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Protesters Don't Utter a Peep at Penn Event

May 24, 2007 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Singer Aretha Franklin (left) and former Secretary of State James Baker at the University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony

Despite the fact that a campus Jewish group initially -- and quite vociferously -- opposed the choice of former Secretary of State James Baker as keynote speaker, this year's commencement at the University of Pennsylvania proceeded without a hitch.

When the educational institution first announced Baker as its choice, a student group called the Penn Israel Coalition cited Baker's previous clashes with national pro-Israel groups, as well as his alleged anti-Semitic comments, calling the selection "appalling," according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the school's student newspaper.

At the sun-soaked ceremony on May 14, however, Franklin Field was devoid of protesters, inside or out.

"Upon reflection, the Jewish community realized that this was not an important issue to raise on campus," explained Rabbi Mike Uram, associate director of Penn Hillel, of which PIC is a part.

"And in the end," he continued, "Baker gave a very nice commencement speech, urging all of us to take part in making the world a better place."

During his address, Baker did not mention Israel, nor did he make reference to any Jewish issues. Nor did the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group discuss the war in the Middle East, though he did note that the U.S. leadership "is knowing what to do and then doing it, even when it is not the popular thing to do."

Then he veered to another part of the world, and mentioned his respect for President Ronald Reagan's steadfast opposition to communism, even when some suggested that America back off after the Vietnam war and then the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, two political conflagrations that were deemed disastrous.

" 'We must simply stay the course.' If we did, he suggested, communism would fail," said Baker, who served as Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan.

"His critics at the time were appalled," he continued. "He was a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy, unmindful of the complexities involved in foreign policy ... and all the questions about this strategy were answered -- finally, fully and forcefully -- in November 1989, when East and West Germans took sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall."

The subdued commencement contrasted with other such past ceremonies that featured controversial keynoters.

In 2005, protesters lined up to oppose Kofi Annan -- then secretary general of the United Nations -- as a result of his oil-for-food scandal, and in 2003, people demonstrated against Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an Anglican minister who was believed to have made anti-Israel remarks.

At Monday's ceremony, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, while legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin received an honorary Doctor of Music degree.

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