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Brandeis Commencement Speaker Draws Mixed Response

Most students don’t even know who Thomas Pickering is

Tal Trachtman Alroy
April 21, 2015

Brandeis University came under fire today when Lori Lowenthal Marcus of The Jewish Press criticized the school’s decision to invite Thomas Pickering, a former United States Ambassador, as its 2015 commencement speaker. According to Lowenthal Marcus, Pickering’s support of an Iran nuclear deal, and his lack of support for Israel’s current leadership, make him an “ardent supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In her article, Lowenthal Marcus inveighed whether “Brandeis students think hanging gays and summary executions are sufficiently objectionable to protest a pro-Iran commencement speaker?”

I asked some Brandeis students for their opinions about the University’s decision to tap Pickering. Noam Cohen, a junior at Brandeis and former president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, said that the announcement didn’t stir any controversy on campus. “I think very few students knew much about him, other than that he was an ambassador, and I have not heard any students express dismay in response to the announcement,” he said.

“I understand that some (perhaps many) people take offense with his political opinions regarding Israel, but he is certainly not anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic in any way. Pickering has many accomplishments, including serving as U.S. ambassador to Israel,” Cohen said. “While it would be inappropriate for an outspoken anti-Zionist to speak at commencement, it would be a mistake to expect all of Brandeis’s commencement speakers to be ardent Zionists of a particular strain.”

Chen Arad, an Israeli student and a senior at Brandeis University, said he didn’t feel hurt or intimidated by the fact that Pickering was chosen to speak at his graduation. “Part of a university’s goal is promoting diverse opinions.” Arad is the co-founder of a student movement called B-View, which promotes a “better conversation about Israel across U.S. campuses.”

“Pickering has interesting experience as a commencement speaker and has also been important in supporting Israel when he was an outspoken opponent of the UN’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution,” said Arad.

Another senior, Ryan Yuffe, the former president of BIPAC (Brandeis’ AIPAC affiliated club) said he also hadn’t heard criticism coming from student groups on campus or outside.

“The university has already vetted him and I don’t have a problem with him.” Yuffe said that while he hadn’t done in-depth research on him, he knew Pickering has been praised in many circles of government.

Dor Cohen, a junior and the head of Brandeis Conservative Students Club, said that while Pickering had done great service as an ambassador, his past comments about Israel were concerning, considering that Brandeis was founded by influential Zionists. Cohen referred to an op-ed that Pickering co-authored last year in Politico, in which he called Israel’s presence in Palestinian territories an “illegal land grab” and urged the Obama administration to get tougher on Israel.

“It seems to me that Brandeis is trying to choose a politically correct commencement speaker to make up for last year,” said Cohen, referring to the university’s decision to rescind a planned honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent anti-Islam activist and writer.

In their announcement of Pickering as this year’s honorary speaker, Brandeis wrote: “In honoring Ambassador Pickering, who has dedicated his career to service and spent decades working to build strong relationships between sometimes disparate world partners, Brandeis highlights the value of working together for the betterment of humankind.”

Tal Trachtman Alroy is an intern at Tablet.