This past weekend, I was honored to be the commencement speaker at the Suffolk Law School in Boston. When Suffolk’s administration first broached the possibility of that role for me at one of the largest law schools in the country, I was immensely flattered and, with little hesitation, agreed. As the day of the commencement approached, however, I had moments of ambivalence about the experience.
Here’s what I saw around me: Students at the school threatening to protest and picket my appearance; a group signing a petition calling on the school administration to rescind the invitation; an article appearing on the website of The Boston Globe condemning my appearance and misrepresenting my record and views. All cited, among other things, my alleged denial of the Armenian Genocide, which I had clearly and unequivocally acknowledged as a reality six years ago.
At the same time, I was reading newspaper accounts about how more significant figures than I, particularly former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, had pulled out of their commencement commitments at Rutgers and Smith College because of similar protests.
In the final analysis, I rejected that approach. I decided it was important to be there; and it turned out to be a wonderful day. I spoke about my personal story as a hidden child during the Holocaust and my career at the Anti-Defamation League and what I thought it might all mean for them as law school graduates. It was very well received, protestors were nowhere to be seen, and the graduation ceremony went off smoothly.
But I did not know it would turn out so well when I decided to go forward. So why did I opt for a different path than Rice and Lagarde?
First, the school administration remained steadfast in their support of their invitation to me. Despite the protests and petition, they never wavered in standing by their decision and behind me.
Second, I take great pride in the work I have done every day over many decades not only to defend the Jewish people but to stand up for others who are targets of bigotry. As I told the students, at ADL we stand up for African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, gays and others almost every day of the year somewhere in this country.
We deal often with difficult issues and in a polarized society it is not surprising, as we saw with Rice and Lagarde, that some will disagree with things one does. And I recognize that one does not always get things right. Still, when I think of how I have led my professional life, my pride seemed appropriate and a major reason not to give in to those who were protesting.
Even more than my own self-image, however, was the broader issue at stake. I think Rice, Lagarde, and others who have similarly bowed out of commencement addresses this year in the face of pressure or controversy made a wrong choice, though I respect their comments that they did not want to disrupt what should be a happy day for the thousands of graduates.
The larger issue at stake here is the kind of society we want to create. We are witnessing a period of great polarization and incivility in America. The internet and social media have undoubtedly contributed to it. Instead of a lively democracy where people disagree but respect those who differ and seek a middle ground, we are more and more becoming a place where if you do not agree with me one-hundred percent of the time, you are the enemy. We see that in Washington, D.C. We see that in the media. I’m seeing it in the Jewish community.
Now I want to be clear. There are haters and bigots who should be rejected for their extremism. But that is not what I’m talking about. Rather, it is an evolving reality that leaders and influentials who do a lot of good things are rejected for policy approaches which others disagree with. This stifles conversation, it is exactly the opposite of respect for freedom of expression that so many claim to be behind, and which inevitably leads to a purist approach, which rejects compromise as giving up one’s principles.
Very simply, this is bad for democracy. James Madison in the Federalist Papers recognized that democracy was a messy business, contention being an inherent characteristic. That is why he argued for institutions to set parameters for disagreements. For it all to work, however, there has to be respect for different viewpoints and a willingness to find solutions that work.
In the end, I showed up because I did not want to add to the incentives for those who seek a society where only ones own point of view need be heard. And because I believe that despite polarization, most people seek decency and a fair hearing to all.
It turned out well, but even had it not, I knew when I made the decision to speak that I had done the right thing.