Despite protests from some student groups, Suffolk University affirmed its selection of Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman as the law school’s commencement speaker.
Foxman, who will step down from his position in July 2015, also will receive an honorary degree at the May 17 graduation ceremony of the private university located in downtown Boston.
More than 800 people signed an online petition criticizing Foxman for his opposition of U.S. congressional recognition of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians on the eve of World War I as genocide. The petition, initiated by the law school’s chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, states that comments by Foxman on the genocide may make families of students of Armenian descent feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.
The petition also cites Foxman’s published comments about racial profiling of Muslims for purposes of national security, and his opposition of the construction of a Muslim Community Center near the site of the former World Trade Center.
In 2007, after coming under fire for not acknowledging the Armenian massacre as genocide, the national ADL organization changed its position, though some in the Armenian community said its language was ambiguous and did not go far enough.
Foxman later wrote, “ADL has never denied the tragic and painful events perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians, and we have referred to those massacres and atrocities as genocide.”
Nonetheless, the issue continues to dog the outspoken leader and cause controversy for the ADL, especially in the Boston area, home to a large Armenian community.
In a statement issued to the Boston Globe, the administration of Suffolk University President James McCarthy praised Foxman for contributions to the organization for nearly 50 years. The statement said the administration has examined the concerns raised by students but that “Mr. Foxman’s body of work is well deserving of recognition… It is our hope that Mr. Foxman’s personal story as a Holocaust survivor and attorney who has dedicated his life to public service will inspire our graduates as they embark on their professional careers.”
Suffolk has nearly 9,000 full- and part-time students, with 1,500 law students.
Matthew Smith, a member of the school’s Jewish Law Students Association, told JTA he is disappointed “that a small group” has “attempted to create a controversy” over the commencement speaker,” and that he is proud that the university is standing by Foxman.
In an email, Smith, a third-year graduating law student wrote that many members of the Jewish community are alarmed by some of the rhetoric attacking Foxman. “Some supporters of the petition have attacked Foxman for his support of Israel and … inappropriately referenced Foxman’s Jewish heritage,” he wrote. He added: “It is difficult to listen to a student inaccurately label a Holocaust survivor and civil rights leader as a “racist.”
Sammy Nabulsi, president of the Student Bar Association at Suffolk acknowledged that Foxman has done good work in fighting discrimination. But he told the Boston Globe that Foxman’s selection is stirring division among the graduating class.
Nabulsi, who is Muslim-American, told the Globe he is speaking out on behalf of the student body as a whole. “My concern is there’s a very dangerous conversation happening among the graduating class,” he said. He suggested that Foxman would make a more appropriate guest speaker on campus and not a recipient of an honorary degree.