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U of Manitoba donor calls out valedictorian over ceasefire speech

U of Manitoba donor calls out valedictorian over ceasefire speech

Ernest Rady accused the valedictorian of hate speech and said the university allowed him ‘to spew these hateful lies to a captive audience’

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A valedictorian’s speech on the Israel-Hamas war has sparked controversy, prompting condemnation from the dean of the University of Manitoba’s medical school and the billionaire American son of a major donor to say it “dishonoured the memory of my father” and “disrespected and disparaged Jews as a whole.”

Ernest Rady, who was born in Winnipeg, and is the son of Maxwell Rady, a Jewish refugee from Russia who studied at the university, said in a letter sent Monday to the school that he was “hurt and appalled” by the speech. The University of Manitoba’s medical school is now called the Max Rady School of Medicine.

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Dr. Peter Nickerson, the dean of the medical school, said in a statement posted to the school’s website that he was “disappointed that the address was delivered in a way that didn’t represent all students and that was disrespectful to some audience members who were there to celebrate and be celebrated.”

Last Thursday, Dr. Gem Newman delivered the valedictorian speech to his graduating class. He called on graduates to “stand in solidarity” with Indigenous people in Canada and the Palestinians, and to oppose “settler colonialism both at home and abroad,” “injustice” and “violence.”

“Israel’s deliberate targeting of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure has lead to more than 35,000 deaths and widespread famine and disease,” Newman said. In response, some in the crowd cheered and applauded.

“I ask that you join me in calling for an immediate and lasting ceasefire in Palestine,” Newman said, to cheers from some of the class of 106 students.

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The death toll in Gaza has been the subject of significant debate. The Gaza health ministry, which is run by the Hamas terror group and which does not distinguish between combatant and civilian deaths, says 35,000 people have been killed since Israel began its bombardment of Gaza in response to the October 7 massacre. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu estimates that 14,000 combatants and 16,000 civilians have been killed. The United Nations reports just shy of 25,000 identified dead, but notes more than 10,000 reported missing.

Israel has targeted both hospitals and civilian infrastructure in its attempt to destroy Hamas, which often hides its fighters in civilian facilities, but maintains it gives civilians advance warning so that they may evacuate. The United Nations has said Gaza is on the brink of famine, though Israeli war cabinet minister Ron Dermer insists there is no famine.

Newman’s speech, clips of which have been posted online, also referred to the war as “genocidal,” which is currently under adjudication by the International Court of Justice. U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States rejects the accusation that Israel’s war against Hamas is genocidal. Canada has also rejected the claim that Israel is committing genocide, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Israel has the right to self-defence. Hamas has openly declared its intent to destroy the Jewish state.

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Newman told the graduates that some students may feel afraid that if they speak out they will be censured or face job consequences.

“Advocacy is literally in our job description,” said Newman. “It is never too late to join the right side of history.”

In the speech, Newman joked about his age and his “pasty” complexion as an “uninspired” choice to be the representative of a diverse group of medical school graduates. His remarks on Israel took up about two minutes out of a nine-minute address.

Nickerson noted that Newman was expressing his own views, and said that while “both speech and counter-speech are equally protected,” there are limits on freedom of expression. “A convocation address is different than a classroom setting, different than an opinion piece in a newspaper,” he said in a statement. “Statements made in this address were divisive and inflammatory.”

In a post on X, Neman wrote, “Ripples were caused,” alongside a link to a news story about his speech.

Rady, in his letter, took it a step further, saying the university allowed Newman “to spew these hateful lies to a captive audience.”

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“Those words are not political opinion,” the letter said. “They are hate speech and they are lies.”

Rady, who donated $30 million to the school in 2016, called on the university to remove the video of the graduation speech until Newman’s address is deleted (it currently appears nowhere on the school’s YouTube page). And to “condemn, in no uncertain terms,” Newman’s remarks.

“Denounce antisemitism in all forms it takes, even in its latest iteration as espoused by your valedictorian,” the letter says.

Nickerson, as dean, was originally expected to speak at the faculty’s Lavender Graduation for LGBTQ students on Tuesday. But the Queer and Trans Graduate Student group rescinded his invitation, saying the ceremony was to be a “safe and affirming space” and Nickerson’s condemnation of Newman “does not support that goal.”

“Your statement has also left us concerned that, at some point, our very existence as 2SLGBTQIA+ people may be deemed too political or ‘inflammatory and divisive,’” the group said in its letter to Nickerson.

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