Drexel Degree Conferral Sparks Communal Uproar


The famed scholar’s honorary doctorate from Drexel has become a much-debated decision in some circles.

Famed linguist, leftist and polarizing political commentator Noam Chomsky has received honorary degrees from many universities during his decades-long career. He can now add one from Drexel University to his collection, although this particular accolade comes with the bonus of a Philadelphia Jewish community that is voicing its opposition to the recognition in increasing volume.

The problem is, many of those now raising alarm over an event that already took place — Chomsky, a Philadelphia native, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from university president John Fry during a June 12 commencement ceremony — say that despite an April 20 post by Drexel communications associate Alissa Falcone to the university’s website announcing the degree conferral, they were unaware that Chomsky was going to be honored.

“They weren’t seeming to be bragging about it,” said Steve Feldman, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Philadelphia chapter. He found out about Chomsky’s appearance in town a day or two before the ceremony from a post he saw on Facebook.

The decision was controversial, he said, and has “justifiably outraged” many in the community. When asked why the ZOA didn’t organize any kind of protest against the honor, Feldman replied it was “because of the short notice and because of our focus on Iran and the anti-BDS movement that we were not able to get involved in a timely fashion prior to the graduation ceremony.” However, he added, he would not rule anything out as far as organizing some kind of reaction in the future.

At the commencement ceremony, Chomsky, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was lauded by Fry for a lifetime body of work that included speaking out on the United States’ involvement in conflicts abroad, spoke about climate change and what responsibilities graduating students have in shaping the future.

“Your generation faces an extraordinary challenge, a challenge that those of you who are here are unusually well-placed to address with your rich backgrounds in science and technology,” Chomsky said in his remarks to the graduates.

Chomsky, who was barred from visiting Israel in 2010 before a lecture, has in the past been heavily critical of American foreign policy, specifically when it comes to Israel and its activities in the West Bank.

“It is outrageous that Drexel would choose to honor someone who is so anti-America, so anti-Israel,” Feldman said, adding that giving Chomsky the chance to speak sets a bad example. “I would love to know what thought went into them honoring him.”

For his part, Fry writes in an op-ed appearing this week in the Jewish Exponent that he has been contacted by “several people” regarding the decision to include Chomsky among the 15 honorary degree recipients.

“The awarding of honorary degrees does not in any way indicate endorsement of our recipients’ opinions,” he writes, acknowledging the controversy over Chomsky’s views on Israel and “other political matters.”

He adds that honoring Chomsky is consistent with the university’s tradition of recognizing “significant academic, business, civic and cultural figures from a wide variety of fields that hold a broad spectrum of perspectives.”

Other honorary degree recipients included athlete and activist Billie Jean King, Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey and Israeli Nobel Prize winner Dan Schectman.

Fry stressed that the affair should not impact the “unassailable” relationship between Drexel and Israel.

“Drexel has cultivated one of the most robust and deep relationships with Israel among our peer universities,” he writes. “We have continually sought opportunities for students and faculty to visit Israel and partner with Israeli academic institutions, corporations and cultural organizations.”

The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life, a $6 million project and future home of Drexel Hillel, is set to open on Drexel’s campus in the fall of 2016.

In another op-ed running this week, Abraham H. Miller, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Cincinatti, condemns Drexel’s decision to give Chomsky the degree.

Miller, a senior fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought, recognizes Chomsky’s comments condemning American wars in Indochina, but also writes about Chomsky’s critical opinions of American and Israeli policy.

“The moral Chomsky of the anti-war years has long passed from us,” argues Miller. “The Jewish hater of Jews and America remains.

“Drexel was free to honor whom they chose,” he continues. “They embraced the man who lent his pen and his rhetorical skills to excuse some of the worst acts of butchery in the history of civilization.”

A petition calling for the university to rescind Chomsky’s degree has been circulating from The Israel Project, a nonpartisan pro-Israel organization based in Washington, D.C. A spokesman said that several thousand signatures had been passed along to the university’s Office of the President, but that the organization had not received a response as of Tuesday morning.

In a statement, the organization’s president and CEO, Josh Block, called the purpose of the petition “clear.”

“Drexel University needs to withdraw the honorary degree they conferred and begin to repair the damage they’ve done in elevating a spokesman for hatred,” he said. “This is a man who has been criticized for favorably comparing Al Qaeda to America, favorably comparing Hamas to Israel, favorably comparing President Bush to Bin Laden, and downplaying the extent of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. What were they thinking?

“The only course of action is for Drexel to right this obvious wrong.”

Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; (215-832-0740).


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