gault’s final thought served as a nice wrap-up to the ceremony.

“Travel safely, do well, do good, have fun and learn how to fly,” she said.


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