Volume 77
Number 2

Making a Splash

Invincible Ink

Where the Heart Is

Commencement 2001

Emory University

Association of Emory Alumni

Current News and Events

Emory Report



Sports Updates




















































ON THE MORNING OF EMORY UNIVERSITY’S ONE HUNDRED FIFTY-SIXTH Commencement, the air seemed filled with almost tangible pride, hope, and promise. If the ceremony itself gave any clue as to the future of this year’s crop of graduates, the thirty-three hundred answers to Susanna’s guileless inquiry will prove themselves extraordinary.

In many ways, Emory’s 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 one another.

At 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 of Reconciliation.

Commencement 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, intensely personal.

“Today each of you begins writing the next chapter in the book of your life,” she told graduates. “The barometer of a story’s significance is not how broadly it is disseminated but how it touches the lives of others.”

This summer, Irving begins his appeal of the British court’s ruling in favor of Lipstadt. But she said she draws strength from the knowledge that she is fighting a good fight–a moral fight, “one from which I could not shrink”–and 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.”

“Go 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.”

Moments 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 Emory’s Year of Reconciliation.

In a fiery, impassioned speech, Chacour declared his pride in the contradictions he embodies: he is a Palestinian, Christian, Arab, and a citizen of Israel.

Yet, “I don’t know about any of you, but I was not born [any of these things],” he told the crowd. “I was born a baby.”

Chacour 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.

“So, 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 God’s sake.”

Following 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.

“It’s 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.”

“As to what he actually said, people have a tendency to think of it as political, but it’s not really; it’s more prophetic, in the sense of being able to provide a moral critique of a society. He didn’t 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.”

Emory has a history of such speakers, Blumenthal pointed out, among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Senator Sam Nunn, the Dalai Lama, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

“A Commencement speaker is not supposed to be homogenized milk,” he said. “People will remember what these speakers said.”

Lipstadt 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.

Businessman Bradley Currey Jr., former chair of Emory’s 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.”

Richard Goldstone, a liberal justice in the South African courts who played a role in ending apartheid, returned to Emory after participating in the University’s Reconciliation Symposium earlier this year. A longtime human rights advocate, Goldstone headed a tribunal to investigate human rights abuses under the apartheid regime.

“The 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.”

Charlayne 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 Radio’s chief correspondent in South Africa, and now with CNN in South Africa. Stepping away from safety occasionally, she told graduates, can lend richness to one’s life and work.

“Today, 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.

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



© 2001 Emory University